France, in late 1799, both inside and out was in a state of decline that threatened total ruin. The expedition of Egypt had taken from it, in part, the elite of its soldiers and its generals. The disasters had been multiplied by the loss of all of Italy, with the exception of Genoa. The civil war was rekindled in the West; the armies of Germany had been turned back on the Rhine; France would again be overrun; everything fell into dissolution when Napoleon landed on the coast of Provence. With his unexpected appearance, France, plunged into stupor and worry about its future, immediately turned to him as a savior. The eagerness, the enthusiasm that had burst out with his presence in the South, had given birth, perhaps, to the idea of placing himself at the helm of affairs, if he hadn’t already had it in Egypt. Indeed, one of his generals in Italy, Kellermann, the son of a man who, four years later, was Marshal of the Empire, located in Aix at the time of Napoleon passed through, asked of Berthier to be called to serve in the army which would undoubtedly entrust the command to General Bonaparte.
The 18 brumaire revealed the thought that had dictated the response of Berthier.
After reorganizing the administration, reviving the confidence of the country, pacified the Vendee, rewarded the army, Napoleon, the First Consul, felt he had to strike some big coup of his own to surprise Europe and increase his own reputation. His eyes naturally turned to Italy and, as all his entrances were closed, he conceived the idea of entering, at the head of an army, at the point where he would be the least expected, although the principle was established by the Constitution of the year VIII prohibiting consuls from commanding armies; but what authority do principles have over individual characteristics and over necessity? To maintain appearances, while violating the substance, Berthier, who was entrusted with the Ministry of War, was appointed commander-in-chief of the army called reserve, although it was clear that only Napoleon would command.
One evening in month of April 1800, in the middle of work on public education and military schools, Napoleon turned suddenly to his private secretary and, with a tone of joy, he asked:
The secretary obeyed; Napoleon equipped with pins red and black wax heads, looked at the immense map, poking his pins, then falling:
That was the plan of the Battle of Marengo that Napoleon had trace, and he was telling the truth.
All preparations were completed on the night of 5 to 6 May, the First Consul left Paris to travel to Dijon, the army headquarters. Meanwhile, the Austrian General Mélas, who left in the previous March part of his forces and his baggage in Lombardy, was approaching Genoa with four-twenty thousand men. It was not only Genoa, which was threatened; it was the south of France. There was no doubt in London and Vienna that Provence would soon be invaded; England had even promised that this time it would send a corps of twenty thousand men to assist the Austrians in this endeavor.
On April 6, Mélas, with four divisions, focused on Savona, and from that first day, he had separated General Suchet, who commanded the left of the French army from Genoa. General Ott, who had attacked the French right, was the same day, within artillery range of the city. His recklessness was punished: Massena marched against him, retook all the points he had occupied, and brought into Genoa guns, flags, an Austrian general and fifteen hundred prisoners. Mélas entered Nice, the Austrians boasts were exalted at the highest point as they trampled on the soil of the Republic; they, who a few years ago fought far from our borders and so close to their capital, were very sure they would cross the Var, and, as in 1792, devastate the countryside of Provence when, on May 21, the news of the crossing of Saint-Bernard by one of our corps disturbed their calculus, but did not dispel their illusions.
