BATTLE OF AUSTERLITZ.
It was in the latter part of November, 1805, that Napoleon, on riding over the country around Austerlitz, determined to make it the battle-field on which he would overthrow the combined armies of Austria and Russia. Rapidly concentrating his forces here, he on the last night of November found himself at the head of nearly eighty thousand men. His army was drawn up in a plain, with the right resting on Lake Moenitz, and the left six miles distant on a hill, which was covered with artillery. Two little streams flowed past the army into the lake, bordered with marshes to protect it, while on a high slope was pitched the Emperor's tent, overlooking the whole scene. Opposite the French army was a waving line of heights, the highest of which, Mount Pratzen, a few miles distant, formed the center of the allied forces, numbering ninety thousand men, commanded by the emperors of Russia and Austria in person. Under Soult was placed the finest corps in the army, for the weight of the battle was designed to rest on him, and the heights of Pratzen, forming the enemy's center, was to be his field of combat.
Napoleon had been on horseback all day long, and after dark was riding along the lines previous to his departure to his tent, when the news of his approach spread like lightning through the whole army. Suddenly the soldiers seized the bundles of straw that had been supplied them for their beds, and, lighting them at one end lifted them on poles over their heads, making an illumination as splendid as it was unexpected. All along through the valley those blazing torches lighted the path of the astonished Napoleon—the first anniversary of his coronation. Suddenly the enthusiastic shout of "Vive l'Empereur!" burst around him. The cry was caught by the next and the next battalion as he advanced, and prolonged by those he had left, till the shout of that immense host filled all the valley, and rose like the roar of the sea over the heights, miles away, falling, with an ominous sound, on the camp of the enemy. It was a scene that baffles description. Those myriad torches, blazing and swinging to and fro in the darkness—a broad mass of flame losing itself in the distance—and the shout of that army, rolling in such deafening accents after Napoleon, formed together a far more imposing ceremony than his coronation in the capital.
Next morning at four o'clock Napoleon was on horseback beside his tent. The moon had just gone down, the stars shone pale and tremulous in the sky, and all was silent and tranquil around [Pratzen]. Not a sound broke from the immense host that slumbered below, over which the motionless fog lay like a white covering—or it might be a shroud in anticipation of the thousands that ere night would there lie stark and stiff in their last sleep. But amid the deep hush his quick ear caught a low, continuous sound beyond the heights of Pratzen, like the heavy tread of marching columns and rumbling of artillery carriages over the ground. The deep murmur passed steadily from right to left, showing that the allies were gathering their force against his right wing. At length the sun rose slowly above the horizon, tinging with gold the heights of Pratzen, on which were seen moving dense masses of infantry, and poured its glorious light over the sea of mist that slept in the valleys below. It was the "Sun of Austerlitz." The hour, the scene, the immense results at stake, and the sudden bursting of that blazing fire-ball on his vision, made a profound impression on Napoleon, which he never forgot.
The allies, intent on outflanking the French, were weakening their center by drawing off the troops to the left. The marshals who stood around the Emperor saw the fault of the enemy, and eagerly asked permission to take advantage of it. But he, turning to Soult, whose troops were massed in the bottom of the valley near the heights, covered by the fog, asked him how long it would take to reach the summit of Pratzen. "Less than twenty minutes," replied the marshal. "Wait a little, then," said Napoleon; "when the enemy is making a false movement, it is necessary to be careful not to interrupt him." It was now eight o'clock in the morning, and soon after he gave the impatiently expected signal, and Murat, Lannes, Bernadotte, and Soult, who had stood around him, parted like lightning from his side, and swept in a headlong gallop to their respective corps. Napoleon rode toward the center, and as he passed through the troops, said: "Soldiers! the enemy has imprudently exposed himself to your strokes. Finish the campaign by a clap of thunder!" "Vive l'Empereur," answered him in one long, protracted shout.
In the mean time Soult emerged, with his strong battalions, from the covering mist, and, clothed in the rich sunlight, ascended, with an intrepid step, the slopes of Pratzen. It was a magnificent sight, and Napoleon watched with intense anxiety the advance of that splendid army. With banners fluttering in the morning sunlight, and drums and trumpets rending the air, the massive columns streamed upward and onward. In a moment the top of Pratzen was covered with smoke, from whose bosom issued thunder and lightning, as if a volcano was there hurling its fiery fragments in the air. Covered from sight, those two hosts mixed in mortal combat—struggled for the mastery, while the curtain of smoke that folded them in waved to and fro, and rent before the heavy artillery, and closed again, and rolled in rapid circles round the hill, telling to the armies below what wild work the stern Soult was making with the foe. At length the fire and smoke which Pratzen had belched forth for two hours grew less, the sulphurous cloud lifted in the midday sun, and lo! there waved the French standards, while a victorious shout went pealing over the armies struggling in the valley.
