Research Subjects: Miscellaneous

General Bonaparte’s Italian Campaigns: Critical and Strategic Annotations on Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Essay

By Roberto A. Scattolin, Italy

From Arcole (1796) to Marengo (1800)

Reading the Napoleonic Society of America Bulletin Nr. 79 proved a fascinating study. With reference to the article “Napoleon; or, the Man of the World” – quoted from Representative Men (1850) – written by the essayist and poet Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882), the “Sage of Concord”, I gently present some historical specifications to the cultural attention of the N.S.A. membership and to Napoleonic history enthusiasts.

1. - I have noticed in Waldo truly remarkable study the name of Arcola (p. 25). Many times, and before reading this research, I have read this name in foreign works and publications. Please, I would gently recall the general attention on the following detail: written in such a way, the battle of Arcola never existed.  Due consideration must be given to such a point of controversial misinterpretation, excepted to have the engagement at “Arcola” placed in the district of La Spezia, Riviera di Levante, in Liguria.  It seems this is not the case of mistaken geography nor the right way to comprehend the study of names of places.  After more than two centuries from 15-17 November 1796, the topographical and linguistic mistake persists, and it is erroneously handed down; this incongruity also passed into modern and post modern works, but, transcribed in such a manner, it is entirely incorrect.

The correct name is was Arcole.  It was the very same General Bonaparte to inaugurate the long series of the incorrectly mentioned victory obtained over the his Austrian foe,  Freiherr József Alvinczy Borbereky.  The wrong mot can be read in a despatch sent to the Executive Directory in Paris, and dated Quartier général, Vérone, 29 brumaire, an V (19 November 1796). Since then, the name was accepted and repeated as gospel truth.

In the far past, the site of Arcole was protected by a fortified and palisade emplacement resembling very much to the peculiarities of a castrum, and it is indeed with the denomination of Castrum de Arculis that it is recalled in many a different ancient sources.  Back through the centuries of history, the name of the location can be retraced in a fine work of the Middle Ages entitled “Vita et gesti di Ezzelino terzo da Romano”.  Such a remarkable collection of historical events was composed by Pietro Gerardo.

The original narrative was entitled: “Vita et gesti di Ezzelino terzo da Romano, da  l’ origine al fine di sua famiglia, sotto la cui tirranide mancarono di morte violenta più di dodici millia padovani”. Among the many editions: Venice, 1543, 1552, 1560, 1578; Bassano, 1677; Padua, without date. Further evidence is substantiated with accuracy in the historical compilation of Paride da Cerea. It can be read and duly examined in that wonderful recollection of Ludovico Antonio Muratori (1672-1750), the Rerum Italicarum Scriptores (collection in 25 volumes of the sources of the history of Italy), Tomus Octavus, Medolani, MDCCXXVI (1726).  It is there that the chronicle of Parisio De Cereta appears at page 617.

 It is also recalled that, in the year 1238, nearby the place of Motta di Zerpa the palace and the tower of the signore Alberto di Arcole  was destroyed.  A tower formerly belonging to Alberto di Arcole had been cut down and reduced to its foundations in the year 1231, in a place named Corianum (it is very probably the location of Coriano-veronese, near Ronco).

“[...] iverunt Corianum et taiaverunt turrim domini Alberti de Arcolis et posuerunt eam in colonellis et ietaverunt eam turrim iosum et domus ipsius Alberti ietaverunt iosum cum trabis et portaverunt lignamina illarum turris ad rata que faciebant in Athesim causa comburandi (sic) pontem molendinorum quem faciebant illi de Ripeclaria» (See Biscaro G., Attraverso le carte di S. Giorgio in Braida, «Atti del r. Istituto veneto di scienze, lettere, e arti”, XCIV (1934-35), p. 2a, p. 645.

These historical references are taken from note number eight of my research work entitled “The Myth of Arcole: a Bridge towards the Empire”.

2. - I would like to point out that the geographical name and location of Montebello (see p. 25) is most obviously a misunderstanding for Marengo.  This historical incongruity denotes a flagrant mistake, which, in order to preserve the correct values and fullest comprehension of XIXth Century military history events, must be put in proper order. The name of Montebello, a place to the south of the town of Pavia, is bound by the striking victory carried off by Général de Division Jean Lannes over the Austrian troops under the command of General Karl Ott. The defeat was terrific, and it happened on June 9, 1800.

Furthermore, beyond any geo-strategical fluctuation, it must be duly pointed out a chronological rectification; the battle of Marengo  (Fieldmarshal Michael Friedrich Graf von Melas versus Bonaparte ) was fought some days later, on 14 June 1800.