But how could it be that the General-in-Chief of the Austrian army had not succeeded earlier in fighting a French army in Italy, and that he had not been informed at the time that this army had already descended from the top of the Alps, and had occupied a portion of Piedmont? The ignorance of Mélas and his court was excusable; in France too, the possibility in this regard was discounted. It was undisputed that the chiefs of military administration, such as Pétiet, Dejean and Daru, when they were ordered to leave for Dijon, wondered what they were going to do in this city where there was no army. There are few tricks of war that have produced such a huge result, and yet the secret of Napoleon was not entirely unknown. He had announced the formation of an army reserve, and what he had said was true. He had announced that the army would train in Dijon, and this designation was still true; then the lie. When Napoleon arrived in this city to pass the army in review, this review showed no more than seven to eight thousand men. Europe were allowed to believe this, therefore the magnificent announcement of this reserve army was a scarecrow, or rather was a ghost that was intended to worry the Austrians; in the end, he became a god enveloped in the clouds, manifesting itself with bolts of lightning. The corps from which the army was composed, were held at distant points, brought together by divisions on branches of the planned routes, were, by May 8, numbering about forty thousand combatants, with forty cannons, collected from Geneva, where wise foresight had allowed time to get supplies and food. The generals were Lannes, Victor, Loison, Watrin, Chamberlac, Boudet and Monnier, for the infantry; Murat, Kellermann, Rivaud and Champeaux, for the cavalry. Upon arrival, in turn, in Geneva, Napoleon did not know yet himself if they would take the road of the Grand or Petit Saint-Bernard. The first was more suitable to his plan, the Inspector General of Engineers, Marescot, was charged with making a reconnaissance.
A stone's throw from Geneva, at Coppet, a man who lived at the beginning of the Revolution, was a big celebrity. Lieutenant of artillery then, Napoleon, like all of France, had been enthusiastic of M. Necker; First Consul, went to see him, and spent two hours with him. What was the purpose of this visit? Probably to pay tribute to the pure principles of 1789, perhaps also only being moved by sympathy which always put him in touch with the illustrious from all countries he traveled through.
Marescot, who had explored the Grand Saint-Bernard and said that the move was not impossible, met Napoleon with the army in the field in motion.
On 13 May, the First Consul defiled before him in Lausanne, the advance guard commanded by the General Lannes, amounting to seven or eight thousand men; these were the old regiments who had retained their sense of superiority from the previous war of Italy. These seven to eight thousand men were the strongest force of the army and had the major honors of the campaign. At Lausanne à Saint-Pierre, a village at the foot of Saint-Bernard, the path was practical; at Saint-Pierre, the difficulty began. For the artillery in particular, it would have had to appear insurmountable; it was totally overcome by the foresight of Generals Gassendi and Marmont, who belonged to this arm. Thousands of small boxes of ammunition for pieces and ammunition for soldiers, forges, the necessary instruments for the various services, were transported on the backs of mules; the gun-carriages, caissons, wagons were taken apart; part of these were the responsibility of the same mules, part on sleds. Each cannon, separated from its carriage, was placed in a tree trunk skillfully carved out; sixty, hundred soldiers were happily harnessed to each of these guns and forcibly lifted by their arms these heavy masses, whose weight dropped by moments when the field was more level, multiplied suddenly by the roughness at the peak of the mountain. The confidence of the army in its chiefs, the audacity of the enterprise, the novelty of expediency, the generous rivalry in inventions, hoping to regain pride with a short campaign all that France had lost in a long years of misfortune, gave this attempt an unprecedented kind of military celebration for the soldiers as for the generals. The music inspired the regiments march with happy or warlike airs. When the path became more difficult or dangerous, the drums beat the charge; it was scaling the temple of Glory! The monks, supplied care by Napoleon, distributed abundant rations to troops themselves: bread, wine and cheese were a magnificent banquet for an army on top of the Grand Saint-Bernard!
The First Consul came to the tops of the Alps. Is this there any other point where Hannibal, Caesar and Pompey could have crossed? We know the difficulties that losing one’s way defeated two of our kings, Charlemagne, by Mount Cenis, Francis I, by the valley of the Stura; but what trace was left after Pompey, Caesar and Hannibal, François 1st and Charlemagne? One vainly sought the imprints of their steps; this impression had been cleared by snow or wind the following day. Before Napoleon only the Alps could clear the path; only he knew how to smooth out the high points and fill the depressions.
On 16 May, General Lannes entered Acosta with his advanced guard: the very next day the fighting began.
The defense of the valley had been assigned to four or five thousand Austrians placed in Châtillon; this corps was beaten, lost several pieces of cannon, a few hundred prisoners, and retreated in disarray. Encouraged by this initial success, our troops continue their march with confidence, when all of a sudden they were stopped by an obstacle that seemed to question Napoleon’s lack of foresight: it was the fort of Bard, which he had ignored its advantage of position, calculated direction of its batteries, and the impossibility of overcoming by great forces.
