Historical Tales: 7—Spanish - Charles Morris

The Siege of Saragossa

On the banks of the Ebro, in northwestern Spain, stands the ancient city of Saragossa, formerly the capital of Aragon, and a place of fame since early Roman days. A noble bridge of seven arches, built nearly five centuries ago, crosses the stream, and a wealth of towers and spires gives the city an imposing appearance. This city is famous for its sieges, of which a celebrated one took place in the twelfth century, when the Christians held it in siege for five years, ending in 1118. In the end the Moors were forced to surrender, or such of them as survived, for a great part of them had died of hunger. In modern times it gained new and high honor from its celebrated resistance to the French in 1808. It is this siege with which we are concerned, one almost without parallel in history.

We have told in the preceding tale how Charles IV. of Spain was forced to yield the throne to his son Ferdinand, who was proclaimed king March 20, 1808. This act by no means agreed with the views of Napoleon, who had plans of his own for Spain, and who sought to end the difficulty by deposing the Bourbon royal family and placing his own brother, Joseph Bonaparte, on the throne.



The imperious emperor of the French had, however, the people as well as the rulers of Spain to deal with. The news of his arbitrary action was received throughout the Peninsula with intense indignation, and suddenly the land blazed into insurrection, and the French garrisons, which had been treacherously introduced into Spain, found themselves besieged. Everywhere the peasants seized arms and took to the field, and a fierce guerilla warfare began which the French found it no easy matter to overcome. At Baylen, a town of Andalusia, which was besieged by the insurgents, the French suffered a serious defeat, an army of eighteen thousand men being forced to surrender as prisoners of war. This was the only important success of the Spanish, but they courageously resisted their foes, and at Saragossa gained an honor unsurpassed in the history of Spain. Never had there been known such a siege and such a defence.

Saragossa was attacked by General Lefebre on June 15, 1808. Thinking that a city protected only by a low brick wall, with peasants and townsmen for its defenders, and few guns in condition for service, could be carried at first assault, the French general made a vigorous attack, but found himself driven back. He had but four or five thousand men, while the town had fifty thousand inhabitants, the commander of the garrison being Joseph Palafox, a man of indomitable spirit.

Lefebre, perceiving that he had been over-confident, now encamped and awaited reinforcements, which arrived on the 29th, increasing his force to twelve thousand men. He was recalled for service elsewhere, General Verdier being left in command, and during the succeeding two months the siege was vigorously prosecuted, the French being supplied with a large siege train, with which they hotly bombarded the city.

Weak as were the walls of Saragossa, interiorly it was remarkably well adapted for defence. The houses were strongly built, of incombustible material, they being usually of two stories, each story vaulted and practically fireproof. Every house had its garrison, and the massive convents which rose like castles within the circuit of the wall were filled with armed men. Usually when the walls of a city are taken the city falls; but this was by no means the case with Saragossa. The loss of its walls was but the beginning, not the end, of its defence. Each convent, each house, formed a separate fortress. The walls were loop-holed for musketry, ramparts were constructed of sand-bags, and beams were raised endwise against the houses to afford shelter from shells.

It was not until August that the French, now fifteen thousand strong, were able to force their way into the city. But to enter the city was not to capture it. They had to fight their way from street to street and from house to house. At length the assailants penetrated to the Cosso, a public walk formed on the line of the old Moorish ramparts, but here their advance was checked, the citizens defending themselves with the most desperate and unyielding energy.

The singular feature of this defence was that the women of Saragossa took as active a part in it as the men. The Countess Burita, a beautiful young woman of intrepid spirit, took the lead in forming her fellow-women into companies, at whose head were ladies of the highest rank. These, undeterred by the hottest fire and freely braving wounds and death, carried provisions to the combatants, removed the wounded to the hospitals, and were everywhere active in deeds of mercy and daring. One of them, a young woman of low rank but intrepid soul, gained world-wide celebrity by an act of unusual courage and presence of mind.

