SIEGE OF TARAGONA.
This place, divided into an upper and lower town, with one side resting on the sea and the other standing amid inaccessible rocks, was deemed by the garrison impregnable. The lower town was down in the plain, and divided from the upper by a strong rampart; while around both stretched a massive wall, protected by a line of strong redoubts, and covered by the fire of an English fleet which occupied the harbor. On one side only could the place be approached with any hope of success, and that was in the plain around the lower town. But here were strong artificial defenses, while the fort of Olivo commanded all the open space in which the besieging army must operate.
The relative strength of the forces, changed from time to time, but the average proportion was 14,000 French against 17,000 Spaniards, without counting with the latter the inhabitants of the place. This was desperate odds, but made still greater by the British fleet in the bay, as well as by a Spanish army of 14,000 men, which was making preparations to raise the siege. An ordinary man would have sunk under these difficulties and abandoned the unequal contest, but it was in such crises that Suchet exhibited his great resources. Careful, prudent, and safe in all his plans, he nevertheless determined to persist in the siege. The subjugation of the place was of the utmost importance, involving the success of all future operations, both in Catalonia and Valencia, and he resolved to effect it, or perish before the walls.
At length all things being ready, he moved his small but resolute army forward; and, on the 4th of May, invested that part of the town between Fort Olivo and the sea. In doing this, however, the guns from the fort and from the the [sic] English ships played upon his troops, massed in the open field, with such precision that two hundred men fell before night. The next day the garrison made a sally, but were repulsed, and Suchet closed with a firmer coil around the walls. His ranks, however, were battered so incessantly, and his troops so severely galled by the guns from Fort Olivo, that he determined, after a fortnight of severe toil and constant exposure of his men to the enemy's fire, to concentrate all his force against it alone. Fourteen thousand men, or a number equal to his entire army, defended it, protected by heavy cannon and high walls, yet his resolution was irrevocably taken.
He broke ground before the fort on the 21st, but so great were the difficulties that opposed him in advancing his trenches, and so severe the fire to which he was subjected, that a week had been wasted before he could bring a single cannon to bear with any force on the walls. On the 28th, however, thirteen guns, which had been dragged over the rocks amid a perfect tempest of grape-shot, opened a fierce fire upon them, and, thundering all that day and night and next day, finally effected a breach, though not sufficiently low to afford much hope for success in an assault.
But Suchet's position was every day becoming more critical. His men were constantly falling before the plunging fire of the fortress, and his forces gradually weakening beneath the repeated sorties of the garrison, while an army equal to his own was daily threatening him in the rear. On the evening of the 29th, therefore, he ordered an assault to be made, and, forming two columns of attack, passed along their ranks and addressed them in words of encouragement, telling them that everything rested on their bravery and success. The night was dark, and the garrison was not expecting any serious movement, as not one of their guns had yet been silenced. Four cannon were fired as the signal for the assault, and in a moment all the drums were beat, and the whole French line, with deafening shouts, and amidst a general discharge of musketry, advanced at once from all quarters against the walls, in order to distract the attention of the besieged from the real point of attack. The Spaniards, alarmed by this general onset and unable in the darkness to see the assailants, opened a furious fire around the entire ramparts. Nothing could exceed the spectacle Taragona at that moment presented; the rocky heights in the rear stood revealed in a lurid light, the ramparts were covered with flame, and the whole town flashed up in the surrounding gloom, as if wrapped in a sudden conflagration. This wild uproar roused up the English fleet, and a fierce cannonade opened also from the ships, and blazing projectiles crossed in huge semicircles over the French army. Amid this confusion and terror, and amid the thunder of four hundred cannon on the ramparts, to which the distant English guns added their heavy accompaniment, those two columns advanced swiftly and steadily to the assault. One column stumbled in the dark against some Spanish troops advancing to succor the fort, and becoming mingled with them, a part, in the general confusion, entered the town. The principal column, which was destined for the breach, found, when they reached the ditch, that their scaling-ladders were too short, for it was fifteen feet to the bottom. In the mean time, the whole front rank went down before the plunging fire from the ramparts, and the remainder were about giving way, when Vaccani, the Italian historian, beating down the paling that blocked the entrance to an old aqueduct that passed into the town, mounted the narrow bridge, followed by the Italian grenadiers, and thus descended into the ditch, and, rushing furiously through the breach, entered the fort.
