The month of May, 1808 marked the commencement of a terrible tragedy for the peoples and nations of Spain, Portugal, and France. Six months earlier French armies of the Napoleonic Empire had begun their invasion and occupation of the Iberian Peninsula. However, the conservative, proud, religious, and xenophobic native populations had reacted initially to these foreign forces with a fear and loathing that exploded eventually into fury and violent opposition in the form of a spontaneous, general, leaderless, and massive insurrection. This uprising quickly coalesced into an armed popular movement that the French were never able to suppress over a period of nearly six years. Furthermore, these Peninsular Wars (1808-14), known also to the Spanish and Portuguese as the “War of National Independence”, would become one of the two most important military causes for the rapid demise of Napoleon and the First Empire.
A crucial factor in Napoleon's ambitions for Iberia involved the conquest and domination of Portugal. There would be during this period a total of three French campaigns in Portugal–the first in 1807-08, the second in 1809, and the third in 1810-11–with all of them resulting in disastrous defeat. This paper will survey the internal dynamics of the second campaign in 1809, the bicentennial of which is being commemorated this year.
The military operations of the campaign can be summarized briefly. The French 2nd Corps under the command of Marshal Nicolas Soult entered northern Portugal from the Spanish province of Galicia in early-March, captured the city of Porto by assault, but could not proceed south of the Douro River or a considerable distance east of Porto because of treacherous terrain, difficulties in obtaining vital supplies, and fierce resistance from Portuguese regulars, militia, and guerrillas. Another French corps that was supposed to join Soult's corps from the east could never advance even as far as the border. Meanwhile, a British army under Arthur Wellesley landed in Lisbon to launch a vigorous offensive against the French in early-May that hurled them back into Spain in humiliating retreat and with heavy casualties.i
The fighting and maneuvering of armies during this campaign have never been particularly noteworthy to historians. However, the scheming, plotting, and conspiring within the French 2nd Corps that transpired during the span of six weeks are of immense fascination. In essence, three different developments occurred. First, Marshal Soult utilized his personal staff to initiate a public campaign to secure ultimate approval from Napoleon for proclaiming Soult the monarch of a Kingdom of Northern Lusitania. Second, a group of prominent officers was organized by the charismatic division-general Louis-Henri Loison to oppose the Marshal's machinations by any means. And third, several lower officers, harboring anti-Bonapartist and left-wing republican sentiments of Jacobin leanings, endeavored to exploit the dissension within the French officer corps as well as the dissatisfaction among most French soldiers for truly treasonous designs.
A commentary on the character and competence of Nicolas Soult is significant for an understanding of the events occurring during this campaign. Most acquaintances praised him as an intelligent man and highly capable corps commander who had gained fame in 1805 at the Battle of Austerlitz when his troops charged and seized control of the Pratzen Heights at a crucial stage of the combat to ensure Napoleon's greatest victory. On the other hand, Soult had earned criticism for being vain, arrogant, fiercely ambitious, and notorious as the most shameless and ruthless looter of all the officers in the French armies.
Soon after the occupation of Porto, Soult, the Duc de Dalmatie, launched efforts to construct a party of supporters for French rule among the Portuguese that included a tiny and weak faction of bureaucrats of the Old Regime, adventurers, opportunists, merchants, nobles, and prelates who abhorred or had suffered from the revolutionary anarchy of the previous months. After that element had rallied to his side, an intensive campaign was undertaken to arouse popular sentiment in favor of “persuading” the Duke to accept the orb and scepter. Yet the overwhelmingly hostile attitudes of the Portuguese population ensured that the Marshal's adherents did not act on their own initiative but were prodded and motivated by higher authority. Moreover, at no time did Soult indicate any inclination to suppress the movement; on the contrary, all types of encouragement were contrived.ii
"Salvation for Portugal…"
The campaign was advanced in numerous ways. Village officials, all appointees of the Marshal, sent petitions to Porto entreating him to become their prince. Manifestoes appeared on the city walls proclaiming that “the only salvation for Portugal would be that the Duke of Dalmatia…should ascend the vacant throne.”iii Meanwhile, a newspaper entitled Diario do Porto was constituted in support of this campaign and printed editions for one month. Signatures by those wishing to induce Soult to take up the exalted position of royalty were gathered on registers in the public buildings.iv It was asserted by one French officer that small congregations of people had been especially recruited for the purpose of hailing the Duc de Dalmatie in front of his residential mansion with shouts of “Viva o Rei Nicolao!”, which earned in turn a response of copper coins thrown from the balcony if such choruses were sufficiently hearty.v Another officer claimed that in less than fifteen days the towns and villages of the province had dispatched to Porto addresses signed by more than 30,000 nobles, clergy, and commoners “expressing their adhesion to the new order of things.” Six higher French officers who assisted in the reception of these documents swore that Soult accepted with much dignity the title of king and majesty that was contained in the addresses.vi
