Combat of Castillejos, 25 January 1809

The combat of Castillejos of 25 January 1809 was a minor engagement in the far south west of Spain that badly disrupted Marshal Soult’s invasion of Estremadura. In order to pass between Andalusia and Estremadura, Soult had split his army into two columns. His own column, containing Marshal Mortier, Briche’s light cavalry, Gazan’s infantry division and the army’s artillery travelled along what is now the main road from Seville to Merida, crossing the mountains between Santa Olalla and Monasterio.

Marshal Soult
Portrait of Marshal
Jean-de-Dieu Soult

As Soult was travelling north, a Spanish army 5,000 strong under General Ballasteros was moving south through the mountains towards the Condado de Niebla, a weakly defended French held area thirty miles west of Seville. His orders were to clear the French out of the area, and then if the opportunity arose to make a dash towards Seville. This expedition had been put in place before the Spanish had any idea that the Soult was planning to invade Estremadura, and surely would have ended in a disastrous failure if it had been carried out as planned. Ballesteros would have found himself isolated south of the mountains bordering Estremadura and within easy striking distance of Soult’s main army.

Marshal Soult's Invasion of Estremadura, 1811
Marshal Soult's Invasion of Estremadura, 1811

Instead of this, on 4 January, with his army strung out along the road south of Monasterio, Soult discovered Ballesteros’s 5,000 men four miles west of Monasterio, at Calera. Soult could not ignore this threat, and so sent Mortier to attack the Spanish. After a two hour running fight the Spanish retreated twenty miles across the mountains to Fregenal. Soult decided to detach Gazan’s infantry division to watch Ballesteros, and prevent him from attacking the vulnerable artillery, still stretched out along miles of mountain roads. Gazan moved to Fuentes de Leon, south east of Fregenal, from where he could have blocked any attack on the artillery, but Ballesteros was too skilful to be trapped in this way.  From Fregenal he moved south, as if he was planning to slip around Gazan’s position, but then once the French were following him turned away to the south west, and led Gazan on a long march across the mountains into the lower Guadiana valley. Both Ballesteros and Gazan picked up reinforcements on the way – Ballesteros the levies he had been expecting to find in the Condado de Niebla, and Gazan the small French garrison of the area.

On 24 January Ballesteros reached Villaneuva de los Castillejos, seventy miles from Fregenal across the mountain roads, and decided to stand and fight. On the next day Gazan attacked, and forced Ballesteros’s Asturian troops out of their positions. In the aftermath of the battle the Spanish forces retreated across the border into Portugal, while Gazan decided to end his chase of Ballesteros and rejoin Soult. After another difficult journey across the mountains, Gazan made contact with the main French army at Valverde on 3 February. The absence of half of his infantry had forced Soult to abandon his original plans for an immediate attack on Badajoz, and instead he had attacked the much weaker Spanish fortress at Olivenza. After the fall of Olivenza, Soult had begun his siege of Badajoz (26 February), but his lack of infantry meant that he could not completely blockade the place, allowing the Spanish to send a relief army into the city. 

A History of the Peninsular War vol.4: December 1810-December 1811 - Massena's Retreat, Fuentos de Onoro, Albuera, Tarragona, Sir Charles Oman. The main focus of this fourth volume in Oman's history of the Peninsular War is the year long duel between Wellington and the French on the borders of Portugal, which saw the British make a series of attacks across the border, most of which were repulsed by strong concentrations of French troops. Despite the apparent lack of progress, this was the period that saw the French lose the initiative to Wellington.
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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (22 March 2008), Combat of Castillejos, 25 January 1809 ,

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