Between two mountains barely separated from one another, and at the foot of which lies the small town of Bard, that crosses the Dora, stands a pyramid-shaped rock, and on this rock is this fort, almost unknown until today, but destined to become famous because it failed to stop Caesar and his fortune. The city was carried, and the Austrians retreated into the fort: it was a half-triumph. Reduced to carving into the rock like Hannibal; an opening was made in the rock at Albaredo; a sort of staircase on which one could fit a file of men and horses. For artillery, this path was impracticable. The necessity commanded that the risk could not be avoided; one had to confine ourselves to the limitations. The wheels of wagons and caissons were surrounded with straw, the road was covered with manure and anything that could dampen the noise of transport; and thanks to this precaution the artillery passed during the night, not without losing a few brave men to grapeshot that, the fort had fired into the darkness at random. The commander of the fort, completely deceived by this ploy, had boasted to Mélas that he had prevented the French artillery from its arrival.
In the position that Napoleon found himself, several exits were open to follow at his choice: the most daring, and perhaps even the most prudent, was the one adopted. He threw himself into Lombardy. Vainly Mélas sought to prevent our troops from crossing the Ticino; this crossing was forced. On June 1, General Lannes seized Pavia, and the 2nd, Napoleon entered Milan. The Milanese were surprised hardly believing their eyes; never had people moved so unexpectedly from the sleep of servitude to a new political existence: the Cisalpine Republic was proclaimed a second time.
While the First Consul received tributes of recognition in Milan, the activity of his movements were not interrupted. On June 4, the division Duhesme occupied Lodi; a few days later, he seized Cremona and threw an alarm as far as Mantua. On the other side, Murat had focused on Plaisance and, after some fighting at the gates of the same city, he remained master. The day before, General Lannes had crossed the Po at Belgioso, near Pavia, with his advanced guard and the bulk of the army and finally, on June 8, the corps of General Moncey was paraded in front of Napoleon. The whole army reserve had therefore reached its destination; in its entirety nearly sixty thousand men. It was only with such a force that an army more than double would have to be fought.
Upon his departure from Milan, June 8, Napoleon could form the brightest hopes. Lifting the blockade of Genoa was the most likely possibility, and if Massena, with his remaining brave, could put great weight in the balance: (but) it was too late. After the most brilliant actions by himself and General Soult, after harsher tests than those of the battlefield, the suffering and mortality produced by famine, Massena, ceding to an irresistible necessity, had not capitulated (he had alone rejected the word with indignation), but agreed to leave Genoa with weapons and baggage.
This incident especially changed the unexpected situation of the French army, removing from it the hope of a powerful reinforcement. General Ott, with whom Masséna had signed a treaty on June 4, came in two marches to Tortona, and had pushed his advanced guard up to Plaisance, boasted of getting himself there early enough to prevent the French from crossing the Po. His proposal failing, this general had taken a strong position in Montebello, with the resolution of fighting on this ground. That resolution wasn’t agreeable to the French army, which found poor prospects in partial commitments; General Lannes was not a man lightly refuse to fight; but only had with him eight thousand men against twenty thousand; he had no interest in starting the action. He wanted to prevent it. This day was one of the most glorious of the campaign, particularly for this general, who alone for several hours, did wonders, until, around noon, the arrival of General Victor completely decided the victory. General Ott had three thousand men killed, and left five thousand prisoners in the hands of French.
From this battle of Montebello came for General Lannes, the title of Duke of Montebello, that was followed by so many other beautiful feats of arms. The next two days were used by Napoleon to concentrate his army, and the 11th he arrived in Stradella, where he was joined by Desaix.
