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Perez de Herrasti, Governor of Ciudad Rodrigo: "the thumb breaks but does not bend"

By Miguel Martín Angel Mas
Translated by Caroline Miley

This article first appeared in Spanish in the Forum for the Study of the Military History of Spain

The noble ruins of Ciudad Rodrigo were still smoking and the death agonies of the valued soldiers who had been lost during the siege were still audible, when Field Marshal Andrés Perez de Herrasti, only three days earlier Governor of the place, took the road to captivity. The military veteran watched the interminable column of Spanish soldiers that wound along the route that, in twenty days[1] would lead them to the border of France , the heart of the Empire forged by Napoleon Bonaparte with the hammer of war and the anvil of thousands of innocent victims. The tenacious resistance of the garrison and the local population, of a little over two months, facing Marshal Ney’s troops, had ended with an honourable capitulation on the 10th July 1810. For the following day and for two days more, almost four thousand Spanish prisoners and their escort flooded the road that, crossing Old Castile, united Portugal with exile and forced labour. As the days passed, Herrasti’s anguish increased. He saw his soldiers turned into a sad cortège, some tied like slaves in an African marketplace, half dead from fatigue and hunger, shoeless, with torn feet and forced to go on until they were black and blue. He himself did not suffer any lack of attentions from the French officers.  However, he experienced a feeling which robbed him of life and, in the rubble of the place that he had sworn to defend for his beloved Fernando VII, who he considered the legitimate monarch of Spain , his honour as a soldier might be buried. During the investment and siege he had tried to follow to the letter the old motto of his ancient family: "the thumb breaks but does not bend", but in the end, he had been forced to capitulate before a horrifying slaughter which occurred in the breach that had been opened in the wall. He was also afraid that, in retaliation, the French would carry out their threat to put the population to the sword, when the brutal and licentious soldiery would throw themselves into a wild orgy of sacking and destruction in the streets of the city.

Andrés Víctor José Miguel Pérez de Herrasti Viedma y Aróstegui Pérez del Pulgar Fernández de Córdoba was the protagonist of one of the most dramatic episodes of the War of Independence: the siege of Ciudad Rodrigo of 1810. We have historically recreated its sad conclusion to commence a biographical sketch of this individual, whose hazardous life we attempt to describe in this article. It was published in the first number of Cuadernos del Bicentenario [Bicentennial Notebooks], and we hope it will serve as a reminder of the fundamental role that the Salmantine lands and the people of Portugal had in the resistance of the Iberian towns which confronted the Napoleonic invasion, and in the fight between the two great powers of Great Britain and France during the period between 1808 and 1813.[2]

Perez de Herrasti, descendant of two of the most illustrious and prominent families of the Andalusian aristocracy, was born in Granada on the 6th March 1750. On his father’s side, among his more remote ancestors was Domingo Perez de Herrasti - belonging to the ancient house of Herrasti in Azcoitia (Guipúzcoa) - who was one of the knights who accompanied the Catholic Monarchs in the conquest of Granada. He obtained as a reward the lordship of those lands, the town and fields of Baralaira. These would be re-named the Señorío de Domingo Perez and would become their new home. On his mother’s side, he was descended from another captain of the Catholic Monarchs, the famous Hernán Pérez del Pulgar, known as "one of the Great Heroes”.[3] With these antecedents of military heroism and nobility, repeated in one form or another for generation after generation, it was not surprising that the young Andrés joined the army in 1762, at the early age of twelve, specifically as a cadet in the Provincial Regiment of Granada. Two years later he entered the Regiment of Royal Spanish Guards as a cadet, and in this regiment he would pass through all the positions and ranks listed below, which have been extracted from his personnel record, kept in the General Military Archives of Segovia: Lieutenant (1776), Lieutenant of Grenadiers (1777), 2nd Lieutenant of Infantry (1779), 2nd Lieutenant of Grenadiers (1783), 1st Lieutenant of Infantry (1785), 1st Lieutenant of Grenadiers (1791), Colonel (1791), Captain (1793), Brigadier (1795) and Field Marshal (1809). A concise personal report appears in the same record: "Valour, creditable; application, adequate; capacity, adequate; conduct, good; state, married. This officer is in a position to advance in the service, is married, gallant and is recommended for command ". Always held in such high esteem, Herrasti served in the Spanish army for fifty-two years until his death in 1818, with the rank of Lieutenant-General and the position of Civilian and Military Governor of Barcelona - honours granted in 1814 after his return from captivity in France .

