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Taking Tarragona

By Jonathan North
4/18/2018 • MHQ Magazine

In 1811, General Louis-Gabriel Suchet sought his marshal’s baton in the breach of a Spanish fortress.

On the sweltering afternoon of Friday, June 28, 1811, French engineers surveyed the 10-meter- wide breach in the wall surrounding Tarragona’s Upper Town. After two months of exhausting siege work and brutal assaults, surrounded by the implacable Spanish, it now seemed that Gen. Louis-Gabriel Suchet and his troops could finally storm and seize this outpost of such persistent resistance.

The taking of Tarragona, a formidable Spanish fortress and port sited on rocky hills and cliffs 50 miles from Barcelona and long a thorn in the flesh of Napoleon’s armies, was critical to the emperor’s plan to pacify Spain. But the stakes were high. Few of Napoleon’s generals could boast of any success in the Peninsula Campaign, a theater that had broken career after career. Defeat of the French at a city like this could spell the loss of entire provinces, and would only energize the insurrection that was already sucking blood and treasure from Napoleon’s empire.

Napoleon’s attempt to conquer Spain and overrun Portugal (and simultaneously set his elder brother Joseph on the Spanish throne) had gone badly even when the emperor could commit 100,000 soldiers. Now he was forced to withdraw his best troops as France faced forces supported and supplied by British fleets and armies. He grimly held on to as much Spanish territory as he could, while his generals frittered away their strength manning garrisons, escorting convoys, and chasing guerrillas.

Any success in the field would require stretching scarce resources even further. Napoleon, who did not want to personally risk a campaign in the quagmire the peninsula had become, berated his unhappy generals and bemoaned their lack of energy and success.

Yet there was hope, in the form of the son of a silk manufacturer from Lyon, Gen. Louis-Gabriel Suchet. He had served Napoleon with distinction for two decades, but had not achieved the ultimate rank he sought. In fact, no generals on the Iberian Peninsula had received their marshalate there, such a troubling conquest had it become. Now, as Suchet considered his final assault, Napoleon’s recent promise rang in his ears, a promise that Suchet “would find his marshal’s baton within the walls of Tarragona.”

General Suchet had a head for figures and logistics as well as a genius for military operations. He had turned his back on his trade and volunteered to be a common soldier for the armies of the Revo- lution, proving himself before Napoleon at Toulon and in the French Army of Italy. He went on to win fresh laurels at Austerlitz and Jena and, by 1811, was making such progress in Spain that Napoleon would later remark: “[I]f I had two generals like him to lead my armies in Spain, this war would already be finished.”

A year younger than Napoleon, Suchet, commander of the Army of Aragon, was hard-working and thoroughly practical (to the point of being dour) but with an instinctive ability to command. Strict but fair, he ensured that pay, food, and discipline were impartially distributed to his conscripts as well as to veterans. He had been strict with his generals, too, holding them to account, organizing the payment and feeding of his troops with a merchant’s eye for detail, and maintaining discipline throughout the ranks despite the unpopularity of this seemingly endless war. Esteemed by his officers and men for acknowledging their role in his success, Suchet always gave praise where praise was due; he would later refer to his troops assaulting Tarragona as “the best infantry in the world.”

He had already done much to impose peace on eastern Spain, initially focusing on the province of Aragon. There he had reduced the insurgency (firmly or savagely, depending on one’s point of view: he took hostages, punished villages, executed guerrilla commanders, and branded their subordinates), tried his utmost to rid the land of bandits and guerrillas, established some law, and, significantly from Napoleon’s perspective, set about making the Spaniards pay for this war.

General Suchet had extended his reach by besieging, then taking Tortosa in late 1810. This town was to the northeast of Aragon in Catalonia, a province that, despite the best endeavors of Marshal Étienne Macdonald and his VII Corps, was still in the throes of anarchic revolt. French convoys were being attacked, guerrillas were scattering columns of French troops, countermeasures were provoking retaliation, and it seemed as though the trouble would spill over the border into France. Could Suchet’s methodical imposition of French rule now be tried in Catalonia, to the northeast? If so, almost the entire eastern seaboard of Spain would be securely in French hands.

