Sunday, July 04, 2010

Salamonde and the 3 bridges
Soult in the Cavado Valley 12th - 17th May 1809

On the morning of the 15th Soult as he waited for the last of his men to make their way down the mountain paths in to Lenhoso, he sent Lahousayee's Dragoons back down the Cãvado valley to see if the British were in Braga. As he had suspected, they were, and with Chaves soon to be in the hands of Beresford and Silveira closing in fast over the Sierra Calabria, Soult now abandoned the idea of marching on Chaves and instead planned to move through Salamonde and then take the path to Montaglere.

Just beyond Salamonde the road passes through a defile, the main road to Chaves then turns right and passes over the Rio Saltadour at the Ponte Velha (Ponte do Rui), whilst a narrow path turns left and winds it's way down the gorge to cross the Saltadaour via the Ponte Nova (Ponte Salatadour). From here the path moves along the banks of the Cãvado by-passing Ruiãves before then crossing the tributary Rio Rabagão at the Ponte Miserala (Ponte do Diablo). With the constant rain of the last three days the Rio Saltadour and the Rio Rabagão, often little more than streams at this time of year, had been turned into raging torrents impassable anywhere except via the bridges.

Clearly the key to his escape lay in the possession of the bridges at Ruiãves.

By the end of the day his vanguard had passed through Salamonde. However that evening scouts reported that the Portuguese were defending both the Ponte Velha and the Ponte Nova at Ruiãves, his escape route was once more blocked!

Beresford had desptached Major Warre and Capitan Gomes to Ruiãves to alert the local Ordenanças of Soult's approach. Warre found the Captain-Mor de Ruivães, Antonio Luis de Miranda, who led the Ordenanças in Ruivães and advised him on the importance of the three bridges to the escape of Soult and the II Corps. The Captain-Mor collected together 1300 men and had support from two old pieces of artillery. He split his force between the 3 bridges, each force would be responsible for destroying a bridge and then defending against any attempt to repair and cross it.

Ponte Nova
The Ponte Nova today lies some 30 meters under the waters formed by the Salamonde Dam. The bridge lies in the center of this picture taken from the main road, it would run left to right bridging the Rio Saltadour before it flows out to join the Cavado.
Unlike the Ponte Miserela and Ponte Velha which were of Roman origin, the Ponte Nova was built in medieval times and was not as substantially built with the bridge deck made of planks of wood.

Soult however lost no time: he summoned Major Dulong de Rosnay of the 32eme Legere, who was renown throughout the II Corps, and instructed him to take 100 picked men and force a passage of the Ponte Nova by a surprise action during night of the 15th/16th.

The brave Major under cover of night, came up on the bridge in complete silence. Leaving his men hiding nearby he went forward alone to study the situation, and noted with both dismay and disbelief that though the main arch of the Ponte Nova was torn down the defenders had left a board stretched between two arms of the bridge and posted a solitary guard on the west bank. Dulong killed the guard with his saber before any alarm could be raised, then followed by 12 Grenadiers he crawled across the bridge, one of the grenadiers fell from the bridge but the river being in full flood covered his cry. Once the Major and his small party were on the opposite bank they quickly fell on the first post of the peasants, a nearby hut in which the unwary defenders of the bridge sheltered. Suddenly, without time to react, the sleepy peasants glimpsed though the light of the faint remains of a fire, the flashing of the cold steel of bayonets and sabers. A few seconds sufficed to consummate this tragedy in almost total silence. The rest of Dulong force then moved into position, some were posted on the slopes above the bridge as cover whilst the remainder began to cross one by one. At this point the Captain-Mor, finally alerted to what was going on near the bridge, tried to react but in the darkness facing determined and experienced men who were well supported, confusion quickly grew then turned to panic and the remainder of his forces broke and fled.

