Gregorio García de la Cuesta
Editor's Note: Jose Manuel Rodriguez, editor of the Spanish language website La batalla de Talavera has given us permission to use this translation. The original Spanish version of this biography can be found at: Gregorio García de la Cuesta
The Most Excellent Don Gregorio García de la Cuesta y Fernandez de Celis was born at La Lastra (Santander) in 1741, the son of a family of the small mountain nobility. He entered the Royal Spanish Guards Regiment at 17, an indispensable step for beginning an officer’s career.
In the war against the French Convention, as a Lieutenant General he briefly occupied the Cerdaña (1795). This success allowed him to secure the Presidency of the Council of Castile the following year, but military defeat in the war and palace intrigues created by the court favourite Godoy led to his dismissal and exile from the Court in 1801.
A period of ostracism then began that was interrupted in 1805. That year the declaration of war by the United Kingdom caused important changes in the military leadership, returning veterans to active service, although Cuesta held no particularly relevant post until Fernando VII’s coup d’état against Carlos IV and the policy of accommodation with Napoleon raised him to the position of Commander in Chief of Old Castile, with his seat at Valladolid. It was hoped that he would be amenable to the orders of the new Government and develop an amicable relationship with the French.
The Second of May took him by surprise in Valladolid. As in other areas, the crowds looked to the Commander in Chief to lead and direct them in the war against the French. Cuesta had no excessive illusions, but his patriotism prevailed and he acceded to the requests to head the uprising in his region. Nevertheless, the immediate problems were enormous. The area under his command had almost no troops of the line or trained personnel. He consequently began the recruitment and training of a limited army of fewer than 7,000 men.
This small corps was defeated at Cabezón on the 12th of June 1808, a battle which obliged Cuesta to abandon Valladolid and retreat along the road to León, where the mountain passes up to Galicia were well guarded by the troops of the Junta del Reino.
A few days before the defeat he had turned down the intruder king’s proposal to make him Viceroy of New Spain (present-day Mexico) if he went over to his side.
After Cabezón Cuesta saw clearly that in a joint manoeuvre with the Galician troops and his own he would be able to threaten Marshal Bessières’ flank, whose troops were numerically inferior. Perhaps they could even defeat him, cutting the Camino Real from Madrid to Irún, which was the main supply route for the French troops to the centre of Spain. With this in mind he contacted the command of the Galician Junta’s troops to co-ordinate their actions. Or rather, as the senior active general in the Army, to issue his orders, but Lieutenant-General Blake had recently been named Chief of the Army of Galicia, and had express orders to accept the orders of no-one but those named by the Junta of Galicia.
Similar divisions in command meant the failure of the manoeuvre against Bessières, a failure which paid off seriously in the defeat at Medina de Rioseco (14 July). After the defeat, Blake and Cuesta separated again.
Nevertheless, the tremendous victory at Bailén (21 July) turned Bessières’ victory into ashes. After Bailén the intruder king, with his court and all the reunited French troops in the vicinity of Madrid, retreated to north of the Ebro.
With the victory Cuesta’s troops (now called the Army of Castile, although its effective strength was little more than 10,000 soldiers) marched to Segovia and from there to Palencia.
Meanwhile, a meeting of army commanders was held on the 5th of September to try to fix a central single command.
This point is important. In the absence of all of the members of the Royal Family and without a Deputy of the Kingdom having been named, there was no-one in Spain who could legitimately claim the government of the nation and the leadership of the Army. The local Juntas, which arose in the heat of the popular insurrection against the French, became repositories of national sovereignty and for this reason were proclaimed legitimate in order to form a government. But the continuous friction and irritations between one Junta and another prevented the existence of an effective government structure. And this lack of unity resulted in the military men with which each Junta armed and equipped its troops, appointing and terminating officers at their whim and refusing to obey the generals of other Juntas. Of course, this implied that the various Spanish military units lacked coordination and coherence in their manoeuvres and battle strategy.
The meeting of the 5th September ended without agreement. Cuesta demanded for himself supreme command of the troops as the senior general of the Army and as Commander in Chief, an authority delegated by the King himself (one must remember that until well into the 19th century, the Commanders in Chief were delegated by the Crown to oversee the military government and part of the civil government of the districts under their control, and they were therefore the highest representatives of the Crown in those areas).
