Combat of Alcantara, 14 May 1809

The combat of Alcantara of 14 May 1809 was a minor clash between part of Marshal Victor’s corps and a small Portuguese force that had been stationed just across the Spanish frontier to watch the French army in Estremadura. Alcantara is a small town five miles inside Spain, on the southern bank of the Tagus River, famous for the six-arched Roman bridge, built in honour of the Emperor Trajan in 103-106 AD, which still survives (although much repaired). It was an important position for both the French and the Allied armies, for it would be on the right flank of any Allied advance along the Tagus towards Almaraz, and Victor’s lines of communications back to Madrid. One of Marshal Victor’s main concerns in May was that he was in a dangerously advanced position, with a Portuguese army just across the border in the Tagus valley, and the Spanish Army of Estremadura lurking in the hills to his south. If the Portuguese and Spanish could coordinate their activities, then Victor’s men might be trapped in Estremadura. A first sign of any such combined offensive would be the appearance of Portuguese troops at Alcantara.

As it happened there was a small detachment of Portuguese troops at Alcantara in early May. It consisted of the 1st battalion of the Loyal Lusitanian Legion, under Colonel Mayne, one regiment of militia, a squadron of cavalry and six guns – about 2,000 men. Their job was to watch for any French offensive along the Tagus. Victor only discovered their presence at Alcantara in the second week in May, and the reports he received greatly overestimated the size of Mayne’s detachment. This convinced Victor that he was indeed facing a major Portuguese offensive, and so he decided to make a pre-emptive strike. On 11 May he left his camps with Lapisse’s infantry division and a brigade of dragoons.

The French reached Alcantara on 14 May. Mayne knew that he could not defend the town, and so had prepared a defensive position on the northern bank, from where he could guard the bridge. Victor responded with a three hour artillery bombardment of the Portuguese lines. Eventually the militia broke and fled, having suffered heavy but unknown losses in the bombardment. Mayne’s Legion held its line until the first French brigade managed to force their way across the bridge. Mayne then attempted to blow the bridge, but his mine was not powerful enough to bring it down, and he was forced to retreat. The Loyal Lusitanian Legion lost 106 dead, 148 wounded and 15 missing during the fighting, but the rest of the unit was able to reach safety at the pass of Salvaterra.

The French attack on Alcantara caused some panic in Portugal. General Mackenzie, commanding an 8,000 strong army on the Zezere (80 mile to the west), believed that it was the first stage in a full scale invasion. Sir Arthur Wellesley correctly interpreted it as a reconnaissance in force, and was sure that no invasion was imminent, but it did indicate Marshal Victor was becoming more active, and so Wellesley cut short his pursuit of Marshal Soult’s army in northern Portugal, and moved south to begin what would become the Talavera Campaign.

Victor only remained at Alcantara for three days. Once he was convinced that Mayne’s force was not the vanguard of an invading army, he returned to his camps around Torremocha, in a central position between the Tagus and Guadiana Rivers. Once Victor was gone, Mayne returned to Alcantara, and retook the bridge. A gap was finally blown in the bridge on 10 June, by which time it was becoming increasingly likely that Wellesley’s army would soon be moving along the road north of the Tagus.

 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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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (14 March 2008), Combat of Alcantara, 14 May 1809, http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/combat_alcantara.html

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