The 1799 Campaign in Italy: The Summer’s Pause June - August 1799
Reorganization and a Useless Victory
One Rouble per Man
The French defeat at the Trebbia river had its main cause in the absolute lack of a Supreme Commander. Two Army commanders (Moreau for Italie and Macdonald for Naples) promised mutual support, but probably thought to master the matter by themselves, in separate attacks. Suvorov had only to do what Bonaparte had done in 1796 (Arcole and Rivoli), or rather to engage separately and to beat a single army at the time; and really Moreau was very close to the enemies, more than how much Macdonald could have imagined.
And the Naples’Army commander remained always with his ghastly doubts:
But who was the Devil’s Advisor, who did the French lost at the Trebbia?
The Russians celebrated their victory, resting at camps after the hard fights. Every soldier received one rouble as a bonus. Some of their commanders had better rewards: General Rozenberg had the Commander Cross of the St. John’s Order of Malta with a yearly extra income of 1000 Roubles; Povalo-Shvejkovsky had the Alexander Nevskyi Cross, Förster had the St.Anne’s Cross 1st Class, Generals Tuyrtov, Chubarov, Baranowsky, Veletzky, Safonov and Colonels Komarowsky and Lang had the St. Anne’s Cross 2nd Class, Generals Miloradovich and Prince Gorchakov had the St.Anne’s Cross with Diamonds. The brave Prince Bagration had the most eccentric award: 300 souls (men) to put at work in his Russian estate. [ii]
A Useless Victory – Cascina Grossa (2nd Marengo)
While the bulk of the Austro-Russian army was busy against the Armée de Naples, Moreau had not been inactive, hidden by the shelters of the ligurian Appennines. Finally, he heard on June 14, of the march direction, chosen by Macdonald, and to meet him, immediately decided to leave his strong positions among the mountains and to go down again to the River Po lowlands. [iii]
On June 16, he had gathered the 14,000 men, at that time ready between Gavi and Serravalle Scrivia, he had divided them in two divisions, led by Generals Grenier (Brigades Quesnel, Gardanne and Partounneaux - 9500 men) and Grouchy (Brigades Colli and Garreau - 4500 men). In front of him, between the Scrivia and the Tanaro rivers, were 16,000 Austrians were deployed under the command of General Bellegarde, left back by Suvorov to guard against the movements of the Army of Italy and to continue the sieges in Alexandria and Tortona. Acting with quickness, to this moment, Moreau would have been able to severely engage Bellegarde, who had a smaller force, and to beat him, also freeing the Alexandria citadel from the siege, gaining its 3,000 defenders, and, therefore, he would have been able to rapidly march in support of Macdonald. He, instead, divided his forces.
On 16 June, when the news that Moreau’s troops, had left Gavi by two columns and they were on the way to Novi (Ligure), Count Bellegarde, from his HQ at Casteggio, gave orders to withdraw his own advanced-guards and immediately assembled all the available strength, about 8,000 men, around the village of Spinetta, near Marengo, to defend the road to Alexandria. At the same time he recalled the detachments Vukassovich and Seckendorff, that were more westwards, along the Scrivia river. The screenign of the roads was left to some weak cavalry outpost.
General Suvorov gave his agreement to these orders, indicating an eventual way of retreat was to be made towards Valenza, after having dismantled the military depot at Molino dei Torti and after having put a strong force of 800 men into Casale.
The few troops of Bellegarde were deployed as a delaying screen: 4 hussar squadrons in the outposts from Basaluzzo to the Scrivia river; some infantry from Frugarolo till Pistona (other outposts); the Warasdiner battalion was sent to Alcaini (Tortona siege) to reinforce him and to seize the Cassano-Spinola area, and south of Tortona a roadblock of the Serravalle causeway which led to Genoa.