Leaving Egypt with the passports of Commodore Sidney Smith, this general had not experienced in the least the more abusive treatment on the part of Admiral Keith. Landing in Livorno, he had hastened, as soon as he finished quarantine, to join with the First Consul to share the glory and the perils of the army. Reunited in a new land again and in a new position, Napoleon and Desaix spent much of the night talking of Egypt, and English, and Turks. The talent and enthusiasm of Desaix could not remain idle; the First Consul placed under his command the divisions Boudet, Monnier and Lapoype. However, of the sixty thousand men that composed his army, half were outside the main action: General Thurreau was in the valley of Suze; the division Chabran, left at the siege of Fort Bard, had fulfilled its mission in eight days. A cannon piece mounted on the tower of Albaredo had served to open the gap and forced the garrison to capitulate. A steeple mounted battery, throwing balls against a fort, is indeed one of the peculiarities of recent wars; yet so successful a strange innovation. Duhesme, with seven to eight thousand men, blockaded the castle of Plaisance. After the dissemination of his forces, Napoleon could not put on line more than thirty thousand men. The two armies were in position on the right bank of the Po, in a direction opposite to the natural order, Austrians backed by France, the French in possession of the Austrian side.
Of the several ways that existed for Mélas to overwhelm the enemy with the entire weight of his gathered forces, this general chose from them all the most reckless, and he opened a passage on the body of the French army. This confidence was not presumptuous: his army, equipped with numerous artillery, amounted to more than forty thousand fighters, all tested soldiers and still proud of the successes of the last campaign. On 12 June, the French army crossed the Scrivia; detachments of light cavalry, under the orders of Napoleon, drove across the plain that lies between the river and Bormida, reported that only the village of Marengo was occupied by a corps of enemy who appeared to be four to five thousand men. General Victor moved to take the village; pushed the Austrian corps back their entrenchments, but he was forced to stop before artillery established at the bridgehead on the Bormida. After over four hours resisting the fire of the enemy artillery, Victor, was forced to abandon the village of Marengo, travelling in its rout, a space of about two leagues before he could rally his troops in disarray. General Lannes, who had been brought to his right to support him, pushed back the enemy at first; but in turn he had to retire: this movement was admirable. Attacked by the greater part of the Austrian army, if this general was losing, he was losing as a hero; he would not yield the ground that he did not want to keep; he took three hours to travel a space of three quarters of a league to the rear. Napoleon had just put into play all his reserves. The nine hundred grenadiers of the Consular Guard, placed in a well chosen position, formed as a vivid redoubt that the Austrians dared not leave behind, and against which the General Elsnitz, commander of the light cavalry, lost time in unnecessary efforts that could have been used to completely rout the retreating corps. General Carra-Saint-Cyr, with the rest of the reserve, fought the enemy and ultimately retained the important village of Castel-Ceriolo. Finally, around three o’clock in the afternoon, the first regiments of the divisions of General Desaix arrived. The enemy believed the battle won, and Mélas, returning to Alexandria, left to his chief of staff, General Zach, the task of collecting the fruits of victory. Fatal presumption! The battle isn’t won when a battle isn’t over, but now the real battle began.
Napoleon made new dispositions; all the corps were ready for a combined movement; the divisions of Victor had rallied themselves and were returned to the line; anywhere the First Consul appeared, the spirits were rekindled.
