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Suchet: War in Spain
Chapter 9a
Taking of the fort of San Felipe at the col de Balaguer. – Return of the army of, Arragon. – The Arragonese are favourably disposed towards the army. – Partial engagements – Preparations of defence at Valencia and Tarragona. – Various actions on both banks of the Ebro.


THE inhabitants of Tortosa were in the highest possible state of excitement, and the military chiefs had taken advantage of it, to prepare the requisite measures for defending the town; a whole suburb, and upwards of 10,000 olive or carob trees, forming the principal wealth of the small province of Tortosa, which lies isolated as it were, in the midst of a desert, had not only been destroyed without a murmur, but the population had even assisted with alacrity in the work of devastation. General Suchet availed himself in his turn of the aspect of affairs, and strictly enjoined that neither dwelling houses nor plantations of trees should be replaced within such a distance as he deemed requisite for the unobstructed defence of the place. A thousand peasants were immediately employed in removing our trenches and batteries.

Several of the inhabitants who had fled to the country for shelter, re-appeared at Tortosa as soon as they found a prospect of returning order. The clergy, flattered by the protection extended to them, manifested indications of a friendly feeling. Upwards of 150 of the neighbouring peasantry, belonging to the armed bands who infested the country, returned within three days, laid down their arms, and took a solemn oath never to resume them against us. The public coffers were empty; one of the first cares of the commander-in-chief was to re-organise the local administration. The general of division, Musnier, was named governor of the province. He was well calculated for the command, by his strength of mind and his acquaintance with the Spanish language. Whilst making these arrangements, general Suchet conceived the idea of attempting to surprise the fort of San-Felipe at the col de Balauer, by availing himself of the first moment of terror which the fall of Tortosa had created in the minds of the Spaniards. He thereby hoped to avoid laying siege to that post, which commands and. intercepts the road leading from Tortosa to Tarragona. General Habert, who was stationed at Perello with the 3rd division received orders to make the attempt, and acquitted himself of the mission with no less skill than bravery. He proceeded at night with the 5th regiment of light infantry and the 117th, advanced close up to the fort, in spite of the passages cut through the road, and erected a battery of four howitzers under a fire which killed or wounded five of his soldiers. After making these preparations for an attack, he sent an officer with a flag of truce to the commandant of the fort, in order to sound his intentions by proposing a capitulation. The latter asked for a delay of four days, promising to surrender if, in the interval, lie should not receive any relief. The proposal was rejected; our fire was immediately opened, and our skirmishers rushed upon the soldiers, doing duty at the outposts, who partly escaped into the ravines instead of returning to the fort. Our howitzers soon set fire to a powder magazine, and the garrison betrayed evident symptoms of indecision. General Habert seized this favourable opportunity, and ordered his men to cross the palisadoes; a few ladders had been brought, which were planted against the walls ; our soldiers penetrated into the fort; part of the garrison fled along the road to Tarragona; others escaped to the bastions, whither they were pursued and thought fit to capitulate. The commandant of the fort, thirteen officers, ninety soldiers, eighteen artillery men, eleven brass pieces of cannon, and 100,000 cartridges fell into our power.

General Habert, in his report of this expedition, made particular mention of captain Doria, and of lieutenants Bore and Pepin of the 117th regiment, as well as of lieutenants Crouzet of the artillery, and Guillemin of the company of miners. General Suchet set a high value on this little conquest, of which he had justly estimated the consequences, as will be proved in the sequel. He deemed himself warranted in laying aside for a moment all ordinary considerations of prudence, for the purpose of making an impression upon the minds of the Spaniards, a nation that quickly gives way to despondence on the first reverse of fortune, and as quickly recovers from it with renewed energy, and resumes its wonted obstinacy of disposition. At a later period, that regular little fort would only have been taken after a siege. A fortunate act of resolution spared us much loss of time and as well as the resources we should have consumed in the operation.
The Spanish flag was left waving over the walls of the fort of San-Felipe, and on the following morning, a captain and fifteen men who were the bearers of instructions for the garrison, approached the shore in full confidence and landed at the foot of the rock adjoining the fort. They were lgnorant of the recent occurrence, which the fugitives had, doubtless, made known at Cambrils, whither they had proceeded by land. They were allowed to approach, and were made prisoners on their entrance into the fort. Two English gun-boats came close to the shore and were immediately fired upon.

