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Modern History Sourcebook:
Charles O'Malley:
Wellington's Crossing of the Douro, 1809

[Tappan Introduction] Even after Napoleon had overthrown the armies of Spain and Portugal, these countries refused to yield to his authority. Wellington with British troops came to their aid. He crossed the Douro River, captured Oporto, and pursued the French forces on their retreat over the mountains into Spain.

NEVER did the morning break more beautifully than on the 12th of May, 1809. Huge masses of fog-like vapor had succeeded to the starry, cloudless night, but one by one they moved onwards towards the sea, disclosing as they passed long tracts of lovely country, bathed in a rich golden glow. The broad Douro, with its transparent current, shone out like a bright-colored ribbon, meandering through the deep garment of fairest green; the darkly shadowed mountains which closed the background loomed even larger than they were; while their summits were tipped with the yellow glory of the morning. The air was calm and still, and the very smoke that arose from the peasant's cot labored as it ascended through the perfumed air, and save the ripple of the stream all was silent as the grave.

The squadron of the Fourteenth, with which I was, had diverged from the road beside the river, and to obtain a shorter path, had entered the skirts of a dark pine wood; our pace was a sharp one; an orderly had been already dispatched to hasten our arrival, and we pressed on at a brisk trot. In less than an hour we reached the verge of the wood, and as we rode out upon the plain, what a spectacle met our eyes! Before us, in a narrow valley, separated from the river by a low ridge, were picketed three cavalry regiments; their noiseless gestures and perfect stillness bespeaking at once that they were intended for a surprise party. Farther down the stream, and upon the opposite side, rose the massive towers and tall spires of Oporto, displaying from their summits the broad ensign of France; while far as the eye could reach, the broad dark masses of troops might be seen; the intervals between their columns glittering with the bright equipments of their cavalry, whose steel caps and lances were sparkling in the sunbeams. The bivouac fires were still smouldering, and marking where some part of the army had passed the night; for early as it was, it was evident that their position had been changed; and even now, the heavy masses of dark infantry might be seen moving from place to place, while the long line of the road to Vallonga was marked with a vast cloud of dust. The French drum and the light infantry bugle told, from time to time, that orders were passing among the troops; while the glittering uniform of a staff officer, as he galloped from the town, bespoke the note of preparation.

"Dismount! steady; quietly, my lads," said the colonel, as he alighted upon the grass. "Let the men have their breakfast." The little amphitheater we occupied hid us entirely from all observation on the part of the enemy, but equally so excluded us from perceiving their movements. It may readily be supposed then, with what impatience we waited here, while the din and clangor of the French force, as they marched and countermarched so near us, were clearly audible. The orders were, however, strict that none should approach the bank of the river, and we lay anxiously awaiting the moment when this inactivity should cease. More than one orderly had arrived among us, bearing dispatches from headquarters; but where our main body was, or what the nature of the orders, no one could guess. As for me, my excitement was at its height, and I could not speak for the very tension of my nerves. The officers stood in little groups of two and three, whispering anxiously together; but all I could collect was, that Soult had already begun his retreat upon Amarante, and that, with the broad stream of the Douro between us, he defied our pursuit.

"Well, Charley," said Power, laying his arm upon my shoulder, "the French have given us the slip this time; they are already in march, and even if we dared force a passage in the face of such an enemy, it seems there is not a boat to be found. I have just seen Hammersley." "Indeed! Where is he?" said I. "He's gone back to Villa do Conde; he asked after you most particularly. Don't blush, man; I'd rather back your chance than his, notwithstanding the long letter that Lucy sends him. Poor fellow, he has been badly wounded, but, it seems, declines going back to England."

"Captain Power," said an orderly, touching his cap, "General Murray desires to see you." Power hastened away, but returned in a few moments. "I say, Charley, there's something in the wind here. I have just been ordered to try where the stream is fordable. I've mentioned your name to the general, and I think you'll be sent for soon. Good-bye."

I buckled on my sword, and looking to my girths, stood watching the groups around me; when suddenly a dragoon pulled his horse up short, and asked a man if Mr. O'Malley was there. "Yes; I am he." "Orders from General Murray, sir," said the man, and rode off at a canter. I opened and saw that the dispatch was addressed to Sir Arthur Wellesley, with the mere words, "With haste!" on the enevelope.

Now, which way to turn I knew not; so, springing into the saddle, I galloped to where Colonel Merivale was standing talking to the colonel of a heavy dragoon regiment. "May I ask, sir, by which road I am to proceed with this dispatch?" "Along the river, sir," said the heavy, ---a large, dark-browed man, with a most forbidding look. "You'll soon see the troops; you'd better stir yourself, sir, or Sir Arthur is not very likely to be pleased with you."

