The battle of Ciudad Real of 26-27 March 1809 was a bloodless French victory over a Spanish army that had attempted to force the French out of La Mancha. After the disasters in the autumn of 1808, the most important area still under Spanish control was Andalusia. Napoleon had decided to leave the area alone until his armies had completed the re-conquest of Portugal, and so the Spanish had been given time to reorganise their shattered armies. One of these armies, the Army of the Centre under General Cartaojal, was guarding the mountain passes between Andalusia and La Mancha.
The only French forces left in La Mancha itself were in a cavalry screen, located on the road north to Madrid, with their headquarters half way between Cartaojal’s position and the Spanish capital. Unknown to the Spanish two infantry divisions were posted just behind them, just outside La Mancha at Toledo and Ocaña. Marshal Victor, who Cartaojal had originally expected to be facing, was known to have moved to Talavera, west of Toledo, with orders to support the invasion of Portugal.
Believing that he was only facing cavalry, Cartaojal decided to launch an invasion of La Mancha, partly to force the French to abandon their campaign in the west and partly in the hope of threatening the French at Madrid. At this point he had 19,500 infantry and 2,250 cavalry, a strong enough force to deal with three brigades of French cavalry, but wowfully inadequate if they were reinforced by the two divisions of infantry.
Cartaojal’s first move was to send half of his force (10,000 infantry and 2,000 cavalry) under the Duke of Albuquerque to attack the French cavalry outposts. Albuquerque came close to success at Mora on 18 February, but just failed to trap Digeon’s brigade of cavalry. Digeon was then joined by one division of infantry and two more cavalry brigades, and Albuquerque was forced to retreat back to Manzanares, south of the Guadiana River.
There he met Cartaojal, who had crossed the mountains with the rest of his army. The two commanders argued about what course to take next. Albuquerque wanted to take the entire army towards Toledo, while Cartaojal was in favour of sending a single division of infantry. By now neither plan had any real chance of success, for the French were gathering in some strength around Toledo. Cartaojal’s position was further weakened when he was ordered to send reinforcements to General Guesta’s Army of Estremadura. Cartaojal used this chance to get rid of Albuquerque, sending him to Cuesta at the head of 4,500 infantry and 265 cavalry. This left Cartaojal with 14,000 infantry and 2,000 cavalry. Of that force 4,000 infantry were posted at the foot of the mountain passes, leaving Cartaojal with only 10,000 infantry.
After remaining inactive at Ciudad Real for three weeks, in late March Cartaojal made a sudden reckless dash towards Toledo. On 24 March he reached Yébenes, only twenty miles from Toledo, but was then forced to retreat when strong French reinforcements began to arrive. Cartaojal retreated to Ciudad Real, where he took up a very weak position on the plains between the town and the Guadiana.
By now he was facing a French force 13,000 strong under General Sebastiani, who decided to attack the weak Spanish position. On 26 March French dragoons captured a bridge across the Guadiana at Peralvillo, north of Ciudad Real. Cartaojal was able to drive then back off the south bank, but not to recapture the bridge. The next morning (27 March), Sebastiani sent his infantry across the bridge. This threatened to outflank the Spanish right wing, and Cartaojal responded by ordering an instant retreat, sending his cavalry to cover the retreating infantry.
Sebastiani’s cavalry soon broke through the Spanish cover, and began to chase the Spanish infantry across the plains. By the time a heavy rainstorm ended the pursuit on the following morning the French had reached as far as Santa Cruz de Mudela, thirty miles south east of Ciudad Real. Despite this long pursuit across an open plain the French only took 2,000 prisoners, for the Spanish infantry had broken up into several columns, each of which was willing to disperse if threatened. When Cartaojal’s army came back together on the far side of the mountains, he still had 12,000 infantry and 2,000 cavalry. Neither side suffered any significant casualties during the short battle.
In the aftermath of the battle Cartaojal was removed from command and replaced by General Venegas. Sebastiani missed what may have been a good chance to invade Andalusia while the Army of the Centre was still shaken by the rout at Ciudad Real, for he only had orders to clear the Spanish out of La Mancha. The French would not return to Andalusia for close to a year, finally crossing the mountains in January 1810.