Soult, having pierced the enemy's center, next descended like an avalanche on their left wing. Bessières was charging like fire below with the Imperial Guard, and the whole field shook with the shock of cavalry and thunder of cannon, while the, entire valley was filled with rolling smoke, in which were moving dark masses of infantry. There was Murat, with his headlong valor, and Lannes, Davoust, and Augereau, strewing the field with the dead. At length, help being sent to Soult, the left of the enemy was borne away, and the allied army routed. Fleeing before the victorious marshal, Buxhowden bravely attempted to cover the retreat, and, forming his men into close column, strove gallantly to direct the reversed tide of battle. But, pierced through and trodden under foot, seven thousand fell before the victorious French, while the remainder attempted to escape by crossing a frozen lake near by with the artillery and cavalry. In a moment the white frozen surface was covered with dark masses of infantry, amid which were seen the carefully advancing squadrons of cavalry. Pressed by the enormous weight, the ice could scarcely sustain the multitude, when Soult suddenly ordered his cannon to play upon it. The iron storm crushed through the yielding mass, the whole gave way, and with one terrific yell that rose over the tumult of battle more than two thousand men sank to rise no more. Amid the swimming multitude the frighted cavalry-horses plunged to and fro, while on the struggling mass the artillery continued to play with deadly precision.
On the left Bernadotte, Murat, and Lannes were equally successful, and the bloody battle of Austerlitz was won. Nearly thirty thousand bodies strewed the field, and when night again closed over the scene Napoleon, weakened only by twelve thousand men, saw his menaced throne firmly established. Soult was the hero of the day, and after the battle was over Napoleon rode up to him and said, in presence of all his staff, "Marshal Soult, I consider you the ablest tactician in my empire."
Bonaparte never forgot the brilliant conduct of his marshal on this occasion, and years afterward, when he was told that the latter was aiming at the throne of Portugal, he made known to him that he had heard the reports, but added, "I remember nothing but Austerlitz."
But Soult exhibited his great qualities as a commander in his campaigns in Spain. He showed himself there superior as a tactician to all the other marshals, except Suchet, and was more than a match at any time for the Duke of Wellington. His very first movements convinced Napoleon of his superior ability. Arriving together at Bayonne, the Emperor immediately planned the campaign, and issued his orders. Soult was to supersede Bessières in the command of the second corps, in the path of which Napoleon, with his Imperial Guard, was to follow. In a few hours after he received his orders Soult's army was in motion. In fifty hours he traveled from Bayonne to Burgos, took the latter town, gained the battle of Gamonal; and, still on the post-horse he had mounted at Briviesca, where he took command of the army, pushed on his columns in every direction; and in a few days laid prostrate the whole north of Spain. Following up his successes, he marched against Sir John Moore, and, forcing him back step by step for a fortnight, across rivers and through mountains covered with snow, finally drove him into Corunna. There the English commander fortified himself, to await the transports that had been ordered round to receive his army. Soult opened his cannon on the place, and with his weary troops pressed his assaults vigorously, in the hope of forcing the English army to surrender before the arrival of the expected vessels. But Sir John Moore resolved to combat to the last, and prepared for a final battle. In the mean time, to prevent an immense magazine of powder of four thousand barrels from falling into the hands of the French, he ordered it to be blown up. A smaller quantity in a storehouse near it was first fired. The explosion of this first was like the discharge of a thousand cannon at once; but when the great magazine took fire, and those four thousand barrels exploded at once, the town rocked to and fro as if an earthquake was lifting its foundations. Rocks were uprooted by the shock, the ships in the harbor rose and fell on the sudden billows that swept under them; while a sound like the crash of nature itself startled the two armies as it rolled away before the blast.
At length the transports arrived, and the embarkation commenced, while Soult advanced to the attack. The battle soon became general, and Sir John Moore, while watching the progress of the fight, was struck by a cannon-ball on the breast and hurled from his horse. Rallying his energies, he sat up on the ground, and without a movement or expression of pain again fixed his eye on the conflict. Seeing that his men were gaining ground, he allowed himself to be carried to the rear. At the first glance it was plain that the ghastly wound was mortal. "The shoulder was shattered to pieces, the arm was hanging by a piece of the skin, the ribs over the heart were broken,and bared of the flesh, and the muscles of the breast torn into long strips, which were interlaced by their recoil from the draggling of the shot. As the soldiers placed him in a blanket, his sword got entangled, and the hilt entered the wound; Captain Hardinge, a staff officer, who was near, attempted to take it off, but the dying man stopped him, saying, ‘It is well as it is. I had rather it should go out of the field with me.'" Thus was the hero borne from the field of battle. He died before night, and was buried in the citadel of Corunna, the thunder of Soult's guns being the mournful salute fired above his grave. Actuated by a noble feeling, the brave marshal erected a monument to him on the spot where he fell.