In this moment of advance, with a pride of assured success a column of five thousand Hungarian grenadiers led by General Zach, and intended on consummating the defeat of the French army appeared; Desaix marched to meet him. Upon reaching the Austrian ranks, it unmasked a battery of fifteen pieces of cannon, whose unexpected disconcerting explosion rendered for a time the head of the Austrian column motionless. Desaix seized the moment; he commanded the charge, he rushed on the enemy; a ball hit him in the middle of the chest, and he fell into the arms of Colonel Lebrun, aide-de-camp to Napoleon, saying these fine words engraved on the monument since placed by the Dauphine:
On learning of this deadly news, Napoleon said:
However every soldier felt the blow of the loss of a general who was so dear to them; his death was like that of their homeland: it doubled the ardor of troops, and attached to their courage a natural thirst for revenge. Napoleon saw a time when the enemy column was going to be shaken; eight hundred heavy cavalry men, commanded by General Kellermann, fell on its left flank with an irresistible impetuosity, and completed the work begun so well by the infantry. The five thousand grenadiers were broken, separated by platoons, engulfed on all sides, and taken prisoner with the General who commanded them. The return of fortune decided the rest of the day. The village of Marengo was taken; the infantry, the Austrian cavalry, while fighting, pressed mainly to ensure their retirement. The action lasted until ten o'clock in the evening. There remained in the hands of the victors, six thousand prisoners, eight flags, twenty guns and a large quantity of baggage. The number of killed and wounded had been roughly the same, relative to the respective forces. Despite the defeat of the Austrian army, the judgment of the victory could not be irrevocable, and Napoleon believed he had to prepare for a new effort. So he made his dispositions; he prepared all night to force a crossing of the Bormida at the break of day. The shooting had already started when Austrian negotiators proposed a suspension of arms, which was accepted and, on that day, concluded the famous convention, which turned over the twelve French strongholds, rid the Piedmont, Genoa and the Cisalpine Republic of the presence of Austrians, and pushed the enemy army behind Mantua. The castles and towns given to our army were those of Tortone, Alexandria, Milan, Turin, Plaisance, Cuneo, Ceva and Savona, the city of Genoa and the fort of Urbino.
While at Marengo, in the evening, fortune finally vividly betrayed the Austrian flags it had promoted a large part of the day, by bringing letters of commerce to Paris of the news of the failure that the French army first suffered. Soon all shades of opinion stirred; Republicans especially were put in motion; they formed projects; building plans on the assumption of ruining the new Cromwell, as they were accustomed to call Napoleon; they cast their eyes on Moreau, on Lafayette and the Minister of War Carnot. However, others more cautious did nothing precipitously, and refrained from any premature action. One day more must bring enlightening news. Prudence was wise, because the next day a message of a different nature was released: the Convention of Alexandria. “I hope, wrote the First Consul, that the French people will be happy with its army!” The French people were proud of its army and the general who had led it to victory. Drunkenness was universal; and, without doubt, the same men who, by feeling political sentiments, had wanted the overthrow of the defeated First Consul applauded in good faith the success of the victorious General.
A deep pain mixed, however, with the public joy: the loss of Desaix was felt strongly. Any victory at such a price is always dearly purchased, for maybe no other general was esteemed by as many citizens. He was with the Army of Italy for only the past three days. On his return from Egypt, he had written to Napoleon: “Order me to join you; general or soldier that is not important, provided that I fight near you? A day without serving the motherland is a day taken away from my life.” On the morning of the battle, he had a premonition of his imminent end; he told his aides-de-camp Rapp and Savary, that Napoleon attached the same evening to his person:
The same day, and so to speak at the same time, in another part of the world, the illustrious Kléber fell under the dagger of a murderer, his friend, crowned the laurels of Heliopolis; but Napoleon was longer there; Egypt was lost to France.
It was on May 15 that the vanguard of the army reserve touched the soil of Italy; one month later, on June 15 it had completed its glorious mission. Napoleon returned to Milan on June 17, during the night. He found throughout the city illuminations and delivered with joy, and the next day, the victor of Marengo was unable to make a step in Milan without being immediately surrounded by the waves of a grateful population that filled the air the echoing cries of long live Bonaparte! Long live the liberator of Italy! After filling the most pressing needs of the army, Napoleon returned to Paris in the midst of popular acclaim. On his route, he would stop a moment at Lyon to lay the first stone for the reconstruction of the Place Belle court; and, with the same hand, he had broken out the ramparts of the enemy, he raised our cities, making disappear, in the interior, traces of our civil wars. His entry in the capital took place in the evening; but when, the next day, Parisians learned of his return, en masse they brought to the Tuileries such cries and so much enthusiasm that the young victor of Marengo was forced to show himself on balcony.
