Henry Craik, ed. English Prose. 1916. Vol. V. Nineteenth Century
The Passage of the Douro
By Sir William Napier (17851860)
From Peninsular War
COLONEL WATERS, a quick daring man, discovered a poor barber who had come over the river with a small skiff the previous night; and these two being joined by the Prior of Aramante, who gallantly offered his services, crossed the water unperceived and returned in half an hour with three large barges. Meanwhile eighteen guns were placed in battery on the convent height, and General John Murray was sent with the German brigade, the 14th dragoons and two guns, three miles up the stream, to the Barca de Avintas, with orders to seek for boats and pass there if possible. When Waters came back with the barges, some English troops followed Murray in support, and others cautiously approached the river close under the Serra rock. It was then ten oclock, the French were tranquil and unsuspicious, the British wondering and expectant, and Sir Arthur was told that one boat had reached the point of passage. Well, let the men cross, was the reply, and on this simple order an officer with twenty-five men were in a quarter of an hour silently placed in the midst of the French army. The Seminary was thus gained, yet the French remained quiet in Oporto. A second boat crossed, no hostile movement followed, no sound was heard, and a third boat passed higher up the river; but then tumultuous noise rolled through Oporto, the drums beat to arms, shouts arose in all parts, and the people were seen vehemently gesticulating and making signals from their houses, while confused masses of troops, rushing out of the city by the higher streets, and throwing out swarms of skirmishers, came furiously down against the Seminary. The British soldiers instantly crowded the river bank, Pagets and Hills divisions at the point of passage, Sherbrookes where the boat-bridge had been cut away; but Paget himself who had passed in the third boat and mounted the roof of the Seminary, fell there deeply wounded, whereupon Hill took his place. The musketry, sharp and voluble, augmented as the forces accumulated, and the French attack was eager and constant, their fire increased more rapidly, and their guns opened on the building, while the English guns from the Serra commanded the enclosure and swept the ground on the left so as to confine the assault to the iron gate front; but Murray did not appear, the struggle was violent, the moment critical, and Sir Arthur was only prevented crossing in person by the interference of those about him and the confidence he had in Hill.
In this state of affairs some citizens came over to Villa Nova with several great boats; and Sherbrookes men were beginning to cross in large bodies, when a loud shout in the town, and the waving of handkerchiefs from the windows, gave notice that the French had abandoned the lower city; at the same time Murray was descried coming down the right bank of the river. Three battalions were now in the Seminary, the attack slackened, and Hill advancing to the enclosure wall poured a destructive fire on the French columns, as they passed in haste and confusion along his front on the Vallonga road; five guns then came galloping out of the town, but, appalled by the terrible line of musketry from the enclosure, the drivers pulled up, and while thus hesitating a volley from behind stretched many artillerymen in the dust, and the rest dispersing, left their guns on the road. This volley came from Sherbrookes men, who had come through the town, and thus the passage being won, the allies had the right bank of the Douro. Sherbrooke from the city now pressed the French rear, Hill from the Seminary sent a damaging fire on the flank of the retiring masses, and far on the right Murray menaced the line of retreat: the rear of the army was still passing the river, but the guns on the Serra rock searched the French columns from rear to front as they hurried onwards.
If Murray had fallen upon the disordered crowds their discomfiture would have been complete; but he suffered column after column to pass without even a cannon shot, and seemed fearful lest they should turn and push him into the river. General Charles Stewart and Major Hervey, impatient of his timidity, charged with two squadrons of dragoons, and riding over the enemys rear guard, as it was passing through a narrow road to gain an open space beyond, unhorsed Laborde and wounded Foy, yet on the English side Hervey lost an arm, and his gallant horsemen, receiving no support from Murray, had to fight their way back with loss. This finished the action, the French continued their retreat, the British remained on the ground they had gained; the latter lost twenty killed, a general and ninety-five men wounded; and five guns were taken. A quantity of ammunition, and fifty guns, the carriages of which had been burnt, were afterwards found in the arsenal, and several hundred men were captured in the hospitals.
Napoleons veterans were so experienced, so inured to warfare, that no troops could more readily recover from a surprise. Before they reached Vallonga they were again in order with a rear guard; and as a small garrison at the mouth of the Douro, guided by some friendly Portuguese, also rejoined the army in the night, Soult, believing Loison was still at Amarante, thought he had happily escaped the danger. Sir Arthur Wellesley now brought over his baggage, stores, and the artillery, which occupied the 12th and 13th; and though Murrays Germans pursued on the morning of the 13th, they did not go more than two leagues on the road of Amarante. This delay has been blamed. It is argued that an enemy once surprised should never be allowed to recover while a single regiment could pursue. The reasons for halting were, that part of the army was still on the left bank of the Douro, and the troops had outmarched provisions, baggage, and ammunition; they had made eighty miles of difficult country in four days, during three of which they were constantly fighting men and animals required rest, and nothing was known of Beresford.