While engaged one day in her regular duty, that of carrying meat and wine to the defenders of a battery, she found it deserted and the guns abandoned. The French fire had proved so murderous that the men had shrunk back in mortal dread. Snatching a match from the hand of a dead artillery-man, the brave girl fired his gun, and vowed that she would never leave it while a Frenchman remained in Saragossa. Her daring shamed the men, who returned to their guns, but, as the story goes, the brave girl kept her vow, working the gun she had chosen until she had the joy to see the French in full retreat. This took place on the 14th of August, when the populace, expecting nothing but to die amid the ruins of their houses, beheld with delight the enemy in full retreat. The obstinate resistance of the people and reverses to the arms of France elsewhere had forced them to raise the siege.

The deeds of the "Maid of Saragossa" have been celebrated in poetry by Byron and Southey and in art by Wilkie, and she stands high on the roll of heroic women, being given, as some declare, a more elevated position than her exploit deserved.

Saragossa, however, was only reprieved, not abandoned. The French found themselves too busily occupied elsewhere to attend to this centre of Spanish valor until months had passed. At length, after the defeat and retreat of Sir John Moore and the English allies of Spain, a powerful army, thirty-five thousand strong, returned to the city on the Ebro, with a battering train of sixty guns.

Palafox remained in command in the city, which was now much more strongly fortified and better prepared for defence. The garrison was super-abundant. From the field of battle at Tudela, where the Spaniards had suffered a severe defeat, a stream of soldiers fled to Saragossa, bringing with them wagons and military stores in abundance. As the fugitives passed, the villagers along the road, moved by terror, joined them, and into the gates of the city poured a flood of soldiers, camp-followers, and peasants, until it was thronged with human beings. Last of all came the French, reaching the city on the 20th of December, and resuming their interrupted siege. And now Saragossa, though destined to fall, was to cover itself with undying glory.

The townsmen, giving up every thought of personal property, devoted all their goods, their houses, and their persons to the war, mingling with the soldiers and the peasants to form one great garrison for the fortress into which the whole city was transformed. In all quarters of the city massive churches and convents rose like citadels, the various large streets running into the broad avenue called the Cosso, and dividing the city into a number of districts, each with its large and massive structures, well capable of defence.

Not only these thick-walled buildings, but all the houses, were converted into forts, the doors and windows being built up, the fronts loop-holed, and openings for communication broken through the party-walls; while the streets were defended by trenches and earthen ramparts mounted with cannon. Never before was there such an instance of a whole city converted into a fortress, the thickness of the ramparts being here practically measured by the whole width of the city.

Saragossa had been a royal depot for saltpetre, and powder-mills near by had taught many of its people the process of manufacture, so no magazines of powder subject to explosion were provided, this indispensable substance being made as it was needed. Outside the walls the trees were cut down and the houses demolished, so that they might not shield the enemy; the public magazines contained six months' provisions, the convents and houses were well stocked, and every preparation was made for a long siege and a vigorous defence.

Again, as before, companies of women were enrolled to attend the wounded in the hospitals and carry food and ammunition to the men, the Countess Burita being once more their commander, and performing her important duty with a heroism and high intelligence worthy of the utmost praise. Not less than fifty thousand combatants within the walls faced the thirty-five thousand French soldiers without, who had before them the gigantic task of overcoming a city in which every dwelling was a fort and every family a garrison.

A month and more passed before the walls were taken. Steadily the French guns played on these defences, breach after breach was made, a number of the encircling convents were entered and held, and by the 1st of February the walls and outer strong-holds of the city were lost. Ordinarily, under such circumstances, the city would have fallen, but here the work of the assailants had but fairly begun. The inner defences—the houses with their unyielding garrisons—stood intact, and a terrible task still faced the French.

The war was now in the city streets, the houses nearest the posts held by the enemy were crowded with defenders, in every quarter the alarm-bells called the citizens to their duty, new barricades rose in the streets, mines were sunk in the open spaces, and the internal passages from house to house were increased until the whole city formed a vast labyrinth, throughout which the defenders could move under cover.

Marshall Lannes, the French commander, viewed with dread and doubt the scene before him. Untrained in the art of war as were the bulk of the defenders, courage and passionate patriotism made up for all deficiencies. Men like these, heedless of death in their determined defence, were dangerous to meet in open battle, and the prudent Frenchman resolved to employ the slow but surer process of excavating a passage and fighting his way through house after house until the city should be taken piecemeal.

