Article 18

ART. XVIII. Narrative of the Siege of Zaragoza. By Charles Richard Vaughan, M. B. Fellow of All Soul's College, Oxford, and one of Dr. Radcliffe's travelling Fellows from that University. London. pp. 33. 8vo. Second edition. Ridgway, 1809.

[pp. 226-231] [original article in PDF format]

  1. WE consider ourselves and the public as much indebted to the author of this well written and highly interesting narrative. We were, indeed, already in possession of such facts, relating to the defence of Zaragoza, as were sufficient to place it amongst the most extraordinary events of history. We knew, for instance, that the Arragonese, having taken up arms about the end of May, had met with a severe check as early as the 9th of June; that they had been again defeated, on the 13th and 14th at Mallen and at Alagon; that though compelled to retire within the walls of their capital, and unable to repel the assaults of the besiegers, they had still continued to defend themselves from house to house; and that the enemy, after persisting in the siege for many days after the flight of Joseph from Madrid, had been ultimately forced, about the 14th of August, to retire in confusion towards Pamplona. So much was admitted by the French themselves. But when, in search of further information, we examined the proclamations and public letters of Palafox, we confess that we were almost tempted to disbelieve what we already knew. This extraordinary man exhibited, as we thought, such a blind and overweening confidence in the very limited resources which Arragon could be supposed to possess; his denunciations of vengeance against the mighty chief of the French empire, whom he rendered personally responsible for the safety of the Spanish princes, appeared so ill-suited to the commander of a petty province; his religious zeal, his loyalty, the whole tenor of his language, whether addressed to his followers or to the council of Castille, were so unusual and peculiar, that we felt afraid of [226] placing much reliance on his assertions; and, bewildered by the apparent exaggerations, knew not whether to impute them to policy or to arrogance. Nothing less than the testimony of a witness who has been admitted to the familiarity of this modern Cid; who has accompanied him on his expeditions, and studied him amidst the scenes of his exploits, and amongst the partakers of his glory, could have been sufficient to extort our belief of a series of events, on which future poets will dwell with rapture, but which future historians will hesitate to record amongst the annals of the 19th century.

  2. We learn from Mr. Vaughan that the former Captain General of Arragon, being suspected of disaffection to the patriotic party, was deposed and imprisoned by the people; and that, in virtue of the unanimous choice of the inhabitants of Zaragoza and of the neighbouring villages, his office was transferred to Don Joseph Palafox, a young officer in the Spanish guards, who had been selected, not long before, as second in command to the Marquis de Castillar, for the purpose of securing the Prince of the Peace after his arrest at Aranjuez. Such an appointment affords some proof of his previous popularity; his family was amongst the most distinguished in Arragon; his two elder brothers the Marquis de Lazan, and Don Francisco Palafox were ardent friends to the patriotic cause; and he was himself but lately returned from Bayonne, whence he escaped in disguise when his services could no longer be of use to his sovereign: he had therefore just pretensions to the perilous dignity to which he aspired. 'At the commencement of his command (says Mr. Vaughan) General Palafox mustered the regular troops quartered in Zaragoza and found that they amounted to two hundred and twenty men; and that the public treasury of the province could furnish him with only two thousand reals, a sum, in English money, equal to twenty pounds sixteen shillings and eight pence.' Such were the resources of men and money with which he undertook to defend a city, whose walls, partly built with mud, inclosed rather than protected a population of about 60,000 souls, against all the forces that the numerous garrison of Pamplona, or the army of Murat, near Madrid, might be able to send against him; and such were the auspicious hopes which dictated to him that proud declaration of war with which our readers are already acquainted.

  3. It was, perhaps, a fortunate circumstance, that with a great military genius he possessed little or no military experience. All the combinations of the tactician suppose, in the several individuals who compose his army, certain acquired habits resulting from a preliminary education, without which every movement must be [227] productive of inextricable confusion. A mixed multitude, however, animated by enthusiasm, can only become formidable to veterans in those situations where it can crush them by its mass, or in those where concerted movements are impracticable, and every man must rely on his own personal valour; and even in such situations the mere skill of a commander is of little value, because, without subordination and gradations of rank, there can be no means of communicating directions or orders, and every effort must be spontaneous. The General who undertakes to manage such a force must be endowed with a mind fertile in resources and expedients, and with a character equally flexible and intrepid; he must know how to assume every shape, to conciliate every temper, to excite every passion, and to inspire that reverential awe which can alone secure the obedience of men actuated by fury, and inaccessible to terror. These talents, it should seem, were united in Palafox, and gave him that conscious superiority in which his followers acquiesced without a murmur. His ultimate success was owing to their unparalleled exertions; but from him must have been derived that impulse which was communicated to every class and to every age, and which rendered the priests, and the women, and the children of Zaragoza, scarcely less available for its defence than its hardiest and best armed inhabitants. It is the prerogative of genius to employ every possible material, and to find a use for every instrument; and when we see the whole population of a country conspiring to one common purpose, we cannot doubt the ability of the superintendence by which their actions are directed.

