Second Siege of Saragossa, 20 December 1808-20 February 1809

The Defences
The Delay
The Siege: Phase one – 20 December-15 January – the outworks
The Siege: Phase two – 16-27 January – attacking the walls
The Siege: Phase three – 28 January-20 February – the street fighting
Aftermath and Conclusion

The second siege of Saragossa was an epic struggle that encouraged Spanish resistance to the French throughout the Peninsular War. The city had already successfully resisted a first siege between 15 June and 13 August 1808, one of the first occasions on which a regular army was defeated by irregular troops in street fighting. A series of other defeats, most notably at Baylen, had forced the French to withdraw behind the line of the Ebro, abandoning all but the north eastern corner of Spain and a small area around Barcelona, but these Spanish successes had drawn Napoleon to Spain, and at the start of the November he had launched his only campaign in Spain. Three weeks later the Spanish armies on the Ebro had been defeated at the battle of Tudela (23 November 1808), and a second siege of Saragossa became inevitable.

The Defences

Second Siege of Saragossa
Saragossa during the Second Siege

The second siege was very different in character from the first. In the summer of 1808 the city had been virtually un-fortified, protected only by medieval walls that crumbled under the French bombardment. The garrison consisted of 300 regular cavalry, a small number of gunners and a mass of enthusiastic but inexperienced volunteers. Most of the fighting had taken place on the barricades in the winding streets of Saragossa, where the French attacks had suffered such heavy casualties that they had been forced to abandon the siege.

This time the city was much better prepared. For some time after the end of the first siege, the inhabitants had not believed that the French would return, but as the long-awaited Spanish offensive on the Ebro failed to materialise, their attitude slowly changed.

In September 1808 Colonel San Genis began work on a series of modern fortifications. He had three areas to protect – the city of Saragossa itself on the south bank on the Ebro, the suburb of San Lazaro on the north bank and the hill of Monte Torrero, south of the city on the far side of the River Huerba. This hill overlooked the entire city, and had been the site of the main French gun batteries during the first siege.

The city itself needed defending on its western and southern sides. To the south the city was partly protected by the line of the Huerba. San Genis used this river to provide a moat for the city, with two redoubts on the south side of the river – the redoubt of “Our lady of the Pillar” at the south west corner and the San José convent at the south east corner. These redoubts were overlooked by the city wall, so their capture by the French would not be too serious, while they would prevent any attack on the southern wall while they were in Spanish hands.

To the west a new solid rampart had been build a good way outside the original city walls. The Augustinian and Trinitarian convents that had been build outside the original walls were built into this rampart, which was also give a central gun battery and was protected by a forty-five foot deep ditch.

San Lazaro had also been fortified with a rampart, protected by watercourses, with the two convents on the north bank of the Ebro turned into fortresses.

Finally, San Genis had planned to build an entrenched military camp on the Monte Torrero, fully integrated into the main defences of the city and protected by lines of trenches and bastions, using the Canal of Aragon as a moat.

Work on the defences began slowly. Only in November did serious work begin on the new fortifications, but even then work was slow. After all there were large Spanish armies just upstream on the Ebro, and the French had been quiet ever since they had been forced back to that river.

That all changed after the battle of Tudela of 23 November 1808. It now became clear that the French could attack at any moment, and suddenly San Genis had 60,000 volunteers at his disposal. Even this may not have been enough if the French had attacked at the end of November, but as we shall see Napoleon drew too many troops away from Saragossa, and the siege did not start until late December. During that crucial month the defences of the city and of San Lazaro were completed. Only the outlying works on Monte Torrero were not built, and instead San Genis had to be content with building one central redoubt and two smaller works to protect the bridges over the Canal of Aragon.

Behind these walls the city was turned into a single solid fortress. Loopholes were cut into every suitable building, while doors were cut between adjacent buildings to allow the Spanish defenders to move around without using the streets. Ground floor windows were bricked up, and preparations were made to block doors.  Even if the French could break through the walls, they would be little closer to victory.

The city would also have a much stronger garrison than during the first siege. Joseph Palafox, the captain-general of Aragon, and victor of the first siege, had missed the battle of Tudela, having returned to Saragossa to organise a new reserve division. This meant that around 10,000-12,000 new recruits were in Saragossa on the day of the battle. Over the next few days as many as 17,000 survivors of the battle reached the city. By the time the French began the regular siege, Palafox had 32,000 infantry, 2,000 cavalry and around 10,000 armed volunteers at his disposal.

