To define the concept of armed forces in 19th-century Chile is a complex task, as their evolution is embedded in the process of state-building, originally characterized by the underdevelopment of its bureaucratic apparatus. Moreover, there were times in which ideological conceptions and political interests were critical of the presence of standing armies and tried to reduce their level of influence.
This article, therefore, uses a minimal definition of the concept, considering the military as organized groups of people who, through the use of weapons, aimed at taking part in international wars, assumed functions of national defense or played an important role in its internal conflicts. Under this category can be found a multiplicity of armed bodies with different degrees of organization, stability, and dependence on the state. Hence, when speaking of armed forces, standing armies are considered to be both the regular army and the navy, and as irregular forces, the National Guard and the militias. Also, boundaries between these armed forces were porous and often tended to blur, as can be inferred from Sater 1986 (War of the Pacific), Fernández Abara 2004 (Chilean Civil Wars), Ossa 2008 (Chile’s Struggle for Independence), and Zauritz Sepúlveda 2009 (International Wars). In so doing, the historiography related to the Chilean armed forces during the period 1810–1900 is discussed, thus covering the process started when Chile became an independent state from Spain and finished with the consolidation of a professional army through the “Prussianization” of its forces and the adoption of compulsory service. There are different historiographical currents that have studied this subject. The 19th-century positivist historiography focused primarily on the narrative of the military operations that took place in armed conflicts, considering the role of senior officials and national political figures. Marxist historiography, especially after the 1973 coup, tried to understand the characteristics of the military and their relationship with the ruling classes and social conflicts that had plagued the country. Also, since the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet, modern variants of the nationalist-conservative historians have analyzed civil-military relations, seeking to legitimize political actions of the armed forces through the exhibition of historical examples that aimed to demonstrate the assiduity of their public interventions. More recently, the influence of the new social history and the history of private life has been perceptible in the study of the armed forces. They have focused on the role the army played within subordinate sectors. Cultural historians, for their part, have presented studies on nationalism and how this has permeated the history of the armed forces. Their main concern has been to see soldiers and officers as important actors in the formation of citizenship and the construction of national identity. Finally, work by historians linked to the armed forces, who have written a significant number of institutional histories, is also included here.