Benavente and Its Environs during the War of Independence
Translated by Caroline Miley for the Napoleon Series
Editor's Note: This paper first appeared in the Spanish language website GUERRA DE LA INDEPENDENCIA ESPAÑOLA 1808-1814. The editors have kindly given the Napoleon Series to publish it in English. For those who can read Spanish, the original version of the article can be seen at: BENAVENTE Y SUS CONTORNOS DURANTE LA GUERRA DE LA INDEPENDENCIA
In January 1808 Dupont, who had entered the north of Spain with twenty-four thousand men and three and a half thousand cavalry, went to Valladolid. In May Filangieri, the Commander in Chief of Galicia, established his Headquarters at Villafranca del Bierzo, where he was murdered. He was replaced by Don Joaquin Blake, Colonel of the La Coruña Regiment, who the Junta made Lieutenant General. Don Gregorio Cuesta was Commander in Chief of Castilla la Vieja, with his quarters at Valladolid.
At the beginning of July, Merle and Lasalle harassed the Spanish from Valladolid to León with four battalions and 700 cavalry. Cuesta, after the defeat at Cabezón on the 12th, retired on Benavente, where he received a corps of students from Leon, another from Covadonga and also recruits. He had to train Don José Zayas’ peasants. Blake trained his people located between the Teleno and the Cepeda. In the same month he went down to join Cuesta, taking twenty-seven thousand infantry, 150 cavalry and thirty field pieces. He left six thousand men at Manzanal and more thousands at La Puebla under the orders of the Marqués de Valladares. The third division was left at Benavente under Riquelme’s orders, which Cuesta directed towards Rioseco. Its cavalry was made up of the Guardias de Corps, the Queen’s Regiment and a squadron of customs officers. This made up the army of fifteen thousand men, plus the twenty-two thousand of Cuesta and Blake and five hundred cavalry.
Bessières left Burgos with twelve thousand infantry and one and a half thousand cavalry, and on the 14th July placed himself a league and a half from Rioseco. Blake joined Cuesta the afternoon before he entered Rioseco. At two in the morning on the 14th Blake took up his positions, and at four, Cuesta. The moment came for action, which had unfortunate results for the Spanish, who were little prepared for the battle, but had more than enough courage to confront the conquerors of almost all Europe. The battle cost them four thousand men among them and fifteen pieces of artillery. The French lost 700 wounded and 300 dead. They followed them, running them down at Rioseco, Cuesta retiring towards León and later towards Salamanca. On the 19th July General Bessières arrived at Benavente with eight or nine thousand men in pursuit of the remainder of the Spanish from the attack at Rioseco.
On the 12th November Napoleon, who entered Spain with two hundred thousand infantry and fifty thousand cavalry, at Burgos hoped to discover the intentions of the Englishman Moore, who was established at Salamanca with thirty thousand infantry and five thousand cavalry. On the 3rd December Napoleon entered Madrid, and on the 22nd passed through Guadarrama with sixty thousand men.
On the 14th Moore moved towards Valladolid, but soon turned towards Toro and Benavente to get up with Baird and the Marqués de la Romana in order to destroy Soult. Moore entered Benavente on the 24th with a column of disorderly and undisciplined troops. After destroying the bridge at Castrogonzalo, he joined Baird’s column at Astorga on the 29th.
The cavalry remained at Benavente, sending detachments to watch the fords of the Esla in bad weather that slowed down Napoleon ’s marches. Misled by what he could see and believing that the other side did not have more English forces than that, the French General Lefebvre-Desnouettes, after having made a peasant mounted on a mare cross the river, crossed it with 600 of the Imperial Guard and impetuously attacked the opposition, who at first gave way. General Stewart soon took control of the English detachments, brought in more cavalry and began to dispute the terrain with the French, who continued advancing, however, until Lord Paget, accompanied by a regiment of Hussars, forced them to re-cross the river. This incident occurred on the plain between Benavente and the Esla, and the English counted among the seventy prisoners they took General Lefebvre, who was well known from the first siege of Zaragoza.
The night of the 29th they used the striking pines growing on the high ground behind the hospitals as lights, at every step coming under the fire of French artillery from the other side of the river, answered feebly by the English, whose force disappeared totally by the morning, to be replaced by a dreadful silence and solitude, a preliminary sign of the most appalling catastrophe.
On the evening of the 30th Napoleon’s powerful army began to cross the Castro bridge, after leaving which it marched in a curve near León, reuniting a force of seventy thousand infantry and ten thousand cavalry, and on the same day the Emperor entered the town and took up lodgings in Nuñez’ house in the Plaza de los Bueyes.
