The siege of Tortosa of 16 December 1810-2 January 1811 was the first of three successful French attacks on Spanish-held cities that briefly appeared to give the French control of eastern Spain. Tortosa was militarily important for its position on the road between Catalonia and Valencia, two of the areas with the most active Spanish armies by the end of 1810. The cities of Tarragona and Valencia were both in Spanish hands, and were both important targets for the French. Tortosa would be a useful base for the attacks on those two cities, and the French also hoped to cut communications between the Spanish armies of Catalonia and Valencia. This second idea would prove to be false, for the easiest way for Spanish armies to move around eastern Spain was by sea.
The task of capturing Tortosa was given to General Suchet, commander of the French Army of Aragon. He was to be supported by Marshal MacDonald and the French Army of Catalonia. MacDonald’s task was to prevent the Spanish army of Catalonia from interfering in the siege, and he did this by moving 15,000 men to Mora, twenty five miles upstream of Tortosa on the Ebro. Suchet had the task of preventing the weaker Spanish army of Valencia from interfering, which he did by posting General Musnier’s division at Uldecona, twenty miles south of Tortosa on the road to Valencia.
Preparations for the siege had been underway since August 1810, when Suchet had begun to gather his magazines and supplies for the siege. His first base was the town of Mequinenza, captured in June 1810, from where the supplies were shipped down the Ebro to Xerta, within ten miles of Tortosa. By the time the siege started Suchet had 52 heavy guns, 30,000 rounds of ammunition for them and 90,000lb of powder in his magazines at Xerta.
Tortosa was defended by a garrison 7,179 strong (including 600 artillerymen). The city was built on the east bank of the Ebro, at the foot of four hills, with the lower town on the valley bottom and the upper town on the lower slopes of the hills. The city was surrounded by its medieval walls, with the citadel their northern end. After a siege of 1708 during the War of the Spanish Succession four outworks had been added on the hills above the town, the most important of which in 1810 would be Fort Orleans, at the south east corner of the city, while the southern wall had been strengthened by the addition of two bastions – San Juan and San Pedro, connected by the demi-lune El Temple. The garrison was commanded by Major General Lilli, Conde de Alacha. He had been promoted after conducting a skilful retreat earlier in the war, but his limited resolve soon crumbled during the siege. For days on end he handed command over to his second in command, Brigadier-General Yriarte, but then would re-emerge to take control, and would eventually surrender the city against the wishes of a council of war he had called.
Suchet arrived outside Tortosa on 16 December. He decided to attack the southern wall of the town, where the soft soil would make it easier to built siege works. This area would also prove to out of sight from Fort Orleans, allowing the French to work virtually unhindered. Suchet’s main targets were the bastion of San Pedro, closest to the river, and the demi-line El Temple, while a false attack would be made against Fort Orleans to prevent its guns from interfering with the siege works.
Preparations for the false attack took place between 16-18 December, and work on the trenches began on 19 December. Work on the main siege works began on the night of 20-21 December. Under the cover of darkness 2,300 French soldiers threw up a basic entrenchment only 160 yards from the San Pedro. The Spanish only realised what had happened on the next morning. On 21 December they attempted to destroy the French trenches by bombardment, and with a sortie, but both efforts failed. The French engineers were able to make very rapid progress, and by 25 December their trenches had reached the glacis of San Pedro.
At this point Yriarte was in charge of the defence, and he responded by launching two sorties, one of which captured and destroyed the most advanced French works. This success only delayed the French by one day. On the night of 28-29 December they repaired the damage, and on 29 December they opened fire with 45 heavy guns in ten batteries. The nearest Spanish guns were soon silenced, and on the night of 29-30 December the French were able to open their third parallel, on the brink of the ditch, and only 25 yards from the wall. Suchet used this advanced position to begin firing mortar shells into the city.
On 31 December the French engineers were working in relative safely in the ditch, placing mines under the walls of the bastion. That night a new battery was built in the third parallel, containing four 24-pounder guns. On the morning of 1 January, before these guns had even opened fire, Governor Alacha raised the white flag. On this occasion his conditions were unacceptable to Suchet – Alacha offered to surrender the town if it was not relieved in fifteen days, but only if the garrison was allowed to retire to Tarragona. Suchet responded by sending his chief of staff into Tortosa, with his own surrender terms. Alacha held a council-of-war, which decided to fight on.
On 2 January the French heavy guns opened up at short range, and had soon created a breach in the walls. Once again Alacha raised the white flag, but Suchet continued to prepare for his assault, in the belief that this might have been a ruse to give the Spanish time to repair the breach or strengthen a second line of defences inside the town. Suchet was only willing to cancel the assault if Alacha surrendered control of one of the forts above the city.
That assault was never needed. Suchet took the bold step of presenting himself at the gates of the citadel (somewhat ironically protected by the very white flag he was ignoring) and demanding to see Alacha. In a face-to-face meeting Suchet threatened to offer no quarter if the garrison did not surrender, and under great pressure Alacha agreed, signing the capitulation on a gun carriage. French troops took control of the citadel, and then moved through the city to disarm Yriarte’s troops behind the breach. With the siege over the French officers briefly lost control of their men, who looted the part of the city behind the breach. Alacha was vilified after the end of the siege. The Catalan Junta tried him for treason, condemned him to death in his absence (he was a prisoner in France), and executed his effigy. Suchet’s next target would be Tarragona, half way between Tortosa and Barcelona, and the most important city in Catalonia still in Spanish hands.