Agustina, a young maiden living in the town of Saragossa located in the providence of Aragon, Spain, became an unlikely heroine
when Napoleon's army besieged the city in 1808. The city, unprepared for warfare and with no established army, set about protecting
its walls with a band of civilians. At the Portillo gate, more than fifty of the defenders had been killed or wounded.
The few remaining gunners, supported by sharpshooters in the nearby building, were working frantically to reload and fire a giant
twenty-four pound cannon when, thru the smoke, they saw a line of French infantry with fixed bayonets quickly moving forward. As the
French began to break into a run, a band of civilians who had come to reinforce the battery turned and rushed back to the town squa
Meanwhile, the last gunners remaining on their feet had decided that their position was hopeless and also fled.
The Maid of Saragossa
It seemed that nothing could prevent the French from capturing the now-silent battery and advancing over its scattered sandbags
and corpses into the city. Suddenly, to their amazement, they saw a dark-haired girl emerge through the haze of smoke and dust
and run towards the battery. As she reached one of the twenty-four-pounders, she snatched the still-smoldering linstock from the
hand of a dying gunner, fired the cannon and stood on its carriage shouting encouragement to the civilian volunteers who were
hurrying back to position. The cannon was reloaded and shot at almost point-blank range. The effect on the closely bunched French
column was devastating. A moment later, the defenders had rallied and poured a volley of musketry fire into the French, who
wavered then retreated. The girl, Agustina Zaragoza, had saved the gate from certain capture.
Agustina's action seized the imagination of all Spain, then of all Europe. The popular heroic image of a slender girl, leaping
forward to take the place of the dying gunner said to have been her fiance, then firing the great cannon single-handedly and
remaining by it to defy the oncoming French and put heart into her fellow-countrymen was both romantic and inspiring. Agustina
symbolized the heroism and determination of every Spaniard who took up arms to face Napoleon's might, heedless of the odds.
But Saragossa was not to stand against Napoleon's army forever. 15,000 reinforcements were brought in and bombs and shells came
raining down on the private homes, churches, convents and hospital. The residents would not go down without a fight. The entire
population seemed to be taking a hand in the fighting. Many women, besides tending the wounded, worked ceaselessly to bring
ammunition, food and drink to the defenders in the front line. The famous Agustina now reappeared on the scene. Francois Billon
(who fought under General Lefebvre) was one of many French soldiers to be fascinated by her story. In his memoirs, he claimed
that he has seen, met, and spoken with Agustina during the fighting. She had joined the resistance, been promoted, was given a
gunner's pay, and wore a shield of honour embroidered on her sleeve. After seeing her first from a distance during a street
battle, Billon succumbed to her charms. No words could describe her, he wrote, for "in creating this marvel, heaven has exhausted
in her all its resources of beauty, delicacy and vigour". Billon recalled that he had entered a house on the Coso, which was the
scene of a struggle between some Spaniards, including Agustina, and fifteen French grenadiers in search of plunder. Agustina was
in the act of ordering the outnumbered French to lay down their weapons or be killed when Billon and a detachment of infantry
stormed the house and saved their comrades. A sergeant held the girl by the throat after the rest of the Spaniards had been killed
or driven off and, when at last he released her from his grip, she appealed to Billon:
"Pale with anger and surprise, motionless but always proud, Agustina summoned me in a lofty tone, which, however, was tinged with
a certain sweetness: 'Do with me as you will', she said 'but - por Dios! - if you have any heart, do not deliver up the heroine of
the Portillo, who is under the protection of our Lady of the Pillar, to the brutality of your soldiers. I know that I am beautiful
and your eyes tell me the same quite plainly. My honour and life are both in peril: let it be only my life.' I did my very best to
reassure her in the critical situation and then very deeply moved and almost sincere, I added: 'Will you be my wife? It is the only
way to avoid what you fear'. 'Then', she cried, 'I shall no longer be under the protection of Our Lady of the Pillar!...If only
peace were madeâ€¦ But enough! You do not believe a word you say. I owe you a great deal â€“ my life certainly, my honour maybe.
Although French, you are far from displeasing me â€“ I tell you frankly - but your cunning speech makes me madly desirous to flee
from you, with or without your permission and without waiting for the night.' She stood very close to me. Her serene and smiling
face suddenly lit up and she was praying. 'O Virgin of the Pillar!' she cried as she flung her arms around my neck and kissed me.
'Adieu!' All of a sudden, she jumped nimbly though a window and disappeared into the dusk."
"Out of respect for my rank, the grenadiers stood aside during the brief colloquy. I rushed out with them in pursuit of the
fugitive but it was impossible for us to find any trace of her".
In a letter written to Napoleon by his Chief-of-Staff, Berthier, he gave the figures of the Spanish losses:
"I have made a count of persons dead in Sargasso since December 21 until February 21, the day of our entry into this city. 54,000
odd persons have died. It is inconceivable. Since our entry a good 3,000 to 10,000 more have died, so that this city is at this
moment reduced to about 12,000 to 15,000 inhabitants. It is impossible that Saragossa should ever recover; this city is a horror
Agustina herself escaped and was seen in uniform by Byron and others in Seville two years later. She was always greatly honored,
lived to a ripe old age and, with other Saragossa heroines, was buried in the Portillo church. There is a statue of Agustina and
her cannon outside the church.
In 1812, Byron published his "Childe Harolde's Pilgrimage", he needed no long explanatory footnote for the stanzas in which he
referred to Agustina's gallant action:
Yet who shall marvel when you hear her tale?
Oh! Had you known her in her softer hour;
Mark'd her black eye that mocks her coal black veil;
Heard her light lively tones in lady's bower;
Seen her long looks that foiled the painter power;
Her fairy form, with more than female grace;
Scarce would you deem that Saragossa's tower;
Beheld her smile in danger's Gorgon face;
Thins the closed ranks, and leads in glory's fearful chase.
Her lover sinks - she sheds no ill-timed tear;
Her chief is slain - she fills his fatal post;
Her fellows flee - she checks their vase career;
The foe retied - she heads the sallying host;
Who can appease like her a lover's ghost?
Who can avenge so well a leaders fall?
What maid retrieve when a man's flushed hope is lost?
Who hang so fiercely on the flying Gaul?
Foil'd by a woman's hand, before a batter'd wall?