On June 18th, the Hussars saw Grouchy’s column near Novi, while the outpost of Cassano-Spinola had just been attacked, in the previous afternoon, by Grenier’s vanguard. They defended the bridge over the Scrivia until the late night, but were forced to withdraw towards Tortona (Villarvernia). In order to avoid the encirclement of the Alcaini siege group (Tortona), Bellegarde ordered his brigadier to remove the blockade of the castle of Tortona and to take position behind the Scrivia. Alcaini was summoned at San Giuliano at 2.00 in the night of June 19 and was charged with organizing the defensive left wing. When the morning arrived, at Torre Garofoli, General La Marseille, coming from Spinetta, awaited new orders. That same morning General Seckendorff entered Alexandria, while Vukassovich, not so far, was at Cantalupo.
June 19th – Grouchy’s Advance
After midday, Grouchy’s vanguard seized Rivalta and the outer houses of Torre Garofoli. The orders were: “to wait Grenier’s deployment before the attack”. So the possible (easy?) capture of Torre Garofoli, the village which was the critical connection for the Austrian troops of center and left wing, did not happened. The Austrian deployment was the following:
Austrian Arméegruppe Heertheil (Alexandria u. Tortona
Right Wing – (from the Tanaro river till Spinetta di Marengo)
Austrian Avantgarde Brigade Generalmajor Freiherr Josef Philipp von Vukassovich
Center (and reserve) – (from Spinetta di Marengo till Castel Ceriolo)
Hussar Brigade Generalmajor Friedrich Freiherr von Seckendorff
First Line (right of Spinetta)
Brigade Generalmajor Johann Graf Alcaini
Left Wing – (left of Spinetta across the road to Tortona)
Reserve, On the left Tanaro bank
Controlling the Alexandria bridgehead – Right Wing
Having noted the Austrian withdrawal from Tortona and thinking the Imperial units very weak, General Moreau decided to drive Grenier against Suvorov’s rear (leaving three battalion to watch Grenier’s back at Pontecurone – the same battalions which Moreau led during the battle!) and agreed to leave Grouchy alone to acquire the glory of the battle. So, with Lapoype striking the left Austro-Russian flank from Bobbio, he would have had the opportunity to encircle Suvorov’s army. Unfortunately the Russian Fieldmarshal had already won the battle at the Trebbia (but this was unknown to Moreau at that time).
“Champ des batailles”
The Marengo plain extends from Alexandria to Tortona or, for better knowledge, from Scrivia and Bormida rivers for about 4 “lieues”. It is crossed by three major roads, leading from Alexandria to Pavia, to Piacenza and to Genoa, which join themselves near the Bormida before the Alezandria gates. Near the crossroads a creek, muddy and deep, called the Fontanone, crosses the main road, flowing parallel to the Bormida. Beyond the Fontanone, 3 kilometers away from the Bormida bridge, on the road to Piacenza, there is the small hamlet of Marengo, some houses were built in stone, a possible redoubt which could control the access to Alexandria. On the Marengo right, on the Pavia road, there is another small village, Castel Ceriolo, from which position one could control all the plains, starting from there. Behind it, till the Scrivia river, the plain extends itself with no rough terrains, while being often cut by vineyards and cultivated fields and in some areas presenting light woods, the rests of the large medieval forest called “Fraschetta”, extending itself mainly southwards between Scrivia and Orba creeks. It was the best battlefield ever seen in order to perform manoeuvres with the cavalry. In the middle of the plain, at two “lieues” from Marengo, there is the San Giuliano village and, marching eastwards to Tortona, also the village of Torre Garofoli. On the road to Novi there is another village, which has an important role as a military position: Rivalta.
