A Humble Heroine

Twas at the Seige of Matagarda, during the Peninsular War,
That a Mrs Reston for courage outshone any man there by far;
She was the wife of a Scottish soldier in Matagarda Port,
And to attend to her husband she there did resort.

’Twas in the Spring of the year 1810,
That General Sir Thomas Graham occupied Matagarda with 150 men;
These consisted of a detachment from the Scots Brigade,
And on that occasion they weren’t in the least afraid.

And Captain Maclaine of the 94th did the whole of them command,
And the courage the men displayed was really grand;
Because they held Matagarda for fifty-four days,
Against o’erwhelming numbers of the French – therefore they are worthy of praise.

The British were fighting on behalf of Spain,
But if they fought on their behalf they didn’t fight in vain;
For they beat them manfully by land and sea,
And from the shores of Spain they were forced to flee.

Because Captain Maclaine set about repairing the old fort,
So as to make it comfortable for his men to resort;
And there he kept his men at work day by day,
Filling sand-bags and stuffing them in the walls without delay.

There was one woman in the fort during those trying days,
A Mrs Reston, who is worthy of great praise;
She acted like a ministering angel to the soldiers while there,
By helping them to fill sand-bags, it was her constant care.

Mrs Reston behaved as fearlessly as any soldier in the garrison,
And amongst the soldiers golden opinions she won,
For her presence was everywhere amongst the men,
And the service invaluable she rendered to them.

Methinks I see that brave heroine carrying her child,
Whilst the bullets were falling around her, enough to drive her wild;
And bending over it to protect it from danger,
Because to war’s alarms it was a stranger.

And while the shells shrieked around, and their fragments did scatter,
She was serving the men at the guns with wine and water;
And while the shot whistled around, her courage wasn’t slack,
Because to the soldiers she carried sand-bags on her back.

A little drummer boy was told to fetch water from the well,
But he was afraid because the bullets from the enemy around it fell;
And the Doctor cried to the boy, Why are you standing there?
But Mrs Reston said, Doctor, the bairn is feared, I do declare.

And she said, Give me the pail, laddie, I’ll fetch the water,
Not fearing that the shot would her brains scatter;
And without a moment’s hesitation she took the pail,
Whilst the shot whirred thick around her, yet her courage didn’t fail.

And to see that heroic woman the scene was most grand,
Because as she drew the water a shot cut the rope in her hand;
But she caught the pail with her hand dexterously,
Oh! the scene was imposing end most beautiful to see.

The British fought bravely, as they are always willing to do,
Although their numbers were but few;
So they kept up the cannonading with their artillery,
And stood manfully at their guns against the enemy.

And five times the flagstaff was shot away,
And as often was it replaced without dismay;
And the flag was fastened to an angle of the wall,
And the British resolved to defend it whatever did befall.

So the French were beaten and were glad to run,
And the British for defeating them golden opinions have won
Ah through brave Captain Maclaine and his heroes bold,
Likewise Mrs Reston, whose name should be written in letters of gold.

The Heroine of Matagorda. – We are glad to learn that Mrs. Retson, the particulars of whose heroic conduct at the siege of Matagorda are well known to the public, and who is now, at the age of 72, gaining a livelihood as a nurse in the Town’s Hospital of Glasgow, is likely to be placed in circumstances of comparative comfort in her declining years. Several appeals to the public having been made in her behalf, a subscription was at length commenced, and upwards of a hundred pounds have been realised; but the committee still think it necessary to make a farther appeal to the generosity of the public, that this meritorious poor woman may be placed beyond the reach of want for the short remainder of her life. It is intended, however, shortly to close the subscription, and it is therefore hoped that all who may have an intention to come forward will do so without delay. Amongst the subscriptions already received are the following: – The Queen, £10; the Queen Dowager, £5; Marquis of Douro, £5 5s.; Major-Gen. Sir A. McLeine, £5 5s.; Lieut.-colonel Brereton, £5 5s.; the Winner by “Coute que Coute,” £5 5s.; Lieuteant-General Sir. J. Macdonald, £5; Miss Field, £5; Marquis of Lansdowne, £10; a Lady and her Husband, £6; Messrs. Chambers, Edinburgh, £2; an Englishman, per Messrs. Chambers, £5; Miss Conant, £1 1s., &c. It is highly honorable to the military profession, we may remark, that it furnishes nine-tenths of the subscriptions; and, we believe, if all the rest of the community together were to do as much, the object of the committee would be fully accomplished.

Glasgow Herald, 23rd August 1844

Notes

Matagorda was an outlying fort in the defences of Cadiz – one of the few Spanish cities not occupied by the French in early 1810. It was occupied on 22 February 1810 by a detachment British artillery and a company of the 94th(Scots Brigade) Regiment under Captain Maclaine. Aided by a Spanish flotilla, the garrison held on to their exposed post until 21st April, when superior numbers of French guns drove away the Spanish gunboats and hammered the fort for thirty hours.