General Musnier, who was left in the command of Tortosa, was especially directed to provide for its defence, to close the breaches, to repair the bridge and the tete-de-pont, and to collect immediately a quantity of ammunition sufficient to enable 3,000 men to sustain a six months' siege, besides a supply of meat, vegetables, and all kinds of provisions requisite for the army. It was natural to foresee that Tortosa would now become the pivot of our operations either aginst Tarragona or Valencia. The besieging artillery brought from Mequinenza having been added to the artillery captured at Tortosa, this place was intended to be our depot, and the point at which the horses for the train were to be assembled. The commander-in-chief ordered a large quantity of straw to be collected. This is the only forage of the country, and is most difficult to store up, not only from the delay in transporting it, owing to its bulk, but also because a great part is consumed by the beasts of burden who bring it into the town ; so that it is indispensable to be provided with an ample supply before any organization can be given to the system of transport. Prudence required that we should lay in a stock long beforehand. Two hospitals were also ordered to be established, for the reception of 1,000 to 1,200 sick.

The port of La Rapita was intrusted to the command of captain Pinot of the engineers, an officer of great merit; every measure was adopted for placing it in a state of defence, for taking possession of the tower of San-Juan, and becoming master of the mouths of the Ebro. The fort of San-Felipe was immediately put in proper repair. The corps of observation which had been stationed during the siege at Ulldecona was withdrawn, as no longer necessary at that place, and Musnier's division was directed to occupy the corregimientos of Albarracin, Teruel, Morella, Tortosa, and Alcaniz, with its principal advanced posts in the towns of Teruel, Morella, and Tortosa, for the purpose of intimidating and watching the country in the neighbourhood of Valencia. The Neapolitan division was left at Mora and on the Ebro, to secure the navigation and requisite transports for the army of marshal Macdonald, whilst engaged in carrying on operations against Tarragona. In order to be in readiness to assist him in his enterprise, Habert's division remained at Tortosa and at Perello, so as to be available for manoeuvring on the left bank of the Ebro. With the exception of the 14th regiment, which took the road to Mequinenza and Lerida, for the purpose of accelerating the collection of corn and the formation of the magazines intended for the use of the army under the command of the duke of Tarentum ; all the troops of the 2nd division were marched towards Saragossa, and escorted to the frontier the garrison of Tortosa as prisoners of war.

This general had withdrawn Frere's division on the 5th of January, and proceeded across the mountains in the direction of Reuss with the main body of his army. He approached Tarragona on the 10th of January, and found, as usual, the country completely laid waste. Campoverde occupied with his forces the position of Valls; the marshal advanced to meet him, drove him back, and afterwards moving towards Monblanch, returned to Lerida for the purpose of making preparations for the siege of Tarragona, and collecting the means necessary for such an undertaking. He preferred occupying Lerida and its dependencies, although the government had assigned to him the command of Tortosa; and general Suchet shewed the utmost readiness to accede to his wishes. He went further; whilst waiting for instructions from Paris, he offered to place at his disposal the troops of artillery and engineers belonging to the 3rd corps with part of the infantry The marshal accepted this proposal. Having established himself at Lerida and in the plain of Urgel, he directed his utmost care to the formation of a large supply of provisions. He soon afterwards received and communicated to general Suchet the information that twelve ships which had sailed from Toulon under the escort of three frigates and a smaller vessel, had just entered Barcelona with 29,000 quintals of corn, 1,500 quintals of rice, and 50,000 pounds of gunpowder. This fortunate circumstance removed all further uneasiness respecting the fate of that important city, and was calculated to facilitate our operations in lower Catalonia.

General Suchet on his part had returned to Saragossa, where some objects of importance required his presence. He recollects, with feelings of the liveliest gratitude, the proofs of attachment bestowed upon him in his journey through the province, by the inhabitants of the towns, and the country people, and the friendly reception given to his soldiers at their stations and cantonments. He deemed himself fortunate in finding so friendly a disposition on the part ofthe Arragonese, and availed himself of it to counteract, by the most energetic measures, the system of famine which the enemy were bringing into operation against him.

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