The best way to defend the access to Alexandria was: “take position between the rivers Bormida (Fontanone) and Tanaro”, the worst way was to deploy eastwards with the rivers at the back (this was chosen often for two reasons:
The best way to attack Alessandria was from its east side, with wide open fields tactically perfect to manoeuvre all branches of arms; in order to do so it was important to seize Tortona: this was what Moreau had originally in mind for General Paul Grenier. The more difficult attack from the south, between Orba and Scrivia creeks (what Grouchy tried to do), could have led to an unsuccess because of:
But the French, rather weakened for the lack of supplies, had still great morale and prepared to fight with revolutionary chants and Republican songs, as usual. General Grouchy had taken the responsibilty of the vanguard task directly for himself, on June 19, leading personally the general Colli column (probably not trusting so much in the Piedmontese commander) and was already in musketry skirmishes (seizing and losing Torre Garofoli during the night, against the Croats of Varazdin supported by 6 artillery pieces deployed amid the houses) when the battle enraged. Rivalta Scrivia, just occupied by the Chasseurs-a-Cheval of the 13th Tegiment, was the provisional camp from where Grouchy left to march forwards, at the 8.00 o’clock of the June 20 morning, with drums sounding aloud.
June 20 – the Day of Battle
This was the French deployment when the fight began:
Armée d’Italie (Note: this French
Order of battle is mainly taken from Gachot work and Roguet’s
Marching to Voghera – Pontecurone then Castelnuovo ScriviaDivision General Paul Grenier 9500
Cavalry (with the Staff)
1st Column (with the Staff) at Pontecurone and on the Voghera road (reserve)
Brigade Général François-Jean-Baptiste baron de Quesnel du Torpt
2nd Column at Castelnuovo Scrivia (it was a rearguard which after became a vanguard)
Brigade Général count Louis Partounneaux
3rd Column (with the Staff at Pontecurone) facing in direction of Voghera
AvantGarde (Brigade) Vital – former brigade General Gaspard-Amédée Gardanne (into Alexandria)
Division Général Emanuel Grouchy
1st Column – vanguard directed against Torre Garofoli
AvantGarde (Brigade) Chef (Général) de brigade Luigi Colli-Ricci
2nd Column – on the old road to Alexandria towards the left houses of San Giuliano vecchio and Cascina Grossa
Brigade Chef-de-Brigade Louis Garreau 4 Battalions and 1 regiment of cavalry
3rd Column – a “Piedmontese” unit directed, in the center, towards the right of San Giuliano Vecchio
Brigade Chef-de-Brigade Jean-Mathieu Seras [vii] (piemontese di Osasco) 800 men
The Republicans, marching “par echelons”, (again) occupied Torre Garofoli, pivoted on their left toward Alexandria, deploying lines between vineyards and wheat fields. All the cavalry unit of Grouchy’s Division, then, deployed from the Spinetta Road till Sale, among the plowed fields. The terrain was very dry, the sun was very hot … a good premise to a cavalry charge.
This lucky first attack delayed the rest of the battle. The vanguard, in effect, took its new positions very late in the morning and, at midday, reached the front of San Giuliano (defended by 4 Austrain battalions. and many cavalrymen). There Moreau ordered the village to be seized“a la bayonette”. Supported by 3 guns and 2 howitzer, the French light infantry went forward and won the clash, with many losses. The Austrian retreated to Cascina Grossa and Bellegarde ordered an Alcaini infantry column to move around the right French wing (cavalry) and to encircle it.
At 3.00 p.m. Grouchy and Seras attacked Cascina Grossa, twice seizing the houses after losing them. Gareau tried to reinforce the right, but at 4.00 p.m. the French were forced to withdraw to San Giuliano. In the meanwhile, Moreau, realizing the danger of the Alcaini movement, recalled Grenier and personally led the three battalions of Partonneaux into the battle. He, “à pas de course” advanced with the 24th Line Demi-Brigade, in order to stop the Austrian encirclement. Grouchy, having had the time to rally all his cavalry, prepared the final charge (par escadrons!) against the Austrian Hussars and some intervening Cossacks.
