Thursday, July 01, 2010

Retreat from Oporto
Soult in the Cavado Valley 12th - 17th May 1809

Five days in May! Soult's nail biting flight from Oporto, is an absolute goldmine for the skirmish gamer, but before covering the individual actions first let's describe the overall series of events that will provide the framework for later posts.

Marshal Soult was driven out of Oporto on May 12th in some confusion but by the time he reached Valongo order had been restored and a rear-guard established. Halting that night beyond Valongo at Baltar some 14 miles east of Oporto Soult believed he was now out of danger and was planning to continue his retreat east through Amarante, which was held by Loison's Division, then on to Chaves and across the border in to Estremadura.

General Loison had not been heard of for several days and a concerned Soult sent an an aide-de-camp to ascertain his exact position. Unbeknownst to Soult, Loison early on 12th May had decided to retreat north west towards Braga, abandoning the position at Amarante to Beresford and nothing the ADC could say or even the later news of Soults retreat from Oporto could do anything to halt Loison, leaving his commander and two-thirds of the army to what appeared to be inevitable destruction.

Soult received the appaling news at 1:30am on 13th May at Baltar, he was now trapped between Wellesley at Oporto and Beresford and Silveira at Amarante, between the Douro to the south and the mountains to the north. Though all seemed lost Soult was determined not give up and felt there must be a way across the montains to the north and a Spanish pedlar was found who knew of a mountain path into the valley of the Avé from where he could easily reach Braga and the road to Chaves. He quickly took the main road to Ponte Penafiel, where he then destroyed all his heavy baggage and artillery, before setting out across the mountain road north to Guimarães in the Avé valley, by the morning of 14th May Soult had safely reached Guimarães and linked up with Loison. A heavy drenching rain began that would last for three days, that only added further to their miseries.

Soult was still in deep trouble, the main road through Guimarães links Amarante, which he knew to be in Portuguese hands, with Braga, which he now began to suspect might already be in British hands. Loison and others were already talking of surrender but Soult decided instead to once more take to the mountain paths and head up the Avé valley and then cross the mountains into the Cãvado valley, reaching the Chaves road upstream of Braga. This time it was Loison's turn to have to abandon all his baggage and artillery. By the end of 14th May most of Soult’s army had reached Lenhoso, eight miles up the valley from Braga, on the main road east to Chaves, though his rearguard who had been unable to reach Lenhoso before dark spent a miserable night in the hills above.

The Cãvado valley runs east from the coast to Braga and then Salamonde, just east of Salamonde it turns towards to the north east heading towards the border. The valley is wide and gentle until it reaches Salamonde, where it begins to get narrower and more rugged. The main road from Braga to Chaves follows the southern side of the river as far as Salomonde, it then cuts through the mountain to head east crossing the Rio Saltadour via Ponte de Rez (Ponte Velha) at Ruivães (Ruivaens) and then on to Chaves, whilst a minor road turns north, cutting across the Saltadour at the Ponte Nova (Ponte do Saltadour) then the Rio Rabagao at the Ponte de Misarela (Ponte do Diablo), and heads towards the border town of Montalegre although it was considered impassable by an army.

On 15th May Soult sent Lahousayee's Dragoons down the Cãvado valley to see if the British were in Braga. As he had expected, they were, for Wellesley had left Oporto on the previous day, and his cavalry reached Braga early on 15th May. Expecting Beresford to have already left Amarante heading for Chaves and would therefore reach that place before him and also hearing that Brigadier Salveria was on his way over the Sierra Calabria Soult had no option but to head for Montaglere.

Indeed Beresford left Amarante and began to march north early on the 14th May heading for Chaves with the aim of cutting off Soult, and by midnight on 16th/17th May he had reached Chaves through a series of forced marches, though his troops were now too worn out to begin an immediate march on Ruivães. Beresford had sent Silveira ahead along a shorter cross country route directly to Ruivães to block the road, but he had inexplicably dawdled (indeed Beresford was to actually pass him on his way to Chaves) and arrived at Ruivães late on 17th May, Wellesley himself moved up from Braga towards Ruivães late on the 16th but it was all to late, for Soult, as we shall see, had by the skin of his teeth escaped, the French were already gone reaching Montaglere late on the 17th.

A muster taken on 19th May at Orense found 19,713 men left out of the 25,500 who had been involved in the campaign. 1,000 men had been lost before Wellesley arrived, while 800 had been captured when Silveira retook Chaves, of the remaining 4,000, half were lost between Baltar and Orense. Whilst his escape was a truly remarkable achievement, Soult had also been forced to abandon all of his artillery along with his heavy baggage and his army could be considered combat ineffective for the next few months.

Wellesley attention now turned to central Portugal. He wanted to act before the French could take the initiative and so took the road that would ultimately lead him to Talavera on 28 July 1809.
Oman A History of the Peninsular War - Volume 2
Napier History of the war in the Peninsula
The London Quarterly Review, Volume 56 - p293
History Of War - Wellesley’s Campaign in Portugal: The Chase

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