In the morning the walls and ditches presented a most melancholy spectacle. They were covered with blood; while bodies, mangled by the heavy shot, lay in confused heaps at their base, and were scattered around on the rocks as far as the eye could reach. Suchet asked for a suspension of arms, that he might bury his dead, for the ground on which they lay was too rocky to admit of graves. This humane request was denied, and he was compelled to gather the two hundred of his men who had fallen in the assault into huge piles and burn them. The smoke and stench from these burning bodies arose on the morning air, carrying heavenward a fearful testimony of the horrors of war.
Fort Olivo was taken; but this was only a stepping-stone to the reduction of the place. Suchet's labors had only commenced, the weight and terror of the struggle had yet to come, and, without any delay he continued to urge forward his works. Amid constant sorties, and under a heavy and commanding fire from the upper and lower town, which constantly carried away his men, he pressed the attack so vigorously that every day he gained some new advantage over the enemy. Under a constant shower of balls and grapeshot, that smote every moment over the spot on which the workmen were engaged, he still steadily advanced his parallels. It was one incessant roar and flash above the soldiers, yet they dug and toiled away as calmly as in the peaceful field.
Thus the siege went on for nineteen days, after Fort Olivo was taken; till at length fifty-four guns were brought to bear on the enemy's batteries. But the metal of the besieged was too heavy for them, and they gradually became silent. In the meantime the English gun-boats had become effective, and sailing up the bay, began to pour their destructive fire on the besiegers. The Spanish army, so long expected, also, now made its appearance, and dangers began to thicken still darker around the French commander. Sending off, however, for a reinforcement of 3000 men, he was able to beat off and disperse the enemy, without abandoning for a moment the siege. Twenty-three days had now elapsed since the storming of the fort, and Suchet moved to make an attempt to carry the lower town also by assault. His cannon, after the first disaster, had gradually overcome and silenced those of the besieged, and opened three narrow breaches in the bastions. Through these he ordered 1500 grenadiers to charge, seconded by a strong storming party to repel all assistance from the upper town. At seven o'clock, at the discharge of four bombs the brave grenadiers rushed forward. In a moment the walls were covered with men, and the carnage became dreadful; but after an hour's desperate fighting, the besieged were driven back, and the assailants swarmed through the town with shouts Of victory. During this breathless and sanguinary struggle, the English fleet kept up an incessant cannonading on the French, the thunder and flash of their guns through the gloom heightening inconceivably the effect of the scene, while, to crown all, the warehouses on the harbor took fire, and burned with such fierceness that "the ships in port cut their cables and stood out to sea."
But no sooner was the town carried, and the troops rallied, than the soldiers were set to work; and before the garrison in the upper town could recover their confusion were again hidden in their trenches, digging steadily forward towards the walls.
Suchet had lost over three thousand men, and still the upper town was untouched. Forty-eight days of incessant toil and fighting had passed, and now just as hope began to dawn on his efforts, nearly two thousand British soldier from Cadiz entered the bay, while the Spanish army landward again advanced to succor the city. As the besieged saw those troops step ashore they sent up a shout of joy; but fortunately for Suchet the English officers thought the town could not be held, as the walls were fast crumbling before the heavy batteries, and withdrew entirely from the contest. The Spaniards were easily repulsed, and the works again pressed with redoubled vigor. Still Suchet's position was perilous in the extreme. He had made four different assaults—lost one-fifth of his entire army, and exhausted his men by the labor which the immense works demanded. But the wall which now separated the enemy from him had no ditch at its base to embarrass the columns of attack, and the cannon were playing within musket-shot of the ramparts. A hedge of aloes, however, at the base presented a strong obstacle, and came very near preventing the success of the storming party.
