The 1799 Campaign in Italy: the Siege of Coni (Cuneo)[i]
By Enrico Acerbi
Coni fortress, which name means “wedge”, was an octagon with bastions and an outer circle of “demi-lunes” and other external works, wedged into the confluence of two mountain creeks: the Stura and the Gesso. Having two sides very easy to defend for the two streams (in autumn full of water), the other sides could be also easily prepared for a defence, by flooding its lower fields, under the walls. The fortifications of Coni, in 1799, consisted of four fronts said of Turin, of Stura, of Nice and of Gesso. The front of Turin, or the northern side, was defended by bastions Saint Jacques and saint-Anne, covered by a half-lunette, two outer guards and a glacis raised over the steep escarpment which led to the confluence of the two creeks. The front of Stura, or the western, consisted of bastions saint-Anne, Saint François, of the Hospital, of Caraglio and of the low fort, called also the bastion Saint Félix. Although dominating all the Stura course from the Saint Jacques chapel until Madonna dell’Olmo, this front was dominated, in its turn, by the hills curtain which followed the Stura left bank. And the main fault in the fortress building was the complete exposure to the artillery fire coming from the hills around the town, higher than the fortress. The front of Gesso, or the eastern toward Mondovì, was formed with the bastions Olmo, Saint Maurice and Saint Jacques. This front, dominating the course of Gesso, had been built in 1796, as new, and, for its position, its good condition and the fortifications perfection, they could say it as unassailable. The front of Nice, or the southern, included the Caraglio bastion with those of the Madonna del Bosco and the Madonna dell’Olmo, and was covered by a lot of outside earth works in poor condition.
Coni’s defence had 38 24-pdrs pieces, 51 12-pdrs pieces, 3 8-pdrs guns, 19 6-pdrs guns, 3 5-pdrs pieces, 1 gun by 4-pdrs, 6 3-pdrs light guns, 6 guns by 11-pdrs and 11 9-pdrs guns. There were also one howitzer, 11 42-mortars, 6 9-mortars, 4 6-mortars, 4 3 and 10-“pierreirs”. The artillery situation was very favourable, otherwise lacked the ammunitions: about 52.000 balls were missing and the muskets ammunitions supply had the same problems.
The French garrison had about 3000 men under general Clement and the Austrian siege corps about 15,000; [ii] camped around the town. They built two boats-bridges on the creeks (ready on November 18) and cut off the channel which provided water to the town mills. The following day there was much musketry fire directed against the Austrian engineers, who got near the walls to study the fortress. The garrison was very weak in men and supplies. It was almost entirely composed of conscripts recently arrived in the army, who were in the most absolute misery. Almost undressed, in a rigorous season, they had received no wages for more than five months. The defeat of Genola had impacted on their morale, as the suffering of the wounded, evacuated to Coni, as the many ill men, they did not know how to recover, contributed certainly to make an already weakened morale.
Coni Garrison: Général-de-brigade Claude Clément [iii]
Coni War Council: General Claude Clément – Engineers commander Chef-de-Battalion Prudhomme, Artillery commander Chef-de-Battalion Tortel, Conrad Kulm Chef-de-brigade 107th Line[iv] – Place commander Laval – captain Faletti, adjoint to the adjudants-généraux – War Commissioner Chapuis
Infantry garrison (fit to combat) Chef-de-Battalion Laval of the 29th Light Infantry (fortress commander)
5th Light Infantry Demi-Brigade detachment
8th Light Infantry Demi-Brigade detachment
18th Light Infantry Demi-Brigade detachment
26th Light Infantry Demi-Brigade detachment –
25th Line Infantry Demi-Brigade detachment – Battalion Bis grenadiers
61st Line Infantry Demi-Brigade detachment– Battalion Bis grenadiers
24th Line Infantry Demi-Brigade detachment
63rd Line Infantry Demi-Brigade detachment
107th Line Infantry Demi-Brigade detachment
9th Dragoons Regiment detachment
Engineers (miners and sappers)
The town hospital, formerly fit for approximately 200 patients, was filled with more than 500 patients and wounded people. They lacked furniture, linen, utensils, and medicine.