As to the charge valiantly lead by François-Etienne Kellermann, another enthralling historical subject, I will restrain to a most basic observation.  Napoleon, while exiled at St. Helene, left an assertion claiming the credit for having ordered the charge:

“I ordered then  – he wrote – to Kellermann to attack with eight hundred horse; he rushed and divided with these eight hundred horse the six thousand grenadiers from the remaining of the army under the eyes of the Austrian cavalry” (Vide: Antonmarchi Francesco, Gli ultimi giorni di Napoleone, Casini, Roma, 1962, p. 1679).

Kellermann’s opinion was instead quite different a matter from this: “I thought – he wrote – that there was not a minute to lose and that only a prompt manoeuver could bring back the victory on our side” (Kellermann relation De Cugnac Jean, capitaine, Campagne de l’ Armée de Reserve en 1800, Chapelet, Paris, 1800).

3. - A most vivid account related to the battle of Montebello can be read and throughly analyzed in the narrative of Jean-Roch Coignet.  Jean-Roch Coignet served in the ranks of the 96e demi-Brigade (i.e. infantry regiment), 1st Battalion, 1st Comapnay, led by Capitaine Merle. His impressive battle experience, while enduring the Austrian efforts at Montebello, can be found  in his Mémoires concerning the Italian campaign of 1800 (See J.-R. Coignet, Les Cahiers du capitaine Coignet, Hachette, Paris, pp. 92-96).

The role   carried out by Général Kellermann’s cavalry forces are equally emphasized throughout Coignet’s narrative.

‘[...]  heureusement que le brave général Kellermann est accouru avec ses dragons pour rétablir l’ ordre et fit des charges qui firent faire silence à la cavalerie autrichienne avec pertes. Et l’ ordre fut rétabli près de nous’ (p. 99).

‘Kellermann fit trois charges de suite avec ses dragons; il les menait et il les ramenait’ (p. 100).

The Proficiency of Glory

Reading Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay “Napoleon; or, the Man of the World” – quoted from Representative Men (1850) – published in the N.S.A. Bulletin Nr. 79 was an absorbing study.

All the text was so fine and delightful, and I liked it very much.  This paper, due to its outstanding insights, would sensibly appeal any strong minded Napoleonic scholar.  Excellent, to say the least.

An excellent critique and introspection to the historical figure of Napoleon on pages 28-29.  Excellent, because the truth is but excellent, and in the truth there is the excellency of honesty far beyond any intellectual fluctuation.

On appreciation and further comprehension about Emerson’s work, I gently send some historical specifications to the cultural attention of the N.S.A. membership.

1. - Referring to the short sentence “He never blundered into victory, but won his battles in his head before he won them on the field” (p. 24), this phrase I would prudently expunge from the overall analysis of the research.  The statement, although quite simple, is much controversial.  Reading it, it should be merely taken as an expression of knowledge relating to Napoleon’s strategical efficacy, but this is not the case.  I share the opinion that it is not founded on any seriously researched and carefully pondered historical analysis, that means military analysis, at least concerning the events of the first Italian campaign in the years 1796-1797.

Waldo’s assertion implies, with reference to Napoleon’s reasoning – la pensée militaire de Bonaparte – the exact knowledge (i.e. the numerical establishment) and positioning of the adversaries facing his troops before any engagement (so it is deduced from Emerson’s phrase).

This role seems much symbiotic.  A déjà vu strategic situation and a conformed intellectual evaluation (i.e. strategic “clairvoyance”) for the Italian campaign of 1796-1797 can not be applied to any battle sustained by the French  forces of the armée d’ ItalieIt would be worth recalling the gallant efforts and the pressing Austrian attack of Argenteau’s infantry at the redoubt of Monte Legino (21 Germinal, An IV), then, the battle of Montenotte (11-12 April 1796).

The bloody engagements against the Piedmontese troops have instead inexplicably  disappeared even from the official historiography and modern historical texts; among them, worth recalling the engagements of Pedaggera (16 April; see Relation of Col. Brempt, Archive of Breil) and San Michele. (19 April; among the deeds of the day, it is  sufficient to mention the gallantry  in action of the  grenadier company of the Swiss regiment of General Christ, commanded by Captain Paolo Schreiber), and the  wild confrontation on the hilly ground at Mondovi-Bricchetto (21 April, which saw the death in action of the intrepid General Vasal-Jean-Gaspard Dichat de Toisinge).

Further researching on the present topic can be carefully examined on the works of: Litta Biumi, Battaglia di Montenotte; Corte Giuseppe, Battaglie di S. Michele e del Mondovi combattute nel 1796 fra le truppe Francesi e l’ esercito Piemontese, Torino, 1846; Occelli Domenico, Il Monregalese nel periodo storico napoleonico 1792-1815, Mondovi, 1926.