Tarragona, a stronghold some 40 miles up the coast from Tortosa, was seen by many as the reason Catalonia remained bellicose, and the city did indeed play an active part in keeping insurrection alive. It had a substantial Spanish garrison, which marched out to invigorate resistance wherever it could. To counter the campaigns against British forces in Portugal and western Spain, Great Britain was fostering opposition in eastern Spain, shipping large consignments of British gold, muskets (Britain would provide 750,000 muskets to Spain in the course of the war), and other supplies into the port city. Britain’s Royal Navy could also ship the Spanish garrison at Tarragona up and down the coast, to maintain control of the province. The port’s capture would close those avenues of supply and just might isolate Catalonia and bring the province to heel.

Tarragona’s leaders were new to their positions. The Marquis of Campoverde, Spain’s captain-general, had only been given command of Catalan’s troops four days before Tortosa fell. Tarragona would later receive an active governor, Gen. Juan Senén Contreras, sent up specifically from Cadiz. The experienced garrison force had been preparing Tarragona’s defenses for three years and because the city had a good harbor, the garrison could be fed, supplemented, and supported by sea. Various military forces from Catalonia’s interior could be quickly summoned to the city’s relief, but more worrisome to the French, insurgents could be directed in sufficient numbers to prove extremely galling to any would-be besieger.

Although Suchet held firm to the belief that the city must be won if eastern Spain was to be completely secured, he also knew that French forces had failed to make headway in the province. The area around Tarragona had been poor before the war, and was now bankrupt and devastated. Trying to live off the land would never furnish the 20,000 rations per day that Suchet’s army might need, and resupply meant running the gauntlet through bands of insurgents and tying up troops in escort duties. French Maj. Gen. Laurent Gouvion St.-Cyr had tried to blockade Tarragona in early 1809 but had run out of supplies and given up when his own men began to starve.

Marshal Pierre François Charles Augereau failed the same way in 1810. Marshal Macdonald could barely find enough food to maintain his garrison in Barcelona, let alone embark on a protracted operation against Tarragona, some 50 miles southwest along the coast.

Suchet’s preparations were therefore meticulous. He began with his 14,000-man Army of Aragon. In March 1811, he was granted additional troops, from VII Corps, most significantly veteran French infantry from the 7th, 16th, and 42nd Line infantry regiments, and the 1st Light Regiment, a reliable Italian division (but unhappy, as the Kingdom of Italy was in arrears with their wages), and some French and Italian cavalry. In total, Suchet had 19,000 men for his operations against Tarragona.

Buoyed by the growing strength of his force and Napoleon’s confidence, General Suchet concentrated his artillery at Tortosa and created a depot for horses and several hospitals. He urged Gen. Joseph Rogniat of the engineers to speed the manufacture of 12,000 picks and shovels, 8,000 gabions (baskets filled with earth and stacked to protect the besiegers), and 100,000 bags of earth. Stores of food were also established to feed the growing army, supplies coming in from pacified Aragon.

Such hasty arrangements were thrown into doubt by the unexpected fall of Figueras to the Spaniards on April 21, 1811. The unhappy Italian garrison, betrayed for money (some officials within the walls were bribed to open the gates), was forced into a humiliating surrender, and the loss of this important Catalan fortress jeopardized Macdonald’s already precarious hold.

But one commander’s loss was another’s opportunity. After the Marquis of Campoverde led 8,000 men out of Tarragona to support Figueras, Suchet, deaf to Macdonald’s pleas for men and arms, and even though he had not completed his own preparations for this campaign, marched on Tarragona. An extraordinarily rash decision, it nonetheless prompted Napoleon to exclaim: “Now that is what a soldier should be!”

