The combat of Chaves (10-11 March 1809) was an early French victory during Marshal Soult’s invasion of Portugal of March 1809. After an unexpectedly lengthy crossing of Galicia, Soult finally crossed the Portuguese border between Monterey and Chaves on 10 March 1809 at the head of an army 22,000 strong.
His first target inside Portugal was the town of Chaves in the Tamega Valley. This town was defended by General Francisco Silveira, the military governor of the province of Tras-os-Montes. He had a very mixed force, made up of two weak regiments of regular infantry, four battalions on newly recruited militia and thousands of badly armed Ordenanza (the entire population under arms). This gave him a total of around 12,000 men, of whom only half had any firearms. Silveira was well aware that this force could offer little or not resistance to the French unless they could find a good defensive position, but he was also aware that the Ordenanza had developed an alarming habit of murdering officers they did not believe to be enthusiastic enough. Silveira had found a suitable defensive position, on the heights of San Pedro, just over three miles south of Chaves, but he decided not to risk ordering his men south onto the heights until the French were actually approaching Chaves.
That moment came on 10 March. On that morning Soult left Monterey, over the border in Spain, and began his march down the Tamega, sending troops down both banks. When Silveira learnt that the French were approaching, he ordered his men to move south to the heights of San Pedro. True to form the local Ordenanza refused to retreat, and threatened to shoot Silveira as a traitor. He was able to maintain control over most of his troops, but 3,000 of them, led by the local militia and Ordenanza refused to obey his orders, and attempted to defend the town.
Chaves was almost indefensible. Although it was surrounded by walls, they had been breached during a Spanish attack in 1762 and not repaired. Fifty guns were mounted on the walls, but most of them were unusable. As Soult’s men approached the town they came under a heavy but inaccurate fire. Soult summoned them to surrender, but was refused, and surrounded the town. During the night the mob inside kept up a wasteful and pointless bombardment of the French positions, using up most of their ammunition.
On the morning of 11 March Soult decided to attack Silveira’s men on the heights of San Pedro, in the belief that their defeat would also end resistance in the town. Delaborde’s and Lahoussaye’s division made the attack, and quickly forced Silveira off the heights – he was well aware that his tiny force could not stand against the French, and retreated south west down the valley towards Villa Real with 6,000-7,000 men. Just as Soult had expected, when he summoned the town to surrender for a second time, the garrison had lost all of its enthusiasm, and immediately capitulated. Most of the 4,000 prisoners captured in the town were released on parole, having agreed not to fight the French again, while the 500 regulars were given the choice of going into captivity or joining the French. Most chose to join the French, but then deserted at the first possible opportunity.
The surrender of Chaves left Soult free to continue the march on Oporto. He ignored the obvious route down the Tamega Valley in favour of a less obvious but actually rather better route across the mountains into the Cavado Valley, and towards Braga.
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