Herrasti also took part in the main campaigns and some of the most memorable actions carried out during the years before the War of Independence. In 1775 he participated in the expedition that Carlos III sent to Algiers against the Emperor of Morocco’s  troops and the pirates who operated from that port. This operation terminated in a real disaster for Spain , with more than five hundred thousand dead and about three thousand wounded, among them the protagonist of this biographical sketch. He  participated in the blockade and siege of Gibraltar from the 1st September 1779 until it concluded without success; in the siege of Orán from the 28th May 1791 to its evacuation and abandonment; in the war against France , entering Rosellón with the first troops in April 1793. He was taken prisoner in May of the following year, during the hasty Spanish retreat before General Dugommier’s attack; in the War of the Oranges against Portugal , occupying an essential role in the occupation of Jarde, in the taking of Villaviciosa and in numerous other actions.[4]

But it was the War of Independence that defined Herrasti’s sad destiny, transformed him into a man of history and offered him the opportunity to demonstrate his military prowess to the limit of his strength and power. In 1808 Napoleon, drunk with victories and glory, decided to take advantage of the disagreements between the King of Spain, Carlos IV, and the heir, Fernando, to end the last Bourbon kingdom in Europe. This interference would trigger a war against the occupation by the French troops and a split between the Spanish in favor of the restoration of the Bourbons and those who willingly accepted the imposition of a king of the house of Bonaparte, who, as Joseph Napoleon I, would reign with great difficulty. One of the climactic points of the disagreement between father and son was the Aranjuez Riot, which occurred on the 17th March 1808. Although this has come to be considered as a popular revolt against Manuel de Godoy, King Carlos’ hated favourite, it was rather a coup d'état orchestrated by the nobility and the high command of the army, who thought that the time had come to get rid of the upstart favourite, to invite the King to abdicate and to enthrone the Prince of Asturias as Fernando VII. The then Brigadier Perez de Herrasti, who was intended for the command of the 1st battalion of the Regiment of the Reales Guardias Españolas, which was quartered in Vicálvaro, got the order of the Colonel of the Regiment, the Duke of Infantado - a loyal Fernandino and, therefore, staunch enemy of Godoy - to attack the court favourite’s palace in Aranjuez and capture him.[5] This episode resulted in King Carlos’ abdication and Fernando’s accession to the throne, although, as we have said and as is well known, the matter did not end there, but with Napoleon taking part as referee of the litigation between the monarch and the heir. In this way, drawing father and son into French territory with ruses - with the excuse of holding a meeting to resolve the problem of the legality of Carlos’ abdication - Napoleon kidnapped the Spanish royal family. He then deployed his troops in Spain with the aim of obtaining a change of dynasty - from the Bourbons to the Bonapartes - something that the Emperor had wanted for a long time. Without knowing it, by his intervention at Aranjuez, Herrasti had become one of the individuals who started up the machinery of the war that would devastate Spain for almost six years. Just a short time later he would have to pay, with humiliation and captivity, for his participation in that lamentable fight for power that would finish by turning Spain into a battlefield on which France and Great Britain would determine who was going to be the pre-eminent world-wide power of the 19th century. Meanwhile, the Spanish people fought for the King, Fernando VII, who, by his return in 1814, ended by demonstrating that he would willingly have accepted the dynastic change imposed by Napoleon.