At 5.00 p.m. Moreau gave the signal of the general assault. The French infantry emerged from the wheat field chanting, the cavalry advancing waving their sabres above their heads; the French guns went forward and fired canister. The French cavalry accelerated, but, at the moment to engage the enemies, those were already routed and running backwards. The Bormida’s bridgehead acted as a funnel blocking a mass of Austrian fugitives. So Bellegarde lost 4 guns and around 1300 men, taken prisoners by the French. Alcaini, engaged by Partonneaux amid the woods, was shocked and routed too. The Austrians reached Alexandria only during the night, with the city totally in panic. [viii]
The day after General Bellegarde reported these heavy losses:
According to Austrian reports, French losses were:
General Bellegarde, in his battle report told the fight was very uncertain until General Grenier’s decision to engage. At that moment the Austrians had no more reserve units, but for one Esterhazy Battalion, which was impossible to commit in time to avoid the retreat behind the Tanaro river.
For three days the French tried to come close to the Bormida lines, but they were always repulsed by artillery.
Two events did not allow Moreau to continue the battle on next day:
[i] From “Recollections of Marshal Macdonald, Duke of Tarentum”, ed. by Camille Rousset, voll. 1-2, Bentley, London 1892.
[ii] Bagration was presented with an estate and three hundred serfs, which were referred to as souls (Dushi) (hence Gogol's famous "Dead Souls"). Bagration was later forced to sell his estate to cover debt. He freed the remaining serfs upon his death in 1812 (note by Alexander Mikaberidze).
[iii] In spite of the fatigue of his men, the lack of rations and ammunitions and the anti-French revolts burst in all the Piedmont regions, Moreau had succeeded to maintain the control of the main alpine and Appennine passes, which carried to Genoa and to France, in the hope of promised reinforcements, coming from the Homeland, and, above all, those of the Army of Naples. In the meanings and in order to satisfy the economic necessities of the army, he had taxed the major citizens (richest) of Genoa city.
[iv] General Suzane in his “Histoire de la Cavalerie Française” gave the command of the unit to Paul-Ange-Louis de Gardane, brother of the future general Claude Mathieu, who was the true commander. Paul Ange was only an aide-de-camp to his brother.
[v] Chef de brigade Jean Claude Roussel (1771-1812) Dead after the Ostrowno battle. He was baron of the Empire, brigadier general – infantry; Commander of the Legion d’Honneur - 27.07.1809. From 1799 to 1803 he was the Chef de brigade of the 106th Demi-brigade (line infantry) and from 1803 till 1809, Chef-de-Brigade commander of the 106th line infantry regiment. In 1809 he was named brigadier-general (March 10). In 1810 he was baron of the Empire (August 6). In 1812 he led the 2nd Brigade of the 13th infantry division in the IV Corps.
[vi] Gachot tells about two battalions of the 26th Light demi-brigade, but the unit had only three Battalions. and two were blocked into Mantua. Botroue in his memoirs, (“Lettres d’un Chef-de-Brigade ” ed. by Capt. M.A. D’Hauterive) tells his battalion was with Colli, on June 20, and suffered 212 casualties.
[vii] Chef Jean Mathieu Seras Born on April 16, 1765, at Osasco (Piedmont), Seras entered directly the French army Service in 1791, with the rank of « sous-lieutenant ». He fought the War of the Alps, was at the Toulon siege and with the armée des Pyrénées-Orientales, under Augereau, whom followed to Italy in 1795. In August 1799, after many command of flying columns, organized to control the insurgencies, he had the rank of général de brigade. In 1805 he became général de division, fighting a campaign with Masséna in Italy. Was also in the Army of Italy (prince Eugène) and, during the 1809 campaign, he was severely wounded at Wagram on July 5. He was named Count of the Empire for his braveness on novembre of that same year. He was after in Spain, from 1810 till 1811, and then he took several place-commands. He died at Grenoble on April 14, 1815.
[viii] The siege in effect regarded only the great Citadel, not the city. During that night all Nobles left Alexandria, the road to Valenza was completely blocked by carriages and the generals Seckendorff and Bellegarde had to reach the open fields to pass by the crowd.
Placed on the Napoleon Series: August 2008
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