Siege of Chaves
|Siege of Chaves|
|Part of the Peninsular War|
|Commanders and leaders|
|Casualties and losses|
3,500 men captured
50 cannons captured
4 to 5 men killed
12 cannons captured
More than 1,000 rifles captured
The Siege of Chaves refers to the French siege and capture of Chaves, Portugal from 10 to 12 March 1809, and the subsequent siege and recapture of the town by Portuguese forces from 21 to 25 March 1809, during the second invasion of Portugal in the Peninsular War.
The French Invasions (1807-1811)
Portugal suffered three invasions by French forces during the turbulent period of the Peninsular War. The northern region of Trás-os-Montes, as all the country, had succumbed to the Napoleonic regency of Junot. As soon as news came of the disembarkation of the British in Portuguese Estremadura, the rebellion broke out. Bragança, and soon after Chaves, proclaimed liberation. The militias were formed to fight the invader.
Napoleon, worried about what was happening in Spain and upset with the failure of the expedition of his forces, decided to come personally to the Peninsula in whose submission he had invested 300,000 men. The British, who had disembarked in 1807 in Galicia under the command of general John Moore, did not surpass 30,000 in number. With his customary mobility Napoleon multiplied himself, divided and destroyed the British and the Spanish in quick and precise blows. He ordered Soult to pursue the British in Galicia. Moore's army was defeated and hounded across the mountains of Lugo; the British general himself was killed during the final combats carried out around the bay of Coruña, where the remnants of his forces re-embarked.
Some months later the same Soult received orders to invade Portugal from the North and expel the British from Portuguese soil. The carrying out of the order was, however, strongly impeded by the winter, which had made the Minho River almost impassable, and by the resistance of Portuguese forces located between Cerveira and Valença. Then general Soult decided to go around the mountainous border of the Upper Minho and make his penetration across the dry border of Trás-os-Montes. His forces numbered around 23,000 men (among them 4,000 on horse) and 50 pieces of artillery. Some of these troops were experienced since they had participated in the battles of Friedland and Austerlitz. The border was crossed on 7 March 1809.
The attack on Chaves
The defence of the border of Trás-os-Montes was in the hands of brigadier Francisco Silveira, whose forces, numbering 2,800 regular troops, 2,500 militia and only 50 cavalry, were concentrated around the stronghold of Chaves. The fortifications, who were in bad conditions, were protected by 50 pieces of artillery, but with only a few of them fit for service, were commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Francisco Pizarro. After initial skirmishes near the border, the Portuguese forces retreated to Chaves, and then Silveira ordered the abandonment of the stronghold.
This decision caused great unrest among the militias and the population. Prudently, the brigadier led his forces south avoiding any risk against the superior forces. But pressured by the people and the militias, lieutenant colonel Francisco Pizarro disobeyed orders and accepted the command of the popular forces, preparing to resist the invading forces with 500 troops (1st line), 2,000 militias (2nd line) and 1,200 ordenanças (3d line). Silveira tried to change his mind, even calling a war council to discuss the problem, but he couldn't get a formal decision, especially since the French who arrived on 10 March were now preparing to attack the most northerly fort of São Neutel. Pizarro held his ground and the future count left with his officers to join his forces, who had occupied the highlands south of Chaves.
Soult then summoned the stronghold of Chaves to surrender, but no answer was given. But soon it was obvious in the stronghold that defence was useless. Although fire from the artillery and muskets persisted since the French arrival, the defenders ultimately recognized that Silveira’s decision to retreat had been the most sensible one. Soult sent a second message calling for the surrender of the stronghold, and it was accepted on the 12 March. Chaves surrendered and the French troops marched into the town on 13 March. Soult, with so many prisoners on his hands, released the civilians of the militias and ordenanças, under oath of not taking up arms against the French, and tried to recruit 500 of the line troops, who soon deserted. These actions by Marshal Soult were strongly criticized by several of his officers, especially those who had participated in the first French invasion of Portugal of the previous year under Junot, as they preferred that the stronghold had been taken by assault and the garrison put to the sword.
