The long defence of the bridge at Amarante was the first significant Portuguese success during Marshal Soult’s 1809 invasion of the country. Having captured Oporto, Marshal Soult needed to reopen communications with the army of General Lapisse, supposed to be supporting him from around Salamanca. The Portuguese guerrillas meant that Soult had to send a brigade of infantry and a brigade of cavalry under the command of General Loison towards the Portuguese border in an attempt to find Lapisse.
The expedition came to a halt at Amarante. In the aftermath of his defeat at Chaves (10-11 March 1809), the Portuguese General Francisco Silveira had retreated down the Tamega River, keeping most of his army intact. When Soult marched away from Chaves, he was only able to leave a small garrison in place, and so on 20 March Silveira was able to begin his own siege of the town, capturing it after five days. He then moved south along the Tamega River, taking up a defensive position around Amarante. By now his army had grown from 6,000 up to around 10,000 strong. At its core were two regiments of regular infantry (2,000 men at most), supported by a mass of the Portuguese levies, or Ordenanza.
On 7 April Loison’s two brigades attempted to force their way across the Tamega at Amarante and a little further south, at Canavezes. Both attacks failed, and so Loison called for reinforcements.
Silveira made the next move. Realising that he outnumbered Loison’s force, on 12 April the Portuguese cross the Tamega and attacked the French. This time it was Silveira’s turn to suffer a defeat, but not a major one, and he was able to return to his defensive positions at Amarante. On the same day Soult finally learnt of the fall of Chaves, and decided to send a second infantry brigade to support Loison. This gave Loison 6,500 men, one third of Soult’s entire army.
On 18 April the two sides clashed again, this time on the heights of Villamea west of Amarante. Once again Silveira had come out of his defensive positions, but this time he paid for his bravery (or foolishness), and was badly defeated. For a moment it looked like the French would be able to chase the defeated Portuguese army back through Amarante and capture the bridge, but at a crucial moment Colonel Patrick, a British officer commanding part of the Portuguese 12th Regiment of the Line, rallied his battalion and organised a defence of a convent at the head of the bridge. Patrick was mortally wounded, but his efforts gave Silveira time to restore order and put his men into strong positions on the left (east) bank of the river, from where his artillery could dominate the bridge.
On 19 April Loison was able to finally capture the convent, but could not force his way across the barricaded bridge while under fire from the Portuguese guns. Soult sent another brigade of infantry to reinforce Loison, who now had 9,000 men at Amarante, nearly half of Soult’s army.
A period of stalemate followed. The river was in flood, so it was impossible to ford. The Portuguese had destroyed every nearby bridge, so the French had no choice but to attack at Amarante, or to wait for better weather. To make things worse the Portuguese had mined the bridge, so there was a real chance that the French would capture the bridge only to have it destroyed beneath them.
An attempt to approach the bridge using regular siege works failed, as did an attempt to build a trestle bridge downstream of the town (25 April). Eventually Captain Bouchard, one of Loison’s engineers noticed a potential flaw in the firing mechanism for the Portuguese mine. This consisted of a musket hidden in a box close to the mine and connected to the Portuguese held bank by a long cord. To explode the mine, the Portuguese had to pull the cord, firing the musket into the mine and triggering the explosion. Bouchard realised that a small explosion under the cord could cut it without triggering the musket. The Portuguese would be unable to fire the mine, and the French might be able to storm the bridge in the aftermath of the explosions.
Early in the morning of 2 May, under cover of a heavy fog, Bouchard put his plan into effect. Four out of five sappers managed to get their explosives in place un-noticed, and then the charge was set off. As predicted the cord was cut and the mine made ineffective. In the immediate aftermath of the explosion the leading French troops were able to storm across the bridge. Once on the far side, the French discovered that most of the Portuguese defences were unmanned, and the soldiers were sleeping in their camps. Silveira and most of men managed to escape, although the French captured all ten Portuguese guns and several hundred prisoners.
Although Silveira’s men had eventually been forced away from the bridge, they had delayed the French for nearly a month. In this time the strategic position in Portugal had shifted away from Soult, for on 22 April Sir Arthur Wellesley reached Lisbon, at the head of a new British army. Soult was forced to abandon his original plan for Loison to head east to make contact with Lapisse, and instead ordered him to remain within two days march of Almaraz.
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