The battle of Alcolea, 7 June 1808, was a French victory early in the Peninsular War. By the summer of 1808 large parts of Spain were in revolt against the Spanish, but Napoleon had received overly optimistic reports from Spain, and did not realise the true extent of the uprising. As a result he decided to dispatch a number of flying columns from Madrid to deal with what he believed were a number of separate revolts. General Pierre Dupont was dispatched to deal with the revolt in Andalusia at the head of a column of 13,000 men – one infantry division and two cavalry brigade. Dupont’s force was very inexperienced. His infantry division only contained one veteran French battalion, along with six battalions of raw recruits, two from the Paris Municipal Guard, one from Helvetic Confederation and four battalions of Swiss mercenaries previously in Spanish service, while his cavalry force was made up entirely of recruits.
Fortunately for Dupont his first Spanish opponents were even less experienced. The Junta of Andalusia had placed Don Pedro de Echávarri, a retired colonel, in command of their forces. He commanded a force of 10,000-12,000 volunteers, who only received their arms a few days before the battle, supported by 1,400 regulars with eight guns. Echávarri needed more time to create an effective army, but it was essential that he attempted to defend Cordova, and so he decided to defend the bridge at Alcolea. With more experienced troops his plan may have had a chance of success. He used his regular troops to defend the bridge itself. The volunteers were split up. Part of the force was posted alongside the regulars, while the rest were hidden on the far side of the river. Once the French began to attack the bridge, this force was to attack the French flanks.
Dupont reached the bridge on 7 June. He began the battle by bombarding the Spanish position, before ordering an attack on the defenders of the bridge. The Spanish regulars defending the bridge began to be pushed back. The Spanish then launched their crucial flank attack, but Dupont’s inexperienced cavalry proved to be superior to the Spanish volunteers, and drove them off. The Spanish regulars defending the bridge were then overwhelmed, and the remaining volunteers fled, not stopping until they were well past Cordova. The Spanish suffered 200 casualties, while the French only lost 30 dead and 80 wounded.
Dupont’s army then approached Cordova. The city was undefended, although the gates were closed. While negotiations were underway a few scattered shots were fired at the French, and Dupont used this as an excuse to break off negotiations and attack the city. Once inside Cordova Dupont lost control of his troops, who brutally sacked the city. The sack of Cordova and the Spanish response to it played a crucial part in making the Peninsular War unusually brutal.
Dupont’s triumph was short lived. On 19 July 1808 he was forced to surrender at Bailen (or Baylen), the first major defeat suffered by a Napoleonic army. Napoleon himself was furious, and Dupont was disgraced, while the victory helped to encourage Napoleon’s enemies across Europe.