Combat of the Oitabén River, 7-8 June 1809

The combat of the Oitabén River was a victory for a largely partisan Spanish force over Marshal Ney, which played a large part in the final defeat of French efforts to conquer Galicia. On 23 May the Spanish Division of the Miño had defeated the French garrison of Santiago in an open battle, and forced it to retreat back to Corunna. While this was going on Ney was on his way to Lugo, to meet with Marshal Soult, who had just escaped from Portugal. Under pressure from Ney, Soult agreed to cooperate against the Spanish forces in south west Galicia, where the division of the Miño had now been joined by La Romana’s Army of Galicia. The French plan was quite unrealistic. Ney was to return to Corunna, and then advance south down the coast road to Santiago. At the same time Soult was to advance south west from Lugo, down the Minho valley, and then turn west to reach the coast. If all went well the two Spanish forces would be trapped between Ney and Soult, and would be destroyed. The main weakness of this plan was that it relied on two separate armies operating at a large distance with no way of communication between them. If either army was held up, then the Spanish would be able to concentrate against the other. It also relied on Soult’s enthusiastic cooperation, something that was by no means guaranteed.

Marshal Soult
Portrait of Marshal
Jean-de-Dieu Soult

The Division of the Miño, now under the command of the Conde de Noroña, was made up of 2,500 regular troops and 7,500 partisans. Noroña proved to be a skilful manager of men, capable of preventing the enthusiasm of the partisans from getting out of hand while at the same time convincing them to stay with the division. Under his leadership the Division of the Miño abandoned Santiago rather than attempt to defend it against Ney, and retreated to the line of the Oitabén River. This was a very strong defensive position, where three mountain rivers meet, forming the Oitabén, which then runs into the head of the long bay that leads down to Vigo. There were only two places where Ney could cross this river – close to the sea at Sampaio, or at Caldelas, six miles upstream.

Noroña prepared for the French attack by destroying four arches of the bridge at Sampaio, and by fortifying the bridge at Caldelas with a barricade, a double line of trenches and a small gun battery. The crossing at Sampaio was further protected by a number of gunboats, including one British boat provided by two frigates in the bay. The British also provided a small party to garrison Vigo.

Portrait of Marshal Michel Ney (1769-1815)
Portrait of
Marshal Michel Ney

Ney gathered together most of his corps, giving him a field army 8,000 strong, and advanced towards Santiago, reaching that town on 5 June. He then followed the Spanish force south to the Oitabén, reaching the river on 7 June. The French soon discovered fords at Sampaio and Caldelas, and on 8 June Ney sent infantry columns to cross both fords. At both places the Galicians held their ground, and both French columns were forced to turn back without reaching the far bank. Ney suffered around 300 casualties in this fighting, including at least 39 dead left behind at Caldelas.

That evening Ney learnt that Soult had stopped his advance after only two days, and was camped at Monforte de Lemos. Believing that Soult had deliberately betrayed him, on the following morning Ney began a retreat back to Santiago. On 11 June, before learning of Ney’s defeat on the Oitabén, Soult had left his camps at Monforte, and started his own retreat east into Leon. His excuse was that he had heard nothing from Ney since the start of the campaign. Soult also claimed to believe that La Romana had slipped around him and was retreating to the east, even though La Romana was actually thirty miles to his west. When Ney discovered that Soult had left Galicia, he was left with little choice but to join him. By 3 July the last French troops had evacuated Galicia.  

Napoleon's Cursed War, Popular Resistance in the Spanish Peninsular War. Ronald Fraser. A fascinating look at the Peninsular War from the Spanish point of view, tracing the development of the war from the early provincial revolts, through the years of military defeat and the succesful guerilla campaigns. Frasers's work brings to life the people who were willing to risk everything to free their country from Napoleon. [see more]
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 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 (17 April 2008), Combat of the Oitabén River, 7-8 June 1809,

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