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Fort Concepcion Today

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Fort Concepcion, Spain

By Robert Burnham

The Destruction of Fort Concepcion

(See Map)

Fort Concepcion was a Spanish star shaped fort built along the Portuguese border. It was designed by the Duke of Osuna and was built in the 17th Century by the Spanish Army, with help from workers from Galicia. Chef-de-Battalion Jean Jacques Pelet, who served as French Marshal Massena's aide-de-camp during 1810-1811, described Fort Concepcion as being "destined solely to contain a garrison for the protection of the fertile plains of Arganan, was completely isolated from the frontier system. Situated on the crest of a hill between the Turones and Onoro rivers and overlooking the village of Aldea del Obispo, it was perfectly laid out, defiladed, and constructed. The skillful engineer in charge had calculated everything perfectly, quite unlike the usual practice. The major elements of this regular square bastion, along with the salient demilunes and all the improved details, had been planned and laid out so that all its extensions ended in low ground and were protected from enfilade and reverse fire. After careful study, a system of works had been erected four hundred yards to the northeast on an elevation overlooking the neighboring heights and the deep valleys; a blockhouse protected on all sides from crossfire opened toward the gorge. Nevertheless, the fortress was subject to a general plan of enfiladement. Good esplanades with reverse fire covered each front, and a large covered way enveloped the whole. This way communicated with the fort by a double caponniere; midway it had a small construction, nearly oval in shape (similar to a very large redoubt), surrounded by a moat. Cavalry horses destined to protect the countryside were kept in this structure, which had the necessary gates for easy ingress and egress. The fortress was constructed entirely of cut granite. The curtains, formed by casemates, were situated along the entire width of the ramparts. One could see only a little earth inside the bastions. The ramps, the traverses, the talus, the openings of the embrasures - everything down to the channel at the bottom of the moat - showed great care in construction. The good covered way also had a revetment wall; it surrounded the fort and glacis all the way down to the bottom of the two valleys in a well-defined slope."

In 1810, Wellington initially decided to defend the fortress and gave instructions to repair the damage done by the French. While this was being done, the fort served as the headquarters for the Light Division for much of its operations against the French besieging Ciudad Rodrigo. By June, it became apparent that the fort would not be a large enough obstacle to the French for Wellington to justify risking a garrison in it. On 19 June, Wellington ordered Captain John Burgoyne, Royal Engineers, to prepare it for demolition.

Mine shafts were sunk in three of the bastions, but work soon slowed due to hitting solid rock. Burgoyne then decided to mine each of the walls of the fort as well as the detached works, in the event they could not finish their work on the bastions before they had to evacuate the fort. Exploding these mines would in effect create enough breaches to make the fort difficult to repair and impossible to defend.

While work continued on the bastions, the detached redoubt on the eastern side was mined with 100 barrels of powder, each weighing 64 pounds. In the middle of the fort, 60 barrels were piled in a casement as a temporary measure in event the other mines were not finished in time. By July 20th, Burgoyne had successfully mined each ravelin and had placed between 90 and 100 barrels of powder, equally divided between the flank and the face. Burgoyne had orders not to destroy the fort until the French moved forward in force.

The 14th Light Dragoons, along with elements of the Light Division, had the mission of screening the fort. On 11 July, the French pushed a body of infantry towards the fort, and at the village of Villar de Puerco there was a sharp engagement. The dragoons made an impetuous charge against the French, who immediately formed a square and repulsed the cavalry. The cavalry lost about 20 men, including their commander, Lieutenant Colonel Talbot. Captain Brotherton, of the 14th Light Dragoons, went forward under a flag of truce and retrieved his body. Talbot was buried on the glacis of Fort Concepcion.

