Don Gregorio de la Cuesta was one of the least successful Spanish generals of the Peninsular War. At the outbreak of the revolt in 1808 he was already in his late sixties, and was Governor-General of Old Castile. When the revolt broke out in Valladolid, he refused to take command of the rebel forces, apparently because his disliked being told what to do by civilians. The mob built a gallows outside his house, and he is said to have refused to change his mind until the noose was round his neck. The moment he did change his mind, Cuesta was appointed to command the new Army of Castile. This would turn out to be a very unfortunate appointment.
The Army of Castile was one of the weakest of the Spanish armies. Cuesta had 300 veteran cavalry, 4 cannon and 4,000-5,000 infantry, entirely made up of raw recruits who only began their training at the start of June. What his army did possess was enthusiasm, and when one considered how Cuesta had been convinced to take command, it is hardly surprising that he was willing to offer battle as soon as possible. The first clash came at Cabezon on 12 June 1808. Here Cuesta first demonstrated his lack of skill. He had a potentially strong defensive position on the river Pisuerga, but instead of destroying the bridge and defending the river, he chose to cross over to the same bank as the French, and drew them up in a single line with the river at their back. He was faced by 9,000 French soldiers under the command of Generals Lasalle and Merle. On 12 June they attacked, and in a few minutes destroyed the Army of Castile. In the aftermath of the battle the French captured Valladolid.
Cuesta retreated to Benavento on the Esla, where he managed to reconstruct his army. The defeat at Cabezon had not dimmed his enthusiasm, and from Benavento he issued a called for help to the Juntas of Asturias and Galicia. The Austrians sent him two token battalions, but the Galicians sent him most of their much higher quality army under General Blake. This gave Cuesta, who was the senior officer, a combined force of 21,000 infantry, 700 cavalry and 20 guns. Once again he advanced towards the French, hoping to recapture Valladolid, and once again he suffered a heavy defeat, at Medina de Rio Seco on 14 July 1808. Once again his deployment was partly to blame. Cuesta split his army into two wings. The right wing, under Blake, contained half of the Army of Galicia. This force was placed on a hill on the Spanish right. The rest of the army, under Cuesta, took up a position behind and to the left – so far behind Blake’s wing that the two forces were out of sight of each other. This allowed the French commander, Marshal Bessiéres, to defeat the Spanish in detail, attacking Blake’s wing first and then turning on Cuesta. To make things worse, when the French approached Cuesta, he sent his part of Blake’s army to attack them, before finally retreating. The Army of Galicia lost 400 dead, 500 wounded, 1,200 prisoners and 900 deserters while the Army of Castile only lost 155 men. After the battle Blake retreated back to Galicia, while Cuesta moved to Leon.
In the aftermath of the defeat, Cuesta made extravagant claims for his own authority, refusing to recognise the Juntas of Castile and Leon. He managed to scrap together an army 12,000 strong, but refused to cooperate with any of the other Spanish generals. The situation was transformed by Spanish successes elsewhere, most notably at Baylen. At the start of August the French retreated to the Ebro, and the Spanish reoccupied Madrid.
Cuesta attended the council of war at Madrid in September 1808, where he had two main aims. The first was to overthrow the Juntas and restore the authority of the Governor-Generals and the second was to organise the appointment of a commander-in-chief to take command of the united armies of Spain. As the most senior general present, there was a good chance that he would claim that post, and this concern played a major part in preventing the appointment of any commander in chief. All that the council of war could agree on was a general plan for an advance to the Ebro, to come face to face with the French armies, but no unified plan of attack was agreed. Cuesta and the Army of Castile were to take up a position at Burgos.
Cuesta soon managed to arrange his own fall from power. He still considered the Juntas of Leon and Castile to be disobedient subordinates. When they elected members to sit on the new Central Junta, he had them arrested and locked up in the castle of Segovia. In response the Central Junta summoned Cuesta to appear before them at Aranjuez, and knowing that he did not have the strength to resist, Cuesta had no choice to appear. Once there Cuesta was removed from command of the Army of Castile, and replaced by General Eguia.
The disastrous Spanish defeats on the Ebro and around Madrid combined to resurrect Cuesta’s military career. His dismissal in September meant that he was not involved in any way, and so in the aftermath of the fall of Madrid he was appointed to command the Army of Estremadura. This army contained 10,500 infantry and 2,000-2,500 cavalry and was made up of survivors of the defeats at Gamonal and the Somosierra Pass, a number of new levies and four regiments of dismounted cavalry that had returned from the Baltic.