On November 21, in the morning at 10 a.m., the Austrians tried to open a trench at a distance of 180 m from the Gesso Redoubt. A company of the 5th Light infantry was sent out to dislodge the opponents, whom were in part repulsed; it was not possible, however, to destroy the enemy works. During the afternoon, another French detachment, 300 men strong, attacked the enemy engineers and seized the new built trenches. During the night from 26 till 27 November, the Austrians opened a parallel trench of about 900 m attached to the steep banks of the two creeks. Between the central redoubts and the Stura were other works, a “gabionnade” (a traverse made with gabions between guns or on their flanks, protecting them from enfilading fire) and smaller trenches. That first parallel trench was opened by the Austrians about 150 “toises” (270 m) from the bastions. In the same days a fake attack had been launched from Madonna dell’Olmo, in order to divert the garrison attention to the entrenchment works. General Clement ordered, then, the heavy artillery bombardment of the Austrian works and the intense fire lasted during all the day. They fired 2468 gun shots of all calibres, 4453 gun balls and canister charges, and 68 bombs in the following day. From 29 till 30 November, Cuneo fired over 2725 gun balls and 475 bombs. The total lack of water, necessary to move the mills, with the impossibility to reduce the existing grain into wheat, made the War Council of Coni determined to risk a sortie. On November 29 morning, Faletti, leading two grenadiers companies, attacked the enemy outposts near the mills and the burnt bridge; the Austrians were forced back. Then the powerful enemy artillery pushed them back till the bastions and those troops were rescued by the Battalion Magot of the 18th Light infantry. After that brave attack Coni had only 1800 men fit for combat. On December 1st, the first Austrian parallel was finished with the support of their heavy artillery. At 4.00 p.m. on December 2nd, a parliamentary gave to Clement the second ultimatum (the first having been sent by Liechtenstein in the earlier siege days):
“Monsieur le Général. Vous pouvez juger, par l’étendue et par la proximité de mes travaux, de mes moyens et de mes intentions. Vos ressources comparées aux ouvrages que vous devez garder ne vous mettent pas à l’abri d’un coup de main. Epargnez donc aux malheureux habitants les désastres d’un incendie et à la place où vous commandez les horreurs d’un assaut, en acceptant la capitulation honorable que je vous offre aujourd’hui, mais que je refuserai peut-être in une époque postérieure. Je vous somme pour la derniére fois et je vous donne deux heures pour recevoir votre derniére détermination non équivoque. J’ai I’honneur d’être, etc…. Tranchée devant Cuneo, ce 9 décembre 1799, à 4 h. du matin. Prince du Liechtenstein, Lieutenant général et commandant l’armée de siége.“
The War Council refused and the following morning, the Austrians opened fire with all their 80-90 (for someone 74) artillery pieces (17 batteries) and, after a short time, almost all the town quarters exposed to the fire were reduced to rubble and 30 housed burnt. On Cuneo fell about 2000 gun balls and 4500 artillery shots and a breach opened in the Madonna dell’Olmo walls. At 9:00 in the morning the Austrian were close to the Stura bank, advancing and seizing the outer redoubts of Stura and Gesso. The besieging troops prepared the second parallel near the Rondeau Bastion, and, during these works, two French powder depots exploded. During the night the Coni War Council gathered and decided it was time to give up. Chef Tortel had the sad task to act as French parliamentary and he reached the enemy HQs.
The garrison’s demoralization and the violent riot of the local people determined the fortress final destiny, forcing Clement to a sudden capitulation signed on December 3, 8:30 a.m. and effective the following day. In Cuneo the Austrians took 146 guns, 41 mortars (Wurfgeschütze), 1400 quintals of powder, 60295 balls, 2000 muskets, 9442 charges for guns, 358000 bullets and a lot of war material. The Austrian had spent against Cuneo 8310 gun balls, 3511 bombs, causing to the garrison 12 men dead and 119 wounded.