On July 21st , the French began to push the covering screen of the 14th Light Dragoons hard, and Captain Brotherton told an officer "named Wainman, who was beautifully mounted on a thoroughbred horse, to go at speed to Burgoyne and apprise him that we were being driven back most rapidly, and that we had no time to lose. He arrived at the fort only just in time to enable Burgoyne to explode his mine." Burgoyne states" ... the mines were lighted in the fort. Captain Mulcaster, of the Engineers, went up to warn me to light them, but it was already done; the dragoons I sent down to give everyone they met notice, neglected to tell him, and he was going up the ramparts to look for me, when, smelling powder strong, he looked into one of the passages and saw the portfire burning. Of course he made off as fast as he could... the mines exploded, and he observed that those on that side took the desired effect... they destroyed each ravelin, all but a very small bit at the salient angle. In the outer redoubt, which was large and high, the powder, 100 Portuguese barrels, was lodged in two small casemates, one at each angle of the front, and destroyed the whole front and part of the sides. In the middle small quadrangular fort, sixty Portuguese barrels were placed in one angle on the wooden floor dividing the casemate, and apparently cut the fort diagonally in two, throwing down the half where the powder was lodged. In the flanks were moderate breaches, and in the face the wall opened, and the top tumbled down, making a good breach." Brotherton was on the glacis at the time of the explosion and "lost several horses and men by the explosion, besides seeing the harrowing sight of poor Talbot's body being blown into the air."

The French occupied the fort shortly after that and Marshal Massena used it as his headquarters during the siege of Almeida. Pelet stated that they even opened a café.

Fort Concepcion Today

The fort is actually located between the Turones River and the Das Casas stream which flows through Fuentes d'Orno. The land in and around the fort is still privately owned and a local history buff from Aldea, by the name of Celestino Pascua, took an interest in the fort and posted signs showing the main parts of the fort. Other than the numerous cattle grazing around it, there is little evidence that anyone ever visits. It is very much like the British left it in 1810. From a distance, the fort looks in remarkable shape, with many of the walls and casements still standing. Approaching from the east, you pass the remains of the outerworks. (Photo #1). Walking along the remains of the covered way, in about 200 meters you come to a building that is half buried, that once was used to stable the horses. Soon you will be at the main gate, where the damage becomes very evident. (Photo #2) Large blocks of stone lay scattered where they landed, and many of the supports for the drawbridge are missing. The damage done by the explosions and the breaches are clearly visible along the north wall and it is possible to scramble up the breaches in the wall. (Letter A on the Map) The damage done by the mine in the northwest corner makes passage along the wall difficult. (Photo #3) The roofless chapel on the west wall of the fort provides a good view of the interior of the fort. (Photo #4) The inner walls are hollowed with numerous casements, while the parade ground in the center is overgrown with weeds. (Photo #5). Ramps in each corner allow easy access to the top of the walls. The tops of the walls provide good fields of fire onto the bastions and into the ditches. There is a small parapet below the edge of each wall that provides cover for the infantry who could shoot into the ditches without exposing themselves. (The fortress city of Ciudad Rodrigo did not have this feature.)

According to Sebastian Maharg Bravo, a student who lives in Chicago, whose family summers in in Aldea del Obispo, much of the structural damage is more recent than 1810. Local villagers form the surrounding villages used the ruins a ready made quarry for the impeccably cut stones to build their own houses. His own house, which is nearly 150 years old, has a chimney from the fort!

Photographs

(Note: The location of the item photograph is keyed to the numbers on the map.)

#1: The outer works of Fort Concepcion

#2: The Main gate of Fort Concepcion

#3: Damage done to the northwest wall by the British

#4: Interior of Fort Concepcion

#5: Casements of Fort Concepcion

How to get there:

From Ciudad Rodrigo go west on E 80 until right before the border crossing station (about 17 km.) Look for the sign for Aldea del Obispo. Head north for about 15 km. Right before you arrive in Aldea del Obispo, Fort Concepcion will be on the left.

Further Reading:

Horward, Donald: Napoleon and Iberia: the Twin Sieges of Ciudad Rodrigo and Almeida, 1810.

Horward, Donald: The French Campaign in Portugal 1810-1811: an Account by Jean Jacques Pelet.

Jones, John: Journal of Sieges Carried on by the Army under the Duke of Wellington in Spain This book provides the "official" engineer report on how the fort was prepared for destruction.

Perrett, Bryan:

Wrottesley, George: Life and Correspondence of Field Marshal Sir John Burgoyne, Bart.

 

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