On the 2nd May, Brigadier Perez de Herrasti put his battalion and other troops from the region, as well those from several towns, under arms to go to the aid of Madrid, which was rising against the Imperial forces. The aid was not put into action, as the order was received from superiors not to take part in the events occurring in the capital. Desperate to fight against the invaders, Herrasti went with his battalion of the Reales Guardias Españolas and the Army of the Centre to General Castaños’ command in La Rioja. He was in all the different actions that took place there: the relief of Lodosa, the expedition to Autol and the base of Ausajo, up to the battle of Tudela, which was liberated on the 23rd November 1808. This was a Spanish fiasco, after which the Army of the Centre began an arduous retreat southwards in search of new orders from the Central Junta, at this time also in full flight and therefore difficult to locate. During the retreat, Herrasti would have occasion to be conspicuous in the action of Tarancón ( Cuenca) of the 25th December, in which he twice repulsed, with three hundred men of his battalion, a force of cavalry composed of eight hundred dragoons of General Perreimond’s Brigade. The courage and tenacity he demonstrated in this battle merited his rise to Field Marshal - although perhaps this lightning ascent was more a reward for his intervention in support of  Fernando VII in Aranjuez - and his employment as Commander-in-Chief of the Cantón of Santa Cruz de Mudela ( Ciudad Real). A few months into 1809, the new seat of the Governmental Central Junta of the Kingdom was called to Seville – which sent him, on the 15th March 1809, to the Army of the Left, that was then under the command of Lieutenant-General the Marqués de la Romana. The place where he had to join his new employment was Gijón, a city which, seeing that the centre and the north of the peninsular were occupied by the Imperial forces, could only be reached  by sea. On the 19th he left the port of Cádiz accompanied by his new aide-de-camp, at that time Lieutenant Joaquin de Zayas. The voyage passed quietly until, having already arrived off Cabo de Peña on the 20th May, and less than a day from the port of Gijón, they spoke to a brig whose captain told them that the Asturian city had fallen to the French. On the 17th June 1809, a desperate and exhausted Herrasti returned to Cádiz, after thirty days of laborious navigation in terrible storms, and without having been able to get to his destination. Anxious to enter into combat, Herrasti asked for a new post in the Army of Aragón commanded by General Blake and, if this were not possible, in that of Extremadura, with General Gregorio García de Cuesta at the head. Neither position was granted to him. He was sent again to the Army of the Left, now under the Duque del Parque’s command, with which he fought in the battle of Tamames (Salamanca), liberated on the 18th October of 1809, and which was settled with a Spanish victory. Barely two days later, Herrasti received the employment that would confront him with two of the most famous marshals of the Empire, Masséna and Ney, and that would consecrate him as a forgotten hero of the War of Independence: Military Governor of Ciudad Rodrigo, which turned into one of the more important pockets of resistance when being constituted the seat of the Superior Junta of Old Castile, of which Herrasti would also be President. In an instant, Napoleon would cast his eyes on Portugal again, where he was seized by the British expeditionary army under Wellington’s command that tried to threaten the Imperial presence in the Peninsula. In the province of Salamanca, only thirty kilometres from the border with the kingdom of Portugal, Ciudad Rodrigo still proudly rose, a fortress which was weakly fortified with a garrison of about five thousand men under the command of our protagonist.[6] The first thing that Herrasti did was to try to raise morale and prepare the garrison and the population to resist. He repaired the walls, undertook defensive works and put artillerymen where there had been none. In addition, he had time to produce documents directed to the Spanish soldiers who were caught between the imperial lines, such as that of the 27th March 1810 which states, in part:

"Run off without stopping, leaving that crowd of villains, to join your old comrades-in-arms, the true Spaniards who fight in our armies. Neither your life, nor your fortune, nor your reputation run any risk. In them you will find a warm welcome, and a prize that corresponds to the merit which you will earn. The memory of your loss will blot out whatever consideration of compassion and charity does not increase for you. Don’t waste this occasion for returning to the bosom of your true mother country and wiping out for ever a stain that mortifies you and tarnishes the Spanish name."[7]