The great ability which Soult exhibited in this pursuit caused Napoleon to rely on him chiefly in those operations removed from his personal observation, and he was ordered to invade Portugal. In the midst of the rainy season he set out from Corunna, and against the most overwhelming obstacles steadily and firmly pursued his way, until at length he arrived at Oporto, and sat down before the city.
STORMING OF OPORTO.
A summons to surrender being disregarded, he waited for the morning to carry the place by assault. But at midnight a terrific thunder-storm arose; the clouds in dark and angry masses swept the heavens; the wind blew with frightful fury, and the alarmed inhabitants, mistaking the roar of the blast for the tread of the advancing armies, set all their bells ringing, while two hundred cannon suddenly opened into the storm, and one fierce fire of musketry swept the whole circuit of the entrenchments. The loud and rapid ringing of so many bells in the midst of the midnight storm; the thunder of cannon replying to the thunders of heaven, as clap after clap broke over the city the fierce lightning outshining the flash of musketry; the roar of the wind and the confused cries of the inhabitants, as they rushed by thousands through the streets, combined to render it a scene of indescribable sublimity and terror. The French stood to their arms wondering what this strange uproar meant.
But at length the morning broke serene and clear, and the waving of standards in the air, the beat of drums, and the loud strains of the trumpets, told the inhabitants that Soult was finally leading his strong battalions to the assault. After an obstinate struggle the entrenchments were carried at all points, and the victorious army burst with loud shouts into the city. The routed army divided; a part fled towards the fort of St. Jao, the remainder toward the mouth of the Douro, in the hopeless attempt to cross by boats or by swimming. Their general, while expostulating with them on the madness of the effort, was shot by them in presence of the enemy, and the terror-stricken host rushed headlong into the river, and were almost to a man drowned.
But the battle still raged within the city, and the barricades of the streets being forced open, more than four thousand men, women, and children went pouring in one disordered mass to the single bridge of boats that crossed the river. But as if the frenzy, and tumult, and carnage were not yet sufliciently great, just then a defeated troop of Portuguese cavalry came in a wild gallop down the street, and with remorseless fury burst through the shrieking multitude, trampling all ages and sexes under their feet. Clearing a bloody pathway for themselves, they rushed on to the bridge, followed by the frantic crowd. The boats sunk, and where they went down floated a dense mass of human bodies, filling all the space between. The French soldiers as they came up, struck with amazement at the sight, forgot the work of death, and throwing down their muskets, nobly strained every nerve to save the sinking throng. Meanwhile the city rang with fire-arms and shrieks of the dying. Frantic as soldiers ever are in sacking a city, they were made doubly so by a spectacle that met them in one of the public squares. There, [stood?] upright, were several of their comrades who had been taken prisoners—their eyes burst asunder, their tongues torn out, and their whole bodies mutilated; while the breath of life still remained. Fierce cries of revenge now blent with the shouts of victory. The officers lost all control, though they mingled with the soldiers, and by their voice and efforts strove to stay the carnage of violence. Their efforts were in vain, and even the authority of Soult was, for a while, no more than threads of gossamer before the maddened passions of the soldiers. Ten thousand Portuguese fell in this single assault, and tbe streets of 0porto ran blood. Only five hundred Frenchmen were slain.
This sanguinary affair being over, Soult immediately established order, and by his vigorous measures, great kindness, and humanity, so won the esteem of the Portuguese that addresses came pouring in upon him from all quarters, and offers were made him of the throne of Portugal.