Soult's pioneers set to work to repair the bridge and by 8am it was ready for the army to begin crossing. Getting 20,000 men across its rickety span however was not going to be a quick process, the temporary repairs only allowed two at a time to cross and cavalry needed to dismount less they break the fragile structure, with Wellesley closing in on his rear time was something he was short off so Soult decide to leave a rearguard to defend the narrow valley at Salamonde in the hope of delaying Wellseley long enough for him to make his escape.

Soult however was just about to discover he had even bigger problems.

Ponte Misarela

Soult's advanced guard crossed the Ponte Nova and by mid morning were closing in on the Ponte Miserrella unaware that it too was blocked by some of Captain-Mor's Ordenanças.

The Ponte Misarela is an old bridge of Roman origin, it is about 3 meters wide, 12 meters in length and stands some 30 meters above the river bed. On the far or eastern bank it is bordered by a vertical cliff face of about 10 meters in height, the path turns left immediately after the bridge and climbs up along the cliff face eventually reaching the top at some distance. There is a small flat open area at the base of the cliff just at the end of the bridge. On the Ruivães or western side the terrain is lower and open, there is a path which winds it's way along the side of the hill, though the hillside above the path is relatively easily accessible there is little or no cover with musket range. There is an open flat area at the end of the bridge though it is much smaller than on the eastern side.

At the Ponte Misarela entrenched on the far bank, guarding the bridge, whose passage was barred by heavy obstacles, were some 400 men, commanded by Sergeant Major Jose Maria de Miranda, son of Captain-Mor Antonio Miranda.

He had been tasked the previous evening by his father to cut the bridge and then defend it against any attempt to cross. Sergeant Major Miranda however failed to convince his men, who were local's, that there was a real need to cut the bridge. They reasoned that the bridge was essential to cross the river with their crops and cattle on their way to market in Braga, moreover, did not everyone want the French out of Portugal, so why block their passage now they wanted to do just that.

The Sergeant Major therefore barricaded the bridge and sheltered his forces on the cliffs that dominated the far side of the passage, behind the rugged chestnut and oak trees growing there.

Around mid-morning the advanced guard was sighted, advancing quickly, behind them trailed a long line of men and animals, fatigued, they marched north harassed, but with hunger and fear and in such numbers that they still remained a formidable, dangerous and violent force.

Once the advanced guard of the II Corps arrived within shooting distance they were met by a volley that decimated the front ranks and they quickly retreated in surprise.
Soult, near the bridge, carefully studied the situation and instructed Generals Loison and Heudelet to assemble and execute an attack to take the passage by force, and drive the Portuguese from their positions. The voltigeurs of the Garde de Paris plus a battalion each of from the 15eme and 32eme Legere were assembled for the task.

After two failed assaults, Major Dulong was again called for and a third assault carried the barricades though Dulong himself fell during the attack wounded by a shot to the head but at last after several hours, finally in the late afternoon, the passage had been won and the Ordenanças were displaced from their positions and none too soon because as Major Dulong fell the sound of cannon fire was heard from the direction of Salamonde, Welleseley had arrived!

Having only overcome this difficulty after a great delay there was little time to rest, but the width of the tiny Ponte do Misarela, aggravated by the destruction of their guard rails, hindered it's passage, forcing troops to cross in single file, with further long delays caused by the resistance of the mules and horses that were terrified of the abyss. The II Corps now was stretched out from the Ponte Misarela to it's rear somewhere between Salamonde and Ponte Nova.
With the noise from the rear of the cannon and musket fire, unable to maneuver on the small path to defend themselves, and feeling completely helpless some started to panic.

After he had crossed Soult's Chief of Staff General de Brigade Richard sent an ADC to find out what was happening with the rearguard, the press of men over the Ponte Misarela was such he never made it across. Many men, even in the path, began to look forward to there comrades ahead and pushing forward, running over each other, trying to reach the vicinity of the bridge, throwing away their weapons and equipment, and in their eagerness to escape a terrible situation arose; Many men on the bridge were thrown into the abyss, if the pursuit had not stopped then surely a catastrophe would have occurred. The last troops of Soult to pass the Ponte Misarela and leave this scene of death and horror, was the Merle's Division of Reynaud's Brigade, the II Corps rearguard, between ten and midnight from 16th to 17th. By the end of the day on the 17th most of Soult’s army had finally reached Montalegre and safety.