Without venturing a reply to what I felt a somewhat unnecessary taunt, I dashed spurs into my horse, and turned toward the river. I had not gained the bank above a minute, when the loud ringing of a rifle struck upon my ear; bang went another, and another. I hurried on, however, at the top of my speed, thinking only of my mission and its pressing haste. As I turned an angle of the stream, the vast column of the British came in sight, and scarcely had my eye rested upon them when my horse staggered forwards, plunged twice with his head nearly to the earth, and then, rearing madly up, fell backwards to the ground. Crushed and bruised as I felt by my fall, I was soon aroused to the necessity of exertion; for as I disengaged myself from the poor beast, I discovered he had been killed by a bullet in the counter; and scarcely had I recovered my legs when a shot struck my shako and grazed my temples. I quickly threw myself to the ground, and, creeping on for some yards, reached at last some rising ground, from which I rolled gently downwards into a little declivity, sheltered by the bank from the French fire.

When I arrived at headquarters, I was dreadfully fatigued and heated; but resolving not to rest till I had delivered my dispatches, I hastened towards the convent of La Sierra, where I was told the commander-in-chief was. As I came into the court of the convent, filled with general officers and people of the staff, I was turnig to ask how I should proceed, when Hixley caught my eye. "Well, O'Malley, what brings you here?" "Dispatches from General Murray." "Indeed; oh, follow me." He hurried me rapidly through the buzzing crowd, and ascending a large gloomy staif, introduced me into a room, where about a dozen persons in uniform were writing at a long deal table.

"Captain Gordon," said he, addressing one of them, "dispatches requiring immediate attention have just been brought in by this officer." Before the sentence was finished, the door opened, and a short, slight man, in a gray undress coat, with a white cravat, and a cocked hat, entered. The dead silence that ensued was not necessary to assure me that he was one in authority,---the look of command his bold, stern features presented; the sharp, piercing eye, the compressed lip, the impressive expression of the whole face, told plainly that he was one who held equally himself and others in mastery.

"Send General Sherbroke here," said he to an aide-de-camp. "Let the light brigade march into position;" and then, turning suddenly to me, "Whose dispatches are these?" " General Murray's, sir."

I needed no more than that look to assure me that this was he of whom I had heard so much, and of whom the world was still to hear so much more. He opened them quickly, and glancing his eye across the contents, crushed the paper in his hand. Just as he did so, a spot of blood upon the envelope attracted his attention.

"How 's this,---are you wounded?" "No, sir; my horse was killed---" "Very well, sir; join your brigade. But stay, I shall have orders for you. Well, Waters, what news?" This question was addressed to an officer in a staff uniform, who entered at the moment, followed by the short and bulky figure of a monk, his shaven crown and large cassock strongly contrasting with the gorgeous glitter of the costumes around him. "I say, whom have we here?" "The Prior of Amarante, sir," replied Waters, "who has just come over. We have already, by his aid, secured three large barges---"

"Let the artillery take up positions in the convent at once," said Sir Arthur, interrupting. "The boats will be brought round to the small creek beneath the orchard. You, sir," turning to me, "will convey to General Murray---but you appear weak. You, Gordon, will desire Murray to effect a crossing at Avintas with the Germans and the 14th. Sherbroke's division will occupy the Villa Nuova. What number of men can that seminary take?" "From three to four hundred, sir. The padre mentions that all the vigilance of the enemy is limited to the river below the town." "I perceive it," was the short reply of Sir Arthur, as, placing his hands carelessly behind his back, he walked towards the window, and looked out upon the river.

All was still as death in the chamber; not a lip murmured. The feeling of respect for him in whose presence we were standing checked every thought of utterance; while the stupendous gravity of the events before us engrossed every mind and occupied every heart. I was standing near the window; the effect of my fall had stunned me for a time, but I was gradually recovering, and watched with a thrilling heart the scene before me. Great and absorbing as was my interest in what was passing without, it was nothing compared with what I felt as I looked at him upon whom our destiny was then hanging. I had ample time to scan his features and canvass their every lineament. Never before did I look upon such perfect impassibility; the cold, determined expression was crossed by no show of passion or impatience. All was rigid and motionless, and whatever might have been the workings of the spirit within, certainly no external sign betrayed them; and yet what a moment for him must that have been! Before him, separated by a deep and rapid river, lay the conquering legions of France, led on by one second alone to him whose very name had been the prestige of victory. Unprovided with every regular means of transport, in the broad glare of day, in open defiance of their serried ranks and thundering artillery, he dared the deed. What must have been his confidence in the soldiers he commanded! What must have been his reliance upon his own genius! As such thoughts rushed through my mind, the door opened and an officer entered hastily, and, whispering a few words to Colonel Waters, left the room. "One boat is already brought up to the crossing-place, and entirely concealed by the wall of the orchard." "Let the men cross," was the brief reply. No other word was spoken as, turning from the window, he closed his telescope, and followed by all the others, descended to the courtyard. This simple order was enough; an officer with a company of the Buffs embarked, and thus began the passage of the Douro.