But this brilliant opening of his campaign was destined soon to meet with sad reverses. A large English force, unknown to him, had assembled in his vicinity, and were rapidly marching against him. In the mean time treason in his own camp began to show itself. Many of the French officers had resolved to deliver the army into the hands of the English. This conspiracy, extending more or less through the different armies in the peninsula, was set on foot to overthrow Napoleon. It was a long time before Soult could fathom these secret machinations. His own forces—their position and destination—were all known to the English, while he was left in utter uncertainty of their strength and plans. But at length his eyes were opened, and he saw at once the appalling dangers which surrounded him. It was then he exhibited the immense energy and strength of character he possessed. An abyss had opened under his feet, but he stood and looked into its impenetrable depths without a shudder. Not knowing whom to trust—almost enveloped by a superior enemy—he nevertheless took his decision with the calmness of a great mind. Compelled to fall back, he escaped as by a miracle the grasp of the enemy, and once more entered Oporto. Compelled to abandon the city, he continued to fall back, resting his hope on Loison, whom he had ordered to hold Amarante. But that general had departed, leaving his commander-in-chief to destruction. Soult heard of this new calamity at midnight, just after he had crossed the Souza River. The news spread through the dismayed army, and insubordination broke forth, and voices were heard calling for a capitulation. But Soult rose calmly above the storm, and learning from a Spanish peddler that there was a by-path across the mountains, instantly resolved to lead his troops over it. The treacherous and discontented were alike paralyzed by his firmness, and saw without a movement of resistance all the artillery and baggage destroyed; and with their muskets on their shoulders started over the mountains, and finally effected a junction with the retreating Loison. Nothing can be more sublime than the bearing of Soult in this retreat. Superior to treason, to complaints, and danger, he moved at the head of his distracted army with a firmness and constancy that awed rebellion and crushed all opposition.
Instead of retreating on the high road, which must have ensured his destruction, he commanded that all the artillery of Loison's corps also should be destroyed in presence of the army. Knowing when to sacrifice, and doing it with inflexibility of purpose that quelled resistance, he bent his great energies on the salvation of his army. Taking again to the mountains he gained a day's march on his pursuers. Reorganizing his ill-conditioned army, he took command of the rear-gnard himself, and thus kept his stern eye on the enemy, while the mutinous and traitorous were held before him and in reach of his certain stroke. Thus retreating the despoiled, starving army at length approached the river Cavado, when word was brought the marshal that the peasantry were destroying the only bridge across it. Should they succeed the last hour of his army had struck; for there it must halt, and by morning the English guns would be thundering on his rear while he had not a single cannon to answer them. The abyss opened wider beneath him, but over his marble features passed no shadow of fear. Calling Major Dulong to him—the bravest man in his ranks—he told him the enemy were destroying the bridge across the river ahead, and he had chosen him out of the whole army to save it. He ordered him to pick out a hundred grenadiers and twenty-five horsemen and surprise the guard and secure the passage. "If you succeed," said he, "send me word; but if you fail, send none—your silence will be sufficient." One would be glad to know what the last desperate resolution of that iron-willed commander was, should silence follow the bold undertaking of the brave Dulong.
He departed, while Soult waited with the intensest 4nxiety the result. The rain fell in torrents, the wind went howling fiercely by, and midnight blackness wrapped the drenched and staggering army as they stood barefoot and unsheltered in the storm. After a long and painful suspense a messenger arrived. "The bridge is won," fell on Soult's ear like hope on the dying. A flash of joy passed over his inflexible features, for he still might escape the pain of a surrender. The bold Dulong, with his strong grenadiers, covered by the darkness, had reached the bridge unseen and slain the sentinel before he could utter a cry of alarm. But what a sight met their eyes! The swollen river went roaring and foaming by, over which only a narrow strip of masonwork was seen—the wreck of the destroyed bridge. Nothing daunted, Dulong advanced on to the slender fragment, and with twelve grenadiers at his back began to crawl along his perilous path. One grenadier slipped and fell with a sudden plunge into the torrent below. But the wind and the waves together drowned his shriek, and the remaining eleven passed in safety and fell with a shout on the alfrighted peasantry, who immediately turned and fled. The bridge was repaired, and by daylight the heads of the column were marching over. Soult had not a moment to spare, for the English cannon had already opened on his rear-guard.
But no sooner was this bridge passed—than another flying with a single arch over a deep gulf, and called the Saltador or Leaper—rose before him, defended by several hundred Portuguese. Only three men could move abreast over this lofty arch, and two attempts to carry it were repulsed, when the brave Dulong advanced and swept it with his strong grenadiers, though he himself fell in the assault, dreadfully wounded.
The army was saved, and by the courageous energy, skill, and heroism of its commander; and at length entered Orense barefooted, without ammunition, baggage, or a single cannon.
Soult has been blamed for his management at the outset of this retreat, especially for being surprised as he was at Oporto; but let one surrounded by conspirators, and uncertain whom to trust among his officers, do better or show that any leader has acted more worthily in similar circumstances, before exceptions are taken. It would be uninteresting to follow Soult through all his after-operations in Spain. Napoleon had gone, and between the quarreling of the rival chiefs and the imbecility of Joseph, affairs were not managed with the greatest wisdom.
