General Francisco Xavier Castañas was the Spanish general who won the first victory of the Spanish uprising against French rule, at Baylen on 19 July 1808. In the spring and early summer of 1808 revolts broke out across Spain. At first the French did not realise how serious or widespread the uprising was, and so a series of small flying columns were dispatched to put down what Napoleon believed to be small isolated rebellions. One of those columns, under General Pierre Dupont was sent across the mountains into Andalusia. There they won the first real fight of the war, at Alcolea, and went on to sack Cordova (7 June 1808).
Despite these easy successes Dupont was now very vulnerable. The main Army of Andalusia, 30,000 men under the command of General Castañas was now approaching. Dupont now had 20,000 men in his army, a force that should have been strong enough to deal with Castañas’ inexperienced troops, but Dupont now demonstrated an unexpected lack of ability as an independent commander. He spread his men out along too wide a front, east from Andujar to Mengibar, and failed to protect his lines of communication back towards the mountains and Madrid. Castaños demonstrated very skill himself. He too split his army, into three, and attempted to cross the Guadalquivir River at three separate locations. The fighting began on 14 July, when the Spanish launched attacks at Andujar, Villaneuva and Mengibar. None of these attacks succeeded, and nor did similar attacks on 15 July, but Dupont panicked, and concentrated most of his forces at Andujar, at the western end his line. On 16 July the Spanish attacked again, and broke through the French lines at Mengibar. Despite this setback, Dupont still had a powerful army, and most of his force was concentrated in one place, while the Spanish army was split in two – part under Castaños facing the main force at Andujar and the rest to the east north of Mengibar. A more experienced French commander would have taken this chance to defeat the Spanish in detail, but Dupont did nothing until the morning of 18 July, when he finally decided to retreat east.
By now it was too late – the Spanish had occupied Baylen, and had had time to dig in. On 19 July Dupont’s advancing troops clashed with the Spanish under Reding and Coupigny at Baylen. During the day Dupont fed his troops into the battle piecemeal, only for each attack to be beaten off. It took Castaños most of the morning to realise what was happening, and make his own move, but eventually in the early afternoon his advance guard attacked the rear of Dupont’s army, and Dupont asked for a ceasefire. On 20 July Dupont and Castaños signed the capitulation of Baylen, and for just about the first time a major French army marched into captivity. Dupont’s surrender tended to disguise Castaños’ relatively poor performance at Baylen. By repeatedly splitting his army into several fragments he had left it vulnerable to being defeated in detail, but Dupont had missed each of his chances.
Castaños’ victory at Baylen was one of the most important of the entire Napoleonic Wars. News of the French defeat encouraged Napoleon’s enemies all across Europe. On 1 August, after the news reached Madrid, King Joseph abandoned the city, and the French retreated back to the Ebro in the north east of Spain. In a worrying sign of things to come, the Spanish took far too long to occupy Madrid. At first the Junta of Andalusia wanted to send Castaños into Granada to overthrown the Junta of Granada, who had refused to accept their authority, but Castaños refused. Eventually he was given permission to move to Madrid, but only with one division. On 23 August he finally reached the liberated capital at the head of 7,000 men.
A similar picture of factional infighting soon developed at Madrid. No commander-in-chief would be appointed for the Spanish armies, and no overall plan of campaign was agreed. Castaños was appointed to command the Army of the Centre, which then advanced to the Ebro. To his left was the weak Army of Castile, and to his right was the Army of Aragon, under General Palafox, the defender of Saragossa. After two wasted months, in October Castaños and Palafox came up with a grand plan. The Army of the Centre and part of the Army of Aragon would concentrate around Tudela, from where they would attempt to outflank the left wing of the French army. The only part of this plan that would put in place was the move south along the Ebro, which ended with Castaños based around Calahorra. On 11 November he fell ill, and for the next few days command of the army devolved on Palafox. From the time they arrived on the Ebro to the time when the French finally moved the Spanish armies on the Ebro were essentially inactive.
By November the Spanish had missed their chance. Napoleon reached Spain early in the month to take command in person for the only time. His plan was simple but potentially devastating. His armies punched a hole through the Spanish lines opposite Burgos, and then fanned out to the north and south, encircling all of the Spanish armies on the Ebro. Castaños was to be dealt with by two armies. Marshal Lannes, commanding the 3rd Corps, would cross over the Ebro and attack the Spanish at Calahorra, while Marshal Ney was to dash through the gap at Burgos, swing to the left and head for the Ebro south of the Spanish position, trapping them between the two French armies.