At length breaches being made in the walls, Suchet prepared to make a final assault on the upper town. But as the prospects grew darker around the besieged their energy seemed redoubled, and their preparations to resist this last effort were of the most formidable kind. Three battalions crowded the breaches, supported by strong reserves; while heavy barricades were stretched across every street, to arrest the enemy the moment he should enter. In the mean time such a terrible fire was kept up from the ramparts that the parapets of the French trenches were shot away, and the gunners, uncovered, stood in full view, a certain mark for the enemy's bullets. They fell one after another, in their footsteps—yet still others sternly stepped in their places, while the excitement, and the wish to close in the last mortal struggle, became so intent on both sides that the soldiers shook their muskets at each other, and shouted forth defiance in the midst of the balls that smote them down.
At length the signal for assault was given, and the maddened columns rushed forward. An open space of more than twenty rods was to be crossed before the wall was reached, and as the assailants emerged on this, a plunging fire received them, crushing them to the earth with frightful rapidity. Pressing sternly on, however, they came to the aloe-trees, which stood within five rods of the walls, when they were compelled to turn one side for a passage. This, together with the destructive fire before which they stood uncovered, threw the column into confusion, and it was just beginning to break and fly, when an Italian soldier named Bianchini, who had at his own request been allowed to join the forlorn hope, coolly stepped from the ranks, and bidding his comrades follow him, began all alone to ascend the breach. Dressed in white from head to foot, he looked more like a being from the unseen world, than a living man, as he glided onward, and silently and steadily ascended the wall. Regardless of the volleys of musketry that smote his breast, apparently unconscious of the blood that was bursting in streams from every part of his body, he kept on sternly on till he reached the top, and then fell dead. The French soldiers stopped and gazed with astonishment, almost with awe, at that solitary white figure, as it fearlessly strode into the breach, and then with a shout that rent the air, rushed after him. The breach was won—the Spanish troops overthrown, and amid shouts of victory, and cries of despair, and yells of execration, the French thousands went pouring in—and, forming into columns of attack, dashed into the barricaded streets, and, overcoming all resistance, swept like a devastating flood through the town. Some of the inhabitants rushed through the farther gate, others streamed over the ramparts, making for the sea; others still, driven to despair, flung themselves from the rocks. Still thousands were left behind, and on these the soldiery fell in brutal ferocity, and aged men and women, the young, the beautiful, and the helpless, were butchered without mercy. The most pitiful cries and agonizing shrieks and prayers for mercy pierced the heavens on every side. But the maddened troops, hardened against every appeal, smote on the right, and on the left; and it was one incessant flash through the streets, which were literally inundated with blood. The officers put forth every effort to stay the massacre, but the passions of the soldiers had now broken over all bounds, and nothing could arrest them. For nearly two months had they been shot at and taunted by the inhabitants, and now their hour of revenge had come, and reckless alike of sleep or rest, they moved in terror through the darkness. Before morning dawned on the appalling spectacle, six thousand wretched beings had been butchered in cold blood.
A city sacked presents one of the most frightful scenes this stained and depraved earth of ours ever exhibits. It is the culminating act of human ferocity and pitiless cruelty.
Taragona was won, and, though Suchet mourned over the violence that had stained his triumph, he could not but rejoice at the successful termination of his long toils, and his happy deliverance from the dangers that threatened every hour to swallow him up.
Still his labors had not terminated, and in a few hours after the city fell his troops were again in motion. The army that threatened so frequently to raise the siege of Taragona was overtaken at Villa Nueva, and 1500 made prisoners. The whole country was thrown into consternation, and the Spanish troops that so long defended Catalonia were fleeing in every direction for safety. Suchet marched eagerly forward; for, added to the consciousness that he had acted worthy of the trust committed to him, he here received dispatches from Napoleon creating him Marshal of the Empire. He at length came up to Montserrat, into which some of the fugitives had cast themselves, deeming the place impregnable. Indeed, it seemed so, for the rampart on the top was one of the strongest fortresses in that part of Spain. Situated on a high mountain, surrounded by rocks, and approachable only by winding paths that were protected by batteries, it bade defiance to all attacks. There was no foothold for an army, and the irregular, rocky, and isolated height looked, as Suchet said, "like the skeleton of a mountain." Still the daring marshal poured his troops over the rocks and along the paths, and despite the fierce fire kept up by the enemy, succeeded in carrying it.