Palafox had also made sure that the city would not run short of supplies. By the time the siege began he had enough food to feed his army for three months, while the townspeople had also built up private stocks. Food would not be a problem during the siege. Neither would guns or ammunition – gunpowder was manufactured in the city throughout the siege, while a shipment of British muskets arrived by boat just before the siege began. Palafox’s only mistake was to allow his entire army to be trapped within the city when the siege began.

The Delay

Nearly a month passed between the battle of Tudela on 23 November and the start of the siege on 20 December. This invaluable month allowed the Spanish to build most of the fortifications around the city, gather in supplies and restore the morale of the army defeated at Tudela. Without it, the siege would probably have been much shorter.

Portrait of Marshal Michel Ney (1769-1815)
Portrait of
Marshal Michel Ney

In the aftermath of the battle two French corps had been available to attack Saragossa – the 3rd Corps under Marshal Moncey and the 6th Corps under Marshal Ney. On 28 November the two marshals had left finally moved from Tudela, and reached Saragossa on 30 November. They were about to begin a siege when Napoleon called Ney away. Part of the army defeated at Tudela, under the command of General Castaños, was heading towards Madrid, and Napoleon did not want it to interfere with his movements towards the Spanish capital, so Ney was ordered to take the 6th Corps across the mountains into New Castile.

This left Moncey with three divisions – a total of 15,000 men – far too small a force to risk besieging Saragossa. Reinforcements were on the way, in the shape of Marshal Mortier and the 5th Corps, and so Moncey retreated to Tudela to await the arrival of Mortier. These troops were coming from Germany, and did not arrive at Tudela until 15 December. Moncey now had 38,000 infantry, 3,500 cavalry, 3,000 engineers and sixty siege guns with which to attack Saragossa.

The Siege: Phase one – 20 December-15 January – the outworks

The French were now finally ready to begin the siege. On 20 December they arrived outside Saragossa. Moncey split his forces into three. One division, under General Gazan, was sent to attack the northern suburb. Mortier’s corps was posted to the west of the city facing the land walls. Finally Moncey’s corps moved to the south to attack the Monte Torrero.

Their first aim was to capture the weak Spanish outworks on the Monte Torrero. On the morning of 21 December three French gun batteries began a bombardment of these positions, and then twenty battalions of infantry attacked and drove the Spanish troops out of their positions. Just as in the first siege, the main French gun batteries would be built on the Monte Torrero, and it would be the southern wall that would eventually be breached by the French.

A second attack, launched later on the same day by Gazan against the suburb of San Lazaro ended in failure after the French failed to recognise how strong the defences of that part of the city actually were.

On the following morning Moncey sent in a formal demand for the surrender of the city, which was promptly refused. Moncey then decided to concentrate his efforts against the southern side of the city. Two main lines of attack were chosen, one against the Pillar Redoubt and one against the convent of San José. A third attacking position was built opposite the castle of Aljafferia at the north western corner of the city, but Moncey had no intention of actually pressing this attack home.

On 29 December Moncey was recalled to Madrid, and replaced in command of 3rd Corps by Marshal Junot. In theory this left Mortier in charge as the senior officer, but the two men are said to have worked as a partnership, until Mortier was recalled himself on 2 January 1809.

The French siege works were finally ready on 10 January, and on that day they began to bombard both the Pillar Redoubt and San José. By the end of the first day the walls of San José were close to collapse. Palafox responded by launching a sortie against the French guns at 1 am on 11 January, but this failed, and later in the day when the French attacked they found the Spanish garrison was already in the process of retreating back into Saragossa. The French took 50 prisoners in San José, and were soon able to link the position into their siege works.

Junot’s next target was the Pillar redoubt. The French were able to move their siege works ever closer to the redoubt, until on the night of 15-16 January a Polish regiment, the 1st Regiment of the Vistula, stormed the redoubt, only to find that the Spanish had retreated just before the assault, destroying the bridge across the Huerba behind them.

The Siege: Phase two – 16-27 January – attacking the walls

This ended the first phase of the siege. The main Spanish outworks were now in French hands, and Junot was free to concentrate on breaching the walls of the city. Since 12 January the French had been building a third parallel, from the San José redoubt, and on 17 January they began a bombardment of the city walls. It was soon clear that the walls would fall and the street fighting begin, and so Palafox began to prepare the southern end of the city for this, blocking up doors, preparing barricades and turning the entire area into a maze of small forts.

This period also saw another change of command on the French side, when Junot was superseded by Marshal Lannes, the victor of Tudela. He had needed two months to recover from an earlier injury, but was now fit. His first concern was to secure his rear. Sickness was now beginning to play a major part in the siege, on both sides of the lines. The French now only had 20,000 fit infantry outside Saragossa, and a number of Spanish forces were said to be taking shape close to the city, including one under Palafox’s younger brother Francisco and another under his older brother, the Marquis of Lazan.

