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The Napoleonic Wars 1792-1815


For all discussions relating to the War between Britain and others (including France, Spain, Holland, Denmark etc.) of 1803-1814. Please see below for the Peninsular War.


Postby LesW » February 3rd, 2012, 4:10 am

On the night of 2-3 February 1807, two hundred and five years ago today, the British Army took, by assault, the fortified town of Montevideo (South America) belonging to the King of Spain. The following is merely a brief summary of this event during the Napoleonic Wars. A bibliography of sources, English and Spanish, is given below, some,I believe, are available online. One of our forum members, ‘ben hughes’, is currently preparing what it is hoped will be the definitive account of the whole River Plate Invasion Campaign (1806-07), including the capture of Montevideo, and another ‘mike’ had a family member who participated in the capture of the city with the 95th Foot.
Following the taking and subsequent loss of Buenos Aires, capital of the Viceroyalty of the River Plate (Rio de la Plata), British forces arriving to reinforce the original invaders (by now interned in what today is Argentina) decided to land on the northern side of the river (then known as the Banda Oriental/’East Bank of the Uruguay River’, now Uruguay.) There were three major Spanish coastal settlements in this region – Maldonado, unfortified and near the mouth of the Plate, Montevideo, relatively large and fortified, which was essentially a Spanish garrison town and, further up river, Colonia del Sacramento, with minor fortifications and opposite Buenos Aires, which made it vulnerable to attack. The British Navy now had effective control of the river, especially further downriver.

Following an unsuccessful bombardment of Montevideo, the obvious target of occupation for the first small force which arrived from the Cape of Good Hope, now firmly under British control, consisting of the 38th Foot, 47th foot, a company of the 54th Foot, unmounted troops of the 20th and 21st Light Dragoons and a small detachment of Royal Artillery (total 2180 men) under Lt. Col. Backhouse, was therefore, the small town of Maldonado, which was taken on 29 October 1806. However, Backhouse could not break out permanently from his ‘beachhead’ due to the small size of his force and the constant hostility of both Spanish military and local militia forces, led originally by Comandante Moreno and then by Lt. Agustin Abreu. The British had generated great hostility by their original sacking of the town, though this had been partially compensated, and found it extremely difficult to obtain food and horses for the unmounted cavalrymen.

On 5 January a second, larger force under Gen. Sir Samuel Auchmuty, who was to command the campaign thenceforth, arrived and a decision was made to abandon Maldonado, with a small detachment left on Gorritti island in the bay, and sail up river to attempt the capture of Montevideo. The main landing was effected on 16 January at a bay a few miles from the city, the identity of which is still open to dispute, some light resistance causing minor casualties to the British, who camped for a couple of days near the landing ground while all the supplies and artillery, including 24 pounder siege guns, were landed.

At this point the British force consisted of Backhouse’s force, which had suffered light casualties, and Auchmuty’s force consisting of the 40th Foot, 87th Foot and 3 companies of the 95th Rifles (Richard Sharpe being unfortunately otherwise engaged in Copenhagen!) as well as a large detachment of Royal Artillery and dismounted cavalry of the 17th Dragoons as well as a detachment of recruits for the 71st Foot, now prisoners of the Spaniards. Total about 5100 men. Several hundred marines and sailors were landed son afterwards.

There was more determined resistance, known as the Combate de los Saladeros, on 19 January by a large force led by the Viceroy Rafael, Marquis de Sobremonte, who locals unjustly accused of not opposing the British when they conquered Buenos Aires, but this was overcome with some ease, the 95th being particularly active, and the British advanced in two columns along the Camino Real (today Camino Maldonado and Avenida 8 de Octubre) and Camino de la Aldea (today Avenida Italia.) the force’s left flank was protected by naval vessels. Eventually camp was established in what today is the area known as Tres Cruces, where the two ‘caminos’ met and on or near the modern sites of the British Ambassadorial Residence and British Hospital, still several miles from the walls of the town. The righthand column, on the Camino Real, was commanded by Brig. Gen. William Lumley and consisted of the 95th and light infantry companies of the various regiments, its’ purpose being to shield the right flank of the column on the Camino de la Aldea, led by Col. Browne, which consisted of the bulk of the troops. A third column, commanded by Lt. Col. Backhouse, followed with the reserves, rearguard and baggage.

Meanwhile, in Montevideo itself there was a strong current of opinion, especially amongst civilians and members of militias, that the British had to be resisted. The contribution made by Montevideo to the liberation of Buenos Aires from the original invaders had bred a false confidence and, despite the wiser councils of professional military men, the city council/cabildo, was forced to organize a force to meet the invader, who consisted of seasoned professional soldiers.