In opposition to Soult's enterprise, a group of as many as two dozen high and middle-level officers became identified as the “clique of malcontents” and gathered around the dynamic leadership of Louis-Henri Loison. Three things were conspicuous about Loison. He had been an acquaintance of Napoleon Bonaparte as early as 1794, and his career demonstrated a passionate loyalty and devotion to the Emperor. Also, he had earned a well-deserved reputation for being as aggressive in personal relations as on the battlefield, meaning that he was rarely reluctant to express an opinion or to confront a challenge. Furthermore, he had no wish to serve on another futile quest to conquer Portugal after participating in the previous 1807-08 campaign. It seemed obvious that he despised Portugal and the Portugese, appreciated the hazards and terrors of guerrilla warfare, and comprehended the hopeless folly of this 1809 expedition. Consequently, the General openly voiced pessimism and doubts about the prospects and wisdom of their military operations in northern Portugal.vii Morale among soldiers and officers of the 2nd Corps had never been high, but it deteriorated steadily as time elapsed and as their situation became more precarious. Some of the French had also served in Portugal earlier and completely shared Loison's feelings.viii
"Le Roi Nicolas"
The news and rumors pertaining to Soult's monarchical aspirations were at first greeted by French troops and officers with a mixture of incredulity, amazement, and outrage.ix Yet a majority of them evidently believed the reports because the Marshal acquired the almost universally recognized and derisive sobriquet of “Le Roi Nicolas”.x These developments finally attained a climax on April 19 when Soult commanded his chief of staff to disseminate a circular letter to all generals graciously exhorting their participation in the movement to crown the Duc de Dalmatie king of Northern Lusitania, while pledging that his assumption of royal prerogatives would not imply infidelity to the Emperor.xi
In all probability, Soult intended to present Napoleon with numerous supplications from the Armée de Portugal and from the inhabitants of the northern provinces in hopes that the Emperor would grant their request of the Duke's enthronement.xii Surprise and disappointment must have been his response, therefore, when little or no noticeable enthusiasm was generated by the circular. On the contrary, Loison's “clique of malcontents” apparently formulated a secret contingency plan calling for arrest and confinement of the Marshal in the event that he proclaimed himself prince of Portugal. At that stage, a standstill ensued until May 8 when the British offensive prepared to attack and Soult discovered a more serious plot in the French camp.xiii
The ramifications of these intrigues did not end with the campaign. After their military obligations in the Peninsula had ceased, Loison and General Henri-Francois Delaborde were journeying together five months later back to France. When questioned about what he would do in the future regarding the controversial affairs of the campaign, Delaborde declared: “If I am interrogated, I will tell everything; if no one interrogates me, I will say nothing.” To do the same thing, however, was not in Loison's character. Instead, he traveled directly across Europe to Schonbrunn Palace near Vienna where Napoleon was concluding a triumphant treaty with the Austrians. Immediately arranging an audience with the Emperor, Loison, whom Paul-Charles Thiebault distinguished as “clever man and bad dog”, informed his master of Soult's schemes. Ironically, Napoleon displayed no emotion except laughter, especially in reference to the jokes about “Le Roi Nicolas”, which he amusingly modified in name to “Le Roi Nicodeme”.xiv
Merriment did not endure, on the other hand, when a copy of the circular letter was placed in front of the Emperor a few days later. That document provoked fury and anger while prompting him to dictate a highly critical and caustic dispatch to Soult on September 26, 1809:xv
“I am astounded to find the chief of staff suggesting to the generals that the Marshal should be requested to take up the reins of government, and assume the attributes of supreme authority. If you had assumed sovereign power on your own responsibility, it would have been a crime, clear lese-majeste, an attack on the imperial authority.
How could a man of sense, like yourself, suppose that his master would permit him
to exercise any power that had not been delegated to him? No wonder that the army grew discontented, and that rumors spread that the Marshal was working for himself, not for the Emperor or France. After receiving this circular, it is doubtful whether any French officer would not have been fully justified in refusing to obey any further orders issued from Porto.”xvi
These words were an unmistakable vindication of Loison's counterplot to seize the Marshal.
A thorough investigation of Soult's machinations was never conducted by Napoleon, nor did the Emperor at any time possess the veritable factual details of the affair. Knowledge of those treasonous intentions and activities might have terminated the career of the Duc de Dalmatie.xvii Instead, the same letter in which Napoleon censured Soult also contained a full pardon and restitution to high opinion, concluding with a gentle reference to past service: ” remember only your brilliant conduct at Austerlitz.”xviii Perhaps Thiebault had the most plausible explanation for these developments when he wrote: “he Emperor, never wishing to be deceived, hardly ever struck down those whom he had raised to high position; in the present case, it was necessary either to laugh at the Marshal or to have him shot; unfortunately for Napoleon, he took the first part.”xix
The Argenton Conspiracy
It is timely at this stage to introduce a third faction in the 2nd Corps that manifested truly treasonous intentions. While Soult connived in Porto and Loison conspired with other officers to the east, there existed a tiny cell of several lower-level officers who merit the description of republicans or Jacobins and who had never been reconciled to a France under the Bonaparte autocracy. Their intrigues became subsequently known as the Porto Conspiracy or the Argenton Conspiracy–the name of its principal leader, Captain Philippe-Charles Argenton, an adjutant of the 18th Dragoons within Loison's division.