At the crossing of the River Adda at Lodi ( 10 May 1796), it was only “a rush in the wind”. Sebottendorf ’s forces on ground counted as many as 9627 men, but their hasty deployment did not succeed in repelling the oncoming Republican units; in this concern, it can be quoted a significant phrase about the constant perilous situation sustained by the French phalanxes from  Napoleon’s Correspondance; Despatch: To the Executive Directory, H.Q., Lodi 21 Floréal, An IV: “Although we have had hard battles since the beginning of the campaign, and the army of the Republic has had to put all to the hazard, yet nothing has approached the terrible crossing of the bridge of Lodi”.

At Arcole-Veronese (15-17 November 1796) General Bonaparte sustained combat that lasted three days against the stoutly held deployment of Austrian troops in the marshy expanses of the lower Adige area (see Napoleon’s Correspondance; Despatch: To the Executive Directory, H.Q., Verona 29 Brumaire, An V).

The strategic deadlock of the French demi-brigades along the right  bank of the stream Alpone was much detrimental, and the Général en chef had not forseen what would have happened while tenaciously fighting the Croatian battalions. Who has read any work related to the much disputed encounter at Fontaniva, the battle of the Brenta River fought on November 5-6, 1796? Who has ever read any modern historical account concerning the Austrian victory at Caldiero on 12 November 1796?

On 14th January 1797, in the   amphitheatre of Rivoli-Veronese, the French forces were nearly trapped and a step from a ruinous defeat against the converging and encircling movements of Feldzeugmeister Alvinczy’s infantry regiments.  Bonaparte was there himself, having placed his headquarters in the parish church of Rivoli, but the situation proved a terrific struggle all day long.

As an exception, I would then consider the battle at the River Tagliamento (March 1797) where the French superiority in numbers was claimable and the deployment of the French forces quite outstanding.

Napoleon’s maxims throughout this campaign – and his future military conquests – were axiomatic:

(1) divide for foraging, concentrate for fighting;
(2) unity of command is essential for success;
(3) time is everything.

The historian John Holland Rose, in his work The Life of Napoleon I (London, George Bell and Sons, 1903), left a valuable assertion which would have needed additional documentary evidence for the period 1796-1797 and, most especially, visiting the original battlefields locations in Italy to check the historical sources: “This firm grasp of essentials of modern warfare insured his triumph over enemies who trusted to obsolete methods for the defence of antiquated polities” (p. 128).

2. - At page 24 there follows: “I have conducted the campaign –  in Italy – without consulting any one. I should have done no good if I had been under the necessity of conforming to the notions of another person”.

This affirmation is true if taken ad verbum (i.e. from a literary point of view); in this concern, there appeared in Bonaparte an autonomous responsibility for the conduct of the military operations in the plains of Northern Italy.

If we consider the expression “[...] without consulting any one”, and apply it to any physical being, that represents a well affirmed assertion.  But if we try to understand it better, perhaps, we can substantiate new evidence and probe it deeper. The key word to properly understand it is “[...] notions”.

With reference to this plural terminology, I would like to express the following details and historical punctiliousness.

These “[...] notions” can be originally investigated taking into account that, before leaving to Italy in 1796, Napoleon had consulted quite a number of historical works taken from the National Library; among them there were the Mémoirs of Marshal Nicolas Catinat (1637-1712) who defeated Vittorio Amedeo II at the battles of Staffarda (1690) and Marsaglia (1693); A Life of Prince Eugene of Savoy (1663-1736); three folio volumes of Prince Eugene battles; a book on the topography of Piedmont and Savoy; Maximilien-Henri marquis de Saint-Simon’s Guerre des Alpes (he was an aide de camp of prince de Conti, and followed him in the Italian campaign of 1744), plus an account of Jean-Baptiste François Desmarets De Maillebois’s campaigns.

Napoleon, it seems, has to pay tribute   to many valiant military leaders of the past; however told, he not only run into debt to them and to their enthralling war experiences, but most especially to early XVIIIth Century history warfare.   These outstanding works were anyhow much influential to Bonaparte studies and sensibly affected his personal thinking.

To research these themes, vide: E. de Broglie, Catinat, 1637-1712, Paris, 1902; Saint Simon, Histoire de la guerre des Alpes, ou Campagne de 1744, Amsterdam, 1769, in-fol.; 1770 and 1787, in - 4; Pezay, A. F. J., Masson de, Histoire des campagnes de M. le marquis de Maillebois en Italie pendant les années 1745 et 1746, Paris: Imp. Royale, 1775.

Therefore, if submitted to proper researching, we can ascertain that Napoleon’s sentence is a spurious ground for his intellectual ambition claiming for originality and strategic non-conformism.

Ad maiora!


Placed on the Napoleon Series: July 2007

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