El Empecinado of Spain: The Undaunted Guerrilla Who Eluded Napoleon

Juan Martín Díaz, el Empecinado on the artwork by Salvador Martínez Cubells, c. 1811

The most prominent guerrilla chieftain to emerge in central Spain during the War of Independence against Napoleon (1808-1814) was Juan Martín Díez, better known as El Empecinado. With a nom de guerre translating as The Undaunted, like many insurgents Juan Martín Díez came from a farming background. Born in 1775 in Castrillo de Duero in the Valladolid area, El Empecinado fought the French in his teens during the wars against republican France (1793-1795) and harbored animosities before Napoleon forced the Spanish royal family to abdicate in 1808 and replaced the king with his elder brother Joseph. After a brutal rape of a local women by a French soldier, the farmer-turned insurgent exacted justice on the perpetrator, organized a party of like-minded warriors, kissed his wife Catalina de la Fuente goodbye, and set out to kill as many Frenchmen as he could without getting killed in the process.

“King Joe’s Reception at Madrid,” caricature, 1808

For the entirety of the war, El Empecinado eluded and exasperated the occupiers in the heart of Spain – making the guerrilla chieftain a legend at home and abroad. Despite controlling the capital, the French Army was never able dislodge the guerrillas from the mountains and highlands surrounding Madrid. The largest attempt to do so occurred in the spring of 1811, when more than ten thousand soldiers of Napoleon’s Grande Armée were tasked with capturing or killing El Empecinado in what at the time amounted to the largest counterinsurgency operation of the war.

Hunting Grounds in the Heart of Spain

El Empecinado at first concentrated his efforts close to home by disrupting the vital logistics route between Burgos and Madrid. He later expanded his range into the Douro River basin and the Sierra de Gredos. From there he extended his reach into Cuenca and Guadalajara. According to an early account of his activities, in the late summer of 1809 the “Junta and Intendant of Guadalajara earnestly solicited Martin to protect that province which was occasionally overrun by a handful of the enemy detached from Madrid for the purpose of levying contributions and plundering.”[1] El Empecinado took up the call and began attacking the vital strategic corridor connecting the Ebro River basin to Madrid and the central plateau.

Within the central region lay a network of roads vital to controlling the flow of goods and information to the rest of the country. If one heads south to Madrid from France and chooses to avoid using roads which pass through the Sierra de Guadarrama (Central System) flanking the capital (via Segovia or the Puerto de Somosierra) to the northeast, then one must pass through Guadalajara, which acts as the eastern gate to Madrid and the funnel point of the Heneres River watershed flowing southwest into the Tagus from the hills of Sigüenza. The Pico del Lobo, or Wolf Peak, is the highest peak in the Sierra de Ayllón (2274m) and straddles the border of the Guadarrama and Iberian System in a wilderness separating the regions north of Madrid, while pushing anyone heading in the direction of the capital either to the west towards Segovia or east towards the city of Guadalajara.

Cuenca, southeast of Guadalajara, acts in a similar way in that its location allows access to Madrid from the east at points south of the Tagus River. Since ancient times this area, located west of the Serranía de Cuenca, was an important transit hub between the regions of Valencia, Aragon, and Castile-La Mancha. With the high Montes Universales in the Iberian System separating Cuenca from Teruel (in Aragon), the rugged landscape separating the Atlantic and Mediterranean watersheds served as an important refuge for guerrillas during the war and acted similar to how the Pyrenees sheltered insurgents in the northeast. After relocating his base from the north of Madrid, the eastern area of Castile-La Mancha became El Empecinado’s main area for most of the conflict. In essence, the guerrilla chief (cabecilla) circled and stalked his prey – that of King Joseph, Madrid, and other cities in the strategic center of Spain; from Aranda, Segovia, Sepúlveda, Pedraza, and then Guadalajara and Cuenca.