Soult was crippled in all his movements—his sound policy neglected and his best combinations thwarted by Joseph. The disastrous battle of Talavera was fought in direct opposition to his advice; nevertheless he soon after had the pleasure of chasing Sir Arthur Wellesley out of Spain. His operations in Andalusia and Estramadura, and the firmness with which he resisted the avarice of Joseph, all exhibited his well-balanced character. In Andalusia he firmly held his ground, although hedged in with hostile armies and surrounded by an insurgent population, while a wide territory had to be covered with his troops. His vast and skilful combinations during this period show the intellect he brought to the task before him. King Joseph could not comprehend the operations of such a mind as Soult's, and constantly impeded his success. When, without ruin to the army, the stubborn marshal might yield to his commands, he did; but where the king's projects would plunge him into irredeemable errors, he openly and firmly withstood him. The anger and threats of Joseph were alike in vain; the inflexible old soldier professed his willingness to obey, but declared he would not, with his eyes open, commit a great military blunder. King Joseph would dispatch loud and vehement complaints to Napoleon, but the Emperor knew too well the ability of Soult to heed them. Had the latter been on the Spanish throne instead of Joseph, the country would have been long before subdued and French power established.
But it would be impossible, without going into the entire complicated history of the peninsular war, to give any correct idea of the prodigious efforts he put forth—of his skillful combinations, or of the military genius he exhibited, in his successful career. Yet, arduous as was the duty assigned him, he drove Wellington out of the country; and, though fettered by the foolish orders of a foolish King, maintained French power in Spain till he was recalled to steady Napoleon's rocking throne in Germany. Cautious in attack, yet terrible in his onset, and endless in his resources when beaten, no general could have accomplished more than he, and he adopted the only method that could at all be successful in the kind of war he was compelled to wage.
The bloodiest battle during the peninsular war was fought by Soult, and lost in the very moment of victory. In May, 1811, he rapidly concentrated his forces, and moving from Seville, advanced on Beresford, occupying the heights before Albuera.
BATTLE OF ALBUERA.
Soult had twenty-one thousand men under him, while the Spanish and French armies together numbered over thirty thousand. The French marshal, however, relying on the steadiness and bravery of his troops, and not relying the Spaniards at more than half their numerical strength, resolved to give battle. The allies were stationed along a ridge, three miles in extent. The action commenced by an attack of French cavalry, but soon Soult's massive columns began to move over the field and ascend with a firm step the opposing heights. The artillery opened on the heads of those columns with terrible precision, but their batteries replied with such rapidity that they seemed moving volcanoes traversing the field of death. Amid the charges of infantry, the shocks of cavalry, and the carnage of the batteries, they continued to press on, while their advancing fire spread like an ascending conflagration up the hill. Everything went down in their passage. Over infantry, artillery, and cavalry they passed on to the summit of the heights. Beresford, in this crisis of the battle, ordered up the British divisions from the center. These, too, were overborne and trampled under foot, the heights won, the battle to all appearance gained, and Beresford was preparing to retreat.
Suddenly an English officer, Colonel Hardinge, took the responsibility of ordering up a division not yet engaged, and Abercromby with his reserve brigade. Advancing with a firm and intrepid step, in face of the victorious enemy, they arrested the disorder, and began to pour a destructive fire on the dense masses of Soult. His columns had penetrated so far into the very heart of the army that not only their front, but their entire flanks, were exposed to a most severe fire. Thus did Macdonald press into the Austrian lines, and taking the cross fire of the enemy's batteries, see his mighty columns dissolve beside him. Soult endeavored to deploy his men, so as to return a more effectual fire. But the discharges of the enemy were so rapid and close, that every effort was in vain. The steady ranks melted away before the storm, but still refused to yield. Soult saw the crisis this sudden check had brought upon him, and strained every nerve to save the day. His stern voice was heard above the roar of battle cheering on his men, while he was seen passing to and fro through the ranks, encouraging them by his gestures and example to maintain the fight. Vain valor. That charge was like one of Napoleon's Imperial Guards', and the tide of battle was reversed before it. Those brave British soldiers closed sternly on their foes as in a death-struggle. Says Napier: "In vain did Soult, by voice and gesture, animate his Frenchmen; in vain did the hardiest veterans, extricating themselves from the crowded columns, sacrifice their lives to gain time for the mass to open out on such a fair field; in vain did the mass itself bear up, and, fiercely striving, fire indiscriminately upon friends and foes, while the horsemen, hovering on the flank, threatened to charge the advancing lines. Nothing could stop that astonishing infantry. No sudden burst of undisciplined valor, no nervous enthusiasm, weakened the stability of their order; their flashing eyes were bent on the dark columns in their front, their measured tread shook the ground, their dreadful volleys swept away the head of every formation, their deafening shouts overpowered the dissonant cries that broke from all parts of the tumultuous crowd, as, slowly and with a horrid carnage, it was pushed by the incessant vigor of the attack to the farthest edge of the height. There the French reserves mixing with the struggling multitude, endeavored to sustain the fight, but the effort only increased the irremediable confusion; the mighty mass gave way, and like a loosened cliff, went headlong down the steep. The rain flowed after in streams, discolored with blood, and fifteen hundred unwounded men, the remnant of six thousand unconquerable British soldiers, stood triumphant on the hill."
