The combat of Santiago of 23 May 1809 was a relatively rare victory for a Spanish partisan force over regular French troops during the Peninsular War. In the spring of 1809 Marshal Ney had command of the French army in Galicia, where he faced an increasingly difficult situation. The Galician uprising had effectively pinned the French back into the few towns they could garrison, and for some time Ney had been cut off from both the rest of Spain, and from Marshal Soult’s army in Portugal. One of those isolated French garrisons was at Santiago de Compostela, where General Macune had 3,000 infantry in four battalions, fourteen guns and 300 chasseurs.
This quite sizable French garrison would soon be threatened by a much larger Spanish force, the Division of the Miño. This division was built around a core of 2,000 men from the regular army, under the command of General Martín de la Carrera, supported by 14,000 partisans, amongst them the bands led by José Maria Vázquez of Salamanca and by Mauricio Troncoso y Sotomayor, the parish priest of Vilar y Couto. Having formed in the south west of Galicia, 10,000 men from this division, under the command of Carrera, and with Lieutenant Pablo Morillo as chief of staff, advanced north, with the intention of capturing Santiago, revered as the burial place of St James, one of the patron saints of Spain. Of this force, only 7,000 carried firearms.
Macune responded to this threat by bringing his army out of Santiago and offering battle on the Campo de Estrella, an area of open ground outside the city. He was confident that his French regulars would be able to beat the much larger Spanish force, just as other French forces had done in the past. This confidence was misplaced. For an hour the Spanish held off the French, before launching a counterattack. The French force broke and fled, and was chased through Santiago. Macune lost 600 men dead and wounded during this fight, and was himself wounded. Although Macune would play down the defeat in his report, Ney soon realised that Corunna itself was in danger.
The Spanish did not hold on to Santiago for long. After meeting with Marshal Soult at Lugo, Ney returned to Corunna, and then led his corps south towards Santiago. Carrera had the sense to retreat south, taking up a new defensive position on Oitabén River, where on 7-8 June he successfully defended the bridge at Sampaio against Ney’s cavalry. The news of this defeat helped convince Soult that there was no realistic chance of defeating the Galician insurgents. He retreated onto the plains of Leon, leaving Ney with little choice but to follow. By 3 July the last French troops had left Galicia. The insurgents had successfully defeated two of Napoleon’s most famous marshals.
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