José de Zayas
By: José Manuel Rodriguez
Gómez and Arsenio Garcia Fuentes
Translated by Caroline
Miley for the Napoleon Series
Editor's Note: José 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: José
José Pascual de Zayas y Chacón was born in Havana
in 1772 to a hidalgo family who had been based in Havana from the 16th
century. From his boyhood he felt drawn to the military profession,
so on the 15th September 1783 he took a position in the
Asturias regiment of line infantry.
Four years later (at the age of
15) he was promoted to Second Lieutenant. In 1789 he went to Orán with
his regiment as part of the garrison. On the 9th October
1790 an earthquake destroyed part of the city, killing more than 400
soldiers of the Asturias regiments. Zayas was injured during the earthquake.
He remained in Orán until the city was evacuated by Spanish troops in
1792 after a siege. Zayas remained wounded and did not take part in
In 1793 he joined the artillery
of the Army of Navarre in the war against the French Convention. After
several battles, he was taken prisoner on the 23rd July of that year.
He was released by the French on the 28th September 1794 and was promoted
to Lieutenant. He continued at the front until the peace treaty of 1795.
In that year he went to Vigo with the 2nd battalion of the
Asturias regiment, to serve in the garrison and on board Navy ships.
Zayas made the round trip to the
Americas twice in this service. On returning the second time the battalion
(which had arrived at La Coruña) was transferred to Ferrol on the 26th
August 1800 for the defence of the city against English attack. Zayas
distinguished himself in the battle of Brión, where he was wounded.
He was compensated for this wound. On the 22 May 1801 Zayas was promoted
to Captain of Grenadiers. He then served in several garrisons with the
On the 6th April 1804
he was promoted to Major (at that time equivalent to commander) and
changed his posting to the Órdenes Militares regiment of line
At the end of 1805 he was appointed
aide to Lieutenant-General O´Farril, whom he accompanied to Etruria
with the Spanish division that was bound for this kingdom (a puppet
kingdom created by Napoleon with the spoils of the dukedom of Tuscany,
which was granted with the title of kingdom to Maria Luisa de Bourbon,
daughter of Carlos IV and his wife Maria Luisa de Bourbon-Parma). He
remained in Etruria until halfway through 1807, when he went to Hamburg
with his unit as part of the Napoleonic dispositions for preventing
British landings in the North Sea. At the end of 1807 he returned to
the Peninsula, and on the 11th March 1808 was made commander
of a battalion of the Princesa regiment of line infantry. This regiment
belonged to the Marqués de la Romana’s Northern Division, a corps which
did outstanding work in Denmark, but Zayas did not go to Spain.
Being in Madrid he was commissioned
by the governing Junta to go to Bayonne to inform King Carlos IV of
the situation in Spain, which was that Napoleon, in spite of all the
promises and pacts, was imposing a French military regime in Spain -
a delicate mission for an officer of his low rank. Zayas was detained
as soon as he arrived in France, but he had occasion to speak with Pedro
Ceballos, Secretary of State to Fernando VII (at that time) and later
to Joseph Bonaparte. Zayas was released on the 11th May,
and went immediately to Madrid.
At Madrid he was ordered to go
to La Coruña to join an embarkation of troops who were going to Buenos
Aires. When he arrived at Valladolid he witnessed the popular rising
of patriots against the French. General Cuesta kept him there, appointing
him his Chief of Staff, which was a position of enormous importance
for an ordinary commander.
On the 12th June he took part in the defeat at Cabezón,
after which Cuesta’s troops retired to Benavente, where he and Zayas
tried to form their two forces into an army. Nevertheless, on the 28th
Zayas went to the pass of Foncebadón to meet with General Blake, who
sent him to La Coruña so that he could explain the situation to the
Junta of the Kingdom of Galicia. Zayas’ report convinced the Junta that
Blake should join his forces with Cuesta’s, but with secret instructions
to Blake not to collaborate too extensively with Cuesta.