General Suchet’s troops, loaded down with six days’ rations, moved toward Tarragona, with convoys of flour and munitions following. Suchet established his headquarters and depots at Reus on May 2 and prepared to direct the operations of his 19,000 men from there. The French were in sight of Tarragona the following day, the 7th and 16th Line pushing on to the banks of the Francoli River.

Tarragona benefited from a strong natural position. It was on the coast, just above the point where the Francoli River meets the sea. The town boasted a superb harbor, protected by a mole, and around the port the commercial Lower Town had developed. Perched on the cliffs and granite hills above, lay the imposing Upper Town. It was surrounded by strong walls (even dividing it from the Lower Town) and these were reinforced with carefully sited redoubts. A string of forts ran down to the sea northeast of the town.

The Lower Town was guarded by the Royal Fort and numerous other bastions designed to protect the harbor. The newly augmented Francoli Fort lay at the southwest tip of the walls surrounding the Lower Town and overlooked the mouth of the river. One impressive outlying fort, known as the Olivo, considerably increased the strength of Tarragona. Built between 1808 and 1811 and situated 70 yards above sea level on an escarpment some 800 yards northwest of the city, it was surrounded by ditches 7 yards deep and 12 yards wide, crossed at one point by an aqueduct. It—and its 47 guns—could not be ignored.

Over the next few days Suchet had his Italians threaten the city’s water supply, and then close the road to Barcelona. The bulk of Suchet’s forces crossed the Francoli and were stationed below the Olivo, to the northwest of the city. Brig. Gen. Pierre Joseph Habert’s three regiments completed the encirclement by cutting off the road to Madrid that ran over a bridge over the Francoli to the west. British ships, cruising offshore, prevented the French from establishing themselves on the coast. Other French troops assured communications and pursued some insurgents, who had managed to cut the French water supply, and Gen. Jean Nicholas Abbé positioned his brigade in Aragon to monitor Spanish activities to the south.

Meanwhile, Suchet prepared field hospitals and organized stretcher bearers. Such ministrations were vintage Suchet and they had earned him a reputation as a careful and caring commander who did not risk his soldiers’ lives frivolously. In fact, his astute awareness of what his men needed in order to fight well largely accounted for his success in governing the Spanish province of Aragon. Now, with their commander again going to such lengths to ensure their welfare, French morale was high as the infantry began taking up positions, and the first of the 64 siege guns was wheeled forward to establish the batteries.

The Spanish garrison of 11,000 men, and their British allies, had not sat idly by. Although Campoverde had been defeated on May 3 as he tried to reach Figueras, the British landed numerous raiding parties along the coast to try to further distract the French from their target. They even brought Campoverde and half his demoralized army back into Tarragona by sea on May 10. Small bands of regulars under Gen. Don Pedro Sarsfield (of Irish Jacobite ancestry) and Joaquín Ibáñez Cuevas, Baron d’Eroles, supported by many Catalan irregulars, did what they could to menace the French rear. Even so, Suchet, having committed himself to the siege, had no alternative but to continue if France’s position in eastern Spain was not to suffer. He willed his subordinates on and prepared to tighten his hold on the city.

After a thorough survey of the situation, he resolved to make his initial objective the Olivo Fort. First, though, the French needed to chase the Royal Navy from the coast. At dusk on May 7, engineers began to construct a battery near the sea, some 1,200 yards from the Francoli Fort. British ships attempted to delay progress on the battery the following day, coming in close and raking the position, but the French had done enough to protect the miners and sappers and, five days later, the redoubt was ready and two 24-pounders were placed to keep the ships at a safe distance.

