French siege of Cadiz, 5 February 1810-24 August 1812

Introduction
Defences of Cadiz
1810
The Barrosa Campaign
The end of the Siege
Books

Introduction

The siege of Cadiz of 5 February 1810-24 August 1812 was the longest and arguably most important of the many sieges that punctuated the Peninsular War. Lasting for two and a half years the defence of Cadiz prevented the French from completed their conquest of Andalusia at the start of 1810, pinned down a large part of Marshal Soult’s Army of Andalusia (there were rarely less than 20,000 French troops around the city), and gave the Spanish and their British allies an ideal base for amphibious operations along the south coast of Spain.

There was very nearly no siege. In January 1810, when the French invaded Andalusia from the north, Cadiz was virtually un-garrisoned. Even after the French forced their way past the Spanish armies in the north of Andalusia the city remained empty. Only the actions of the Duke of Albuquerque and the French pre-occupation with Seville saved the city. If Marshal Soult (then King Joseph’s chief of staff) had detached a small force towards Cadiz as the French approached Cadiz then they would have arrived well ahead of the Spanish, but no French troops were sent towards Cadiz until 2 February, the day after King Joseph had entered Seville. Marshal Victor, at the head of his I Corps, made the journey in four days, arriving outside the defences of Cadiz on 5 February.

Victor was two days too late. Once the Spanish Junta at Seville had realised that they were in serious danger, they had summoned every available army back into Andalusia. None of could possibly arrive in time to save Seville, but one, the Army of Estremadura under the Duke of Albuquerque, did reach Andalusia before the fall of Seville. On 24 January, when he had reached a point twenty miles north of Seville, he was ordered to move to Cordova, fifty five miles to the north east. This was clearly a ridiculous order, for that morning the French captured Cordova. By 27 February Albuquerque’s scouts had made contact with the advancing French armies, and he had learnt that the Central Junta had abandoned Seville. Albuquerque took the bold decision to ignore his orders to defend Seville and instead to retreat south to Cadiz.

This was a fateful decision. On 3 February Albuquerque led his 12,000 men into Cadiz. Two days later Victor arrived, and summoned the city to surrender. General Venegas, the governor of Cadiz, refused the summons. This was about as close as the French would ever come to taking the city. Victor reported that he would need heavy siege guns and time to build a fleet of small boats. King Joseph made a short visit to Cadiz, and came to an even gloomier conclusion, writing to Napoleon to ask for the use of the French Mediterranean Fleet at Toulon. Napoleon turned him down, unwilling to risk a naval defeat at the hands of the British Mediterranean Fleet.  

Defences of Cadiz

In 1810 Cadiz was ideally situated to resist a siege. The city was located at the northern tip of a four mile long sandy peninsula, which itself formed the northern corner of the triangular Isla de Leon. This peninsula, running north-to-south parallel to the mainland, formed a natural breakwater for the inner and outer harbours of Cadiz. The Isla de Leon was separated from the mainland by the Rio Santi Petri, a salt water channel which ran from the south-eastern corner of the inner harbour to the sea. This waterway was flanked by salt marshes, which prevented the French from easily reaching the channel, while the channel itself was patrolled by Spanish gunboats. The only bridge, at Zuazo at the eastern corner of the island, had been destroyed by the Spanish, and the only approach to it was along a narrow causeway. At no point during the siege did the French attempt to cross the channel by boat. This front was protected by the naval arsenal of La Carraca at its north end and the castle of Punta de Santri Petri at the southern end.

If the French had managed to reach the Isla de Leon, they would have been faced by the problem of advancing for four miles along the narrow peninsula linking the island to Cadiz. Half way along the peninsula, at a point where it was only 200 yards wide, was a continuous line of fortifications called the Cortadura or the Barry of San Fernando. Unless the French had somehow managed to sweep the British fleet from the seas, they would have been under naval bombardment all the time while on this peninsula. If they had managed to get past the Cortadura, Cadiz itself was protected by a strong line of fortifications, on a front 400 yards wide and with deep water on both sides. Any French gun batteries facing Cadiz would have been badly outgunned by the Spanish guns of Cadiz and the British and Spanish guns of the fleets.  

The only possible weak point in the defences of Cadiz was formed by the peninsula of the Trocadero. This separated the inner and outer harbours, and faced a wider point in the peninsula leading to Cadiz. Both sides of the entrance to the inner harbour of Cadiz had been fortified by the Spanish, with the forts of San José, San Luis and Matagorda on the Trocadero and Puntales Castle on the peninsula. Matagorda is 3,000 yards from the southern tip of the city of Cadiz, but only 1,200 yards from Puntales. The heaviest French artillery then had a range of around 2,500 yards, and even the massive mortars built by the French later in the siege only ever managed to fire a single shell into Cadiz. Before the French arrived the three forts on the Trocadero were destroyed, but if the French did manage to capture and rebuild them then they could bombard Puntales, and make it difficult for ships to pass in and out of the inner harbour during the day.