As the British advanced on the morning of 20st January, along what is now the city’s main street 18 de Julio and Avenida Rivera, they were confronted by three columns totalling 2400 men, of various levels of military competence and very little experience, under the overall command of Bernardo Lecoq at or around a crossroads known as the Cristo del Cardal (there being a crucifix to mark the crossing), where 18 de Julio meets Avenida Rivera today, in the area of the University building. Original success of the right-hand column in pushing back the relatively inexperienced 87th was countered by Auchmuty bringing on the veteran 40thand, with the riflemen of the 95th ambushing the columns’ flanks from cover, the brave but impetuous defenders were forced to retreat in some disarray, with heavy casualties and losing several guns, being pursued by the British up to the Ejido (marked by the modern street of the same name), which was the limit of reach by artillery fire from the fortress which guarded the town. A French corsair, Hipolitte Mordeille, sworn enemy of the British, did sterling work with his cavalry detachment in protecting the retreat. British casualties in this action, though not as heavy as those of the defenders, were also considerable.
Montevideo was at that time confined to the peninsula on which the Old City/Ciudad Vieja now stands, the neck being protected by a fortified wall and a citadel/ciudadela (on the site of the modern Plaza Independencia.) The river side was controlled by the Royal Navy but the inner bay had a number of Spanish naval vessels protecting it. ( It is interesting that the fortress on the Cerro, the hill at the other side of the bay, played no significant part in this campaign or, indeed, in any other of the many wars and revolutions which the country was to suffer subsequently.)

Auchmuty then, from 21 January, put the town under siege and the various batteries of artillery which were constructed, with the help of naval gunfire, pounded the city for the next 10 days. But the General always had to be conscious of the approach of Spanish forces under Santiago Liniers, defeater of the British at Buenos Aires, from that city and other parts of the Viceroyalty. Two calls to surrender the city were made and rejected or ignored by Pascual Ruiz de Huidobro, the city’s governor, who made a decent job of organizing the defence and was later praised by Auchmuty.

The 24-pounder guns were used against a weak point in the city wall, very near the river, and eventually on the night of 2 February, a breach was declared practicable at a point which is near the current site of the Anglican Cathedral and to the left of the southern gate. In the early hours the ‘forlorn hope’ composed mainly of the company of the 54th, who led it is open to dispute, followed by the combined light infantry and grenadier companies of the various regiments followed by the 38th Foot and two companies of 95th riflemen, assaulted the breach with the 40th in support. The 87th together with the other company of the 95th were stationed at the city’s other gate (today around the intersection of Bartolomé Mitre and 25 de Mayo streets), waiting to be let in when the breach had been stormed. Overall command of the assaulting force was given to Col. Browne, whilst the reserve was under Brig. Lumley, consisting of the 47th Foot, the detachment of the 71st and the cavalry, which had to be on the lookout for any relief forces appearing in the rear.

Despite it being midsummer the night was dark due to a storm and a cold wind blew in from the river, but these conditions gave a certain degree of cover to the attackers. Some riflemen were enabled, due to the water being low, to get round the end of the wall and attack the defenders from behind. However, the alarm had been given and the dragoons and hussars, who manned the defences around the area of the breach prepared to defend the city. It was 03:00 hs. on 3 February. The assault was made difficult by the fact that the defenders had managed to block up the breach with bales of cowhides and that the attackers had the walls of the citadel on one of their flanks, so that they were subjected to musket and cannon fire from two directions.

The ‘forlorn hope’ and grenadiers were swept away in large numbers, Col. Brownrigg, leading the light batallion was mortally wounded and for 15 minutes the breach could not be located. The 38th , having suffered heavy losses as they tried to locate it, followed the remainders of the light troops once a Captain Renny of the 40th had located it, being shot dead. Young Lieut. Harry Smith of the 95th, on the first of his many campaigns, was also on hand to guide them. Also mortally wounded was Lt. Col. Vassal of the 38th as his regiment entered the city, with rhe 40th following on closely having been subjected rwice to devastating fire before thay could locate the breach. The defenders, fighting desperately also suffered heavily, amongst those being killed were Mordeille, fighting the hated British to the end. Once through the breach, the British spread out, extinguishing any pockets of resistance.

At the other end of the wall, the 87th and 95th could no longer wait to be let in by their comrades, someone scaled the wall, eliminated the defenders and opened the gate, the remaining defenders were taken in the rear. Only the citadel held out, its commander refusing to surrender even after Auchmuty had offered conditions to Ruiz de Huidobro, who had accepted. It was here that the relatively new Baker rifles of the 95th came in most useful. Entering a couple of blacks into the city, the invaders came to the Plaza Matriz, with its cathedral, sharpshooters of the 95th climbed the tower, only one had then been built, and the citadel was at their mercy.

Some time after dawn, about 06:00 surrender came. There was some looting but surprisingly little given the intensity of the combat, the numerous casualties suffered on both sides and the fact that initial demands to surrender had been rejected. The British officers quickly got their troops under control and, by 08:30 3 February 1807, Montevideo had become a British city, which it was to remain until September.
FLETCHER Ian (1991) The Waters of Oblivion: The British Invasion of the River Plate 1806-1807. (Spellmount Ltd. Tunbridge Wells)
LUZURIGA Juan Carlos ( 2004) Una gesta heroica: Las Invasiones Inglesas y la defensa del Plata (Torre de Vigía Ediciones. Montevideo)
ROBERTS Carlos (2000) Las Invasiones Inglesas del Rio de la Plata (1806-1807) ( Emece Editores. Buenos Aires. Original edition 1938)
ANON. (TUCKER Maj.) (1807) Narrative of the operations of a small British force… in the Reduction of Montevideo (J & J Stockdale. London
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