That same day, May 13, Suchet had Brig. Gen. Jean Baptiste Salme lead the elite companies from the regiments in his brigade (the 7th and 16th Line), as well as those of the 2nd Light and the 4th Italian Line, against the Olivo Fort. A bayonet attack drove the Spaniards from some entrenchments before the fort and beat off a gallant Spanish attempt the following day to retake the position. The Spaniards launched a much more menacing sortie against the coastal redoubt, aided by British landing parties. This also was staved off, the brusque General Habert rushing to the aid of a defense improvised by the engineers. An even larger sortie began at dawn on May 18 when some 6,000 Spanish infantry began to spill out of the Lower Town, heading for the bridge over the Francoli. The Spaniards succeeded in pushing back the 116th Line and the 5th Light until Habert fed in elements of the 117th and stabilized the situation. Suchet then took the Spaniards in flank, riding alongside the 1st Light as it drove the besieged back inside the city’s defenses.

Suchet could now focus on the Olivo Fort, the capture of which would strengthen his center and intimidate the Spaniards. But the fort’s position, on top of the rocky bluff, was extremely difficult to approach. Artillery opened up to suppress the fire of the fort’s garrison as French engineers attempted to get their trenches as close as possible and to establish a forward battery to pound the fort’s walls. While work on such a battery (Suchet judiciously named it the “Battery of the King of Rome” after Napoleon’s son, born in March 1811) went ahead, it proved extremely difficult to manhandle the four 24-pounders forward under enemy fire. A Spanish sortie attempted to interrupt the work, but General Salme turned it back just before he was hit in the head by a piece of canister and killed. This setback notwithstanding, two columns of troops prepared to assault the position that night.

Diversionary attacks all along the front began at dusk on May 29. Two assault columns (one composed of men of the 7th Line Regiment led by Italian sappers, the other of the 16th Line) were launched against the fort as soon as it was dark. French sappers set about trying to smash their way in while some grenadiers brought ladders forward and sought to gain the ramparts. The 7th Line had also attempted to set ladders against that part of the wall battered by the siege guns but the ladders had proved too short and the French, suffering heavily from fire by the Almeria Regiment from Andalucia, desperately sought an alternative. They managed to clamber up over some rubble at the point where the aqueduct entered the fort, smash down improvised Spanish defenses with the sappers’ axes, and fight their way over a battered redoubt. There, reinforced by 500 Italian grenadiers, Suchet’s men began to eliminate resistance. In a night of fierce fighting, most of the Spanish gunners died defending their pieces and French casualties were also heavy (325 killed or wounded); only some 900 prisoners were marched away. French engineers made it defensible and prepared to turn its guns against Tarragona. Suchet, mourning the loss of his impetuous general, renamed the position Fort Salme.

The French success in taking the fort and positioning guns to drive Royal Navy ships from the harbor had little impact on the Spaniards’ will to resist, however. They rejected a four-hour truce, offered so they could bury their dead. Instead, the Spanish corpses—a health hazard in the heat—were thrown into the ditches and burned. Suchet’s efforts to negotiate with the besieged were all turned down, a disappointment that did not dent Suchet’s determination but did lead toward a bloody conclusion. The Spanish wounded were evacuated to the island of Menorca, and fresh troops and supplies were ferried in on ships’ boats as increasing numbers of warships and transports were forced to stand out to sea. Campoverde himself took a small detachment and was transported off the mainland on May 31 by the Royal Navy so that he could link up with the Catalans and organize relief. He left General Contreras in charge of a garrison that even now numbered 8,000 men.

The energetic General Sarsfield soon joined them, leaving Baron d’Eroles to sow confusion in the French rear. Contreras had only to play for time. He had been assured of relief, he was well supplied, and the French still had weeks of work before they could mount an assault that might stand any chance of success. Meanwhile, bands of Catalan insurgents sniped and ambushed all along the French rear and began menacing convoys. The siege work itself was painfully slow, supplies to the French haphazard, and not all the heavy artillery had arrived. The ground was rocky and unsuited for digging trenches and, consequently, some 2,000 infantry spent their days filling gabions with earth. Others made use of Suchet’s offer of a reward for retrieving enemy round-shot (the 5th Light made 400 francs and gallantly used the money to ease the plight of their wounded), something that raised morale and kept troops occupied during the monotony of the siege.

