The passage of the Misarella River of 17 May 1809 saw Marshal Soult’s army get past the last major barrier between them and relative safety during their retreat from Oporto in May 1809. On the night of 15/16 May, the French had forced their way across the Ponte Nova, on the main road across the mountains from Braga to Chaves, and by the end of 16 May had reached Ruivaens. There Soult had to make a choice of route – he could continue along the main road the Chaves, and hope that General Beresford’s Portuguese army had not yet reached the town, or he could turn north and take the road across the mountains to the border town of Montalegre. He chose the second option (correctly, for just after Soult reached Ruivaens, Beresford reached Chaves).
The only really dangerous obstacle on the road to Montalegre was the bridge across the Misarella River. This bridge was known as the Saltador, normally translated as the “leaper”, although the “bouncer” seems to be more accurate. This bridge carried the road across a single arch over the Misarella, and was the only possible route for Soult’s army. If the bridge had been destroyed, or was defended by regular troops, then the French would have been in serious trouble.
Luckily for Soult, the bridge was only defended by a few hundred poorly armed local levies, who had been gathered together by Major Warre, a staff officer in Beresford’s army. They had refused to destroy the bridge, for it was also their only means of communication across the valley, but they had removed the balustrades, and built an abattis across the far end of the bridge.
The passage of the Ponte Nova had been led by Major Dulong, reputed to be the bravest officer in Soult’s army. He was now called on again to lead an assault across a narrow bridge. This time the bridge itself was in better shape (the Ponte Nova had been reduced to two four foot wide beams), but there was more determined opposition on the far bank, and the French did not have time to wait for darkness, for the British were approaching the French rearguard at Salamonde.
Dulong was given one company of voltigeurs to make the assault and two battalions of infantry to follow them over if. He formed his company into a long column only four men wide (the most the bridge would allow), and led them in a charge across the bridge.
The attack was an immediate success. On their first rush the French reached the far bank, broke down the abattis and scattered the Portuguese levies. The rest of Soult’s army crossed behind them, and that evening reached Montalegre. Wellesley halted his pursuit at the Saltador, although he did sent a Portuguese force towards Montalegre on 18 May, but by then Soult’s men were well on their way to Orense, back in Spain, where they were able to rest and regroup. Although Soult had rescued most his men, he had been forced to abandon all of his artillery, his heavy baggage, most of the plunder taken at Oporto, and $50,000 of gold coins. It would be months before Soult’s corps could play an active part in the war.
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