The fight was done, and fifteen thousand men lay piled in mangled heaps along that hill and in the valley. The rain came down in torrents, and night set in, dark and gloomy, over the scene of conflict. But from the dreadful field groans and cries arose through the long night, as the wounded writhed in their pain. The pitiless storm, and the moaning wind, and the murky night, and heart-breaking cries of the suffering and the dying, combined to render it a scene of unmingled terror. Soult took five hundred prisoners and several stand of colors, while the British had only the bloody field for their trophy. The next day, however, Soult still hung like a thunder-cloud on the army of the English. But they having received reinforcements on the third day, he deemed it prudent to retire. Marmont, however, joining him soon after, he again took the offensive, and drove the English before him, and over the Spanish borders.
It is impossible to follow the marshal through his checkered career. For five years he struggled manfully against the most harassing obstacles, and finally, when Spain was delivered from the enemy, he hastened, as before remarked, to Napoleon, to help him stem the torrent that was threatening to bear him away. With his departure victory also departed, and soon the disastrous battle of Vittoria threw Spain again into the hands of the English.
The appointment by Napoleon of Soult to retrieve these losses showed what his opinion was of the marshal as a military leader. Not the complaints and false representations of his own brother, nor the reports of rival generals, could blind his penetrating eye to the great ability of the Duke of Dalmatia. No higher eulogy could be passed on him than this single appointment.
The frontiers of France were threatened through the passes of the Pyrenees, and these Soult was ordered to defend to the last extremity. He found at Bayonne but the fragments of the armies that had battled in Spain, but with his accustomed energy he set about their organization, and with such untiring perseverance did he work that in a fortnight he was ready to take the field. Bearing down on Wellington, he poured his strong columns like a resistless torrent through the pass of the Roncesvalles. The gorges and precipices of the Pyrenees rang to the peal of musketry, the roll of the drum, and the roar of cannon, and Soult's conquering troops broke with the shout of victors into Spain.
It was his design to succor St. Sebastiani, which with a small garrison had withstood a long siege, and been most heroically defended. But the energy which he had imparted to his army was only momentary. The soldiers were exhausted and worn down, and could not be held to the contest like fresh troops, and Soult was compelled te retire before superior force. The sudden abyss that had opened under Wellington closed again, and having repulsed his able antagonist, he sat down anew before St. Sebastiani. Soult had given his word to his brave garrison that if they would hold out a short time longer he would march to their relief, and he now set about fulfilling his promise, hopeless as the task was, and moved to within eight miles of the place with his army. But the besiegers, in the mean time, had not been idle. The siege was pressed vigorously, and a hundred and eighteen guns were dragged before the doomed town. Before Soult broke so rash and sudden through the Pyrenees, Wellington had made an ineffectual assault on the place, and though the fortifications had been weakened and many of the houses burned, withdrawing his forces to meet the French marshal, the garrison had a breathing spell, and made good use of their time to repair their defenses.
TERRIBLE ASSAULT OF ST. SEBASTIANI.
Wellington at length placed in battery sixty cannon, some of them sixty-three pounders, and began to play on the walls. The thunder of these heavy guns shook the hills around, and was echoed in sullen shocks on the ear of the distant Soult. For four days did this fierce volcano belch forth its stream of fire against St. Sebastiani, carrying terror and dismay to the hearts of the inhabitants. Nothing could withstand such batteries, and the iron storm smote against the walls till a frightful gap appeared, furnishing foothold for the assaulting companies.