The Portuguese counterattack
Meanwhile the Portuguese forces had left their positions near Vidago and retreated farther south to a low pass between Vila Pouca and Vila Real. Soult, though, had decided to make his way south by way of the Barroso, due west instead of south. He left a small garrison of a few hundred men in Chaves under the command of Major Messeger, and the hospital he had transferred from Monterey, Galicia, with many wounded or sick. As soon as Silveira knew that the main French army has gone away, he decided to attack Chaves. For some days a French detachment had approached Vila Pouca in an attempt to force the entrenched Portuguese forces to retreat. But soon it was discovered that these forces had gone to Boticas to join up with the main French army which was already on its way west. Soult's army went on to win the First Battle of Porto.
Once again Silveira went down into the Tâmega River valley and attacked the Chaves stronghold on 21 March. The small French garrison tried to resist, but the Portuguese knew the town well and were able to penetrate the walls through an opening called the "Opening of the Butchershops." In the streets there was hand-to-hand combat, and the French, leaving almost 300 dead, retreated into the São Francisco Fort. 200 French fell prisoners into the hands of the Portuguese. The Portuguese, having no artillery, blockaded the French for four days. On the fifth day, when all was ready for the final assault to be carried out by escalating the fort, Silveira gave Messeger an ultimatum, under which he should surrender without conditions. Messeger then requested an hour of truce in order to take a decision. After the time given had ended, and still without a response, Silveira issued a final ultimatum, warning Messenger that if he did not surrender in five minutes he would give orders for the storming of the fort. The French commander immediately surrendered without conditions. 25 officers, 23 civilians and surgeons, and about 1,300 soldiers were captured and taken under escort to Vila Real. 114 Spanish who were left in Chaves as prisoners by Soult were restored to liberty.
This skilful and valiant maneuver by Silveira seriously upset Soult's plans, obliging him to wait, for lack of supply lines, between the Douro and the Vouga. After the Second Battle of Porto, the French army was obliged by Wellesley to retreat quickly to its starting point, the city of Ourense in Galicia, Spain. In the final phase of this retreat, Silveira was almost able to intercept the French troops near Montealegre. Some of his detachments were even able to see the rearguard crossing the border near the rugged mountains of Larouco. Beresford had come up to Chaves and let the opportunity to destroy the French slip away. Once the danger had passed, Beresford, under the insistence of Silveira, called a court martial for Francisco Pizarro. This War Council took place in Lisbon in 1809 and found the reckless lieutenant colonel innocent of the charges.
This successful defeat of the French by the badly equipped Portuguese army gave the town of Chaves an important place in Portuguese history. It, together with the defeat of pro-Royalist forces in 1912, gave Chaves the deserved title of the Heroic City of Chaves (Cidade Heróica de Chaves), the name of many streets and avenues in Portugal.
- Napier, p.181
- Napier, p.182
- Southey, p.175
- Soriano, p. 201, 202
- Soriano, p. 202
- Menezes, p.131
- Soriano, p. 201
- Southey, p.169
- Soriano, p. 123
- Napier, This wise and gentle proceeding was much blamed by some of his officers, especially those who had served under Junot. They desired that Chaves might be assaulted, and the garrison put to the sword, for they were embued with a personal hatred of the Portuguese, and being adverse to serve in the present expedition, endeavoured, as it would appear, to thwart their general (...) p.182
- Southey, p.195
- William Francis Patrick Napier, History of the War in the Peninsula and in the South of France, from the Year 1807 to the Year 1814. Volume 2 ISBN 9781402111341
- Simão José da Luz Soriano, Historia da guerra civil e do estabelecimento do governo parlamentar em Portugal. (1871)
- Robert Southey, History of the Peninsular War, Volume 2 (1827)
- Francisco de Alpuim Cerqueira de Menezes, Historia antiga e moderna da sempre leal e antiquissima villa de Amarante (1814)