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The 1799 Campaign in Italy

The 1799 Campaign in Italy: MacDonald’s Assault on Parma — June

By Enrico Acerbi

French Left  Wing –  Austrian General  Ott and the Gallo-Polish Corps

Austrian Chief of the Rearguard, Kray, realized the immediate danger of General  Macdonald moving from Naples with 25000 Frenchmen, which threatened the Austrian line of communications. Since the passage of the Coalition Army over the Po and Ticino, Field Marshal Lieutenant Ott, with 8000 men, had been sent into the area of the Duchy of Parma, watching the possible entries to the Po Valley, which General  Montrichard might  used.

Since there was to be a link between Macdonald and Moreau in the Genoese Riviera, Field Marshal Lieutenant Ott had advanced along the road to Fornovo, through Pontremoli and to Sarzana, in order to better control the territory. He had had some success against General Montrichard’s troops, but he had been forced to fortify himself in the mountains, attempting to control the road from Sarzana, by employing small forces. However Ott did not actually have any possibility of preventing the connection of the hostile armies.  He did launched several raids against the coast, where both roads through Pontremoli and Fivizzano ended.  He also decided to fortify two mountain passes at Bardi and at Compiano and then to hold the town of Bobbio, in the Apennins. Ott remained at Reggio [1].  He left General  Count Pallfy in Modena, who put several outposts along the Panaro Valley. Shortly after General  Victor, by a movement along the coast towards Spezia, soon united with the 4000 French of Macdonald’ss army. Ott advanced to the position of Fornovo, where he took up his detachment, displaced from Pontremoli. Victor behaved peacefully for several days. Then Field Marshal Lieutenant Ott received the support, which Kray had sent him, 2 battalions of the Preiss Regiment, and, not thinking there was any danger, sent them to Modena.

Division Major General  Carl Peter Ott de Batorkéz (provisional FML)    


Included the III Battalion , of the Fröhlich Regiment, detached


Avant-Garde Brigade Major General  Friedrich Freiherr Gottesheim


Jäger Korps Freiherr Constantin d’Aspre  6 companies       


VI Battalion: GrenzRegiment Banat – not including two companies left at Piacenza (garrison)       


K.K. 2nd Hussar Régiment Erzherzog Joseph Anton (3 Divisions 6 Squadrons .)             


Commander: Oberst Vincenz Freiherr Knesevich

II Division: ObstLt. Gabriel von Hertellendy – III Division: 1st Major Emmerich Dobay – IV Division: 2nd Major  Ignaz Baron Splenyi

K.K. 7th Hussar Régiment (2 Squadrons)                            











Borgo San Donnino (today Fidenza)

Commander:  Oberst Vincenz Knesevich Freiherr von Saint-Helena [2]


KK 2nd Hussar Régiment Erzherzog Joseph Anton (2 Squadrons)


III Battalion: K.K. IR 28 Infantry  Regiment  Freiherr Michael von Fröhlich         


4 companies retreated into the Piacenza Citadel together with 2 companies of the 6th Banater Battalion; 2 Companies detached at Bobbio in higher Trebbia valley.

Hauptkolonne Major General  Ferdinand Johann Morzin (reserve)

K.K. IR 39 Infantry  Regiment . Graf Thomas (Támas) Nádasdy I, II and III Battalions   


Commander:Freiherr Johann Nepomuk Abfaltern

K.K. Light Battalion # 15 Oberst Bonaventura Mihanovic (Croat-Slavonian)       


K.K. IR 40 Infantry  Regiment   FZM Graf Joseph Mittrowsky I and II Battalions Commander: – Oberst Franz Kreyssern              


Duchies of Parma, Piacenza, and Guastalla. In 1799, these three little Duchies were part of the Cisalpine State. The Po borders the Parmesan territory receiving the Tidone and Trebbia, at Piacenza, and several other creeks such as Nura, Chiavenna, Ongina and Arda. They are all parallel with the Trebbia River, which was the greatest one, and flow in the Po. The plains were cultivated with rice and had many ditchs and water channels, with several scattered small woods. Another large river was the Taro. It left the mountains by Fornovo and had a sandy bed.  It was narrow in the valley but very large in the plains, forming a lot of loops. The river, however, was almost always fordable, except for the last course, before the Po, where it became deep and was limited with dykes. The Taro valley had an important causeway leading to Sestri, near Genoa, through Fornovo, Borgotaro, the Appenins pass of Cento Croci and, down, along the Vara valley.