He next advanced toward Valencia, prosecuting his war of sieges with astonishing success, and in September sat down before Saguntum, and opened his batteries on the place. Finding it would be slow work to reduce the city by regular approaches, he determined to carry it by escalade. Failing in his attempt, he erected other batteries, and, after effecting a breach, made another assault and was again baffled. After these two repulses his situation became extremely perilous; for blocked in by the enemy's fortresses, his communications all cutoff or interrupted, and a fortified town before him defended by a strong garrison, his destruction seemed an easy matter to accomplish. But in this painful dilemma, Blake, the commander of the Spanish army kindly came to his relief. Trusting to his superior force, the latter resolved to march from Valencia and raise the siege of Saguntum, or decide the fate of the city by a fair fight in an open field. With 25,000 men he approached the place, and Suchet, with 17,000, joyfully advanced to meet him. At eight in the morning the battle of Saguntum commenced. The Spaniards, trusting to their superior numbers, rushed boldly to the attack. Successful at first, the inhabitants and garrison of the city, who crowded the ramparts, thought the hour of their deliverance had come, and waved their caps and handkerchiefs in the air, and shouted victory in the midst of the fire of the cannon which were playing furiously on the walls. Indeed, it began to look dark around the French marshal, for his effort to arrest the first success of the enemy had only added to it, and the excited Spaniards, victorious at all points, were pressing with loud shouts over the field.
In this critical moment, when all seemed lost, Suchet showed that, with all his prudence and calculation, in an emergency, he was prompt and deadly as a thunderbolt. Galloping to his reserve cuirassiers, his now last remaining hope, he rode among them, rousing their courage by words of enthusiasm and bravery, and, putting himself at their head, sounded the charge. Just then a ball pierced his shoulder, but all heedless of the wound, he continued to ride at the head of his brave cuirassiers. "March, trot, canter," fell in quick succession from his lips, and that terrible body of horse came rushing over the field as if it knew it carried the fate of the battle in its charge. The infantry gave way before those fierce riders, or were trampled under foot; the cavalry sunk under their onset; and, amid the close volley of musketry and through the fire of the artillery, they bore steadily down on the Spanish center. At this moment they presented a magnificent spectacle. The close-packed helmets glittered in the sun; their flashing sabres made a dazzling line of light above them, as in perfect order the black and thundering squadrons swept onward to the final shock. Suchet still rode at their head, and, pouring his own stern resolution into their hearts, broke with resistless fury through the enemy's center, and shouted the victory.
This settled the fate of Saguntum, and gave Suchet a permanent footing in Valencia. Not thinking himself, however, sufficiently strong to besiege the city of Valencia, as Blake still had an army a third larger than his own, and the place contained a strong garrison, together with a hundred and fifty thousand inhabitants; he sent to Napoleon for reinforcements.
But, in two months after the battle of Saguntum, his army was before the town, and the governor had been summoned to surrender. Blake, with his large army, endeavored to stimulate the garrison to a brave defence, but the courage of the soldiers was broken, for the French commander had taken every city he had attacked; fortresses, and walls, and rocky heights seemed to present no impediment to his victorious troops.
Without waiting to make regular approaches, the latter, in utter contempt of his adversary, swept with his army around the entire city, and extending his lines over a space fifteen miles in circumference, beat back all the outposts, and began to bombard the place. In the meantime Blake, at the head of 15,000 men, undertook to cut his way through the French army, but, after a short struggle was driven back within the walls. He then offered to capitulate on certain conditions. These were sternly rejected; and he was finally compelled to surrender at discretion.
By this glorious victory Suchet got possession of one of the richest cities in Spain, made 16,000 prisoners of the best troops of the army, took nearly four hundred pieces of cannon, 20,000 stand of arms, immense military stores, and laid at his feet one of the finest provinces of the Peninsula. Instead of drawing resources from abroad for his own troops, he was now able to furnish them abundantly to the other portions of the army. In reward for his great services, Napoleon created hint Duke of Albufera, with the investiture of all its rich domains.
