La Maddalena, 22/25 February 1793
The baptism of fire of a young Lieutenant Colonel, a certain Napoleone Di Buonaparte from Ajaccio.
By Maurizio Cinti M.D.
Lipomo (Como), Italia
In the beginning of 1793 the Revolutionary Directory in Paris planned to attack the Kingdom of Sardinia and punish King Vittorio Amedeo of Savoia, strong enemy of the revolution and its passwords: “Liberté,Egalité,Fraternité”
The project was to move the Army of the Alps against Piedmont across the Alps, while on the other side, a fleet had to invade Sardinia.
The principal objective of the campaign was the city of Cagliari. In order to get it , a fleet sailed from Tolone (Toulon) to Ajaccio commanded by Admiral L. Jean Truguet.
This fleet was completely defeated at Cagliari and other sites of the south of Sardinia during a week of fighting, from 14th to 22th of February. This fact gave great joy to Great Britain.
Great Britain was in fact fully interested to maintain an indirect control over Sardinia, being in contact with the corsican independentist led by old local hero Pasquale Paoli. (He would like much more to commit Corse to the British Crown than to France, though he had sworn fidelity to the Revolutionary Government and was the Military Commander of the National Guard of the island, directly nominated by Paris.)
In those days, a young (not yet 24 years old) Lieutenant Colonel, Napoleone di Buonaparte (at the Italian way , as he’ll change his name in Bonaparte in 1796, at the beginning of the first Campaign of Italy) was in Corse, his birthland, commanding two companies of Corsican volunteers of the Guard.
Buonaparte in those days supported the “French Party”, faithful to Paris, in opposition to the Paoli’s “Independentist.”
A second, minor, expedition had to attack and invade the Island of La Maddalena, the biggest island of the archipelago between Sardinia and Corse.
At the end of the 18th century the population of La Maddalena amounted to 867 . They originally came from Corse. Their principal occupation, besides fishing, was smuggling.
In that period La Maddalena was already an important naval base for operations in Mediterranean Sea: Horatio Nelson himself, in 1804, stayed there for a short time with his fleet at the beginning of the operations that ended at Trafalgar.
When the news about a naval expedition from revolutionary France arrived in Sardinia, soon the Clergy, very influential on the island, organised the armed resistance of the population. Cardinals, Bishops and Priests of every town and village called the people to a sort of “new crusade” against the “Devil” represented by the revolutionary Army.
Nothing was more dangerous for the traditional Clergy than the idea’s supported by the French since 1789: it meant, first of all, the abolition of all privileges and the confiscation of all its properties.
In January , on Major Riccio’s, the military commander of the island, request two companies of Fusiliers of the Swiss Regiment “Courten,” about 400 soldiers, moved from Sassari to La Maddalena. Also about others 100 volunteers came from the north of Sardinia.
In the port of Cala Gavetta, the natural small bay in the south side of the island, some old ships of the Royal Sardinian Navy were mooring, waiting for their demolition. This secondary column was composed by 150 regular soldiers and 450 volunteers with four cannons of Colonel Quenza’s battalion. They had embarked on sixteen small boats escorted by only one corvette. The Commander in Chief of the expedition was Pietro Paolo Colonna-Cesari, Paoli’s nephew.
Buonaparte was on board of “La Fauvette,” the corvette with his volunteers companies of the National Guard. These soldiers were no professionals, not trained, not motivated and first of all, not paid neither equipped. It was a poor little army!
Just few days before the future “Petit Caporal” had to repress an attempt of mutiny in the port of Bonifacio, as the troops didn’t realize why they had to fight against Sardinia and La Maddalena in particular for the ancient blood and cultural ties that joined together the two islands. Moreover the soldiers were afraid to navigate with the famous North-West wind that was raging in those days (italian:Maestrale,french: Mistral). The navigation from Bonifacio to Sardinia is not a long way, but this is maybe the most windy and stormy stretch of sea in all the Mediterranean: the so-called “Bocche di Bonifacio” (Bonifacio’s mouth).
That cold day of February the weather surely did not help the expedition: the wind was blowing more and more furiously and the sea kept on increasing its violence. The morale of the troops was shaked further on by the adverse condition.