With these forces combined but uncoordinated,
they were defeated at Medina de Rioseco (12th July). The
Spanish forces retreated to Benavente and then Cuesta’s continued towards
León. Cuesta, pursued by the French, implemented Zayas’s suggestion
of making a flanking manoeuvre by Toro, Zamora and Salamanca, which
not only freed them from the French pursuit commanded by Bessières,
but also from its rearguard. On the 1st August at Salamanca
he received news of the victory of Bailén. The same day Cuesta made
Zayas a Colonel.
After Bailén and the consequent
French retreat, there was a confrontation between Cuesta and General
Castaños which ended with Cuesta’s arrest. Zayas, as his subordinate
and close collaborator, was stripped of his post of Chief of Staff of
the so-called Army of Castile. These troops, reduced to a division of
that which Zayas had joined, moved towards Logroño. At Logroño they
fought several skirmishes with the French. On the 25th October
Ney attacked Logroño, which he abandoned the next day. General Castaños
considered the troops of the division had not fought as well as they
could have, so he ordered their dissolution. Zayas found himself without
On the 23rd November 1808 Zayas
presented himself to General Lapeña, the commander of the 4th
division, who accepted him into his division, although it is not known
whether he gave him a command. On the same day the battle of Tudela
was fought and lost without Lapeña’s men participating in the fight,
in spite of Castaños’ having ordered them to do so.
Castaños’ troops retreated, arriving
at Borja, soon moving on to Calatayud and from there to Sigüenza. Castaños
organized a mobile rearguard to cover their retreat, which Zayas joined
as a staff officer. In this role he was present at the rearguard’s defeat
at Bubierca. Finally, without further misfortunes, Castaños’ troops
(previously the Army of the Centre) arrived at Cuenca on the 12th
December. There the Duque del Infantado took command of the force. On
the 25th December the Spanish forces mounted a small attack
against Tarancón, which was successful, forcing the French to back down.
Alarmed by this minor defeat, Joseph Bonaparte ordered Victor to crush
the Duque del Infantado’s Spanish forces, which he achieved at the battle
of Uclés on the 13th January 1809.
Zayas participated in the action
at Tarancón but was not at Uclés because Cuesta, having been appointed
head of the Army of Extremadura, reclaimed him for his army. Zayas took
command of the Jaén regiment on the 8th January. With these
troops he participated in the reconquest of the bridge at Almaraz on
the Tagus on the 29th January.
After this the Spanish forces were attacked by the German division
of Victor’s corps. Zayas, with his men, covered the retreat after the
action at Mesas de Ibor. Cuesta ordered a general withdrawal from Medellín
through to Trujillo, closely pursued by the French troops. Cuesta’s
troops went from Medellín to Villanueva de La Serena. At this time Zayas
commanded a force of two battalions of grenadiers, which was an elite
force at this period. Reinforcing Cuesta at Villanueva de La Serena,
and after a victorious skirmish, he decided to fight Victor, resulting
in the tremendous defeat of Medellín (28th March). In the
battle Zayas’ forces acted as a reserve of the Spanish left wing. His
intervention, at the moment when the Spanish line yielded, was compromised
by a bottleneck with forces of his own cavalry. Zayas was wounded again
in this battle.
Withdrawal after the defeat saved
the Army of Extremadura from complete disaster and it was considered
that it had fought well. Consequently, several officers were rewarded,
among them Zayas, who was promoted to Brigadier (Brigadier-General)
with effect from the 8th April 1809, and actually head of
the Vanguard division of the army.
Zayas’ vanguard organized small
attacks against Victor’s forces, using "hit and run" tactics
which were very suitable for weakening the French forces. The French
forces between the Tagus and the Guadiana, all of Victor’s corps, could
not hold their positions, partly because of the lack of provisions and
partly because of Zayas’ attacks.
Victor’s situation worsened when
Soult was defeated in the north of Portugal. Victor ordered a retreat
on the right bank of the Tagus on the 14th June. Zayas’ troops
followed on his heels as far as Almaraz, with the river between them.