The French Snare

On March 4, 1811, the French Army left Portugal. Three days later El Empecinado attacked the garrison at Molina de Aragón, an important transit point between Teruel and Medinaceli located in the hills bordering Castile-La Mancha and Aragon. Responding to these attacks, the French decided to limit the guerrillas’ ability to cross the Tagus “by blowing up” the stone bridges at Pareja and Trillo further south and maintaining a limited access point at the ancient Roman Bridge (puente romano) located between the towns of Auñon and Sacedón. Detachments were ordered to restrict traffic, thus attempting to control access to the road to Guadalajara and Madrid. Nine days later El Empeciando and his soldiers attacked both sides of the bridge in coordination with General Pedro Villacampa, causing the French to flee to the safety of the church in Auñon. The victory demonstrated the guerrillas had unchallenged free reign in eastern Castile-La Mancha and could operate in nearly any location of their choosing. The rugged geography and pitched cliffs on the northern Tagus made crossing difficult in many areas, hence the French attempt to control access by destroying the bridges.[2]   

El Empecinado’s bronze bust in  Alcalá de Henares,
made by the Italian sculptor Carlos Nicoli from 1880
(Photo: Raimundo Pastor, CC BY-SA 3.0)

El Empecinado’s unchallenged activities frustrated authorities and a massive counterinsurgency snare was planned to capture or kill him. General Augustin Daniel Belliard was given this task, along with four separate columns consisting of two thousand soldiers each – or eight thousand men in all. These columns were ordered to Guadalajara, Tarancón, Sierra de Molina, Soria, Aranda, and other locations in the vicinity to essentially surround the insurgent group and prevent their escape. General Joseph Hugo, El Empecinado’s nemesis, was ordered to reinforce Guadalajara’s garrison while “another column of three thousand cavalry and infantry remained in readiness in Madrid to march to any given point where it should be wanting.”[3]

Escaping the Trap

To escape Belliard’s massive snare, El Empecinado and his mounted unit moved quickly. They descended the foothills of the Serranía de Guadalajara in late afternoon skirting Madrid to the south and crossed the Jarama River before entering Torrelaguna in the foothills of the Guadarrama at night on April 30. Rather than flee north or south, they unexpectedly set off in the direction of Madrid (on its northern outskirts) giving them enough distance to outpace any pursuer. From there, with General Hugo behind them, the unit traveled north into the mountainous Cardoso de la Sierra on May 2. After transiting the Wolf Peak wilderness in the Sierra de Ayllón, the group arrived at Riaza on May 5 on the other side of the mountains – in El Empecinado’s home territory. From there they switched directions in response to intelligence of an approaching enemy column from Aranda and moved south again along the northern slopes of the Guadarramas until they reached Revenga, near Segovia, on May 9. There they attacked a convoy before dislodging the garrison at San Ildefonso the following day. Not only had El Empecinado sprung the trap – leaving the surrounding columns “ineffectual” and unable to counterpunch – the way in which he ran circles around the French “constituted one of the most skillful maneuvers” during the war.[4]

Memorial to Juan Martín Díez in Burgos, Spain

The counterinsurgency snare was a massive failure. The three-week operation resulted in a loss of more than two hundred of Napoleon’s soldiers either killed or taken prisoner. In addition, the rapidity the occupiers attempted to pursue the Spanish resulted in “four hundred sent to the hospital from fatigue, and more than one thousand who had deserted” in exasperation, including Germans and Italian allied soldiers.[5] French military leadership threw more than 11,000 men (including Madrid) into an operation to take down one guerrilla unit and failed. More importantly, the failure to capture or kill El Empecinado furthered French demoralization and contributed to the growing belief that since the occupiers could not control the heart of Spain, the war was lost.

[1] Anonymous (Translated by a General Officer), The Military Exploits of Don Juan Martin Diez, The Empecinado; Who first commenced and then organized the system of guerrilla warfare in Spain (London: Carpenter and Son, 1823), 33.

[2] The Military Exploits, 91-92.

[3] Ibid. 97-98.

[4] Andrés Cassinello Pérez,  Juan Martín, “El Empecinado”, o el amor a la libertad (Madrid: Editorial San Martín, 1995), 123.

[5] The Military Exploits, 101.

About the author

Benjamin J. Swenson is an assistant professor at Hoseo University in Asan, South Korea. He holds a PhD from Pompeu Fabra University in Barcelona, Spain, where his dissertation addressed Euro-American military history and the advent of guerrilla warfare and counterinsurgency doctrine in the nineteenth century. His work has recently appeared in the Journal of Military History, and his latest, The Dawn of Guerrilla Warfare, will be published by UK’s Pen & Sword in 2023. His hobbies include Viking sagas and chess.  

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