Portrait of Marshal Jean Lannes, 10 April 1769-1809
Portrait of
Marshal Jean Lannes,
10 April 1769-1809

Lannes decided to recall Mortier’s division, which had been detached at the start of January to protect the lines of communication between Madrid and Saragossa. Only when this division was in place to protect his rear, was Lannes ready to attack. His concerns were entirely justified – on 26 January Mortier’s men defeated a force of 4,000-5,000 peasant militia at Alcañiz, and if any Spanish relief army had been available, the three weeks of street fighting which were to follow the storm of the walls would have left the French very vulnerable to an attack.

The French assault began on 24 January, when they captured three beachheads on the northern bank of the Huerba, in the narrow gap between the city walls and the river. The main assault came on 27 January, by which time there were three breaches in the walls. Lannes attacked all three of these breaches, and made breakthroughs at two of them, capturing the Palafox battery at the south eastern corner of the city and the convent of Santa Engracia to the south west. By the end of the day the French had captured a quarter of a mile of the walls around the convent, and any normal siege would have been at an end.

The Siege: Phase three – 28 January-20 February – the street fighting

This was not a normal siege. Palafox and the defenders of Saragossa had been preparing for the street fighting since the start of the siege, and the southern part of the city was now a maze of fortified buildings. What the Spanish had not predicted was that Lannes had learnt from Verdier’s mistakes during the first siege. Rather than launch a series of costly frontal assaults on the defended streets, Lannes decided to treat each block of fortified buildings as a conventional fortress and conduct a formal siege. This approach would be slow, but it would also reduce the level of casualties on the French side.

This was the most terrible phase of the siege. By February illness was beginning to destroy the garrison and population of Saragossa – on 4 February only 8,495 healthy men remained of the 32,000 strong garrison that had begun the siege, with 10,000 dead and 13,737 sick or wounded. None of this was visible to the French, who could only see an apparently never ending battle in the city streets. It could take several days to capture a single block of buildings, especially after the Spanish began to set the ruined buildings on fire. Morale on the French side was increasingly poor, and the memory of this phase of the siege would remain with the French armies for the rest of the Peninsular War.

Frustrated by the slow rate of progress, Lannes ordered the troops north of the river to launch a second attack on San Lazaro, and on 18 February the French captured the suburb. The northern part of Saragossa was now exposed to French artillery.

By now the stubborn Spanish resistance was finally failing. Palafox himself was seriously ill, and believed himself to be dying. The last grain mills had been captured, and on 19 February the French made more progress than on any other day of the siege. On the same day Palafox admitted that further resistance was pointless. He send his aide-de-camp to Lannes to discuss terms, then resigned both the military and civil commands of Saragossa – the first to General St. March and the second to a 33 strong junta of local notables.

Palafox’s first offer of surrender was rejected, for one of his terms was that the survivors of the garrison would be allowed to join the nearest the French army. Fighting briefly resumed on 20 February, but the Junta soon made attempt to negotiate an end to the fighting, and that evening they agreed to the French terms.

Aftermath and Conclusion

One of Lannes’s terms was that the garrison should march out of the city, stack their arms 100 yards outside the Portillo gate, and then chose between going into captivity or joining King Joseph. Of the 32,000 men who had been in the garrison at the start of the siege, only 8,000 survived to go into captivity.

Lannes’s terms were surprisingly generous – private property was to be respected and a general amnesty was issued to the city. A certain amount of looting was carried out, but what was left of the city avoided a sack.

The population of Saragossa had suffered terribly during the siege. The municipal officers estimated that 54,000 people had died during the siege, 20,000 soldiers and 34,000 civilians. After the siege Lannes estimated that the population of Saragossa had fallen from 55,500 to 15,000.

The French also suffered terribly during the siege, losing around 10,000 men, 4,000 of them in battle and the rest to illness. Their victory had been greatly delayed by Palafox and bravery of the citizens of Saragossa, although it may have been made possible by Palafox’s decision to concentrate his entire army inside the city and not leave a strong force outside to harass the French, who were very vulnerable for most of the siege. Palafox himself was very harshly treated by Napoleon, who refused to see him as a prisoner of war and instead imprisoned him as a traitor against King Joseph and held him in close captivity at Vincennes.


 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.
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 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 (6 March 2008), Second Siege of Saragossa, 20 December 1808-20 February 1809 ,

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