St. Sebastiani stands by the sea, with the river Uremea flowing close under its walls, which in low tide can be forded. On the farther side of this river were the British troops, and on the 31st of August, at half-past ten, the forlorn hope took its station in the trenches, waiting for the ebbing tide to allow them to cross. As this devoted band stood in silence watching the slow settling of the waters, they could see the wall they were to mount lined with shells and fire-barrels, ready to explode at a touch, while bayonet points gleamed beyond, showing into what destruction they were to move. Soldiers hate to think, and the suspense which they were now forced to endure was dreadful. These brave men could rush on death at the sound of the bugle, but to stand and gaze into the very jaws of destruction till the slowly retiring waters would let them enter was too much for the firmest heart. Minutes seemed lengthened into hours, and in the still terror of that delay the sternest became almost delirious with excitement. Some laughed outright, not knowing what they did; others shouted and sung; while others prayed aloud. It was a scene at which the heart stands still. The air was hot and sulphurous—dark and lurid thunderclouds were lifting heavily above the horizon, and the deep hush of that assaulting column was rendered more awful by the hush of nature which betokens the coming tempest.
Noon at length came; the tide was down, and the order to advance was given, and that devoted band moved to the center of the stream. A tempest of grapeshot and bullets scattered them like autumn leaves over its bosom, but the survivors pressed boldly on, and, reaching the opposite shore, mounted the breach and gained the summit. But as they stood amid the wasting fire, they hesitated to descend on the farther side, for they saw they must leap down twelve feet to reach the ground; while the base of the wall bristled with sword-blades, and pikes, and pointed weapons of every description, fastened upright in the earth. While they still delayed to precipitate themselves on these steel points, the fire from the inner rampart swept them all away. Still column after column poured across the river and filled up the dreadful gaps made in the ranks of their comrades, and crowded the breach, and still the fierce volleys crushed them down, while the few who passed met the bayonet-point, and fell at the feet of the heroic defenders. After two hours of this murderous strife, the breach was left empty of all but the dead, and the shout of the French was heard in the pause of the storm. In the crisis the English soldiers were ordered to lie down at the foot of the ramparts, while forty-seven cannon were brought to bear on the high curtain within, from whence the fire swept the breach. The batteries opened, and the balls, flying only two feet over the soldiers' heads, crushed with resistless power through the enemy's works. At this moment an accident completed what the besiegers had begun, and overwhelmed the defenders. A shell bursting amid the hand-grenades, shells, trains of fire-barrels, and all kinds of explosive materials which the garrison had laid along the ramparts for a last defense, the whole took fire. A sheet of flame ran along the walls, and then the mouth of a volcano seemed to open, followed by an explosion that shook the city to its foundations, sending fierce columns of smoke and broken fragments into the air, and strewing the bodies of three hundred French soldiers amid the ruins. As the smoke lifted, the assailants rushed with a deafening shout forward, and though firmly met by the bayonet, their increasing numbers overwhelmed every obstacle, and they poured into the town. Soult, eight miles distant, had just been defeated in attempting to march to the relief of the garrison, and from the heights of Bidissoa heard that terrific explosion that followed the cannonading, and saw the fiercely ascending columns of smoke that told that St. Sebastiani was won.
At this moment, when the shouts of the conquerors, maddened by every passion that makes man a monster and a fiend, were paralyzing the hearts of the inhabitants with fear, the long-gathering thunderstorm burst on the town. Sudden darkness wrapped everything, through which the lightning incessantly streamed, followed by crash after crash of thunder, till the very heavens seemed ready to fall. Amid this stern language of skies and war of the elements, and roar of the conflagration that, fanned by the tempest, wrapped the dwellings, scenes were transpiring over which history must draw a veil. Rapine, revenge, drunkenness, lust, and murder burst forth without restraint, making a wilder hell than man ever dreamed of before. The inhabitants fled from their burning houses and crowded into a quarter where the flames had not yet come. As men, women, and children stood thus packed together, the brutal soldiery reeled and staggered around them, firing into the shrieking mass, and plunging their bayonets into the old and young alike. Lust, too, was abroad, and the cries of violated women mingled with the oaths and blasphemies and shouts of the soldiers. Wives were ravished in presence of their husbands, mothers in presence of their daughters, and one girl of seventeen was violated on the corpse of her mother. For three days did the rapine, and murder and cruelty continue, and scenes were enacted which may not be described, and before which even friends would blush. Such is war, and such its horrors.