So engrossed was I in my vigilant observation of our leader, that I would gladly have remained at the convent, when I received an order to join my brigade, to which a detachment of artillery was already proceeding. As I reached Avintas all was in motion. The cavalry was in readiness beside the river; but as yet no boats had been discovered, and such was the impatience of the men to cross, it was with difficulty they were prevented trying the passage by swimming, when suddenly Power appeared, followed by several fishermen. Three or four small skiffs had been found, half sunk in mud, among the rushes, and with such frail assistance we commenced to cross. "There will be something to write home to Galway soon, Charley, or I'm terribly mistaken," said Fred, as he sprang into the boat beside me. "Was I not a true prophet when I told you >We'd meet the French in the morning'?" "They're at it already," said Hixley, as a wreath of blue smoke floated across the stream below us, and the loud boom of a large gun resounded through the air.

Then came a deafening shout, followed by a rattling volley of small arms, gradually swelling into a hot sustained fire, through which the cannon pealed at intervals. Several large meadows lay along the riverside, where our brigade was drawn up as the detachments landed from the boats; and here, although nearly a league distant from the town, we now heard the din and crash of battle, which increased every moment. The cannonade from the Sierra convent, which at first was merely the fire of single guns, now thundered away in one long roll, amidst which the sounds of falling walls and crashing roofs were mingled. It was evident to us, from the continual fire kept up, that the landing had been effected; while the swelling tide of musketry told that fresh troops were momentarily coming up. In less than twenty minutes our brigade was formed, and we now only waited for two light four-pounders to be landed, when an officer galloped up in haste, and called out,---"The French are in retreat!" and pointing at the same moment to the Vallonga road, we saw a long line of smoke and dust leading from the town, through which, as we gazed, the colors of the enemy might be seen as they defiled, while the unbroken lines of the wagons and heavy baggage proved that it was no partial movement, but the army itself retreating.

"Fourteenth, threes about! close up! trot!" called out the loud and manly voice of our leader, and the heavy tramp of our squadrons shook the very ground as we advanced towards the road to Vallonga.

As we came on, the scene became one of overwhelming excitement; the masses of the enemy that poured unceasingly from the town could now be distinguished more clearly; and amidst all the crash of gun-carriages and caissons, the voices of the staff officers rose high as they hurried along the retreating battalions. A troop of flying artillery galloped forth at top speed, and wheeling their guns into position with the speed of lightning, prepared, by a flanking fire, to cover the retiring column. The gunners sprang from their seats, the guns were already unlimbered, when Sir George Murray, riding up at our left, called out,--- "Forward! close up! charge!"

The word was scarcely spoken when the loud cheer answered the welcome sound, and the same instant the long line of shining helmets passed with the speed of a whirlwind; the pace increased at every stride, the ranks grew closer, and like the dread force of some mighty engine we fell upon the foe. I have felt all the glorious enthusiasm of a fox-hunt, when the loud cry of the hounds, answered by the cheer of the joyous huntsman, stirred the very heart within; but never till now did I know how far higher the excitement reaches, when man to man, saber to saber, arm to arm, we ride forward to the battle-field. On we went, the loud shout of "Forward!" still ringing in our cars. One broken, irregular discharge from the French guns shook the head of our advancing column, but stayed us not as we galloped madly on.

I remember no more. The din, the smoke! the crash, the cry for quarter, mingled with the shout of victory, the flying enemy, the agonizing shrieks of the wounded; ---all are commingled in my mind, but leave no trace of clearness or connection between them; and it was only when the column wheeled to reform behind the advancing squadrons, that I awoke from my trance of maddening excitement, and perceived that we had carried the position and cut off the guns of the enemy. "Well done, Fourteenth," said an old gray-headed colonel, as he rode along our line,---"gallantly done, lads!" The blood trickled from a saber cut on his temple, along his cheek, as he spoke; but he either knew it not or heeded it not.

"There go the Germans!" said Power, pointing to the remainder of our brigade, as they charged furiously upon the French infantry, and rode them down in masses. Our guns came up at this time, and a plunging fire was opened upon the thick and retreating ranks of the enemy. The carnage must have been terrific, for the long breaches of their lines showed where the squadrons of the cavalry had passed, or the most destructive tide of the artillery had swept through them. The speed of the flying columns grew momentarily more; the road became blocked up, too, by broken carriages and wounded; and to add to their discomfiture, a damaging fire now opened from the town upon the retreating column, while the brigade of Guards and the Twenty-ninth pressed hotly on their rear.