French engineers were now concentrating on the segment of wall around the Francoli Fort. A breach in the Upper Town followed by a successful assault would have spelled an end to all resistance. An assault into the Lower Town would prove less conclusive since the Upper Town could be sealed off and could continue to resist. But the very geography of Tarragona’s position— its high perch on solid rock—meant that the only realistic chance the French had lay in first breaching a part of the wall around the southern tip of the Lower Town. Now that the Royal Navy was being kept at bay, work directed to this end commenced in earnest.

The French had built a lengthy redoubt from their battery by the beach to the bridge over the Francoli and, with the capture of the Olivo Fort, 2,000 laborers could more safely push on with digging those trenches, inexorably zigzagging their way toward the Spanish positions. By June 7, the French had moved 25 guns close enough to open up on the Francoli. The small Spanish garrison, composed of the Almanza regiment, was nearly annihilated, and the fort was reluctantly abandoned. At 10 P.M. French scouts reported that the place had been evacuated, and Suchet’s forces moved in, taking two 12-pounders. They attempted to push farther, but were savagely beaten back that night by newly reinforced defenders lining the traverses that stretched from the San Carlos Bastion to the sea, and by those in the Prince’s Lunette, the fieldwork near the Francoli Fort.

General Sarsfield had been wounded, and the Spaniards had suffered heavily, but their line held. The French, however, had gained a foothold in Tarragona and set about exploiting it.

Guns were rushed up to the Francoli to drive the British shipping farther off and subdue Spanish batteries on the mole. The Spaniards launched sortie after sortie, delaying the French and causing heavy casualties. Short nights and hot days did not help. Meanwhile, British ships raked the French, and Tarragona’s artillery caused serious losses to the infantry and to Suchet’s gunners. An artillery lieutenant even managed to get two light guns forward and decimate some French sappers with canister, a provocative act that showed determination. It was little wonder that French attempts to negotiate a surrender were ignored.

Meanwhile, and of deepening concern to Suchet, the Spanish field armies were gathering to try to relieve Tarragona, and Campoverde, operating with some 6,000 Valencians under Don José Miranda, could start field operations. Macdonald, short of troops and harried by insurgents, was in no position to help Suchet. The situation would soon be critical.

But fate did play its part: On the night of June 16, the French succeeded in getting into the Prince’s Lunette, widening their foothold and capturing the colonel in command. With time running short, more troops were needed and Suchet took the risk of calling in General Abbé and his men. Although this provided fresh troops for the projected assault into the Lower Town, the Spanish forces circling Tarragona now had greater freedom of movement since Abbé had been vigilantly pursuing and breaking bands of insurgents nipping at Suchet’s heels. It was a desperate gamble.

Batteries began to pummel the walls around the San Carlos Bastion on June 21 and a breach was deemed practicable that evening. As dusk fell, Suchet had 1,500 men prepare for the assault. A column of elite companies from the 116th, 117th, and 120th Line darted forward on the left and, although the voltigeurs were initially turned back, companies of grenadiers arrived and swarmed into the main breach, the Spaniards failing to trigger the mines that had been prepared for them.

