Siege of Chaves, 20-25 March 1809

The siege of Chaves of 20-25 March 1809 saw the Portuguese recapture this border town only two weeks after it had fallen to the French. The town had been the headquarters of General Francisco Silveira, the military governor of the province of Tras-os-Montes early in Marshal Soult’s invasion of Portugal of March 1809.

Marshal Soult
Portrait of Marshal
Jean-de-Dieu Soult

Silveira’s plans for the defence of the border had depended on cooperation with the Spanish army of General La Romana, but as Soult had approached, La Romana had changed his mind, and escaped to the east. Silveira had attempted to defend a position just south of Chaves, but part of his army had refused to obey him, and had attempted to defend Chaves (10-11 March 1809). Soult was easily able to drive Silveira away, and the previously enthusiastic defenders of Chaves surrendered.

As was so often the case in the Peninsular War Soult overestimated the impact of his victory on Silveira’s army, believing it no longer posed a threat. He decided to march west across the mountains into the Cavado valley, where there was a better road to Oporto. Chaves became his main base of operations, but Soult could not afford to leave a strong garrison in the town. When he marched west, he left one company of French infantry, 1,325 of his wounded and sick, and 500 men in a Portuguese legion. These last men were regular Portuguese troops who had been captured at the fall of Chaves, and given the choice between going into captivity or joining the French, and had chosen to join the French. The entire garrison was under the command of chef de bataillon Messager.

Marshal Soult's invasion of Portugal, March 1809
Marshal Soult's invasion of Portugal, March 1809

On 20 March Silveira appeared outside Chaves at the head of 6,000 men. By now the French only had 1,200 men in the town, 400 fit French infantry, 500 Portuguese legionaries and 300 remaining sick and wounded, the rest having moved west to Soult’s next base of operations. When Silveira appeared, Messager was forced to retreat into the town’s citadel, abandoning the outer walls and a number of his guns. Silveira took possession of these guns, and began a rather ineffective bombardment of the citadel (the guns of Chaves had been of very poor quality before the French captured the town). Messager was in an increasingly weak position inside the citadel, for his Portuguese troops made it clear that they would soon open the gates and left Silveira in. After five days, Messager surrendered.

Silveira’s victory at Chaves demonstrated one of the dangers faced by every French general during the Peninsular War. If they wanted to retain any of the places they had captured, then they needed to leave strong garrisons behind, but if they wanted to continue to move forwards, then they could not afford to leave strong garrisons behind. Every time a weak garrison was overwhelmed, local morale was raised. In the aftermath of his victory at Chaves, Silveira’s army grew just under 10,000 men. He moved south to Amarante, lower down the Tamega, where from 7 April until 2 May he would pin down an increasingly large part of Soult’s army.

 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 (12 March 2008), Siege of Chaves, 20-25 March 1809 ,

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