A few days later, on the 6th July, Cuesta and Wellington
met at the pass of Miravete. The campaign of Talavera had begun.
During this campaign Zayas’ performance
was good. His vanguard was the corps chosen to outflank the French and
drive them from Talavera on the 21st July. Zayas’ vanguard
also behaved well in the battle of Alcabón on the 26th July.
During the battle itself the Vanguard division did not see action, since
its sector was not attacked. After the retreat towards Puente del Arzobispo,
Zayas’ unit covered Cuesta’s rear. In the battle at Puente del Arzobispo
Zayas’ unit intervened to stabilize the situation after the French strike,
although it did not have occasion to fight, since the French did not
exploit their momentary success.
This performance did not go without
its reward, so on the 28th July he was promoted to Field
On the 12th August
Cuesta was attacked at Deleitosa and was replaced in the command by
General Eguía, who confirmed Zayas in command of the Vanguard.
Immediately afterwards one of the
most disastrous decisions of the war was taken. The Central Junta ordered
Eguía to unite with the Army of La Mancha (defeated at Almonacid) for
progress towards Madrid. This combined armed force would be commanded
by General Areizaga, with Zayas commanding the same Vanguard division.
After crossing La Mancha from
south to north Areizaga’s troops met the enemy rearguard at Ocaña. On
the 19th November Marshal Soult attacked the Spanish forces,
which he defeated. Zayas’ vanguard acted as a reserve, unleashing a
brilliant rearguard action that was able to halt the French, until scattered
soldiers from other divisions became entangled among the lines of the
vanguard troops, creating confusion and ruining the vanguard as an effective
force. Zayas’s troops still managed to reform at Dos Barrios, 8 km from
Ocaña. There they met with the rest of the army and retreated to the
On the 20th January
1810 Marshal Soult’s forces arrived at the pass of Despeñaperros, defeated
the defenders and penetrated into Andalusia. Zayas’ forces (the survivors
of Ocaña) retreated to Úbeda and Jaén. Little by little the retreat
wore away its units, to the extent that at the later actions of Jaén
and Alcala Real its participation was virtually symbolic.
After the Andalusian defeat Zayas
went to Murcia, where he tried once more to raise soldiers, train them,
get them fit and form a new army.
Nevertheless, Zayas stayed only
briefly in Murcia, since by March 4th he was at Cadiz commanding
the army division that defended the city against French attack. At Cadiz
Zayas wrote a work titled Instructions on Good Military Order,
a real manual on how to organize troops on campaign. Under his leadership
this unit became one of the best divisions of the Spanish army. Zayas’
troops harassed the French episodically with their "hit and run"
tactics, similar to those already used in Extremadura.
On the 21st February
1811 the forces defending Cadiz began a flanking manoeuvre with which
they hoped to defeat the besiegers (commanded by Marshal Victor). The
Spanish forces disembarked between the 23rd and the 27th at Algeciras
and Tarifa with instructions to follow in Victor’s rear as far as Medina
Sidonia, and after defeating him (which should not be difficult), to
follow him towards Cadiz to complete the lifting of the encirclement.
Meanwhile Zayas, at the head of the troops on the Isle of León, would
cross the channel that separates the island from the mainland to attack
Victor’s forces. Zayas carried out his part of the plan on the night
of the 2nd to the 3rd March, but on the 3rd
was beaten while crossing the channel and was forced to fall back to
his starting point. The disembarked troops were also delayed, so the
combined manoeuvre was a debacle.
Soon after this Zayas was placed
at the head of another flanking operation. On the 18th March
he left Cadiz by boat with his forces to disembark at Palos. The idea
was to follow the Seville highway, threatening the flank of the forces
under Soult which were besieging Badajoz. However, the frontier city
had surrendered on the 11th and Soult could confront the
threat. On the 31st March, after several battles with the
French vanguards, and seeing how bad their situation was, Zayas’ troops
returned to Cadiz.
