The siege of Saguntum of 23 September-26 October 1811 was a French victory during their invasion of Valencia, but one that slowed down their campaign and ended any chance of the expected easy victory. By the summer of 1811 Valencia was the only major province in eastern Spain not in French hands, and after the fall of Tarragona and Figueras Napoleon believed that Valencia would fall easily if the French moved quickly enough. Accordingly on 25 August Berthier ordered General Suchet, the French commander in Aragon and western Catalonia, to begin the invasion.
Saguntum had been one of the most important towns in Ancient and Moorish Spain, but during the middle ages the city had declined. The ancient citadel, on a rocky hill south of the Palancia River, had been abandoned. Murviedro, a small town of 6,000 inhabitants, was all that survived, on the low ground between the citadel and the river. In 1811 the place had just been renamed San Fernando de Sagunto, and is currently known as Sagunto. In March 1810 during General Suchet’s previous attempt to surprise Valencia, he had visited Saguntum and found the citadel unfortified, but in the year that followed a great deal of work had been done to re-fortify the place.
The citadel was a naturally strong defensive position, protected by cliffs in many places. Enough remained of the Iberian and Moorish walls for the Spanish to be able to construct a new line of defences, although it was not yet complete by the time Suchet arrived. The resulting defences were not much use against siege artillery, but the French had left their siege train at Tortosa, in the belief that they could capture Valencia easily if they moved quickly enough. The Spanish had built a wall around the long narrow hilltop, and divided it into four sections with cross-walls. At the western end of the hill, facing the easiest slope, they had built a new gun battery, and named it Dos de Mayo in memory of the Madrid uprising of 1808. On the highest point of the hill was the main tower, named San Fernando. Finally, at the eastern end of the hill were two batteries named Menacho and Doyle. The citadel was defended by a garrison 2,663 strong, under General Andriani.
Suchet began his advance on 15 September, leaving his siege train behind. On 23 September the French army, 26,000 strong, arrived at Saguntum. Suchet decided that he could not risk attacking Valencia until he had taken Saguntum, and so lacking a siege train prepared to make an assault on the citadel. The first assault came on the night of 27-28 September. The French had noticed a couple of gaps in the northern walls, where the Spanish had not yet replaced an early wooden wall with stonework. Two columns, each 300 strong, were selected to make the first assault, with another 300 men hidden in Murviedro. Elsewhere six companies of Italian troops were ordered to make a noisy demonstration in an attempt to distract the defenders.
The two storming columns reached a large Roman cistern 120 yards from the weak points in the wall without being detected, but then the French pickets opened fire, possibly because they had been discovered by a Spanish patrol. The storming columns heard this firing, and believing that they had been discovered themselves opened fire and launched their attack. Despite this the French came close to success. The storming parties reached the walls, and small contingents even managed to reach the top of the walls on a number of occasions, but never in enough strength to maintain their positions. The French sent in their reserve, bringing the total number of men involved in the attack up to 900, but without success. Finally just before daylight Suchet called off the attack. The French had suffered 247 casualties during the attack, while despite the ferocity of the fighting the Spanish had only lost 15 dead and 30 wounded.
His first assault having failed, Suchet decided to bring up his siege train. While the artillery guns were on their way, all the French could do was blockade the citadel, and wait. The attempt to capture Valencia with a rapid advance had failed. The siege train itself made good progress. Oropesa was taken on 10-11 October, and the first guns reached Saguntum on 12 October. The French had not entirely wasted the last three weeks, for by the time the guns arrived the batteries were already ready for them. Their job had been made easier by the near total lack of heavy guns inside Saguntum, which had made it much harder for the Spanish to interfere in the construction work. On 16 October the French guns were finally in place, and the bombardment began.
The French guns created a breach in the south western corner of the walls by the afternoon of 18 October, and that evening Suchet ordered a second assault on the town. This assault made less progress than the first, for the French engineers had misjudged the situation. The breach was made up of large blocks of stones, each of which offered something of an obstacle. The French never came close to the top of the breach, and suffered 300 casualties before the attack was cancelled.
The slow progress of the siege presented General Joachim Blake, the command of the Spanish army of Valencia, with a serious problem. He had not intended to relieve the siege, believing that his army was not capable of meeting the French in the field, but as time dragged by this attitude made him increasingly unpopular, and by mid-October he had decided to make an attempt to defeat Suchet in open battle. On 25 October 1811 the two armies met in the battle of Saguntum, and just as Blake must have expected, the French won. Blake’s army lost 1,000 killed and wounded, and the French took 4,641 prisoners.
On the following day Suchet issued a summons to surrender to the governor of Saguntum, and having watched the defeat of Blake’s relief army from the walls of the citadel, Andriani surrendered. The French took another 2,300 prisoners at Saguntum, and were finally free to march against Valencia.