On the 15th Wellesley’s advance guard reached Braga and spotted Lahoussaye Dragoon's approaching along the Braga-Chaves road. Seeing the British were already in Brag, Lahoussaye Dragoon's started to retire on the main body at Lehonso and the British 14th Light Dragoons followed them up and then pursued Soult's rearguard, now comprising of Merle's Infantry Division and Franchesci Cavalry, as they retreated up the Cãvado valley towards Salomonde. Wellesley's infantry however never made it any further than Braga by nightfall.

The French quartered for the night in Salomonde taking over many of the houses after the inhabitants had fled to the mountains on hearing of their approach. The next morning (the 16th), they began retiring along the main Braga-Chaves road, the rearguard pulled out around midday, as usual the French had looted and torched the village before they left.

Just after passing through the defile beyond Salamonde the terrain opens out. To the left of the road the ground opens out into a field fronted by a lateral ravine down which a stream flows to the Cãvado 1000 meters away. To the right of the road there is a cliff face which marks the edge of the mountains which climb up to the sierra, the main road continued on to Ruiãves, whilst in the beyond the field in the distance a small path led down to the Ponte Nova.

Here Soult had stationed his rear guard, Reynaud's Brigade of Merle's Division (4eme Legere and 15eme Line) and Franceschi Light Cavalry Brigade (1er Hussars and 22eme Chasseurs a Cheval), with orders to hold off Wellesley at all costs until the army had crossed the Ponte Nova. However owing to the long distance Wellesley's infantry had to cover the day wore on without any serious action. The 14th and 16th Light Dragoons came up on this position at about 1:30pm and realised that they were not strong enough to take on the rearguard, and so settled down to wait for reinforcements, that is apart from engaging in some serious harassing of the French picquets.

In the late afternoon the rearguard was reduced and by the time Wellesley arrived at 5pm there remained only the 4eme Legere and 2 squadrons of light cavalry, positioned in the fields. Wellesley had with him two companies of Hanoverian light infantry, one company of the 5/60th Rifles, two three-pounder cannons and two Guards battalions. Wellseley decided to make an immediate attack and ordered the two cannon to begin bombarding the French centre. At the same time the light infantry were sent up into the cliffs south of the road to try and turn the French left flank. After some time when they light infantry had finally worked themselves into position he ceased the bombardment and launched the Guards directly up the hill at the French. With light fading fast the French eventually withdrew down the path to the Ponte Nova. At first there was some confusion about where the French had gone as it was thought they had retired down the main road to Ruiaves but after advancing as far as the Ponte Velha they could not be found, however from there they were then spotted at the Ponte Nova and the three pounders firing from the main road caused panic in the rearguard and heavy losses were suffered as they attempted to cross the Ponte Nova at speed now in the dark and under fire.

Wellesley called a halt at the Ponte Nova as it there was now total darkness and the rear guard finally managed to make its way along the path reaching the Ponte Misarela sometime between 10pm to midnight and follow the rest of the army to Montalegre.

Late on 17th May Silveira finally reached Ruiãves. Wellesley decided not to lead his army into the mountains – the British infantry halted at Ruivães, and only Silveira and the 14th Light Dragoons were sent along the road to Montalegre. They arrived in Montalegre on the 18th May, only two hours after the last French troops left. After continuing the pursuit for one more day, at the end of 19th May Silveira returned to Montalegre. Soult had finally escaped to the relative safety of Spain.

Azeredo, Carlos.
As Populações a Norte do Douro e os Franceses em 1808 e 1809.
Aqui não passaram! - O erro fatal de Napoleão. (reprint of the above)
Oman, Charles William Chadwick.
The History of the Peninsular War, Volume II.

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