As an immediate consequence, on the 13th of September Cuesta ordered admiral Antonio Valdés, Carlos IV’s former Minister of the Navy, arrested, and delegated the Junta of the Kingdom of León to go with other delegates to Ocaña to constitute the Central Junta.
After a harsh interchange of letters between Cuesta on the one hand and Castaños (the victor of Bailén) and Floridablanca on the other hand, Cuesta was forced to appear in Aranjuez before the Junta, where he was relieved of his command and arrested.
He remained under arrest, watched closely by agents of the Central Junta, even during the flight of the Junta of the city of Madrid before its imminent capture by Napoleon. During that flight, on the 10th of December in Mérida, a large group of citizens stopped the count of Floridablanca’s retinue to demand that general Cuesta be named commander of the Army of Extremadura. This corps had been almost destroyed in previous battles, but was all that was interposed between the French and the great frontier capitals. Constrained by the situation Floridablanca agreed, in exchange for being allowed to continue his flight to Seville, so on the 29th of December 1808 General Cuesta was named Commander in Chief of Extremadura and Commander of the Army of Extremadura.
His first step was to reconstruct this unit as an efficient battle force, for which he began to recruit and organize new regiments. In addition he organized the new units according to tactical lessons learned from the French: he organized sections of skirmishers, created bodies of light infantry and cavalry for exploration and flanking; in addition he reinforced his artillery and organized command cadres with personnel coming from the civilian militias and other reserve forces. In this task he reposed absolute confidence in a few senior officers: José de Zayas, his right hand from the days of Medina de Rioseco, the Duke del Parque, General Juan de Henestrosa, etc.
Nevertheless Cuesta was not very popular among the members of the Junta of Extremadura nor among those of the Central Junta, beginning with the pro-British Minister of War, General Cornel.
At this period when other people's policies were directed to rearguard action, Cuesta undertook limited-scale offensive operations during January and February 1809, which allowed him to recover the bridge of Almaraz, the region of Navalmoral de la Mata (in the Camino Real of Extremadura) and to clear the whole province of Badajoz of French. He could not go any further. The Junta of Extremadura denied him all aid until it had considered the appointments he had made in the army.
To make matters worse, in March 1809 the French began another offensive in the Tagus valley, which after several early skirmishes culminated in the battle of Medellín on the 28th of March. In that battle half of the Army of Extremadura was almost destroyed and its commander wounded.
At Medellín Cuesta demonstrated that although he was a competent general, his tactical capabilities were not as great as his French counterparts, although in his defence it must be said that the quality of the troops he commanded did not allow too many flourishes. The tactical changes made among the Spanish regiments were too novel and revolutionary to hope that inexperienced troops would be able to assimilate them quickly and use them successfully on campaign.
Cuesta improvised a retreat that managed to save the rest of the troops. With a base at Badajoz he was able to reconstruct his forces on the basis of new levies and troop reinforcements coming from Andalusia. This work of organization meant that by June the Army of Extremadura was again an effective fighting force, so that it could be entrusted with the important role, a difficult enough task even on paper, of spearheading the Tagus campaign of summer 1809.
That month of June 1809 Cuesta was named Commander in Chief of New Castile (which included Madrid) with views to the allied manoeuvre on Villa and Corte.
The history of the manoeuvre on Madrid has already been described [elsewhere on the original website]. It remains only to add that the harshness with which Cuesta has been judged (mainly by British historians) is based more on his personal friction with Wellington and some of his subordinates (more concerned to remove the command from Cuesta than to defeat the French) than his incompetence as a military leader, although his supposed stupidity was used to justify the allied retreat after the battle. His behaviour during the campaign was clear-thinking as a military man, even more than what could be expected of one recovering from being wounded. His decisions on the battlefield were in general correctly conjectured: his refusal to attack the French precipitately on the 24th of July so as not to risk a quite probable defeat; his pursuit of Víctor, since in theory Venegas neutralized the threat posed by Sebastiani; the latter retreated when seeing that this was not so; and his subordination to the plan of battle elaborated by Wellington during the battle.
Cuesta survived the defeat of Medellín but not the victory of Talavera. Harassed by his enemies inside and outside the army (he was always a better military man than courtier or politician), he was forced to resign his position of Commander in Chief in December 1809. Shortly after, at Badajoz, he suffered an attack that left him paralysed. For medical reasons he was evacuated to Seville and Cadiz, and soon, with the proximity of the French, to Palma de Mallorca, where he passed away in 1811.
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