Marshal Soult’s invasion of Portugal in the spring of 1809 was to have been the first step in Napoleon’s ambitious plan to end the Peninsular War after his departure from Spain in January 1809. Napoleon’s own campaign in Spain had achieved its first objectives – the Spanish armies on the Ebro had been smashed and Madrid reoccupied, but Sir John Moore’s invasion of northern Spain had then distracted Napoleon from his planned invasion of Portugal from the east. Instead of leaving Madrid along the road to Lisbon, Napoleon instead left on the road north, hoping to trap and destroy the British army. Once it was clear that Moore had escaped from the trap, Soult was left to pursue the British through the mountains into Galicia, while Napoleon turned back to Valladolid. He remained there from 6-17 January, before leaving for France, and while he was Valladolid he set out his plan for the conquest of Portugal and Spain.
This would be a two stage campaign. Once Soult had completed the defeat of the British in Galicia, he was to turn south and invade Portugal from the north. Napoleon expected him to reach Oporto by 1 February and Lisbon by 10 February. When Soult reached Oporto, a second French army under Marshal Victor would invade from Badajoz and the two armies would meet at Lisbon. Victor would then take a division from Soult, and turn south east to invade Andalusia. The occupation of Seville, the base of the Central Junta, would end the war.
This plan was completely unrealistic. Soult’s timetable was ridiculous – the battle of Corunna was not even fought until 16 January 1809, and the British did not complete their evacuation until 18 January. Even if Soult had been able to leave for Portugal immediately, Oporto was over 150 miles away at the end of quite a good mountain road, which was blocked by the Spanish fortress at Vigo and the Portuguese border fortress of Valenza on the Minho River. On 18 January Soult was not free to move. He still had to capture Corunna and Ferrol before he could move south. He then had to wait for Marshal Ney to arrive to take over the occupation of Galicia, and only then would he be free to move. On 28 January Soult received fresh instructions from Napoleon, which gave his four extra days – he was now due at Oporto on 5 February. When he received this message, he was at Ferrol, thirty miles by road north of Corunna.
Napoleon also failed to take into account any resistance Soult might meet. He was unaware that there was still a small British army in the south of Portugal. He discounted completely any threat from the remnants of the Spanish armies he had defeated on the Ebro, failing to realise how quickly Spanish armies could recover from their defeats – Soult would eventually clash with the army under the Marquis of La Romana. Finally Napoleon had not yet realised how effective the Spanish guerrillas could be. Soult’s army would soon be completely isolated, unable to communicate with any other French army other than Ney’s in Galicia, and certainly not with Victor’s army far to the south in Estremadura. There was no way that Soult and Victor would be able to coordinate their efforts. The guerrillas also made it much harder for stragglers to rejoin Soult’s main army. Finally Napoleon overestimated the amount of troops available to Soult. In theory he had around 41,000 men, but by the end of January only 23,000 of those men were available to him. 8,000 had been left to guard supplies or key points on the long road back across Galicia into the rest of Spain, while 10,000 were in the hospitals! Soult’s army had suffered just as badly as Moore’s during the long march across the mountains to Corunna.
Soult’s first task was to capture Corunna. This along could have destroyed his timetable, for Corunna was built on a narrow headland and could only be approached along a narrow fortified isthmus, but Governor Alcedo surrendered Corunna on 19 January and soon took service under King Joseph. Soult’s next target was the naval fortress of Ferrol. This was a major base for the Spanish navy and so was protected by modern fortifications as well as a garrison that was strengthened by 4,000-5,000 sailors. Once again Soult was lucky – Admiral Melgarejo, the commander of Ferrol, was also prepared to take service under King Joseph. When the French appeared outside Ferrol on 25 January, Melgarejo was unwilling to fight, and the town surrendered on 26 January. On the next day Soult entered Ferrol. On the following day he received that final message from Napoleon – he now had eight days to reach Oporto, now nearly 190 miles away on the mountain roads!
Some of Soult’s troops were already on the march. Franceschi’s light horse and Lahoussaye’s dragoons had been sent south in late January. Vigo and Tuy had both surrendered without a fight, and by 2 February the French cavalry had reached the Portuguese border. Soult and the infantry were some way behind, for Marshal Ney had not yet arrived to take over at Corunna and Ferrol. Soult was finally able to move south on 8 February, followed on the next two days by his garrisons from Corunna and Ferrol. By 13 February Soult’s entire army was between Tuy andVigo, and was finally ready to begin the invasion of Portugal. To keep up with Napoleon’s timetable, he had one day to reach Lisbon, over 200 miles to the south!