The consternation in the town could not have been greater, and everyone who could escaped. The next day, the 31st, according to a book belonging to the convent of San Bernardo, the community scattered, abandoning the monastery because of the French bursting into the town. As the flight was hurried and there were no horses nor wagons, they had to leave all the community’s silver and treasure, and individuals could save nothing but the clothes they had on and the breviary, the enemy seizing the silver, sacred vestments and other treasures. And how could these so-called “faithful spouses of Jesus Christ” leave everything behind, when they knew that the God they and the enemy both worshipped was being insulted? The insolence and debauchery of these vandals was equal to their impiety. The writer of this (Fr. Luís Solis) took a holy cup myself from the hands of these sacrilegious men.
La Romana’s second division was surprised on the 29th at Mansilla and the Spanish, seeing Moore at Astorga, and believing that they could not support themselves in the Peninsula, retreated past Manzanal with 19,000 very insubordinate men. Moore died later at La Coruña, and was buried in the Campo de San Carlos. The Marqués de la Romana marched to Foncebadón when he saw the futility of resisting the powerful enemy confronting him.
On the 1st January 1809 Napoleon left the town and proceeded at the gallop to Astorga in spite of the bad weather and snow, leaving the Vizana bridge which had been cut by the English, and going on to the one at Cebrones, where he stopped to look at a letter that brought the declaration of war with Austria. This made him return from Astorga on the 6th, getting himself to Valladolid in one day, after ordering Soult with twenty thousand infantry and four thousand cavalry to continue the persecution of English, moving by Foncebadón and Manzanal.
This town suffered a great deal during the transit of the invading troops, that lasted more than eight days, with some tragedies that will always be wept over because they are irreparable.
The convent of S. Francisco of the Observants of Santiago, that faces the Mercy hospital, was the chapter house of the Province. It was sumptuous and most beautiful in every respect and more than a hundred religious were gathered there, all spaciously lodged without diminishing its service to the local community, who were always numerous, just like the servants and table companions and laymen of the chapter Fathers. Magnificent offices, beautiful and extensive cloisters and above all, a huge church of three naves with more than fifteen altars, among which the biggest one, in the style of that of S. Nicholas, without gilding but much bigger and more attractive, composed an entirety of rare grandeur and immense value. In the choir there were two ranks of seating, high and low, all in highly polished walnut with many beautiful carvings, and on each of the magnificent chairs, which were not inferior to those in any cathedral, was one of the saints of the Franciscan Order in medium relief. The organ was the best in Benavente and as good as those in many cathedrals. There were many good paintings there, hanging on the walls of the cloisters and in other areas, D. Vicente Garcia, who left us this information about San Francisco, states: ‘I can bear witness to all this, having seen it since I was a grammar student.’
The Feast of Kings, the 6th January of that year, is one of the most dreadful and distressing dates for this town, because on that date the appalling disaster of the burning of the very precious fabric of San Francisco took place. There is some suspicion that before leaving the English set fire to some timber, so that some people would think that the French, when they arrived, were those who set fire to this beautiful building, that was such an adornment to the town. It caught fire greedily and horribly was reduced entirely to cinders and ashes, and has been impossible to repair. Even the walls were burnt, only those of the church and tower, of stone ashlar and masonry, remained standing, but were heavily calcined simply by the intensity of the fire, which did not allow the least part of the fabric to escape. The tower also opened up, the clock in it collapsing, the bells and whatever was combustible dissolving into metal.
In spite of so much desolation the main facade of the convent still remains standing (Garcia says) that by its solidity promises to last many more years and centuries, provided no destructive hand nor earthquake comes to complete the ruin of what was once such a beautiful building. This facade forms an entrant right angle. The part or side that faces west has a porch of three ashlar arches, the same as the rest, then there is the entrance of the church, now ruined. The other part that looks north is the porter’s lodge of the convent, which nowadays still serves as the main entrance for the building, outside which is the jail. The fabric of the facade or facades is not according to a specific order of architecture, although that does not prevent it from having majesty, beauty and merit. Although its author is not known, some clever people are confident enough to think it was the famous Juan de Herrera.
The fire that devoured the Convent of San Francisco and some nearby houses in Santa Cruz street was not isolated; another fire occurred a few days later, of particular gravity and historical and military importance. Not even those who are left can hope for the most minimal restitution of this colossal tragedy, and the old can do nothing but weep over it. I speak of the burning of the fortress and palace of the Counts of this town, a superb monument of the country’s art and history, worthy of taking its place among the best of its class in Europe. The few signs that remain of their greatness are disappearing as a result of time and the bold hand of man. At the sight of the castle of San Angelo and other famous monuments, the memory returns, with distress and hidden pride, of the impressions that it has made since childhood.
On the 23rd June the Intendant of Zamora took possession of the Convent of Moreruela. Later Marshal Ney ordered the existing effects in it transferred to Zamora.