The plan came close to success. Castaños retreated to Tudela, where he hoped to hold off the French. However his own army was not strong enough to hold the ten mile line he chose to defend, and so he called on Palafox for help. Lannes and the Spanish reinforcements both arrived at Tudela on the morning of 23 November. Even after most of the Spanish reinforcements had taken up their positions, there was still a three mile wide gap in the Spanish line. Castaños was badly led down by his own subordinates, most notably by General La Peña, who chose to watch the fighting at Tudela from his position on the Spanish left. One French attack was beaten off, but the second assault succeeded, and the Spanish right collapsed. Fortunately for them, Ney was still some way distant in the mountains to the west, and much of the army was able to escape.
In the aftermath of the defeat at Tudela, the French began to threaten Madrid. Castaños, with the largely intact Army of Andalusia, arrived at Calatayud on 25 November. From there they then moved south west towards Madrid on the road through Siguenza and Guadalajara, hoping to take part in the defence of the capital. Napoleon moved to fast for them - his advance guard reached Madrid on 1 December, and the city fell to him on 4 December, but by then Castaños had been removed from command of the army, for at Siguenza he received an order to hand command over the General La Peña. Castaños was summoned south to join with the Junta, officially to help the Central Committee for War. He remained without a command throughout 1809.
In January 1810 the French launched an offensive into Andalusia, heading for Central Junta’s capital at Seville. The weak Spanish armies that had survived the disaster at Ocaña were soon brushed aside, and King Joseph and Marshal Victor were soon heading towards Seville. On 23 January the Junta fled from Seville, heading for Cadiz, but at Jerez its President, Vice-President and the War Minister were seized by a mob. Only the arrival of Castaños saved them from being murdered. On 29 January twenty three members of the Junta reached safety at Cadiz, where they abdicated in favour of a Regency. Castaños was appointed as one of the five regents. He held this post until 28 October 1810, when the newly elected Cortes dismissed all but one of the Regents, amongst them Castaños, and replaced them with their own appointees.
On 23 January 1811 General La Romana, the commander of the Army of Estremadura, died suddenly. The Regency appointed Castaños to replace him, but before he could join his new command it suffered a heavy defeat at the Gebora (19 February 1811). Castaños finally joined the remnants of his army on the Tagus in March. At the same time he was made captain-general of the Army of Galicia, but this post he never held in person, instead sending General Santocildes to act in his place.
Only a tiny fragment of the Army of Estremadura had survived the disaster at the Gebora. When Castaños met with General Beresford on 30 March, he only had 3,000 infantry and 1,000 cavalry under his command. Castaños was eager to cooperate with Beresford in the campaign that led to the first British siege of Badajoz (6-15 May 1811). He promised to capture the bridge of Merida, and to send his cavalry to cooperate with the Allies, and kept both of these promises, beginning a successful relationship with the British. His forces helped to scout for the French during the siege, and were present at the battle of Albuera (16 May 1811). By this point he only had 1,721 infantry, 634 cavalry and 4 guns in his force, which suffered very light casualties during the hard fought battle.
For the rest of 1811 Castaños and his tiny army were based in the north of Estremadura, with his headquarters at Valencia de Alcantara. From there they carried out a series of raids on the French, even reaching as far as the borders of Andalusia. In this phase of the war Castaños was acting more as a guerrilla leader than as a conventional army commander.
At the start of 1812 he was still based in Estremadura, where on 15 February he provided a new garrison for Ciudad Rodrigo, captured by the Allies on 1812, but in June he finally moved to Galicia, where his subordinates were not cooperating with the British to his satisfaction. Once there he placed General Santocildes back in charge of the army, and ordered him to conduct a siege of Astorga, which lasted until 18 August 1812. By this time Wellington had won the battle of Salamanca (22 July 1812) and the Allies had liberated Madrid. Their next target was Burgos, and now Castaños was summoned east to join the main army.
Castaños and the Army of Galicia joined Wellington on 15-16 September 1812, just in time to take part in the siege of Burgos and the retreat that followed after the French armies concentrated against Wellington. Castaños and his army retreated back into Galicia, where they spent the winter of 1812-1813. By then Wellington had accepted a post as generalissimo of the Spanish armies. One of his main concerns now became the reorganisation of the Spanish armies. He believed that there were too many separate armies, each with their own commander and staffs. For the campaign of 1913 he intended to take a single Spanish army – the combined army of Galicia, Castile and Estremadura. Castaños was appointed captain-general of this new combined army, but he would not remain in post long enough to take part in the campaign, for on 16 June 1813 Castaños and his nephew General Giron were both removed from their commands. Officially Castaños had been withdrawn to take up his place on the Council of State, but Wellington was furious, believing that the move had been motivated by political intrigues within the Spanish government. His message to the government began “I think their conduct towards Generals Castaños and Giron harsh and unjust”, and went to attack the government for its habit of replacing officers without consulting him, despite an agreement not to do so. It was an undeserved end to the career of the victor of Baylen.