General Francisco Ballesteros was a Spanish general during the Peninsular War, whose career began inauspiciously in northern Spain, but who became a very successful commander of small forces in the south of Spain in 1811-1812. Ballesteros first came to prominence during the French invasion of the Asturias in the spring of 1809. At this time he was the commander of a division based in the east of the province, but during 1808 the Asturian Junta had concentrated almost entirely on defending their own borders and had made little contribution to the wider fighting. They retained that attitude even after the neighbouring areas of Galicia and Old Castile fell to the French, much to the irritation of General La Romana, commander of the Army of Galicia. In the spring of 1809 he dismissed the Junta and attempted to impose military rule. This was a short-lived intervention, for in May the French began a three pronged assault on the Asturias. La Romana summoned Ballesteros west to help in the defence of Oviedo, but before he could arrive the French brushed aside La Romana’s small forces and captured the place.
On hearing this, Ballesteros decided to head east instead, liberating Santander. He was free to do this because General Bonnet, the French commander at Santander, had been called west to take part in the attack on the Asturias. With the campaign in the Asturias over, Bonnet was free to return to Santander. There he united his force with the former garrison, and pushed the Spanish back out of the city. Ballesteros’ force suffered 3,000 casualties, and he had to escape by sea. The French triumph on the north coast was short lived, and by the end of June they had evacuated their troops from both Galicia and the Asturias.
This freed up the Spanish armies in the north to take part in the ambitious Spanish campaign during the summer of 1809. The Central Junta decided to make a three pronged assault on Madrid. La Romana was replaced by General Del Parque, who was appointed to command a new “Army of the Left”. Between them Galicia and the Asturias were able to raise 50,000 men for this new army. A second major army was formed to the south, under General Areizaga (the Army of La Mancha), while a third smaller army under the Duke of Albuquerque took shape around Talavera. The plan was for Del Parque to threaten Madrid from the north west, pulling away the French reserves. At the same time Albuquerque would pin down as many French troops as possible around Talavera. This would allow Areizaga to attack Madrid from the south.
At first the plan met with success. Del Parque, at the head of just over 20,000 men won a morale boosting victory at Tamames on 18 October 1809. He was then reinforced by Ballesteros, bringing the combined force up to nearly 30,000 men, and on 25 October the combined army entered Salamanca in triumph. When new French troops under Kellerman arrived in the area, Del Parque led the combined army south. Kellerman was unable to give chase, for his own province of Leon had risen in rebellion the moment he left. At this point Areizage appeared close to Ocaña, south of Madrid. For a moment it looked as if the Spanish plan might succeed, but then Areizage delayed, allowing the French to concentrate against him and inflict a crushing defeat on his army at Ocaña on 19 November. Nine days later, at Alba de Tormes (28 November 1809) Del Parque (and Ballesteros) were also defeated, and forced to retreat back into the mountains between Ciudad Rodrigo and Plasencia, close to the border with Portugal. He would spend most of the rest of the war fighting in the south of Spain.
In the spring of 1810 Ballesteros was sent south from Estremadura to invade the Condado de Niebla, with orders to raise a revolt and if possible threaten Seville. His expedition began successfully, with a victory over Mortier’s cavalry brigade at Valverde (19 February). He then advanced east to Ronquillo, only twenty miles north of Seville, where he fought an inconclusive battle against Gazan’s infantry brigade (25-26 March). This threat had provoked Mortier into responding in person, and on 15 April he had defeated Ballesteros at Zalamea. Ballesteros then retreated north into the mountains, where he was again defeated at Araçena on 26 May 1810.
Ballesteros emerged from the mountains again in the spring of 1811, and heading south towards Seville. The main French army in the area, under Marshal Victor, was engaged around Cadiz, and so the city was temporarily vulnerable. Ballesteros’ attack forced Marshal Soult to move east from Badajoz to deal with the new threat. On hearing that Soult was in the area, Ballesteros retreated back into the mountains. His next move was to Badajoz, where he joined the British army under General Beresford at the start of the first British siege of Badajoz. He was present at the battle of Albuera, 16 May 1811, a hard-fought Allied victory that prevented Marshal Soult from lifting the siege.
After the end of this first siege, Ballesteros moved to Cadiz. He was then shipped further east, to Algeciras. From there he carried out a series of raids, seeking safety at Tarifa or Gibraltar if threatened by larger French forces. This eventually provoked Soult into sending General Leval to attack Tarifa, in the hope that it would make it easier to catch Ballesteros. The French reached Tarifa on 20 December 1811, and began what looked like an easy siege. The town had no modern fortifications, and only a small garrison. The French guns soon battered large gaps in the medieval walls, and the commander of the British part of the garrison suggested an evacuation. However, while the French were bombarding Tarifa, Ballesteros and the local guerrillas were harassing Leval’s supply lines. The winter weather played its part – a series of torrential downpours drenched the French trenches, and contributed to the failure of their one assault. On 4 January 1812 the French abandoned the siege.
Ballesteros continued to be a thorn in Soult’s side. During the successful third British siege of Badajoz (16 March-7 April 1812), his forces kept up their attacks on Soult’s supply lines, playing a part in preventing him from intervening at Badajoz. He continued to carry out this role over the summer of 1812, helping to pin Soult down while Wellington moved to Salamanca. From his base at Gibraltar Ballesteros attacked Bornos (where he suffered a minor defeat in June), and raided Malaga. This second raid nearly ended in disaster – French columns under Leval and Villatte prevented him from returning to Gibraltar, and he was forced to move inland to Osuna before making his escape.
Ballesteros’ military career came to a sudden dramatic end. On 2 October 1812 Wellington was appointed commander-in-chief of the Spanish armies. Ballesteros saw this as an insult to the Spanish army and Spanish generals, and refused to obey any of Wellington’s orders – indeed he may have come close to attempting to seize power himself. The Cortes was forced to arrest him, and place General Del Parque in command of his forces. Ballesteros was imprisoned in Spanish North Africa.