Soult’s next problem was how to cross the Minho River. The ferry on the main coast road at Tuy was blocked by the Portuguese fortress of Valenza. Soult decided to head downstream, towards the coast, and cross the river at the village of Campo Saucos. He gathered together enough fishing boats to carry 300 troops in a single trip, and prepared to ferry his army across the river in something like seventy trips! Sadly for Soult the very first attempt, on the morning of 16 February, ended in failure. Soult had a handful of sailors, mostly French prisoners of war liberated at Ferrol, only enough for one or two for each of the fishing boats. The winter rains meant that the Minho was in full flood, while at Campo Saucos the Minho was still a tidal river. Soult’s boats could only cross while the tide was dropping. The far bank was guarded by hundreds of armed Portuguese peasants, who opened fire on the boats as they crossed the river. Only three of Soult’s boats actually reached the southern bank of the river, where the 40 men they were carrying were immediately captured. The remaining boats were all forced back to the northern bank.
Soult was forced to abandon the coastal road and look for a different way to cross the Minho. His only real option was the bridge at Orense, fifty miles upstream. From there he would have to cross the mountains to Chaves, just inside Portugal, and then follow the Tamega valley down to the Douro and Oporto.
By coincidence this route meant that Soult was heading straight for the Marquis of La Romana and his 9,000 men. Although they would play a very limited direct role in the campaign, La Romana did make one major contribution – he encouraged a general uprising in Galicia, which gathered strength during February. Spanish guerrillas attacked the flanks and rear of Soult’s army as it advanced east. On the second day of the march, Soult was forced to send his heavy baggage and his 326 largest guns back to Tuy to prevent then falling into Spanish hands. Soult only took 3,000 rounds for his remaining artillery and 500,000 musket cartridges with him as he pushed towards Orense.
With their load lightened, Soult’s army was able to make good time towards Orense. On 20 February he was able to get some troops onto the southern bank of the river at Barbantes, ten miles from Orense, in case the bridge had been destroyed, but on 21 February the French found the bridge intact, and the town undefended.
La Romana had decided not to defend the Orense, because he believed that Soult was retreating out of Galicia along the Minho. Accordingly he remained in his base at Monterey, close to the Portuguese border, and waited for the French to pass by to the north. It soon became clear that this was not what Soult had in mind. He remained at Orense for nine days, collecting his forces and preparing to strike south. On 4 March Soult finally left Orense, heading for La Romana’s headquarters at Monterey, and the Portuguese border at Chaves.
At first La Romana intended to stand and fight in cooperation with the Portuguese forces of General Silveira, but relations between the allies were strained, and on 4 March La Romana changed his mind. As Soult was advancing towards them, the Spanish slipped away to the east. Soult’s advance guard managed to catch 1,200 men of the Spanish rearguard at La Trepa, but the main army escaped. One month after he had been due in Oporto, Soult was finally ready to cross into Portugal.
The Portuguese Regency had largely wasted the period since Junot had been expelled from the country, spending most of the time building up the Ordenanza, a levy of the entire able-bodied population, instead of reforming their shattered regular army. The Ordenanza would prove to be a source of weakness and instability as well as enthusiasm and manpower. The King having fled to South America, Portugal was ruled by a Regency Council based at Lisbon, while Oporto was in theory controlled by the Bishop, although for most of the time the mob seems to have been in control. One regular unit that was formed at Oporto, the 1st Battalion of the Loyal Lusitanian Legion of Sir Robert Wilson, left for the border at Almeida as soon as possible to avoid the chaos in the city. The British army in Portugal, under the command of Sir John Cradock, was concentrated around Lisbon.
The Portuguese army itself had been disbanded by Junot in 1808, and had not yet recovered. In February 1809 the reformed regiments were still based in their recruiting districts and lacked officers and equipment. In that month the Regency asked for a British general to be appointed Commander-in-Chief, and that post was given to General William Beresford. He would eventually turn the Portuguese army into an efficient fighting force that played a major role in Wellington’s campaigns in Spain, but that would lie in the future, for in March 1809 he had only just taken up his post, and his influence did not reach the north of the country.
The result of this was that Soult met with very little effective opposition between the Portuguese border and Oporto. There were four separate Portuguese forces in the areas – the defenders of Chaves under General Francisco Silveira, a mix of militia and regulars under General Botilho guarding the Minho, a mob of ordenanza under General Bernardino Freire at Braga and another mob of ordenanza at Oporto. The ordenanza would prove to be as dangerous to their officers as to the French, and the four forces would operate independently, allowing Soult to deal with them one by one.
Silveira’s mixed force of regulars, militia and ordenanza fell first. As Soult approached Chaves, Silveira attempted to retreat to the heights of San Pedro, south of the town. A third of his army refused to retreat, and was besieged in Chaves (10-11 March 1809), surrendered without offering serious resistance. Silveira himself retreated south east towards Villa Real.