The command of the Novi area was given to the new Fieldmarshal prince Hohenzollern-Hechingen with a force of 6 Bbattalions and 14 squadrons. Two days after the surrender of Coni, the Austrians at Alessandria moved forward attacking Novi and Acqui against the weak French forces left as outposts (a rear guard of Watrin division, the mass having already reached the winter quarters). This 4th Novi battle was all but a classical combat, with French being ordered to withdraw carefully in the event of an enemy attack. Hohenzollern let the infantry come closer to their enemy, during a night march before the dawn of the December 6. The main column, otherwise, (a battalion and 6 squadrons led by Frimont, in which was also Hohenzollern) drove frontally toward Novi, during the morning. Three smaller side columns,[v] advancing on the right seized Pasturana and Capriata without finding any resistance. Other two columns on the left (Scrivia banks) occupied Vignole and Percipiano, sending 2500 men to Gavi to enforce the position. At Novi the Austrians took 200 prisoners but the French losses was of only 5 men wounded (all but a combat). The Austrians reached the old positions of la Bocchetta and Gavi and remained there, in serious difficulties for the weather.
Mélas ordered his main army into winter-quarters on December 8. The “Hauptarmee” organized its camps: the grenadiers, in the division of the General Karacsaj, now the new Cuneo commander, and Weidenfeld’s Brigade camped at Cuneo, Mittrowsky’s Division with Oberst Brixen’s Brigade (45th Lattermann and the 48th Line Infantry Regiments) camped at Brà, Alba, Sommariva, Caramagna, Moretta, Polognera and Murella. The winter came to be snowy and cold. This, together with the lack of food and clothes, determined some dramatic problems among the French troops.
[i] The main source for the study of the Coni siege in 1799 was the « Journal historique du siége de la ville de Coni fait par l’armée imperiale autrichienne depuis le 16 brumaire jusqu’au 13 frimaire an VIII ». There were many copies at the Bibliothéque royale de Turin, at the Bibliotheque du duc de Génes, also at Turin, and at the library of the town Cuneo. This journal had 816 pages and was edited by Carlo Falletti di Villafalletto, officer of the Sardinian army, in 1700 passed to the republicans. He was a general Staff captain at Coni.
[ii] The Austrian army, under Mèlas, had headquarters at Borgo San Dalmazzo. Prince Liechtenstein, charged of the siege management, camped at the Angeli convent with 11 btns. and 4 squadrons. Other 6 cavalry squadrons guarded the left Stura bank. The main army was south of Borgo San Dalmazzo, Elsnitz and 10 Battalions on the left Stura bank, Mittrowsky with 9 Battalions and 6 squadrons between the Gesso and the Stura, Ott with 14 btns. and 10 sqns. between the Gesso and the Vermenagna. The Engineers, most of whom had come from Turin, were under Oberst Danno and the artillery was led by Oberst Reisner. Initially the Austrians deployed 32 guns, 18 howitzers and 12 mortars, with a reserve of 14 guns and 8 mortars ; the heavy artillery arrived later.
[iii] “A face, long, full, lightly marked by smallpox, big nose and short (?),grey eyes, hair and eyebrows brown: such his description. As for his morale character, he had truly remarkable military qualities, proofs of which he gave during the siege, but was a little bit pessimistic soul, gladly complaining about his misfortune.” Championnet gave him the command at Coni on November 5, 1799(14 brumaire an VIII). He was the former commander of the 29th Light infantry and the brigadier (November 13, 1798) but he was blocked by a wound suffered during the assault against Brindisi (under Macdonald). After having followed Macdonald in his retreat, later he joined the armée des Alpes and the Grenier division..
[iv] Chef the Brigade Conrad Kulm; born at Schlesladt (Lower-Rhine) en 1741, commander of the 107th Line from 1793 till 1803.
[v] As example of a small column, the one which cleared Pasturana was formed by one squadron of the 5th Hussars, the infantry light Battalion Major Jozséf de Munkátsy and one gun.