The passage of the Ponte Nova of 15/16 May 1809 was one of the most daring exploits during Marshal Soult’s retreat from Oporto of May 1809. In the aftermath of Sir Arthur Wellesley’s victory at Oporto on 12 May, Soult had been forced to retreat across the mountains towards safety in Galicia. By 15 May he had reached the road between Braga and Chaves, and was heading east hoping to escape into Spain via Chaves, or if that route was blocked then by the side road to Montalegre.
To reach either of those places, Soult’s army had to cross the Ponte Nova (New Bridge) just to the east of Salamonde. This took the road across the deep ravine of the Cavado River, and was the only possible route through the mountains. Soult knew that he did not have any time to spare, for the British had reached Braga on the morning of 15 May, and their cavalry was pressing his rearguard. If he could not cross the Ponte Nova on 16 May, then his entire army would be forced to surrender.
When Soult’s advance guard reached the Ponte Nova they made an alarming discovery. The bridge was made up of two beams that crossed the ravine, each three or four feet wide, which supported a wooden roadway and the balustrades. The local Ordenanza (the Portuguese levy) had removed that roadway and the balustrades, leaving only the two long narrow beams. They had then blockaded the far end of the bridge.
Soult decided to send a forlorn hope across the beams. He sent for Major Dulong of the 31st Léger, the officer reputed to be the bravest man in the army, and ordered him to lead that attack. He was to find 100 volunteers, and at midnight on the night of 15/16 May lead them across the narrow beams. The weather was appalling – it had been raining for days, so the beams were wet and slippery, and there was a fierce north wind blowing. If the far end of the bridge had been guarded by regular troops, then this would have been a suicide mission.
At midnight Dulong led his forlorn hope across the beams, in two single files. The dreaded fire from the far bank never came, for the poor weather had driven the Ordenanza back into their huts, and no guards had been left at the bridge. Dulong’s men attacked the sleeping Ordenanza in their huts, and forced them to flee. The only French casualty came when one of the volunteers slipped and fell off the beam.
With the bridge in their hands, the French quickly build a new roadway between the beams, using any materials that came to hand. After six hours a rough bridge was in place, although without balustrades, and the army began to make its way across the new Ponte Nova.
This would take all day. Soult decided to post a rearguard in the narrow section of the valley at Salamonde, leaving behind one brigade from Merle’s division and two regiments of Franceschi’s cavalry. The first British troops, light dragoons, found the French rearguard at 1.30 pm, but did not have the strength to attack them. That attack would not be made until the following day (Combat of Salamonde), and would end with the French rearguard fleeing across their impromptu bridge, while on the same day Dulong would be forced to repeat his daring exploits at the Misarella.
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