1810

It took some time for Marshal Victor to realise that there was little chance of a regular siege succeeding. He began with futile attempt to force his way across the salt marsh protecting the Rio de Santi Petri. After this failed the French pulled their main camp back to Chiclana, and made an attempt to capture the naval arsenal of La Caracca, without success. Victor’s next target was the offshore fort of the Matagorda. This had originally been destroyed by the allies, but on 22 February a force of British engineers, supported by a company from the 94th Foot, reoccupied and rebuilt this fort. Victor made the capture of the Matagorda his main aim for the next two months, in the hope that he could use it as a base for an attack on the Puntales. Two months of heavy bombardment followed, before on 22 April the British garrison was withdrawn. In two months the 140-strong garrison had suffered 64 killed and wounded. The French occupied the Matagorda, but all they were able to achieve was an intermittent artillery duel with the Puntales – the two fortifications were really too far apart to do serious damage to each other, while British and Spanish ships were still able to pass in and out of the inner harbour at night.

The fight for the Matagorda had been interrupted by a hurricane that blew from 6-9 March. During this storm one Portuguese and three Spanish ships of the line were blown onto the French occupied shore. Seeing this, a group of French prisoners being held on the prison hulk Castilla overpowered their guards, and managed to drift close enough to the coast for 600 prisoners to escape. A second attempt ended in the deaths of most of the prisoners when the ship drifted onto a mud bank within artillery range of the Spanish guns.

By May 1810 the garrison of Cadiz was 26,000 strong. Any chance of Victor seizing the city was now gone, and instead he found himself in the position of protecting southern Andalusia from the strong Spanish and British forces in the city. Cadiz became a centre of allied operations in the south of Spain, and a series of expeditions were launched along the coast

The Barrosa Campaign

Marshal Soult
Portrait of Marshal
Jean-de-Dieu Soult

1811 saw the most famous of all the expeditions launched from Cadiz. At the start of the year Marshal Soult invaded Estremadura, leaving Victor somewhat isolated around Cadiz. The British and Spanish decided to take advantage of this by landing an army to the south of the French lines. This force would then advance north, and force Victor to pull part of his army out of the lines to face it in battle. This would give the troops remaining in the garrison a chance to attack the French siege lines, and might even have forced the French to abandon the siege. Having lost troops to Soult, Victor was outnumbered at Cadiz. He had 19,000 troops in the lines, of which only 15,000 could be used in a field army, while the rest were engineers, gunners or marines. The Spanish had 20,000 troops in Cadiz, the British 5,000-6,000.

This expedition began well. 10,000 Spanish troops under General La Peña and 5,000 British and Portuguese troops under General Graham reached Tarifa in late February, and began their march north. As the allies approached his lines, Victor was only able to find 10,000 men for his field army, but came up with a plan to trap the allies against the coast. The battle of Barrosa (5 March 1811) saw two thirds of Victor’s army defeated by Graham’s British troops while La Peña stood and watched two miles to the rear. On the day after the battle, Graham refused to serve under La Peña and returned to the Isla de Leon, followed on the next day by La Peña. The French had suffered a serious scare, but the siege continued.

The end of the Siege

Wellington’s great victory at Salamanca ended the French siege of Cadiz. On 12 August 1812 the first official news of the battle reached Soult, in the form of an order from King Joseph for him to abandon Andalusia and march to Toledo. Although he protested against this order, and attempted to convince Joseph to join him in the south, Soult had no choice but to obey. On 23-24 August Soult destroyed the heavy guns around Cadiz, under the cover of a furious artillery bombardment, before on 24 August destroying anything that could not be carried away, and after two and a half years the French abandoned the lines around Cadiz.

Books

 The Spanish Ulcer, A History of the Peninsular War, David Gates. An excellent single volume history of the Peninsular War, which when it was published was the first really good English language history of the entire war since Oman. This is a well balanced work with detailed coverage of those campaigns conducted entirely by Spanish armies, as well as the better known British intervention in Portugal and Spain.
cover cover cover
A History of the Peninsular War vol.3: September 1809-December 1810 - Ocana, Cadiz, Bussaco, Torres Vedras, Sir Charles Oman. Part three of Oman's classic history begins with the series of disasters that befell the Spanish in the autumn of 1809 and spring of 1810, starting with the crushing defeat at Ocana and ending with the French conquest of Andalusia and capture of Seville, then moves on to look at the third French invasion of Portugal, most famous for Wellington's defence of the Lines of Torres Vedras.
cover cover cover
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.
cover cover cover
A History of the Peninsular War vol.5: October 1811-August 31, 1812 - Valencia, Ciudad Rodrigo, Badajoz, Salamanca, Madrid, Sir Charles Oman Part Five of Oman's classic history of the Peninsular War starting with a look at the French invasion of Valencia in the winter of 1811-12, before concentrating on Wellington's victorious summer campaign of 1812, culminating with the battle of Salamanca and Wellington's first liberation of Madrid.
cover cover cover

Napoleonic Home Page | Books on the Napoleonic Wars | Subject Index: Napoleonic Wars

Bookmark this page: Bookmark with Delicious  Delicious  Bookmark with Facebook  Facebook   Bookmark with StumbleUpon  StumbleUpon

How to cite this article: Rickard, J (3 June 2008), French siege of Cadiz, 5 February 1810-24 August 1812 , http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/siege_cadiz.html

Help - F.A.Q. - Contact Us - Search - Recent - About Us -  Subscribe in a reader - Join our Google Group - Cookies