‘Interview’ with Levi Grisdale about his capture of General Lefebvre

Posted: June 24, 2014 in History
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In an earlier article (see here) I wrote about Levi Grisdale and how he had captured Napoleon’s favourite General,  Lefebvre, at the Battle of Benavente (or Benevente) in Spain on 29 December 1808 during the Peninsular Wars, and how he had gone on to other great things. But I wrote as well: ‘Numerous individual stories survive from these wars, written by participants from all sides: French, British, German and Spanish. Yet a great number of these come from the ‘officer classes’. Levi was not an officer and, as far as is known, he never wrote his own story.’ This is true but it turns out that Levi was interviewed about what happened by ‘An Officer of the Staff’ who had been in Spain with Levi in the army of General Moore. This was published in early 1809 (i.e. immediately after the British army had returned to England from Corunna) in a book wonderfully titled ‘Operations of the British Army in Spain: Involving Broad Hints to the Commissariat, and Board of Transports : with Anecdotes Illustrative of the Spanish Character‘. One of these stories was Levi’s. The internal evidence suggests that Levi was interviewed  back in England just weeks after the events, when ‘Private Grisdale’ had been promoted to Corporal (he would end up a Sergeant Major). It is the nearest thing we will get to Levi’s own words and version of  what happened at Benavente and how he had captured General Lefebvre:

CAPTURE OF GENERAL LEFEBVRE, By — — Grisdale, a Private in the 10th Dragoons.

General Lefebvre is Captured at Benaventa. Painting by Dennis Dighton. Royal Collection, Windsor

General Lefebvre is Captured at Benaventa. Painting by Dennis Dighton. Royal Collection, Windsor

About one hundred and fifty of the 10th dragoons, and the dragoons of the 7th,[1] were suddenly opposed to about twelve hundred of the enemy’s cavalry, chiefly composed of Imperial Guards, well mounted, and commanded by Lefebvre. The town of Benevente was at a short distance in the rear. As the British had the sagacity, in this instance, to destroy the bridge, the enemy were forced to wade through the river, which they did, with great alacrity, for the purpose of compelling the British detachment to surrender. They advanced in one- solid and compact line against the British force, to salute them with a general volley from their carbines. The British, who were led on by Major Quintain of the 10th, resolutely awaited their approach, and received their fire, which; happily, did but- little execution. The volley was no sooner given, than an order was issued for the British to charge, which they did with that order and impetuosity which insured success. They cut their way completely through the enemy’s line, and then shewed a broad front to him in the opposite direction. The French, in the interim, having faced about, closed their ranks, and put themselves again in good order for the contest. A second charge was then made by the British, which was more successful than the former, for the French, were thrown into confusion, and the carnage which followed was terrible. It was at this time that Grisdale beheld the French Commander, accompanied by two trumpeters, hurrying from the field of action, and followed by two privates of the 7th, in hot pursuit. The French Commander’s horse outstripped those of the trumpeters, as did Grisdale’s those of the 7th; so that, as the General lost the companions of his flight, Grisdale had the good fortune to pursue him single-handed.

General Charles Lefebvre-Desnouettes

General Charles Lefebvre-Desnouettes

The General fled along the serpentine margin of the river, and thereby lost much ground, of which Grisdale took advantage, and by cutting across from angle to angle, he at length, after a rapid chase of two miles, succeeded in getting in his front. The General now, from necessity, checked his horse; but betraying symptoms of resistance, Grisdale instantly levelled, and discharged his carbine, the ball of which slightly wounded his adversary on the cheek. Thus unsuccessful in his aim, Grisdale was preparing to defend himself with his sword, (his pistols having been previously discharged) when, to his surprise, he beheld Lefebvre throw his sword away, as a token of surrender. This gave Grisdale time to re-load his carbine, which having done, he advanced to the General, took the pistols from his holsters, the sash from about his waist, and having dismounted, snatched up the cast away sword; then re-seating himself in the saddle, he turned the rein of the General’s bridle over the horse’s head, and so conducted him to the British army: the main body of which, at that time, was coming up. Grisdale had too much honest pride to demand the General’s watch and money, but a private of the 7th, who was less scrupulous and exalted in his ideas, did the General that favor before he reached the British lines. Grisdale gave the sash, sword, and pistols, to his Colonel, (Leigh) to have them transmitted to his beloved Commander, the Prince of Wales.

Grisdale has recently been raised to the rank of corporal, as the first step only of more considerable promotion. He is an exceedingly well made, well looking man: his countenance is ruddy and expressive, and strongly indicates that he possesses that intrepid spirit which should, at all times, distinguish the Briton and the soldier. He is a native of Gracestock (sic), in Cumberland; his age is twenty-four. He has a mother living, to whom he is most affectionately attached; and where filial piety exists, we seldom look for human courage in vain.

——————————————————————————-

Notwithstanding this coup d’ éclat, it seemed destined that our retreat should be attended with every possible disadvantage that Nature could throw in our way. The weather was so inclement, that the oldest Galician living, does not remember so severe a season. Wind, rain, and even hail, pelted around us; and to add to our distresses, the greater part of the officers had lost their cloaks, great coats, and linen, as the muleteers to whose care they were confided, bad all scampered to the mountains on the approach of the French cavalry, and left 200 of their mules to be quietly plundered by the enemy! Now, whether this mishap arise from the suggestion of fear or hatred, or knavery, is yet undetermined. Some of our dragoons endeavoured to drive those independent animals forward, but even the stroke of the sabre had no effect, when their masters had forsaken them. Unhappily, they were not linguists, like Balaam’s appendage, and could not, or would not, comprehend the British word of command. Between Benevente and Astorga, and Villa Franca, and Lugo, the retreating army were literally compelled to cut a passage through the snow!

 

The British Retreat to Corunna 1808-1809

The British Retreat to Corunna 1808-1809

[1] Of the King’s German Legion.

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