The 25th April 1810, the VI Army Corps of Marshal Ney - integrated in the Army of Portugal, whose supreme commander was also marshal André Masséna - surrounded Ciudad Rodrigo. The first intimation to surrender made by Ney, one of the most famous generals of the Empire, received this answer from the Governor:

“As President of the Supreme Junta of Castile; as Governor of Ciudad Rodrigo; and as a military man, I have sworn to defend this place for its legitimate King Don Fernando VII, to the last drop of my blood: so I intend to fulfil it; and all the garrison and inhabitants of the city are resolved to do the same, that is the only answer to the proposals that have been made.”[8]

Herrasti trusted that he would get the help of the British and Portuguese allies under Wellington’s command, whose vanguard division, General Crawford’s Light Division, was only a few kilometres away in the town of Gallegos de Argañán. In spite of visits from Crawford to Ciudad Rodrigo and of dinners with the Governor promising him aid, the Commander in Chief of the allied army had other, very different plans: to withdraw his divisions progressively towards the interior of Portugal, to leave Ciudad Rodrigo and the Portuguese strength of Almeida to contain the Imperial army as long as possible and to take refuge soon after in the impressive fortifications that defended the Lisbon peninsula, - that had been their brilliant idea, so that the British army maintained a foothold on the Continent, hoping for a propitious moment to gain a victory over the French. It was not the moment for joining in a battle that was probably already lost, and with it the unique army that Great Britain had raised. The assistance of Ciudad Rodrigo was not fundamental to British interests, the reason the place would be left to its fate. Herrasti, in an act of nobility or perhaps making a tactful diplomatic speech, wrote about this circumstance:

“I certainly counted on the aid, by the offers and securities that he [Wellington] had given me; but as I know that in war there are often incidents and circumstances according to which one cannot go along with what one’s  first judgment proposed, and must sacrifice a part to save the whole, of course I understood that not being assisted depended on very powerful reasons, that were weighty and would be considered under the heading, whether they would be in the public interest; and thus I have not blamed the fact although it has been particularly against my own interest, and has deprived me of the greatest glory that I could wish in seeing the triumph of my efforts.”[9]

On the 10th July, when the Imperial forces were on the verge of assaulting the breach opened in the wall, in front of the tower of the cathedral which had been damaged by the impact of cannonballs, Herrasti commanded a white flag to be put out and sent a officer  who  could discuss a treaty to the French field with a message for Ney. Shortly after the Marshal came to the foot of the breach to discuss the capitulation. Herrasti was received with demonstrations of the greatest consideration, and after many praises of the sustained defence, Ney promised that the people and property of the inhabitants of the city would be respected. However, all the men who had participated in the defence, and the members of the Central Junta who had encouraged it, would be taken as prisoners to France . The Army of Portugal could not be allowed to leave behind himself an enemy contingent so numerous, even if taken prisoner.

With great difficulty, on the road  to captivity, Herrasti hurriedly wrote a brief report to the Secretary of War, General Bardají Azara at Hernani, dated 30th July 1810. His fixed intention was to give an account of all that occurred during the siege of Ciudad Rodrigo and to justify his decision to capitulate:

“(...) with the greatest praise of the sustained defence, I am  sure, taking the exact moment of the surrender, that half an hour later it would not have taken place. Indeed, I can say without flattering myself that throughout the time around the siege I was able  correctly to read, as though in a book, all the operations and aims of the besiegers and to forestall them appropriately, delaying the ultimate resort for hours, and considering them to be without remedy, I saved many lives per minute, and fulfilled all reasonable duties, after having gloriously acquitted all military ones.”[10]

Indeed, it was right that Herrasti, a military man, was to pass into history through his esteem for human life, since he knew how to render the city at the precise moment to avoid a slaughter by the Imperial forces in retaliation, and absolutely did not fail in his duty as a soldier. Perhaps for this reason, his humanity, Herrasti did not enter the list of glorious patriots headed by Palafox, who, shut up in Saragossa, looking for his own security, brought therefore misfortune on its inhabitants, who fought until exhaustion for the independence of Spain. Although one feels, as I  do, that without knowing it, they did more as a shield than the “hero” Palafox, the same man who left the battlefield of Tudela, and who would not fall prisoner into the hands of the French, something that finally happened after multiple scenes of horror and thousands of dead in unfortunate Saragossa.