Mining through the houses was not sufficient. The greater streets divided the city into a number of small districts, the group of dwellings in each of which forming a separate stronghold. To cross these streets it was necessary to construct underground galleries, or build traverses, since a Spanish battery raked each street, and each house had to be fought for and taken separately.

While the Spaniards held the convents and churches the capture of the houses by the French was of little service to them, the defenders making sudden and successful sallies from these strong buildings, and countermining their enemies, their numbers and perseverance often frustrating the superior skill of the French. The latter, therefore, directed their attacks upon these buildings, mining and destroying many of them. On the other hand, the defenders saturated with rosin and pitch the timbers of the buildings they could no longer hold, and interposed a barrier of fire between themselves and their assailants which often delayed them for several days.

Step by step, inch by inch, the French made their way forward, complete destruction alone enabling them to advance. The fighting was incessant. The explosion of mines, the crash of falling buildings, the roar of cannon and musketry, the shouts of the combatants continually filled the air, while a cloud of smoke and dust hung constantly over the city as the terrible scene of warfare continued day after day.

By the 17th of February the Cosso was reached and passed. But the French soldiers had become deeply discouraged by their fifty days of unremitting labor and battle, fighting above and beneath the earth, facing an enemy as bold as themselves and much more numerous, and with half the city still to be conquered. Only the obstinate determination of Marshal Lannes kept them to their work.

By his orders a general assault was made on the 18th. Under the university, a large building in the Cosso, mines containing three thousand pounds of powder were exploded, the walls falling with a terrific crash. Meanwhile, fifty pieces of artillery were playing on the side of the Ebro, where the great convent of St. Lazar was breached and taken, two thousand men being here cut off from the city. On the 19th other mines were exploded, and on the 20th six great mines under the Cosso, loaded with thousands of pounds of powder, whose explosion would have caused immense destruction, were ready for the match, when an offer to surrender brought the terrible struggle to an end.

The case had become one of surrender or death. The bombardment, incessant since the 10th of January, had forced the women and children into the vaults, which were abundant in Saragossa. There the closeness of the air, the constant burning of oil, and the general unsanitary conditions had given rise to a pestilence which threatened to carry off all the inhabitants of the city. Such was the state of the atmosphere that slight wounds became fatal, and many of the defenders of the barricades were fit only for the hospitals. By the 1st of February the death rate had become enormous. The daily deaths numbered nearly five hundred, and thousands of corpses, which it was impossible to bury, lay in the streets and houses, and in heaps at the doors of the churches, infecting the air with their decay. The French held the suburbs, most of the wall, and one-fourth of the houses, while the bursting of thousands of shells and the explosion of nearly fifty thousand pounds of gun-powder in mines had shaken the city to its foundations. Of the hundred thousand people who had gathered within its walls, more than fifty thousand were dead; thousands of others would soon follow them to the grave; Palafox, their indomitable chief, was sick unto death. Yet despite this there was a strong and energetic party who wished to protract the siege, and the deputies appointed to arrange terms of surrender were in peril of their lives.

The terms granted were that the garrison should march out with the honors of war, to be taken as prisoners to France; the peasants should be sent to their homes; the rights of property and exercise of religion should be guaranteed.

Thus ended one of the most remarkable sieges on record,—remarkable alike for the energy and persistence of the attack and the courage and obstinacy of the defence. Never in all history has any other city stood out so long after its walls had fallen. Rarely has any city been so adapted to a protracted defence. Had not its houses been nearly incombustible it would have been reduced to ashes by the bombardment. Had not its churches and convents possessed the strength of forts it must have quickly yielded. Had not the people been animated by an extraordinary enthusiasm, in which women did the work of men, a host of peasants and citizens could not so long have endured the terrors of assault on the one hand and of pestilence on the other. In the words of General Napier, the historian of the Peninsular War, "When the other events of the Spanish war shall be lost in the obscurity of time, or only traced by disconnected fragments, the story of Zaragoza, like some ancient triumphal pillar standing amidst ruins, will tell a tale of past glory."