The governor retreated to the citadel, and bravely defended himself with a handful of men for several days, still hoping the arrival of Soult. But that marshal had his hands full to keep Wellington at bay. At length, compelled to retreat, he yielded the ground step by step, fighting his way as he went. He delivered the bloody battles of Bidissoa and Neville, disputed the passage of the Nive, and fought at St. Pierre worthy of a better result. He showed a depth of combination, an energy of character, and a tenacity of purpose seldom equalled by any general. Had his shock in battle been equal to Ney's, he would have been irresistible. As it was, with half the force brought against him, he baffled every effort of the enemy to overwhelm him, and being driven into France disputed every inch of his native soil with a heroism and patriotism that have rendered him immortal. Now enforcing discipline, now encouraging his troops in the onset, and now on foot at the head of the columns, periling his life like the meanest soldier, he strained every nerve to resist the advance of his overpowering adversary. He had arrived at Bayonne and taken command of the disorganized and humble army in July. He had reorganized it, broken like a thunderbolt into Spain, fought seven pitched battles, lost thirty thousand men, and in December is again seen at Bayonne showing a firm front to the enemy. For five months he had struggled against the most overwhelming obstacles; fought with troops that would have ruined the cause of a less stern general; struck blows that, even against the odds they were directed, well-nigh gave him the victory; and amid the complaints of the soldiers and the desertion of his German troops, never once gave way to discouragement. Self-sustained and resolute, his iron will would bend before no reverses, and in that last struggle for Napoleon in Spain and France, and his masterly retreat, he has placed himself among the first military chieftains of the world. It is true he preferred a less laborious field, and one where constant defeat was not to be expected, and wrote to Napoleon requesting to be near him. But no one could supply his place, and he was compelled to struggle on. He then submitted a plan for the defense of France to the Emperor, which the latter, it seems, had not time to attend to; and instead of rendering aid to his distressed general, he drew away a large force to assist in the defense of Paris. But Soult had served under Massena in Genoa and knew how to endure. With his army thinned by the demands of Napoleon and constant desertion, in the midst of a murmuring population, he bore up with a constancy that fills the mind with wonder and admiration. To his requests for help Napoleon at last replied: "I have given you my confidence, I can do nothing more." Never was confidence more worthily bestowed; and though left in such peril, Soult continued to dispute bravely the country over which he retreated from Bayonne, and at Orthez burst on the enemy with such impetuosity that he had well-nigh gained the victory. Retiring, fighting as he went, he at length intrenched himself at Toulouse, and here, after Napoleon's abdication, though before the news had reached him, fought the famous battle of Toulouse.
Each side claimed the victory; but, according to English historians themselves, Wellington's loss was far greater than Soult's; and the latter was ready next morning to begin the fight, while the former was not. As the two armies thus stood menacing each other, the news of Napoleon's abdication arrived. Soult, however, not having received authentic and full information of the terms of the abdication, refused to make any change in his operations, except to grant an armistice till farther reports could be received. Even if Napoleon had abdicated, he did not know that the Bourbons would be reinstated, or that the army should not retain its present hostile attitude. In the uncertain state of affairs the two leaders again prepared for battle, but the useless waste of blood was spared by orders from the Minister of War; and Soult delivered up is command to the Duke of Augouléme. As before remarked, he struck the last blow and fired the last cannon-shot for Napoleon and the Empire.
His conduct at Waterloo has caused many remarks and subjected him to some heavy accusations. But the most that can be made of it is that he did not act with his accustomed vigor. At Waterloo he was not the hero of Austerlitz.
Soult has committed many errors; and it could not well be otherwise. A life passed in such an agitated political sea as his has been must now and then exhibit some contradictions and inconsistencies. But these minor faults are buried beneath his noble deeds; and his blood so freely shed on so many battle-fields for France, the great talents he has placed at the service of his country, and the glory with which he has covered her armies, will render him dear to her long after his eventful life has closed.
The Duke of Dalmatia is now seventy-seven years of age; and though he has resigned his office of Minister of War, he is still President of the Council, and takes an active part in the political affairs of France.
Nothing shows more plainly the ridiculous self-conceit of English historians in drawing a parallel between Wellington and Bonaparte merely because the former won the battle of Waterloo, or rather was Commander-in-Chief when it was won, than this long struggle between him and Soult in Spain. The French marshal showed himself a match for him at any time; nay, beat him oftener and longer than he was beaten. The advantage, if any, was on the side of the French marshal; for while he possessed equal coolness and prudence, he carried greater force in his onsets. Yet who would think of drawing a parallel between Soult and Napoleon with the least intention of making them equal; Wellington was no ordinary general; and he receives all the merit he deserves when put beside Soult as an equal. Pitted against each other for years, they were so nearly balanced that there seems little to choose between them; but to place either beside Napoleon as his equal excites a smile in any but an Englishman.