In St. Helena, twenty years after that frank expression of popular joy, telling his companions in exile how it was celebrated, Napoleon let escape these words painting the sweet memories that he still retained:
Immediately after the triumph of Marengo, the army of Germany had responded with dignity to the success of the army of Italy: Moreau, victorious at Hochstett, avenged the glory of the great national setback of arms experienced by Louis XIV, and soon the Hohenlinden victory, which led the army of Moreau twenty leagues from Vienna, left the Emperor of Germany with no other recourse than a prompt peace, which was concluded at Lunéville February 9, 1801.
The victory and peace were not the only links holding the mind of the First Consul; the Interior Administration of the country was still headed by him, in the interest of the glory and of national prosperity. This happy situation of things removed any hope the various parties which, for purposes of personal interest, wanted even revolutions; but the life of the First Consul was the only guarantee for rest and future of the country, and yet this precious life was threatened: conspiracies walked in the shadows.
At an after-dinner of December 1800, Napoleon manifested a desire to Josephine to go to the Theatre of the Republic (the Opera) with her and her two children, Eugene and Hortense. The day was chosen and set for two days hence. At the same time, he recommends be ready to go to at seven-thirty. The time of the diner must be advanced for this purpose.
It was the 3 nivôse (December 24); the great oratorio of the Creation of
Haydn was being given; Madame
Five minutes had not passed when Josephine saw the carriage in which her husband was quickly came out into the Carrousel.
A maid brought a cashmere that she had received recently from Constantinople; and carelessly throws it on her shoulders; then taking her gloves and fan, she hastily descended and climbed into the carriage. That is where Napoleon had already reached the end of the Carrousel, when suddenly a terrible explosion was heard ... It is the one caused by the infernal machine of the Rue Saint-Nicaise, which Napoleon, as we know, had escaped by a miracle. Saint-Régent, one of the main conspirators, had placed it in the middle of the street; a grenadier escort, taking him as a genuine water-carrier who, through stubbornness, did not want to part with his barrel, he applied a few light strokes of the flat of his saber which sent him away. Napoleon passed; the explosion only took place after.1
Josephine let loose screaming on this strange noise. The glass on her carriage was broken; Mademoiselle Hortense herself was slightly wounded in the arm by a burst of glass. Seeing all flee the floods of appalling air, Madame Bonaparte did not pass without knowing the cause of such an extraordinary explosion. Duroc shot out of the carriage almost immediately to find out what could have happened. He returned in a quarter of an hour after announcing that it was an accident caused by the negligence of a dealer in the Rue de la Loi, and hasten to add that neither the First Consul, nor any of those who accompany them, were any the worse for the evil, and he had just seen him, calm and peaceful in his box, viewing the spectators with his opera glasses and chatting with Fouché.
Josephine continued her route, passing by, however, another way than the Rue Saint-Nicaise, and when she came into her box, located at the forefront, and opposite the one occupied by her husband, she made a sign to him with the hand. Soon the sad truth was known. The news of the incident spread among the assistants. The unrest was brought to an extreme; but the calm attitude of Napoleon tranquillized all spectators, and opera continued as if nothing extraordinary had past.
Back in the Tuileries, when the First Consul quickly entered the salon of his wife, where he had arrived a few minutes before her, he ran to kiss her affectionately, and said almost with a smile:
The mother and daughter responded to him in tears.
Four years later, and almost to the day, Napoleon was crowned Emperor.
1. The prefect of police and Fouché were informed the previous day that there was a conspiracy for the next day, in certain cliques, against the life of the First Consul. This information was vague; every day, by the way, he received similar ones from the Minister of Police. However Napoleon had to immediately know; but on his police report that the Opera Hall had been visited that morning, and that all security measures were taken for the evening, he left. Fortunately for him his coachman named Caesar, was a little drunk that day, and he pushed his horses more than usual. The explosion, calculated with a rigorous precision, was delayed a few seconds just enough to save the life of the First Consul; but it none the less cost the lives of a dozen people and wounded thirty more or less seriously. The government distributed relief money to the latter; the orphans and widows were made pensioners.
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