Tuesday, 24 January 2017

1810: The Heroine of Matagorda

In much historical fiction (including my own) women tend to turn up in the most extraordinary situations and bear heavy responsibilities, to an extent which may seem fanciful to many today who have the idea of women’s roles in the past being always so subservient.
Mrs. Reston at the well
One example is “The Heroine of Matagorda”, a Mrs. Agnes Reston, wife of a sergeant of the Scots Brigade which was responsible for the defence of a small fort of Matagorda, on the approaches to Cadiz, in 1810. The city was under siege by French forces and the Matagorda outwork was a critical point in the defences. She was one of the few women (mainly wives of NCOs) who were allowed to follow their husbands, often acting as laundresses, and she refused to leave the fort when the other wives were sent away for safety.

According to Joseph Donaldson, a sergeant of the 94th Regiment of Foot who later published his memoirs, Mrs. Reston tore up her linen for bandages and tended the wounded.  She carried sandbags for repair of the batteries, and brought ammunition and water to the men at the guns. When she saw a frightened drummer-boy was had been sent to get water for the wounded from a well that was under French fire she exclaimed “The puir bairn is frightened, and no wonder! Gie the bucket to me!”

Mrs. Reston proceeded to the well and drew water calmly, though no less an authority than General Napier, historian of the Peninsular War, stated that a shot cut through the bucket rope but she recovered it and continued on regardless. She had a child with her in camp and Donaldson recorded that “I think I see her yet, while the shot and shell were flying thick around her, bending her body to shield her child from danger by the exposure of her own person.”

Mrs. Reston’s courage was however remembered in a long poem by the Scottish poet William McGonnagal in his poem “A Humble Heroine”.  The most memorable lines as typical of  McGonagall at the height of his not-inconsiderable lyric power and mastery of rhyme:

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 Victorian-era illustration shows a possibly idealised picture of Agnes Reston at the well but nothing indeed can convey the depth of her heroism. Not all the women of her time were dancing and flirting with Mr. Darcy. She should not be forgotten.

And to read about the adventures of another heroine ...

... albeit a fictional one - you may be interested in Britannia's Amazon, which deals with the adventures of Florence Dawlish while her husband is overseas in the service of Queen and Country.  Click on the image below for more details.

 Download a free copy of Britannia’s Eventide 

To thank subscribers to the Dawlish Chronicles mailing list, a free, downloadable, copy of a new short story, Britannia's Eventide has been sent to them as an e-mail attachment.

If you have not already subscribed to the mailing list, you can do so by clicking here.  You will then receive a copy of the story by e-mail.

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