The scene was now beyond anything maddening in its interest. From the walls of Oporto the English infantry poured forth in pursuit, while the whole riverwas covered with boats as they still continued to cross over. The artillery thundered from the Sierra to protect the landing, for it was even then contested in places; and the cavalry, charging in flank, swept the broken ranks and bore down upon the squares. It was now, when the full tide of victory ran highest in our favor, that we were ordered to retire from the road. Column after column passed before us, unmolested and unassailed, and not even a cannon-shot arrested their steps. Some unaccountable timidity of our leader directed this movement; and while before our very eyes the gallant infantry were charging the retiring columns we remained still and inactive.

How little did the sense of praise we had already won repay us for the shame and indignation we experienced at this moment, as with burning cheek and compressed lip we watched the retreating files. "What can he mean?" "Is there not some mistake?" "Are we never to charge?" were the muttered questions around, as a staff officer galloped up with the order to take ground still farther back, and nearer to the river. The word was scarcely spoken when a young officer, in the uniform of a general, dashed impetuously up; he held his plumed cap high above his head, as he called out, "Fourteenth, follow me! Left face! wheel! charge!"

So, with the word, we were upon them. The French rear guard was at this moment at the narrowest point of the road, which opened by a bridge upon a large open space; so that, forming with a narrow front and favored by a declivity in the ground, we actually rode them down. Twice the French formed, and twice were they broken. Meanwhile the carnage was dreadful on both sides, our fellows dashing madly forward where the ranks were thickest, the enemy resisting with the stubborn courage of men fighting for their last spot of ground. So impetuous was the charge of our squadrons, that we stopped not till, piercing the dense column of the retreating mass, we reached the open ground beyond. Here we wheeled and prepared once more to meet them when suddenly some squadrons of cuirassiers debouched from the road, and supported by a field-piece, showed front against us. This was the moment that the remainder of our brigade should have come to our aid, but not a man appeared. However, there was not an instant to be lost; already the plunging fire of the four-pounder had swept through our files, and every moment increased our danger.

"Once more, my lads, forward! " cried out our gallant leader, Sir Charles Stewart, as, waving his saber, he dashed into the thickest of the fray. So sudden was our charge that we were upon them before they were prepared. And here ensued a terrific struggle; for as the cavalry of the enemy gave way before us, we came upon the close ranks of the infantry at half-pistol distance, who poured a withering volley into us as we approached. But what could arrest the sweeping torrent of our brave fellows, though every moment falling in numbers?

Harvey, our major, lost his arm near the shoulder. Scarcely an officer was not wounded. Power received a deep saber-cut in the cheek from an aide-de-camp of General Foy, in return for a wound he gave the general; while I, in my endeavor to save General Laborde when unhorsed, was cut down through the helmet, and so stunned that I remembered no more around me. I kept my saddle, it is true, but I lost every sense of consciousness, my first glimmering of reason coming to my aid as I lay upon the river bank and felt my faithful follower Mike bathing my temples with water, as he kept up a running fire of lamentations for my being murthered so young.

"Are you better, Mister Charles? Spake to me, alanah! Say that you're not kilt, darling; do now. Oh, wirra: what'll I ever say to the master? and you doing so beautiful! Would n't he give the best baste in his stable to be looking at you to-day? There, take a sup; it's only water. Bad luck to them, but it's hard work beating them. They 're only gone now. That 's right; now you 're coming to." "Where am I, Mike?" "It's here you are, darling, resting yourself." "Well, Charley, poor fellow, you've got sore bones, too," cried Power, as, his face swathed in bandages and covered with blood, he lay down on the grass beside me. " It was a gallant thing while it lasted, but has cost us dearly. Poor Hixley---"

'What of him?" said I, anxiously. "Poor fellow, he has seen his last battle-field! He fell across me as we came out upon the road. I lifted him up in my arms and bore him along above fifty yards; but he was stone dead. Not a sigh, not a word escaped him; shot through the forehead." As he spoke, his lips trembled, and his voice sank to a mere whisper at the last words: "You remember what he said last night. Poor fellow, he was every inch a soldier." Such was his epitaph.

I turned my head towards the scene of our late encounter. Some dismounted guns and broken wagons alone marked the spot; while far in the distance, the dust of the retreating columns showed the beaten enemy as they hurried towards the frontiers of Spain.


Source:

From: Eva March Tappan, ed., The World's Story: A History of the World in Story, Song and Art, 14 Vols., (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1914), Vol. V: Italy, France, Spain, and Portugal, pp. 535-549.

Scanned by Jerome S. Arkenberg, Cal. State Fullerton. The text has been modernized by Prof. Arkenberg.


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© Paul Halsall, November 1998
halsall@fordham.edu