From Chaves Soult turned west, and crossed the mountains into the Cavado Valley. Although the passage of the mountains was difficult, the road along the valley to Braga and then Oporto was much better that the road down the Tamega valley from Chaves. The only serious obstacle in Soult’s way was the Sierra de Babrera, but the passes across the mountains were virtually undefended. The French left Chaves on 14 March, and quickly cleared the passes, and on 17 March the French advance guard made contact with the Portuguese army defending Braga.
This force of 25,000 men was much weaker than it looked. The Ordenanza made up 23,000 of the total force, and only 5,000 of them carried any sort of firearm. Worse, in the days before the battle they had murdered their commandeering officer, General Bernardino Freire, and replaced him with his second in command, Baron Eben. The battle of Braga of 20 March 1809 saw the French crush Eben’s force, killing 4,000 of them in a brutal frontal assault, while only suffering 200 casualties.
The final obstacle between Soult and Oporto was the River Avé. This was crossed by two road– at Ponte de Avé and Barca de Trofa, close to the sea, and by a third more minor road at Guimaraens, twenty four miles from the coast. On 25-26 March Soult forces his way across the Avé, using the bridge at Guimaraens to outflank the strong Portuguese positions on the lower bridges, as well as storming a minor bridge that had been left intact at San Justo.
On 27 March the French arrived outside Oporto, six weeks after Napoleon had expected them to be there. The Portuguese had 30,000 men inside the defences of the city, which had been greatly strengthened over the previous three weeks, but of those 30,000 men only 5,000 were regulars. When Soult attacked Oporto on 29 March he soon overwhelmed the defenders. After attacked at the western and north eastern ends of the line, the French broke through the central northern section of the fortifications and the defence collapsed. In the retreat that followed several thousand people were killed when the central section of the bridge across the Douro either collapsed or was deliberately removed.
Soult had now captured his first objective in Portugal, but he was dangerously isolated. It had been one month since he had last heard from Ney in the north, and two months since he had heard from any other part of Spain. This was critical to the success of Soult’s campaign, for he was expected to be supported by General Lapisse from the direction of Salamanca, and by Marshal Victor from Badajoz. Instead of preparing for the ten-day march to Lisbon, Soult was forced to detach large parts of his army in an attempt to restore his communications with the outside world.
Soult divided his army into four sections. The first provided the garrison of Oporto, and consisted of one and a half divisions of infantry and two brigades of cavalry. One division of infantry and one brigade of cavalry was posted south of the Duoro to watch the retreating Portuguese. Heudelet’s division, which had been left at Braga, was ordered north to relieve the garrisons left at Tuy and Vigo, and then to get back in touch with Ney. Finally one brigade of dragoons and one brigade of infantry were sent east to try and make contact with Lapisse, all under the command of General Loison.
Soult would receive no good news from his fellow generals. Victor had won a major victory at Medellin on 28 March, but no longer had the strength or the inclination to attack Badajoz, preferring to wait for news of Soult. Ney was holding his own against the Galician uprising, but had no men to spare. Lapisse had remained inactive around Salamanca, allowing himself to be bluffed by a small force under the command of Sir Robert Wilson, and had failed to make any progress towards the Portuguese border.
Neither of Soult’s detachments produced good news. Heudelet discovered that Vigo had fallen to a combined British and Spanish force on 28 March. Tuy was soon abandoned as the French concentrated their forces in Portugal. When contact was re-established with Ney, it was only to discover that he too was isolated and had no idea what was going on elsewhere. Even the Portuguese border fortress of Valenza had to be abandoned, for Portuguese guerrillas had recaptured Braga. Soult had to send another 3,000 men to reopen his lines of communication with Heudelet, and decided to pull him back to garrison the towns of Braga, Viana and Barcelos.
Loison’s detachment soon ran into serious trouble. General Silveira had rebuilt his army after the debacle around Chaves. He had recaptured the town after a five day siege, and then moved south to Amarante, where he took up a defensive position on the eastern bank of the Tamega.
Loison’s column made their first attempt to force their way past Silveira on 12 April and was repulsed. He called for reinforcements, and on 18 April made a second attack at the head of 6,500 men. This met with more success, for Silveira had crossed the river to offer battle, but Loison was still unable to capture the bridge. Soult sent yet more reinforcements to Loison, bringing the total force at Amarante up to 9,000.
The French finally captured the bridge intact early in the morning of 2 May, and scattered Silveira’s army, but this success came too late, for on 22 April Sir Arthur Wellesley had landed at Lisbon at the head of a new British army. Marshal Soult was about to lose the initiative in Portugal.
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