A first attempt of crossing was jammed by the bad condition of the sea, forcing the flotilla to a not very honourable retreat to the departure harbor of Bonifacio.
Finally, the expedition sailed from Bonifacio the 22 of February at 9 a.m. Despite the strength of the wind and sea, they finally reached the isle of Spargi, where the men rested for the crossing and enjoyed roasting some animals found to pasture on the island.
After some time the flotilla moved joining the position in front of the coast at Punta Li Tegghj and tried a first assault but was repulsed by the furious fire of the coastal batteries.
The same night Napoleon disembarked from La Fauvette with his men and his small battery of three pieces of canon on the island of Santo Stefano, just in front of the small town of La Maddalena, from which it was separated by a stretch of sea , only 700 metres wide. A true rain and wind storm accompanied the landing of the assailants.
Thanks to a violent volley of musketry and some shot of cannon they succeeded to get possession of a squared thick tower that was on the little island, defended by a small garrison of 25 men. 17 of these were taken prisoners, while one of them, a certain Salvatore Ornano, was able to escape swimming to La Maddalena, giving the alarm and showing the positions reached by the French-Corsican.
Buonaparte would have immediately ordered to continue the assault on La Maddalena during the same night, taking advantage of the surprise, but the commander Colonna Cesari was of a quite different opinion: he feared the mutiny by a part of the soldiers, harshly tired by the crossing and by the fights for the capture of Santo Stefano. This decision was harshly contested by Buonaparte who quarreled furiously with Colonna Cesari, calling him incapable and unfit.
After this violent dispute with the commander of the expedition, Buonaparte labored with his men under the rain, all the night long, in order to transport a 36′ siege-mortar on the rock La Puntarella and aim it against the inhabited area just in front of it.
The morning of the 23, Sunday, Buonaparte ordered to start the bombardment of La Maddalena. The first shot hit the roof of the church of Santa Maria Maddalena, provoking the frightened escape of the population who was taking refuge there. The second bomb hit the façade of the church on the right edge, while the third and the fourth hit the roofs of two neighboring houses. The fifth bullet exploded just in the center of the church square, while the next entered the window of the church and exploded at the feet of the statue of Santa Maria Maddalena but without provoking serious damages.
The bombardment continued precisely: the official reports of the Sardinian Navy stated that at least 1050 shots of cannon felt all over La Maddalena during the French attack. At least 80 houses were destroyed or seriously damaged.
The cannonade lasted through all the day long and continued during the night with incendiary balls that caused ulterior damages to the village.
After some brief pause, the bombardment was continued for whole the 24 and the 25 too: the provoked damages were really huge: bursts, fires, destructions and collapses put the heroic resistance of the islanders in serious danger.
The fire in the lumber storages in the harbor of Cala Gavetta seemed to deal a definitive blow and weaken the endurance of the defenders.
The fire of the battery guided by Buonaparte had destroyed or made useless the coastal batteries of the Sardinians. These batteries had created serious problems to the French ships, especially for La Fauvette which had been hit several times by the shot of the coastal cannon. The 22 and 23 the ship was fired upon by the batteries of La Maddalena that had been transported by sea at Punta Li Tegghj during the night of the 22 by Quartemaster Domenico Millelire.
The morning of the 24 the corvet was hit many times by batteries set at Capo d’Orso and Palau, on the Sardinian coast (these were the cannons transported during the night by the same Domenico Millelire on his boat) and suffered serious damages to the mast. That forced the ship to take shelter in the roadstead of Villa Marina. Here, the other smaller ships of the expedition gathered together.
On the 24, the small flotilla, protected by the cannons of La Fauvette, sailed out of the roadstead in order to approach the coast of the island of Caprera crossing the strait Della Moneta and so attempt a landing.
This manoeuvre had been guessed by the islanders, which placed a squad of 65 voluntary riflemen along the coast of the strait. With their desperate gunfire they succeeded to repel the landing attempt.
The French retried the following day, the 25th. La Fauvette sailed closer to the shore to cover the other units but it suffered several casualties on deck because of the Sardinian volleys (the official reports reported of about 201 men dead in that fight).
