It was a typical Napoleonic campaign: swift, victorious, and futile. The Emperor sensed the rising opposition of the French people to the endless concatenation of his wars. They had agreed with him that his wars on the eastern front had been caused by governments conspiring to annul the Revolution; but they felt that their blood was being drained, and they resented especially its expenditure in Portugal and Spain. He understood that feeling, and feared that he was losing his hold on the nation, but (as he argued in retrospect) “it was impossible to leave the Peninsula a prey to the machinations of the English, the intrigues, hopes, and pretensions of the Bourbons.”35 Unless Spain should be securely tied to France it would be at the mercy of British armies coming through Portugal or Cádiz; soon England would gather the gold and silver of Portuguese or Spanish America, and pour it out in subsidies to finance a new coalition against France; there would have to be more Marengos, Austerlitzes, Jenas … Only a border-tight blockade of British goods could bring those London merchants to talk peace.

Leaving some fortresses garrisoned against Austrian or Prussian surprises, Napoleon ordered 150,000 men of the Grand Army to march over the Pyrenees and join the 65,000 men that Joseph had meanwhile assembled at Vitoria. He himself left Paris on October 29 with his plan of campaign already formed. The Spanish army was attempting to surround Joseph’s troops; Napoleon sent instructions to his brother to avoid battle, and let the enemy advance in a spreading and thinning semicircle. When he neared Vitoria, the Emperor deployed part of his forces to attack the Spanish center; it broke and fled. Another French division captured Burgos (November 10); others, under Ney and Lannes, at Tudela, overwhelmed a Spanish army under José de Palafox y Melzi. Perceiving that their soldiers and generals could not cope with the Grand Army and Napoleon, the Spaniards scattered again into the provinces, and on December 4 the Emperor entered Madrid. When some of his troops began to pillage, he had two of them publicly executed; the pillaging stopped.36

Leaving the city under a strong garrison and martial law, Napoleon took up his quarters three miles away at Chamartín. Thence, like some god creating a world, he issued (December 4) a series of decrees, including a new constitution for Spain. Some of its clauses show him still a “Son of the Revolution”:

To date from the publication of this decree, feudal rights are abolished in Spain. All personal obligations, all exclusive rights, … all feudal monopolies … are suppressed. Everyone who shall conform to the laws shall be free to develop his industry without restraint.

The tribunal of the Inquisition is abolished, as inconsistent with the civil sovereignty and authority. Its property shall be sequestered and fall to the Spanish state, to serve as security for the bonded debt. …

Considering that the members of various monastic orders have increased to an undue degree, … religious houses in Spain … shall be reduced to a third of their present number … by uniting the members of several houses of the same order into one. …

In view of the fact that the institution which stands most in the way of the internal prosperity of Spain is that of the customs lines separating the provinces, … the barrier existing between the provinces shall be suppressed.37

Only martial mastery could enforce such a constitution over the active opposition of the entrenched nobility, the monastic clergy, and a population inured by time to feudal leadership and a consolatory creed. And that mastery was precarious. Wellesley was still triumphant in Portugal, and might invade Spain as soon as the Grand Army should be called back to face a challenging Austria. Moreover, a British army of twenty thousand men under Sir John Moore left Salamanca on December 13 and began a march northeastward, aiming to overwhelm Soult’s division near Burgos. Responding quickly to this challenge, Napoleon led a substantial French force north over the Sierra de Guadarrama in the hope of attacking the rear of Moore’s columns; now at last he would match his wits and soldiers against those hitherto sea-protected Englishmen. The passage through the Guadarrama Pass in midwinter was a much severer ordeal for his men than the crossing of the Alps in 1800; they suffered and grumbled, almost to mutiny, but Napoleon would not abandon the chase. Moore learned of his coming, and—fearing to be caught between two French armies—turned his troops westward on a hurried march over 250 miles of rugged snow-covered terrain toward Corunna, where they could find refuge in a British fleet.

At Astorga, January 2, 1809, Napoleon was close on their heels. But here he was stopped by disturbing news from two sources: in Austria the Archduke Karl Ludwig was making active preparations for war; in Paris Talleyrand and Fouché were aiding a plan to replace Napoleon with Murat. The Emperor left the pursuit of Moore to Soult, and hurried back to France. Soult, the master gone, eased his pace, and did not reach Corunna until most of the British had gained their ships. Moore led an heroic rearguard action to protect the last stages of the embarkation; he was mortally wounded, but did not die until the embarkation was complete. “If only I had had time to follow the English,” Napoleon mourned, “not a single man jack of them would have escaped.”38 They not only escaped; they came back.

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