Research Subjects: Biographies



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 de Zayas

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 the battle.

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 Asturias regiment.

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 infantry.

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 a position.

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 Marshal (Major-General).

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 Sierra Morena.

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 enemy.

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

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