At the same time Domenico Millelire, commanding his small boat and fourteen men on the oars, a gunner and a man at the forge for making the bullets incendiary, went at the rear of the attacking ships aiming at the masts of two “feluccas” that were facing him.
That provoked big panic and discouragement among the French, already weary and little motivated . La Fauvette ran away precipitately toward the open sea. Colonna Cesari sent to Buonaparte who was still on shore, the order to immediately withdrawal abandoning his whole equipments and implements.
Dismayed for this order, the young officer tried to save at least his guns and ordered his men to transport them on the beach to embark them.
Under heavy rains and a raging wind he helped the artillerymen in the hard enterprise but once arrived on the beach he was forced to abandon his canon because the sailors of La Fauvette refused to load them on board to waste no more time. The escape was so precipitous that Buonaparte couldn’t do anything else than leave the cannons to be able to save himself and his men from capture.
Domenico Millelire, having loaded others voluntaries on the Sardinian coast had disembarked with these men on the island of Santo Stefano, on its south side. With volleys of musketry the Sardinian reconquered the tower of the island taking some prisoner too.
A soldier of the Swiss regiment, a certain Asmard, distinguishes himself in this work, throwing down to extinguish with his own body the fuse that Buonaparte had lit to set off the powder-magazine in the tower of Villa Marina. Buonaparte really risked of being made prisoner!
Returning to Bonifacio Buonaparte and his colleague, Lieutenant Colonel Quenza , wrote a detailed report for the Minister of War in Paris. They blamed the failiure on Colonna Cesari’s behavior on the bases of the secret orders that he had received from Pasquale Paoli; orders that planned the failure of the mission against Sardinia to favour the separation of Corsica from France and the approach and the annexation to England.
On the base of that report, the French Government accused Paoli and his party of high treason. Paoli went into hiding to avoid arrest and in Corte the new Corsican Constituent Assembly, established by him to put the island under the protection of the English Crown. In October 1795 he went to London, where he lived as a King’s pensioner until his death, the 5th of February 1807.
Quartermaster Domenico Millelire, hero of the days, was decorated as recompense with the first gold medal of the Reign of Sardinia and a life annuity of 300 Lire.
The soldier Asmard, of the Regiment Courten, received a silver medal and was promoted Lieutenant. He refused the commision but accepted the wages saying “…the responsibility of the command can be taken by the one who like it…”
GIAN CARLO TUSCERI: “Per Dio e per il Re” – P.Sorba Editore, La Maddalena 1993.
GUIDO GEROSA: “Napoleone, un rivoluzionario alla conquista di un Impero” – A. Mondadori Editore, Milano, 1995.
DAVID G. CHANDLER: “Le campagne di Napoleone” – Rizzoli Editore, Milano, 1968
SOME ADVICE FOR THE VISIT OF LA MADDALENA :
These days not much remain to be seen from this episode, but anyway the site is really marvellous.
The archipelago is made by seven islands plus several others small rocks. The principal, and the only inhabited is La Maddalena, an important naval base of the Italian Navy and also base for American nuclear submarines.
It is even an exclusive resort for marine activity and sports, as wind-sailing, diving, fishing etc.
In the Town hall one of the cannonball launched by Buonaparte in 1793 is on display.
Just in front of it is the church of Santa Maria Maddalena, where in the sacristy are conserved two candlesticks and a crucifix given by Nelson, and his autograph from the “Victory” before Trafalgar.
Very important and really interesting is the Civic Museum where are conserved many objects (expecially ancient vases and amphoras) discovered in the wreck of a Roman ship sank in 200 B.C.
La Maddalena is connected with Sardinia by a ferry-service departing from Palau. Caprera is the second island of importance. It was the exclusive refuge for Italian Risorgimental hero Giuseppe Garibaldi. He lived here after he retired to private life until his death in 1882. You can visit his house and the Museum of his life.
On the island of Santo Stefano, aside of being a tourist village, remains the S.George tower, from whom Buonaparte fired toward La Maddalena, while the east-side of the island is occupied by the American naval base.
The others islands, Spargi, Santa Maria, Budelli e Razzoli are authentic marine paradises where you can see the most attractive beaches and shorelines in all the Mediterranean Sea, nothing less than more famous Caribbean or Pacific sites.