Last week on History’s Badasses, we talked about Soviet sniper Lyudmila Pavlichenko, the most successful female sniper in history, who racked up a record kill count of 309. During World War II, she sustained four separate injuries, but just kept fighting, and eventually toured the United States and Britain to raise support for the bitter fighting on the Russian Front.
This week, we’ve got another super kickass woman for you. Her name was Agustina de Aragón, known as the “Spanish Joan of Arc”. She helped beat back Napoleon Bonaparte from Spain and has been immortalized in popular mythology, folklore and inspired artists like poet Lord Byron and painter Francisco de Goya. This is her story.
Agustina de Aragón was born on March 4, 1786. Not much is exactly known about her early life. Her childhood has been the subject of a lot of speculation and tales. What all the different sources can agree on was that she was a common-born girl, nobody special. She wasn’t a princess or a queen or an intense scholar and there are no stories of a badass ten-year-old running around the city of Zaragoza, Spain. She was just an everyday person going about her everyday life in the early 1800s when Napoleon swooped down onto Europe and turned it upside-down.
The War Against Napoleon
It was the 1800s, the time of the Napoleonic Era. Thomas Jefferson was President of the United States, Cairo had fallen to the British. Ludwig van Beethoven wrote his Moonlight Sonata. Jane Austen was writing Pride & Prejudice. It was a romantic time of discovery, invention, and art. It was a time of war. It was here, in the 1800s, that Napoleon gained control of France and decided he wanted more. So, Napoleon and the French army began to sweep through Europe.
When Napoleon reached Spain, though, the Spanish immediately fought back. They weren’t about to be taken alive by the French! Nevertheless, one by one, the cities of Spain began to fall to the advancing Grande Armée. The city of Zaragoza, or Saragossa, depending on who you ask, was one of the last cities yet to fall to the French.
In the summer of 1808, the French marched on the city, a city which had not seen war for 450 blessed years. They lay siege to the city for 60 days. The Spanish suffered heavy losses, and on June 15th, the French army stormed the gates. The Spanish were so heavily outnumbered, and they only defended the city with a bunch of outdated canons. When the French began to attack, bayonets glinting in the sunlight, they were terrified and broke ranks.
Now, it so happened that our badass, Agustina, was on the wall right then. She’d been delivering a basket of apples to feed the Spanish gunmen. At twenty-two years old, she was so pissed off at the cowardice of the Spanish soldiers that she said “screw this!”, launched herself at an abandoned canon, loaded it with grape shot, lit the fuse, and completely annihilated a group of advancing Frenchmen at point blank range.
The other Spanish soldiers saw her manning the canon, just a young woman all by herself, and thought “if she can do it, we can!” and they rushed back to the defense of their city. After a bloody battle, the Spanish managed to push the French out of the city, and, under Agustina’s leadership, launch a counter-attack against Napoleon. She became a source of inspiration against the French army.
Well, later, the French decided they ought to capture her, since she was a figurine of Spanish resistance. They managed to capture and imprison her, but after she saw her friend brutally murdered by French guards, Agustina mounted her own prison coup. She broke herself out of prison single-handedly. Then, Agustina ran away to join the Spanish guerrilleros, organizing raids on supply stations and trains for the French army. Napoleon was forced to try and play whack-a-mole with her, and he was losing the game.
After that, the tide began to turn for the Spanish. The French army, weakened by Agustina’s efforts to cut them off from their supplies, lost their tactical positions. The Spanish were joined by Portuguese and British allies, and the Duke of Wellington himself joined Agustina. The two formed one mean, lean, Napoleon-fighting machine. Agustina was promoted to be Wellington’s only female officer. He gave her own command of a front-line artillery unit.
Together, at the decisive Battle of Vitoria in 1813, Wellington and Agustina crushed Napoleon’s army and forced him out of Spain for good.
After the war, history says Agustina married a doctor, was awarded several medals for honor and valor, and returned to her home in Zaragoza. She spent her time going for walks around the city wearing her medals. She died at a good age of 71, a proclaimed hero of Spain.
Perhaps the best part about Agustina of Aragón is that she was nobody special before she decided to take courage on that fateful day in Zaragoza. She was just a regular 20-something woman who would not let her country be defeated by Napoleon. She looked at the onslaught of French forces pouring into Spain and said “no, we can beat this!”. She was nobody. A lot of times, we think of history’s badasses like they’re mythological figures, but they’re all just people… just like us. Anyone can be a badass. Agustina proved that.