Having fortified himself at every point, and furnished a solid basis in Catalonia and Valencia to all his future operations, he the next year resumed the offensive; but his after-career, to the downfall of Bonaparte, presents no striking features. The defeat of Marmont at Salamanca, darkened the prospects of the French cause in Spain, yet still Suchet held firm his conquered provinces: but the battle of Vittoria completed the ruin, and made all his conquests comparatively worthless. With a heavy heart he was compelled to retire behind the Ebro; and, though defeating the English in some minor combats, his army took no important part in the after-struggles. Napoleon was endeavoring to drive back the allies from France, and the great conflict in the Peninsula was between Wellington and Soult.
After the abdication of the Emperor, Suchet received King Ferdinand, and conducted him to the Spanish army; and then, handing over his authority to the Duke of Angouléme, bade farewell to the brave troops he was no longer permitted to command. Made peer of France by Louis XVIII., and governor of the fifth military division at Strasburg, he remained at the latter place till the return of Napoleon. He continued firm to the royal cause till the King left France, and then, finding the tide of public opinion too strong to be resisted, hastened to Paris, and gave in his adhesion to Bonaparte. Placed over the Army of the Alps, consisting of only 10,000 men, he defeated the Piedmontese and afterwards the Austrians. But the advance of the main Austrian army, of a hundred thousand men, compelled him to retreat to Lyons. Surrendering the city on honorable terms, he went down with the mighty genius for whom he had combated so long and so bravely.
On the second restoration be was deprived of his civil, though he was permitted to retain his military, honors. In 1822, however, he was restored to the peerage, but died, four years after, in Marseilles, at the age of fifty-six.
Suchet was one of those well-balanced characters which is known more by what it accomplishes than by any striking feature it exhibits. There was less personality in his achievements than in those of such men as Murat and Junot, because his intellect had more to do with his success than his arms.
Destined to act in a field more unfavorable to his fame than any other in Europe, he nevertheless succeeded in placing himself among the first military leaders of his time. Spain was a sort of graduated scale which tested the altitude and real strength of every general who commanded in it; and of all the marshals who, from time to time, directed the French armies there, Massena, Soult, and Suchet alone stood the test; while of the English leaders Wellington was the only one that exhibited the higher qualities of a great military chieftain.
Suchet was a noble man, both intellectally [sic] and morally. With a mind that grasped the most extensive plans, and yet lost sight of none of the details necessary to success, he also had a heart that delighted to bestow blessings the moment stern duty allowed him to sheathe the sword of war.
Cautious and prudent in his plans, he was sudden and terrible in their execution. He was impetuous without being rash, and rapid without being hasty. He calculated his blow before he made it, but it was a thunderbolt when it fell. His mind was so perfectly balanced that he never exhibits obstinacy in carrying out a favorite plan, so common to one-sided men of strong character. Graduating itself to circumstances, it was careful or headlong, tardy or swift, as the case demanded. In one respect he resembled Napoleon—he knew when to abandon a minor for a greater good. This was one great secret of Bonaparte's success in his first campaign in Italy. Flinging from him one advantage to gain a better, and relinquishing one conquest to secure a greater, he kept his forces constantly so concentrated that he could at any time bring his whole power to bear on a single point. This is indispensable to success with a small force arrayed against a great one, and it was a remarkable characteristic of Suchet's career in Spain. This seems not so striking a quality at first sight, but it is one of the rarest possessed by any man.
The campaigns of Suchet in Spain will always remain among the most wonderful of military achievements. With a small force—in the midst of a hostile territory, compelled to carry on a guerilla war with separate chiefs, a regular campaign with a large army, and at the same time, reduce fortresses, assault cities, and administer the government of conquered provinces—he brought to the task before him a mental resource which stamps him the great man.
Amid the most overwhelming difficulties, and pressed constantly by superior force, he did not remain on the defensive, but steadily advanced from one victory to another—now fighting the enemy in the open field, and now planting cannon against strongly fortified cities, till, at length, Arragon, Catalonia, and Valencia lay at his feet, and his task in the Peninsula was nobly accomplished. Uniting the profoundest military science with the greatest personal bravery the highest practical power with the most skillful theories, he planned and executed every military movement with extraordinary precision and success. He brought the same powerful mind to the administration of civil affairs, and not only conquered the provinces, but governed them with an ability that exhibits a breadth of character and extent of knowledge possessed by few of those stern leaders whom Napoleon clustered around his throne.