  4. Mr. Vaughan informs us in his preface, that any little profit which may arise from the sale of the work will be applied to the relief of the inhabitants of Zaragoza, and that the hope of directing the attention of the public to their sufferings, and of thereby promoting a subscription for their benefit, was his chief motive for stating all that he knew of their heroic achievements. As we should be very sorry to counteract these benevolent intentions, we shall abstain from giving such an abstract of his account as might satisfy the curiosity of our readers, and from extracting any of those detached anecdotes which give so much spirit and interest to his narrative: but we consider it as our duty to copy, from the second edition, the following article which was omitted, we suppose inadvertently, in the first impression.

    'One character which developed itself during the siege of Zaragoza, must not be overlooked in this narrative. In every part of the town, where the danger was most imminent, and the French the [228] most numerous, was Padre St. Jago Sass, curate of a parish of Zaragoza. As General Palafox made his rounds through the city, he often beheld Sass, alternately playing the part of a priest and a soldier; sometimes administering the sacrament to the dying, and at others, fighting in the most determined manner against the enemies of his country: from his energy of character and uncommon bravery, the Commander in Chief reposed the utmost confidence in him during the siege; wherever any thing difficult or hazardous was to be done, Sass was selected for its execution; and the introduction of a supply of powder, so essentially necessary to the defence of the town, was effected in the most complete manner, by this clergyman at the head of forty of the bravest men in Zaragoza. He was found so serviceable in inspiring the people with religious sentiments, and in leading them on to danger, that the General has placed him in a situation where both his piety and courage may continue to be as useful as before; and he is now both captain in the army, and chaplain to the Commander in Chief.'

  5. Every reader, we are persuaded, will peruse the description of this siege with feelings of exultation and delight, because history is never so interesting as when it records the very few instances that real history can record, in which patriotic valour has obtained a temporary triumph over unbounded power, actuated by unbounded malevolence. The human heart will leap at the recital of such efforts of human virtue; and the acts of heroism exhibited within the contracted scene of a Spanish town will, for the moment, render the most extensive machinations of ambitious policy, and the most rapid series of military conquests, tame and insipid in the narrative. But the knowledge of facts is valuable, rather from the practical lessons which they teach, than from the feelings which they excite; and it is for this reason that we principally esteem the perspicuous and well-connected statement of Mr. Vaughan. The Arragonese acted under the strongest impulse of the strongest passions, and we know that the mind and body of an enthusiast are capable of preternatural exertion; but such paroxysms of energy cannot be expected from men less powerfully exasperated; and what is astonishing as a spectacle becomes useless as an example. It is curious and instructive to observe that these brave men were unable, from their deficiency of discipline, to beat the enemy in the field; they were unable, from their imperfect skill, to defend their walls and batteries; but within their streets and their houses they became invincible. That an open town may present a most embarassing impediment to an attacking army was already known by the resistance of Buenos Ayres; but the defence of Zaragoza is much more conclusive, [229] because no deficiency of skill or enterprise can be attributed to the French generals; and because their artillery of all sorts was ably served, and at every period of the siege was eminently destructive. The principal powder magazine was blown up; the principal hospital burned; spacious convents, and whole streets were laid in ruins by the incessant explosion of shells; but the progress of desolation seems to have only improved the resources of the besieged, and from the moment when their situation was thought by the assailants to be hopeless, the tide of victory begun to turn in their favour. During eleven successive days, the French gradually lost ground; and, after having occupied one half of the city, found themselves daily more and more circumscribed, till they were reduced within the space of one eighth, when they finally retreated. It is also to be remarked that the length and obstinacy of the siege seems to have excited, amongst the French troops, the same spirit of frantic animosity which inspired the Arragonese, and that the two parties, with an equal disregard of danger, alternately dashed across the street which separated them, to attack their respective batteries, often continuing the desperate struggle through the rooms of the adjoining houses. We, therefore, think it very difficult to account for the ultimate success of the defenders of Zaragoza, unless we admit that the spot on which they fought afforded a full compensation for the superior skill and discipline of the enemy; and that, amidst the mazes of irregular and narrow streets, even the motley population of a city may be rendered competent to resist the best conducted attacks of regular troops, if its citizens be properly instructed in the value of all their local resources, and taught to entertain a just confidence in themselves and in their leader.

  6. Whether it is probable that the splendid example of Zaragoza will be followed in Spain or elsewhere we cannot judge; but we think that such an example will not be quite lost to the world. It must be of some importance to all nations whose independence is destroyed or threatened, to learn that resistance is not hopeless; that an asylum for liberty, not less secure than that which is offered by desarts, and mountains, and forests, is to be found in the very center of civil society; and that (to adopt a celebrated axiom of our law) every free man's house is his castle, and will protect him, who has the courage to defend it. We perfectly agree with our author in believing that the ultimate fall of Zaragoza is not improbable; perhaps it has already been accomplished; but we also agree with him in thinking that, 'let the issue be what it may, it must be right, in times like these, to record an event which teaches so forcibly the resources of patriotism and courage.' [230]

  7. We cannot conclude without expressing our wish, that the well-merited success of this little tract may induce its author to draw up, for the press, a more general account of his extensive travels. His residence in Persia must have put him in possession of much valuable information concerning a country which, at this moment, excites a considerable degree of interest, and of which the modern history is very little known in Europe; besides which we are persuaded that the journal of his late tour in Spain would furnish a variety of additional materials, highly gratifying to public curiosity. [231]

    [End of Issue One of the Quarterly Review, 1809]