With more time and tranquillity, already prisoner in Mâcon (capital of the Department of Saône and Loire), Herrasti again reproduced the report of the 30th July, and on the 30th September formulated a second report that complemented the previous one and concentrated on an exhaustive account of the damage undergone by the city and the impossibility of its defence in the final moments of the siege. Herrasti was obsessed with the idea that someone in Spain could misinterpret the events at Ciudad Rodrigo, mainly after he got the news that the Military Commissioner Policarpo Anzano had published a “Detailed Account of the Siege.”[11] For this reason, in 1811, he decided to write his own “Historical and Detailed Account of the Events of the Siege of Ciudad Rodrigo in 1810, up to its surrender to the French Army commanded by the Prince of Essling the 10th July of the same”, with the intention:

“that all my compatriots, who have been equally interested in knowing the detail of those events, and applauded the gallant efforts of the brave leaders, officers, garrison, residents and others who cooperated with them, have the exact information about it all, thus having their rightful  place with me, in this short homage, to the gratitude and recognition of the praises and applause that the public has given to me as the leader of such worthy and meritorious defenders of the mother country”.

Herrasti’s “Account” was published in a volume printed by the Repullés press of Madrid in 1814 and is a primary document that deserves to be known in its entirety.

The importunate character of Herrasti, always asking for improvements in the conditions of life of the Spanish prisoners, had the effect that at the end of 1811 he was transferred - together with other Spanish officers of unruly character - to a much harder fate:

“I was taken with vituperation to the public jail and led from it to the fortress of Landau, (...) where they locked me up and they had me there for five months without outside contact, causing me the injury in the legs that I suffer from.”[12]

The low temperatures and humidity caused the 61-year-old Marshal serious arthritis and rheumatism and his conditions only improved when the position of governor of the fortress of Landau was relieved, that caused General Verrières and his wife to make a report of pleasant memories of Herrasti during his captivity:

“I have asked and obtained from the King, who authorizes me to thank General Verrières, Governor of Landau, in his Royal Name, who replaced what had caused problems in my prison; he removed me from it and he did me the greatest honours (...).”[13]

Like other Spanish deportees, Herrasti recovered his freedom in 1814 after the abdication of Napoleon. A decree of the provisional Government of Louis XVIII arranged that “to end the scourge of the war and to repair as far as possible its terrible results” all the military prisoners would be put “at the disposal of his respective powers.”[14] In a lamentable physical and moral state, Herrasti still had to face the Consejo de Guerra de Purificación in Madrid, that luckily did not find in Herrasti the smallest treason to the Bourbons, which its ‘purification’ determined, and it recommended that he be employed by the King “in the destiny and class that H.M desires”. The King had the benevolence to promote him to Lieutenant General on the 28th July 1814 with seniority from the day of the surrender of Ciudad Rodrigo; that is to say, the 10th July 1810. That same year he was awarded the decoration of the Order of the Lily by the restored French king Louis XVIII “to honour his adhesion to the Bourbon cause” and in 1816 the appointment of Cavalier of the Gran Cruz Laureada de San Fernando, that shines with all his insignia in the picture in the uniform of Lieutenant General  which is displayed in the Town Hall of Ciudad Rodrigo. But, instead of so many distinctions, it would have been better for him to have been granted a position more suitable to his state of health. In the same year of his rise to Lieutenant General, Fernando VII, ignoring Herrasti’s problems, sent him as Military and Political Governor to Barcelona, where the humid climate would aggravate his rheumatic ailment. Herrasti would move to the Catalan capital with his wife from 1792 - the noble Maria Antonia de Luca y Timmermans - and would die there on the 24th January 1818, after a life entirely dedicated to the military, and after employing his last years in undertaking essential city-planning improvements in the city of Barcelona, such as the construction of the first cemetery outside the walls.