The French managed to reach the walls of the Royal Fort and, at the same time, a column of men from the 1st and 5th Light and the 42nd Line arrived at the breach of the San Carlos Bastion, forcing their way in and pushing into the nearest houses of the Lower Town. A few hundred Frenchmen surged along the beach and reserves were sent against the mole and the harbor. Some 300 men of the 1st Light were sent in support of the men beneath the walls of the Royal Fort and began to climb up the walls. The Spaniards took fright and melted away; their commander, Sarsfield, did what he could to rally his troops and fall back in order as more Spaniards came up to prevent the French from beating down the gate into the Upper Town. By 8 P.M., however, the Lower Town was in French hands. The Royal Navy squadron (consisting of the 74-gun Blake, the Invincible, the Centaur, and a number of transports and gunboats) began to make off, petulantly strafing the French with powerful broadsides as the ships passed out to sea. Fires in the warehouses and houses along the quays added to the drama. Few prisoners were taken that night, Suchet reporting that “160, including a few officers, were miraculously saved from the fury of the soldiery, each assault was now infuriating our men beyond measure.”

Suchet, accompanied by General Rogniat, entered the Lower Town that night and meticulously surveyed the Spanish defenses on the morning of June 22. The French had achieved substantial progress; even so, Contreras would not surrender, and Suchet noted that he would now be forced to “set a terrible example, and have Catalonia and Spain bear witness to the destruction of an entire town.”

Success had, however, sucked Suchet’s men inside the walls just as they were perhaps needed outside. For, in the hills surrounding the city, Campoverde, bolstered with additional Catalan irregulars, had at last started to move and block supplies to the besiegers. Suchet pushed on, securing the Lower Town and directing his guns at a stretch of wall between the San Juan and the San Pablo bastions protecting the Upper Town. Sappers began parallels toward the walls, braving the insults of the Spanish garrison and a rain of shot and shell.

Progress was at last interrupted by Campoverde’s 10,000 men. Suchet, having postponed intervention, could no longer tolerate being surrounded by an enemy on three sides, and assembled a small field force against the Spanish army. He sent his cavalry forward, driving some Spanish outposts in, and marched his infantry in quick pursuit. The Spaniards, having failed to surprise Suchet, fell back hastily for reinforcements. Suchet left his cavalry to monitor their activity and marched back down to Tarragona.

Suchet was in the forward trenches when he heard that English officers were inspecting the town and he urged his gunners and engineers to make supreme efforts, noting that “every hour and every day rendered it more and more necessary that we should conquer.” The gunners were now concentrating on opening two breaches in the Upper Town’s walls using 14 24-pounders. The Spaniards fought back, their artillerymen maintaining a heavy fire despite the concentrated French barrage. Suchet was concerned but, in reality, resistance within the Upper Town was seriously compromised by the weakness of the walls and by delays in getting relief forward. Contreras held a council of war on the evening of June 25 and made it clear that the city could not hold unless relief arrived in the next few days. The council decided to turn the houses behind the walls into fortified positions, to barricade the road (the Rambla) running from the San Juan Gate to the cathedral, and to loophole the houses along it. Steps into houses were demolished, barrels of earth were positioned across the streets. The Almanza Regiment was stationed within the houses; the defense of the main breach was entrusted to the Almeria Regiment, the 2nd Savoy Regiment, and two battalions of grenadiers.

These, well fortified with wine and brandy, were armed with muskets and halberds, and Contreras left their ears ringing with a desperate harangue urging them to charge the French with their bayonets, “with such ferocity when first you see them, that they dare not appear a second time.” Contreras drew up some reserves by the Rosario Gate (perhaps hoping to break out if worse came to worst) and waited.

For the French were coming.

Suchet, having surveyed the main breach, brought the time for the assault forward to the late afternoon of June 28, a move greeted with enthusiasm by the impatient infantry. This breach by the San Pablo Bastion was feasible and steadily widened under an intense bombardment all along the line. Some 300 sharpshooters picked off those Spaniards hardy enough to attempt to repair the gap.

The battle of the breach commenced.

Suchet was once again in the trenches, reviewing the men chosen for the assault and walking and talking among the ranks. Three columns were directed at the breach, supported by a reserve of 1,200 men, and additional troops watched the Rosario Gate. The first column to dash forward was hit by canister and it wavered; it reached the breach but could not force its way through. Staggered by musketry, it attempted to go to ground around the breach. Supports rushed forward with bands playing and flags flying; they ran up and over the breach, charging in among the Spaniards and furiously driving them back.