At the beginning of August the Marqués de la Romana, who the Central had named arbitrator in the government of Asturias and Galicia, then replaced the Juntas with military Governors, moved from La Coruña to Astorga with sixteen thousand men and forty pieces of artillery. But appointed by Valencia as representative of the Central Junta, he marched to his destiny on the 18th of August.
On the 30th September Dragoons of the 10th burned the school of San Gerónimo of this town, preventing the neighbours from putting out the fire.
On the 9th October the Frenchman Carrier, who with his division occupied the banks of the Esla, tried to seize Astorga, where there were only eleven hundred conscripts, and after four hours of firing they made him retire with extensive losses. General Garcia’s Division was in the Passes of Manzanal and Foncebadón.
In the middle of October the Scholastic abbess, Sister Antonia Argüello, met with three other nuns in the house in Carcél street where this was written, to form a community and thereby avoid the sequestration of their rents and the suppression of their community, which the tyrant had done in other places. The Junta of the town soon handed over 4,500 reales to them, the value of 55 loads of rye that belonged to them. The other nuns were meeting in succession, up to twenty-five of them. There was not enough room for them in the house, so the patrons of the Convalescent Hospital ceded it to them and they transferred to it.
1810: On the 11th February the French tried to attack Astorga, which was garrisoned with three thousand ill-equipped men, but they left it the next month. On the 21st March Junot was close to gaining the surrender of (José Maria) Santocildes, but on the 20th April he had to capitulate and give himself up.
The Frenchman La Croix gave Alcañices to the partisan Echevarría, also General Serrás sent Don Francisco Taboada from La Puebla, which was sparsely garrisoned, returning the people nevertheless to be taken by the Spanish on the 10th of August. Taboada, untiring like all the Spanish, incessantly harassed the French from Foncebadón to the region of León.
1811: Castaños became head of the 6th army, retaining the 5th: Don José Maria Santocildes was named in place of Mahy and second to Castaños. A division of the 6th was in Asturias; on another route of the Bierzo, commanded by Taboada; and the 3rd at Puebla de Sanabria under Cabrera’s command, and one Reserve at Lugo.
Activities in Astorga and Cogorderos were watched as far as Benavente. Abadia succeeded to Santocildes in August. At this time Castañón was at San Martin de Torres with Brigadier Torres’ vanguard at La Bañeza; Belvedere at El Puente de Orbigo with another division, and reserves quartered at Astorga. General Dorsenne was on the border of Galicia, intending to attack. He advanced, coming through Foncebadón and Manzanal and entering El Bierzo, arrived at Villafranca, but he soon backed down and contented himself with Astorga. On the 27th September General Bonet’s division took Francisco Rodriguez (alias the Friar), the famous cavalry soldier of Cabrera’s Division, prisoner at the bridge of Santa Cristina. Having arrived at the town on the 7th October, Mouton, General of the Imperial Guard, ordered him shot, which was confirmed at La Mota, without even giving time him to make his confession.
1812: The 6th army of the Bierzo blocked Astorga, Toro and Tordesillas, and by July the Conde de Amarante was besieging Zamora. Astorga was given to Colonel Enrile, with 12,000 men commanded by General Remond.
On the 26th August the Convent of Santa Clara of this town was burned. It was said that the French, who occupied it until the 24th of the month in which they marched for Zamora, set fire to it.
The partisans who harassed the enemies in this region were Echevarría, Manso, Miranda and others who are less well known. That is without detailing all the hostilities of each and every one of their inhabitants, since all the Spanish participated.
Because of the war there was a great shortage of food, and as there was plenty of money, a hemina (a dry measure in Castile and León, equivalent to a third of a fanega) of wheat cost thirty pesetas and a pound of bread a peseta.
1813: In May the armies moved again, José being at Valladolid. The centre of our army advanced by Ponferrada and Benavente to Villalpando.
1814: By a decree of the 21st May the religious from Moreruela returned to their convent.
We have transcribed only the portion of the text relevant to the period of the War of Independence, mentioned in the work Historical Notes of the Town of Benavente and its Environs, written in 1881 by Don Fernando Fernandez Brime, who published a small number of copies which were in their day distributed between friends and close friends, which is the reason copies of this first edition are difficult to find today.
Knowledge of it today has been possible because of the facsimile edition made in 1999 by the Benaventan Study Centre "Ledo del Pozo". It is thanks to Don José Mariño that we know it, and we will contribute to its spread through this page with great enthusiasm.
Brime, D. Fernando Fernandez. Historical Notes of the Town of Benavente and its Environs. Imp. and lib. of the Widow of Cuesta and Children, Valladolid 1881. Facsimile Edition 1999, by the Benaventan Study Centre "Ledo del Pozo"; courtesy of Don José Mariño.
Placed on the Napoleon Series: November 2004
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