In the spring of 1809 a French army under Marshal Victor moved against Cuesta (Medellin Campaign). After a series of minor skirmishes, the two forces clashed at Medellin on 28 March 1809. Once again Cuesta suffered a disastrous defeat, losing at least 10,000 men, of whom around 7,500 were killed. Once again Cuesta was largely to blame, having decided to attack the French camp in ideal defensive country, and then chose to launch that attack with his men in a long thin line, but at least the army had fought with some determination before suffering the terrible defeat. That alone explains why Cuesta, instead of being removed from command, was promoted to Captain-General of Estremadura. By the middle of April enough reinforcements had been found to bring his army up to the same strength it had before Medellin – 20,000 infantry and 3,000 cavalry.
This new army was to cooperate with an English army under Sir Arthur Wellesley, the future duke of Wellington. Having expelled the Spanish from Portugal for a second time, Wellesley was planning to invade Spain to attack the army of Marshal Victor. Wellesley and Cuesta began to discuss their plans in June 1809. The discussion began well, with Cuesta suggesting three alternative plans, but when Wellesley picked his favourite of the three, for a two-pronged attack on Victor, Cuesta objected and insisted on a combined frontal assault on the French. After these early disputes, all of the Allied plans were negated when Victor retreated beyond the Tagus.
Over the next few weeks the relationship between Cuesta and Wellesley decayed. Much to Wellesley’s frustration Cuesta consistently refused to consider any plan that Wellesley supported, even ones he had himself suggested. The reason for this was that Cuesta was convinced that Wellesley was attempting to gain an appointment as commander-in-chief of the Spanish armies. To Cuesta this was entirely unacceptable, and so he remained unwilling to cooperate with the British.
Despite their disagreements the British and Spanish armies joined up on 20 July, and caught up with Victor at Talavera on 22 July. Victor was in a weak position, greatly outnumbered by the Allied army, and Wellesley hoped to attack on the morning of 23 July, but this required Cuesta’s co-operation. At first he agreed to take part in the attack, but on the morning of 23 July kept finding excuses not to begin the attack. During the afternoon the French slipped away, and a great chance to inflict a serious defeat on Victor had been missed.
In the aftermath of this failure, Wellesley refused to move any further until his supply situation improved. This angered Cuesta, who insisted on carrying out a pursuit of Victor with only his own army. This began on the afternoon of 24 July and ended on the following day when Cuesta realised that he had just stumbled across the combined armies of Victor, Sebastiani and the reserve – some 50,000 men. About the best that can be said for Cuesta’s performance during this period was that he immediately retreated back to Talavera.
Cuesta’s army was thus present at the battle of Talavera. Wellesley suggested that the Spanish held the right of the Allied line, a strong position based around the town of Talavera, and for once Cuesta agreed to this suggestion. The French also realised how strong this position was, and did not attack it. As a result the Spanish suffered comparatively few losses during the battle. While the British suffered 5,400 casualties and the French over 7,000, Cuesta’s army only lost 1,200 men in the entire period from the advance on 24 July to the battle itself. Cuesta’s men did not have much to do during the battle, but what they were asked to do they did well.
The Allied position after the battle was not as strong as it first seemed to be, and by the start of August strong French forces were closing in. Fortunately for the Allies Cuesta intercepted a French dispatch that revealed the real situation, and forwarded it to Wellesley. On the night of 3 August Cuesta abandoned Talavera, and retreated to Oropesa, where on 4 August he had another argument with Wellesley, this time about the wisdom of standing and fighting at Oropesa – Wellesley was determined to continue the retreat before much stronger French forces could destroy key bridges, while Cuesta was determined to fight. That morning the British left Oropesa and marched to Arzobispo, crossing the crucial bridge.
Later on the same day the first French troops reached Talavera, cavalry under Mortier. Cuesta responded with a strong counterattack, which convinced Mortier that he was about to be attacked by the entire Allied army. He called for urgent assistance, and by 6 August Mortier had been joined by Ney and Soult. Meanwhile on 5 August Cuesta had retreated to the Tagus, where he had formed up for battle in a very vulnerable position, with his back to the river, just as he had done at Cabezon in the previous year. This time the French failed to take advantage, and by the time they caught up with him on the evening of 6 August, Cuesta had escaped across the Tagus.
Cuesta’s military career was finally brought to an end when on the night of 12-13 August he suffered a paralytic stroke. On the following morning he resigned, and was replaced by his second in command, General Eguia. Cuesta retired to the baths of Alhama, where he recovered enough to write his memoirs, concentrating on the events of 1809, surviving until 1812.