The right-hand column now scrambled up onto the ramparts to outflank the Spanish defenses, while other attackers did the same on the left and prepared to open the Rosario Gate. Around the breach, more and more Frenchmen forced their way forward, pushing the Spaniards against their own barricades. The French poured in, and Suchet entered the town and directed the final and decisive phase. Now no reserves rushed forward to help; instead panic gripped the Spaniards and they turned to flee. Small bands maintained some resistance in narrow streets, some officers kept their men together, by personality or sword, but most of the besieged turned and ran, hoping to get away and up the coast.

Capt. Edward Codrington and his crew, aboard the Blake off Tarragona, watched with despair as the Spaniards who were outside the walls “stripped and endeavored to swim off to the shipping, while those within were seen sliding down the face of the batteries; each party thus equally endangering their lives more than they would have done by a firm resistance to the enemy.” The ships were soon swamped by refugees (ships’ boats were sent in as close to the shore as possible) while bands of desperate Spaniards tried to escape north.

Spilling out of the San Antonio Gate, many of these were intercepted by Suchet’s Italian division, and many others were overrun and sabered by overeager dragoons. Little quarter was shown to the Spanish soldiery, Suchet’s “terrible example” now began to play itself out in the streets and alleyways of the city.

Night began to fall as the city was put to the sack. Although many civilians had been evacuated, scores were now robbed and killed (some 5,000 corpses were found in the city, and 736 houses were badly damaged or destroyed). The French showed little mercy and desperate inhabitants sought sanctuary in the cathedral. This was also stormed, the French hungry for silver, and infantry seized the 900 wounded within.

Contreras, trying to rally some of his men at the Rosario Gate, was wounded in the stomach by a bayonet thrust, his life spared by a French engineer. He was brought before Suchet who, while having him treated, blamed him for being the cause of such bloodshed but honored him for being “a man of spirit” and sent him to convalesce at Saragossa. The Spanish general would spend 15 months in France before escaping and writing a passionate defense of his conduct.

The French also marched some 11,800 prisoners away into captivity, taking even more the following week when they seized Villanova. Some 322 undamaged cannons (these had fired 120,000 rounds during the siege) also fell into their hands.

The French may have counted their spoils; they also counted heavy casualties. They had lost 1,218 killed and 3,078 wounded (394 of whom later died, and 900 of whom were unable to resume service). Of these, some 600 had been from the Italian contingent, the rest were French or Poles.

It had been a remarkable achievement. General Suchet had kept guerrillas at bay, warded off field armies, and had almost been besieged himself as he lay siege to a town liberally resupplied and energetically defended for two months. He did not, however, rest upon his laurels. He sent dispatches to Paris (symbolically including the keys of the city to lay “at his majesty’s feet”), set the civilian population filling trenches, and led local dignitaries through the ruins to show them the dire consequences of war and resistance. He then issued orders for the Lower Town’s fortifications to be dismantled. He would leave a garrison in the Upper Town (which resisted an Anglo-Spanish siege in 1813, only to be finally evacuated that August) and march against Campoverde. He succeeded in scattering that general’s forces and closing Catalonia’s ports to his enemies so that pacification could begin inland. This was successful enough to allow the formal absorption of Catalonia, albeit briefly, into the French empire in January 1812.

Less than a month after taking and sacking Tarragona, on July 20, 1811, General Suchet was back at Reus and there, waiting for him, was an imperial orderly. He bore a decree naming Suchet Marshal of the Empire, a reward for one of the most difficult, most complex operations carried out by the French in Spain. Suchet, the only peninsular general to be promoted to the marshalate for service in Spain, had found his baton and made his reputation in the ruins of Tarragona.

 

Originally published in the Summer 2009 issue of Military History Quarterly. To subscribe, click here.  

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