Shortly after this there was a
plan to retake Badajoz by means of a combined attack of General Beresford’s
Army Corps, plus the force called the Expeditionary Corps under General
Blake. Zayas commanded the 1st division of this corps.
The Expeditionary Corps disembarked
at Ayamonte on April 18th to go up along the course of the
Guadiana to meet with the British. The allied forces, which also included
the rest of the Army of Extremadura under General Castaños, met at Albuera
on the 15th May. An encounter with Soult’s forces took place
there the same day, who had mistakenly believed that he only had the
British opposing him.
Soult threw his strongest attack
against the right wing, just where Zayas’ division was, which was also
numerically inferior. Nevertheless, with the help of other Spanish reinforcements,
Zayas’ troops held the French attack. Even when Colborne’s brigade was
destroyed by the cavalry charge, it was Zayas’ troops who managed to
restore the situation and repel the attack. This resistance decided
the battle in favor of the allies. The French retired from the battlefield,
defeated. Zayas was ordered to pursue the retreating enemy.
On the 14th June Zayas’
troops assaulted the Niebla castle, but the attack failed because of
a shortage of artillery. Shortly after this Blake received information
that Marmont’s forces had united with Soult’s and were advancing on
him. Blake prudently ordered a retreat. On the 30th Zayas’
forces embarked at Ayamonte for a return to Cadiz.
At the beginning of August the Expeditionary Corps was sent to Valencia
as part of the effort to prevent Suchet from conquering Valencia and
Murcia. On the 14th of the month Zayas accompanied Blake
to Valencia. His division was at Villena until the 21st September,
in quarantine because of an epidemic (and therefore useless for combat).
Zayas’ division was soon sent to Valencia to garrison the entrenched
camp that defended the city. On the 25th October Zayas’
troops left Valencia. Blake, pressured by local politicians, was looking
for battle. Zayas’ division attacked Puzol and continued northwards,
arriving in sight of Sagunto, which was surrounded by the French. Nevertheless,
the rest of Blake’s forces had been defeated and Zayas had to retreat
before them. A battalion of his division was surrounded at Puzol and
destroyed. The rest of the division, in good order, withdrew by the
coast giving free rein to rearguard actions. The retreat allowed the
centre and left wings of Blake’s army to be saved.
After this combat Zayas marched
with his troops to Cuenca to block the shipment of reinforcements to
Suchet from Madrid. In the middle of December Zayas returned to Valencia.
It was just in time, since on
the 26th December Suchet mounted his attack against Blake.
Zayas’ troops fought well, but Blake’s forces were surrounded and were
ordered to retreat to inside Valencia, which was then surrounded by
The French repulsed an attempt
to leave on the 28th December. At the beginning of January
they began to bombard the city. With little food, almost without ammunition
and with a very high desertion rate (except in Zayas’ unit), Valencia
surrendered on the 10 January 1812. Zayas was captured by the French.
Zayas was sent to the castle of
Vincennes, which had been turned into a jail for the nobility and members
of the Spanish high command who had been taken prisoner.
At the beginning of 1814 the French,
who confused him with the Marqués de Zayas, decided to send him to Madrid
to try to get the Regency to accept the Treaty of Valençay, signed on
the 11th December 1813 by Fernando VII and Napoleon. In spite
of this mix-up Zayas travelled to Madrid with the Duque de San Carlos,
who was the one who actually carried out the mission.
From this moment Zayas was left available but without a post. On the
25th March 1814 he was promoted to Lieutenant-General (a
promotion which had been rescinded at Albuera because of political issues).
During the Hundred Days Zayas commanded the 1st division of the Army
of the Right, entering France via Cataluña. There was hardly any action
since Napoleon’s forces were concentrated in the north. After Napoleon’s
second abdication Zayas left, bound for Valencia.
He did not return to the command
of troops. He retired from the service and died in 1827, although there
is doubt as to whether in Madrid or in his native Havana.
Placed on the Napoleon Series: July 2005