Agnes Reston’s part in the action was broadly as McGonagall describes it, and was first brought to public notice some years after the event in the memoirs of Joseph Donaldson, Recollections of the Eventful Life of a Soldier. Donaldson, who, like Agnes’ husband was a sergeant in the 94th Regiment, gives the following account:

Mrs Reston was the individual who distinguished herself so nobly at Matagorda, near Cadiz, while the French were besieging the latter place in 1810. Her husband was then a serjeant, in the Ninety-fourth Regiment, and one of the detachment that occupied that fort, when the French bombarded it with thirty pieces of cannon. It may be easily conceived what havoc would be created by so much artillery playing upon a place not more than a hundred yards square, and it may also be imagined that few women could have maintained ordinary courage or self-possession in such a place; but from the commencement of the action she behaved in a manner which is scarcely in my power to do justice to.

The bomb-proofs being too small to contain the whole garrison, some of the men had huts formed on the battery, and among the rest was that of Mrs. Reston. When the French opened upon us, she was wakened out of her sleep by a twenty-four pound shot striking the fascine, where her head lay; but nothing daunted, she got up, and removing her child, a boy of four years old, down to the bomb-proof, she assisted the surgeon in dressing the wounded men, who were fast increasing on his hands, for which purpose she tore up her own linen and that of her husband.

Water being needed, one of the drum-boys was desired to go and draw some from the well in the centre of the battery, but he did not seem much inclined to the task, and was lingering at the door with a bucket dangling in his hand – “Why don’t you go for the water?” said the surgeon. – “The poor thing’s frightened,” said Mrs. Reston, “and no wonder at it: give it to me and I’ll go for it.” So saying, she relieved the drummer from the perilous duty and amid the dreadful discharge of artillery playing on the battery, she let down the vessel to fill it with water – she had scarcely done so, when the rope was cut by a shot; but she determined to get her message with her, and begging the assistance of a sailor, she recovered the bucket, and brought it filled with water down to the bomb-proof, where her attention to the wounded soldiers was beyond all praise. In the intervals she carried sand bags for the repair of the battery, handed along ammunition, and supplied the men at the guns with wine and water, and when the other two women (who had been in hysterics in one of the bomb-proofs from the time of the action had commenced) were leaving the battery, she refused to go.

Next morning, our ammunition being expended, we ceased firing, and the French, seeing the delapidated state of the fort, sent down a strong force to take possession of the place; and our men were mustered for their reception, when Mrs. Reston was at her post with the others, determined to share in the danger. It was a critical moment, for had they got under the range of our guns, our efforts would have been unavailing. Through the ruinous state of the fort, three guns, all that we could bring to bear upon them, were crammed with loose powder, grape, ball cartridges, &c., to the muzzle, ready for a farewell shot, and when they came within two or three hundred yards of the fort, we poured their contents into the very heart of the column, and laid the half of them prostrate on the earth. Those who survived took flight, their batteries again opened, and a fresh supply of ammunition having arrived for us, we returned their salute; but the place being found untenable, the surviving part of the garrison were withdrawn by the boats of our fleet.

Mrs Reston still exhibited the same undaunted spirit. She made three different journeys across the battery for her husband’s necessities and her own. The last was for her child, who was lying in the bomb-proof. I think I see her yet, while the shot and shell was flying thing around her, bending her body over it to shield it from danger by the exposure of her own person. Luckily she escaped unhurt, and still lives, and is at present residing in Glasgow. But will it be believed that she never received the smallest token of approbation for her intrepid conduct, and the services she rendered on that occasion?

After her husband was some time discharged, she was induced, at the instigation of officers who were well acquainted with her heroic conduct, to make a representation to the Commander-in-Chief, who warmly recommended her case to the Secretary of War; but the cold reply was, that he had no funds at his disposal for such a purpose. Generous, noble nation! Surely, the advocates for economy had little to find fault with here.

Mrs Reston is now advanced in years, and although her husband enjoys the regulated pension for his services, he is unable to work for his subsistence, and surely one shilling and tenpence a day to support two individuals is no great expense, as it has been made for not making any exception in her favour.

It might be noted that, contrary to McGonagall’s patriotic conclusion, the newly arrived General Graham ordered a withdrawal from Matagorda which they did on the 22nd April, having suffered 64 casualties from an original force of 140 men. Their gallant commander eventually became General Sir Archibald Maclaine.

As Donaldson alludes to in his account, Mrs Reston and her husband (like all too many Napoleonic veterans) were largely neglected on their return from the wars. When her husband died in 1834, she soon found herself scratching out an existence in the Glasgow Poorhouse.

However, ten years later, her case was raised in the Glasgow newspapers and a campaign started to do her justice. A public appeal raised enough funds for a £30 annuity – on which income she was able to live in reasonable comfort until her death in 1856.

Credits

My thanks go to Roger Edwards for transcribing the newspaper story above.

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