Battle of Braga, 20 March 1809

The battle of Braga (or of Lanhozo) of 20 March 1809 was a French victory during Marshal Soult’s invasion of Portugal, won against a large force of Portuguese Ordenanza. Having captured the town of Chaves (10-11 March 1809), Marshal Soult had decided to cross the mountains between the Tamega and the Cavado Valleys, and advance towards Oporto via Braga. This route offered two advantages – the Cavado road was better and shorter than the Tamega Road, and it offered Soult a chance to defeat a second large Portuguese force.

This force, under the command of General Bernardino Freire, was 25,000 strong but otherwise very weak. The bulk of the army was provided by 23,000 members of the local Ordenanza, the Portuguese levy of every able bodied male. This force was patriotic and enthusiastic, but also chaotic and undisciplined, and prone to murder officers it did not consider loyal enough, as Freire would soon discover to his cost. Of these 23,000 men 5,000 were armed with guns of some sort, 11,000 with pikes and the rest with improvised weapons. They were supported by the 2nd Battalion of the Loyal Lusitanian Legion, part of another regiment, and the local militia.

Marshal Soult's invasion of Portugal, March 1809
Marshal Soult's invasion of Portugal, March 1809

Freire made repeated calls for reinforcements, especially for regular troops, but the Bishop of Oporto, the ruler of the province, was concentrating on the defence of Oporto itself. All Freire received was the recently formed 2nd Battalion of the Loyal Lusitanian Legion, under the command of Baron Eben, a Prussian officer sent to Oporto by the British. When Freire learnt that the French were crossing the mountain passes at the upper end of the Cavado Valley, he began to plan for a retreat to Oporto.  

This would cost him his life. On 17 March the first French troops appeared in front of the Portuguese position (the divisions of Franceschi and Delaborde). After capturing an outlying spur of high ground close to the Portuguese lines, they then waited for Soult to arrive with the rest of the army. Their appearance finally convinced Freire that the position was hopeless. By now he was well aware that his army would turn on him if he attempted to order a retreat, and so on 17 March he attempted to sneak away to Oporto. He was discovered and arrested at Tobossa, and taken back to his army in disgrace. The Ordenanza were understandably furious. Baron Eben took command of the army, and imprisoned Freire in the prison at Braga, from where he was almost immediately dragged by the Ordenanza and killed. During the same day the mob also killed a number of officers they believed to be too close to Freire.

Once in charge of the horde, Eben did his best to strengthen their position. The Portuguese line was based on a semi circle of hills on either side of the main road into Braga. The left of the line was drawn up on the plateau of Monte Adaufé, while the right wing was on the Monte Vallongo. Eden was aware that the left wing was the weaker of the two, and so concentrated on digging trenches on that hill. He even attempted to outflank the French on 19 March by captured some hills behind the main French position at Lanhozo, but was soon driven back.

Marshal Soult
Portrait of Marshal
Jean-de-Dieu Soult

Soult decided to launch a general assault along the entire Portuguese line, correctly judging the quality of Freire’s army. In theory the French were outnumbered, for Soult only had 13,000 infantry and 3,000 cavalry with him on 20 March, but even this outnumbered the armed part of the Portuguese army by around three-to-one. Soult made his strongest attacks against the Portuguese right and centre. Delaborde’s infantry division and Lahoussaye’s dragoons attacked along the road in the centre of the line and on the Monte Adaufé, Mermet’s infantry and Franceschi’s light horse attacks the Monte Vallongo, and one brigade from Heudelet’s division attacked on the far right.

Along most of the line the landscape proved to be more of an obstacle that the Ordenanza. In the centre they stood their ground only until Delaborde and Lahoussaye’s men had reached the top of the plateau, and then fled. The French cavalry chased the retreating peasants for fourteen miles, and offered no quarter. On the left the slopes of the Monte Vallongo held up the French advance, but once again when they reached the top of the hill the Ordenanza turned and fled, once again to be cut down by the French cavalry. Only Heudelet ran into serious resistance. Once again the Ordenanza fled once the French reached the top of the hill, but this time there was no cavalry to chase them, and they were able to reform. Heudelet’s leading battalion actually suffered a defeat when it attempted to attack this new line, and the 26th Regiment of the Line had to be sent in to help them before the Portuguese rout was complete.

According to Soult’s figures, the Portuguese lost 4,000 dead and 400 prisoners at Braga. Eben gave a much lower figure of 1,000 dead in his own report, but he was in part attempting to justify his own performance, which he clearly felt to have been poor, for when he was offered a senior command at Oporto he turned it down. The French lost 40 dead and 160 wounded. The only obstacle between Soult and Oporto was now the line of the Avé River.

 A History of the Peninsular War vol.2: Jan.-Sept. 1809 - From the Battle of Corunna to the end of the Talavera Campaign, Sir Charles Oman. Part two of Oman's classic history falls into two broad sections. The first half of the book looks at the period between the British evacuation from Corunna and the arrival of Wellesley in Portugal for the second time, five months when the Spanish fought alone, while the second half looks at Wellesley's campaign in the north of Portugal and his first campaign in Spain. One of the classic works of military history.
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 The Spanish Ulcer, A History of the Peninsular War, David Gates. An excellent single volume history of the Peninsular War, which when it was published was the first really good English language history of the entire war since Oman. This is a well balanced work with detailed coverage of those campaigns conducted entirely by Spanish armies, as well as the better known British intervention in Portugal and Spain.
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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (11 March 2008), Battle of Braga, 20 March 1809 ,

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