Today, taking a walk in beautiful Ciudad Rodrigo, you can find without difficulty a little square, located next to the tower of the cathedral, that was baptized at the time with the name of Herrasti Square, in the centre of which a small stone pavilion was erected over a hundred years ago and dedicated to the memory of our protagonist and the units which were raised and participated in the defence of the place in 1810. Little enough for such a distinguished person. If fate should take you to Granada, you will not even be able to see there the plate placed on number 6 Aranda Street, that indicates that this was the house in which Herrasti was born, since neglect transformed into dirt prevents your reading it.

Vae Victis


[1] This data is known thanks to the diary of  the soldier Cipriano Calvo, published by Professor Tomás Pérez elgado in a volume whose title is Guerra de la Independencia y Deportación: Memorias de un soldado de Ciudad Rodrigo (1808-1814). and published by the Centro de Estudios Mirobrigenses in 2004.

[2] The situation of Salamanca near the border with Portugal turned the province into the scene of several battles, sieges and combats: Tamames (1809), Alba de Tormes (1809), Ciudad Rodrigo (1810 and 1812), Villar de Puerco (1810), Fuentes de Oñoro (1811), El Bodón (1811), Fuertes de Salamanca (1812), Arapiles (1812), Garcihernández (1812).

[3] Data taken from the biography titled El General Pérez de Herrasti. Héroe de Ciudad Rodrigo, written by Julio Ramón Laca in 1967 (pp. 11-47).

[4] Some actions appear detailed in the personnel record of Perez de Herrasti, which  is kept in the General Military Archives at Segovia.

[5] have been  assisted with this data by Colonel Juan José Sañudo, who in his untiring work of documentation in the Senate Library has been able to find out that Perez de Herrasti played a major role in the coup d'état of Aranjuez.

[6] The garrison of Ciudad Rodrigo when Herrasti received command of the place was formed by a Battalion of Artillery, an Engineer company, the Majorca Regiment, the Battalion of Volunteers of Avila, the Provincial Regiment of Segovia, three Battalions of Volunteers of Ciudad Rodrigo, a Battalion of Urban Militias, and a company of invalids. Altogether about 5,500 men.

[7] Document kept at the Military Historical Service.

[8] Pérez de Herrasti, A. (1814) Relación Histórica y Circunstanciada de los Sucesos del Sitio de la Plaza de Ciudad Rodrigo en el año 1810, hasta su rendición al Exército Francés mandado por el príncipe de Essling el 10 de julio del mismo [Historical and Detailed Account of the Events of the Siege of Ciudad Rodrigo in 1810, until its surrender to the French Army sent by the Prince of Essling the 10th July of the same] (p. 77).

[9] Pérez de Herrasti, A. (1814) Relación (p 117)

[10] Laca, J.R. (p 126)

[11] Anzano, Policarpo (1810) El Sitio de Ciudad Rodrigo  o Relación Circunstanciada de las ocurrencias sucedidas en esta plaza desde 25 de abril de este año, en que empezaron su sitio los franceses al mando del Mariscal Masséna, hasta el 10 de julio del mismo, que entraron en ella a las siete de aquella tarde. [The Siege of Ciudad Rodrigo or Detailed Account of the occurrences which happened here from the 25th April of this year, in which the French under the command of Marshal Masséna began their siege, to the 10th July, which they entered the city on the 7th, behind schedule. ]

[12] Sanchez Arjona and De Velasco, J.M. (1957) Ciudad Rodrigo en la Guerra de la Independencia (p. 102).

[13] Sanchez Arjona and De Velasco, J.M (p. 102).

[14] Circular n.º 14 of the Ministry of War, 13th April 1814, giving an account of the Provisional Government’s decree on freedom of the foreign military prisoners, signed by the Dukes of Benevento and Dalberg, General Bernounville, Jarcourt and the Abbé Montesquieu (General archives of Vicennes, C 18/64).


Placed on the Napoleon Series: November 2008

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