Some aspects of their plot have continued to be shrouded in mystery. Regarding their numbers, only two men named Lafitte and Donnadieu were ever implicated with Argenton; in all probability, their group was minuscule. Furthermore, their goals have always seemed naive and idealistically impractical. However, they aspired to exploit the disgust, misery, and unpopularity of the campaign among the soldiers as well as the dissension within the officer-ranks to provoke rebellion against Napoleonic rule. Their plan, extensive as well as extremely difficult to accomplish, would proceed in the following manner. After Soult had proclaimed himself king, chaos and discord would eventuate in open hostilities between Loison's faithful Bonapartists and the Marshal's adherents. At that juncture, the conspirators intended either to make their regiments available to Soult if he would promise to lead their anti-Napoleonic movement, or to eliminate the generals on both sides who might prevent them from appealing to the soldiers with the revolutionary ideals of France and with a pledge of imminent repatriation. After the 2nd Corps had been won over, a call for support would be issued to all French detachments in northern Spain, where similar secret societies were hard at work for the identical goals of a concerted march across the Pyrenees and an end to the First Empire.xx
It must be emphasized at this point that the conspiracy had no possibility of success because the plotters had drawn an enormously erroneous conclusion. They had misinterpreted soldierly dissatisfaction with this campaign in addition to disagreements and personality conflicts among the officers as willingness to contemplate disloyalty to the Emperor. For the vast majority of soldiers, officers, and generals, however, that suggestion was inconceivable.
An integral part of the Porto Conspiracy consisted also of collaboration with and engagement of assistance from the British. Toward that end, Argenton contacted the British on April 21 and obtained two interviews with Wellesley on April 25 and May 7. Three things were asked of Wellesley. First, he was requested covertly to encourage the Portuguese nobility, clergy, and persons of wealth in the north to manifest false enthusiasm for Soult's monarchical aspirations in order to hasten his assumption of the crown, thereby creating the desired crisis. Second, it was suggested that the British army might occupy the region east of Porto to block the main road of retreat into Spain, which would cause consternation among French soldiers, disgust with the Marshal, and inclinations to seek an agreement with the British. And third, Argenton wished to obtain three passports for the purpose of traveling incognito to France to coordinate their movement with sympathizers there. In response, Wellesley, who justly recognized the treasonous and dishonorable nature of such actions as well as the heavy odds against their accomplishment, conceded only the last entreaty.xxi
Concealment of the plot lasted only until May 8 when Argenton indiscreetly approached a general loyal to Napoleon regarding his possible participation in a future mutiny. Instead, the officer hastened to reveal to Soult “the plan of a vast military conspiracy”. The following morning found young Argenton under arrest and confronted personally by the Marshal. Instead of adopting reticence, Argenton passionately exhorted his interrogator to join the cause and to direct his corps against Napoleon while he willingly elaborated on the details of his plot. Soult, apparently fearing a rebellion of major magnitude as well as a disaster for his expedition, granted a pardon to the Captain promising him “honor and safe life and that a thick veil would be thrown on this affair forever” if the names of his accomplices were revealed. Argenton then obliged with the names of two colonels.xxii
The date of May 9 also marked the beginning of the British offensive against the French and their desperate withdrawal to the north. In the confusion that ensued, Argenton, seemingly by collusion with a former colleague, escaped from captivity on May 13 and made his way back to Porto and British lines.xxiii Thereafter, the Captain sojourned in London for little over a month before succumbing to the temptation to visit surreptitiously his wife, family, and fatherland. Recognized and arrested on June 28, the former conspirator was tried by a military court on December 21, 1809, condemned to death, and executed on the Plaine de Grenelle west of Paris.
During his trial and numerous questionings, Argenton frequently contradicted himself or denied his previous admissions of guilt to Soult in Porto. Often, however, he attempted to claim that he served merely as a representative or member of Loison's “clique of malcontents”. But no witness, evidence, or logic ever materialized to provide substance for his accusations.xxiv
Historians have concluded that the French invasion of Portugal in 1809 was fated for failure from the outset for reasons that have already been elaborated or implied. It can also be surmised, however, that both the ambitious schemes for personal aggrandizement by Soult and the counterplot by Loison's “clique of malcontents” combined to serve as a distraction that shifted their attention away from a focus on military operations until it was almost too late to escape from Portugal. Thus the heavy losses during the retreat of 4,000 casualties, many artillery, much equipment, and considerable treasure could be attributed to the intrigues, plots, and conspiracies that had swirled around the French army in Porto for six weeks in 1809.