Parma, the capital of the Duchy, was crossed by a small stream which had the same name of the city. Its walls were three and four miles in circumference and contained a population amounting to about 30,000 peoples. In it, almost every other building was a church, all being rich furnishly within, but few were finished on the outside. This was because Parma had a strong Spanish soul, for having being long the residence of a Spanish Court. The House of Farnese made the dukes for about a hundred years. then it was ruled by Spanish, French and Austrians. On 1815 the two duchies of Parma and Guastalla were given to the former Empress of France, Marie Louise. Guastalla was a fortified town of about 5000 inhabitants, erected on a marshy terrain and influenced by a strong trend to develop diseases.

Macdonald, having forced Hohenlohe and Klenau, lifted the blockade of  Fort Urbano and having left at Modena 600 wounded with  a few hussars, would turn to the West on his true objective, ordering the left wing (the Vanguard and the Victor’s Division) to move to Reggio. Division Ottposed scarce resistance, withdrawing  along the Emilia Road, through the former neutral Parmesan Duchies. On June 15, Macdonald occupied Parma (where he censured the “treason” of the Duke, who hadescaped with the family to Verona) and on the next evening, he was in Piacenza, which Ott had only just evacuated   behind the Tidone Creek, leaving in the citadel only 5 companies and 35 guns. Macdonald ignored, however, the Moreau position, who he had expected to meet at Parma.   

Moreau, rather than going to Parma through Pontremoli and the Taro valley, hidden by the Appennines, had passed the mountains at La Bocchetta, coming down along the Scrivia road. The scope of this fatal variant, to the agreed plan, was to cause even a more difficult gathering of the enemy forces, interposing himself between Ott (to Piacenza) and Suvorov (Alexandria) in an effort to block the eventual enemy march, in order to unblock Tortona and Novi, driving then to Piacenza along the main road Voghera, Casteggio, Broni, Stradella, Castel San Giovanni and Rottofreno. It was surely a more comfortable way, than the winding itinerary through the Taro Valley to Parma (Valdimagra – Valditaro) or than the alternative travel through the Trebbia Valley to Piacenza. But it was also the more dangerous road, from a military point of view, because it left both flanks unprotected. In order to cover, at least, his right, Moreau detached, as an observation group, General  Lapoype, with 2.300-3000 French-Ligurian infantrymen, at Bobbio, in the middle Trebbia Valley. But the most critical thing was that he did not inform Macdonald of the varying of the common plan.

Flanking Enits from Genoa (numbers estimated)

Ligurian Division 4819 ? General  Jean François Lapoype de Cornu [3] commander of Ligurian Troops in Genua – Genova;  formation on June 1799. Adjutant-Général Faivre. The Ligurian infantry line battalions had around 800 men each, but were poorly trained. One battalion had 9 companies (1 grenadiers and 8 fusiliers). Detachement 45th Line Infantry Demi Brigade 500 I Ligurian Line Battalion: Genova – Sarzana 800 II Ligurian Line Battalion: Genova – Savona 800 III Ligurian Line Battalion: Riviera Levante 800 IV Ligurian Line Battalion: Riviera Ponente 7 companies 600  Artillery Companies 1st-3rd-4th-9th 400

Olivier was left at Modena and the control of the territory of Guastalla and Mirandola was assigned to Montrichard. Rusca and Watrin, began to go along the Po right bank westwards, searching for the link with Moreau. General  Ott, being at the outlet of Taro Valley, fearing of being encircled, withdrew on Piacenza, then, left there a small garrison as the Citadel’s Guard, and retreated beyond the River Trebbia. At last he deployed in safety beyond the Tidone Creek.  His actions  made it possible for the merging of Dąbrowski’s and Victor’s Divisions with Macdonald.


Piacenza (in French Plaisance) was encircled with walls and ditches, like Parma, but seemed more elegant than the capital, Parma. It was, however, not as populated (about 15000-17000 in.).  It had a Citadel, built with bricks’ A wide valley, which has always been a passage way towards Liguria, goes along the whole 110 kilometers of the  Trebbia River. Just after Gazzola, was Rivalta, a typical fortified borough, where a castle dominated the left bank of the river Trebbia.  The westernmost valley in the territory of Piacenza, dividing the territory of Emilia from that of Lumbardy, was the Tidone Valley, named for a stream, bearing the same name, which flowed across it. The main town there was Castel San Giovanni.

In Piacenza was the Avantgarde Brigade of Oberst Vincenz Knezevich Freiherr von Szent-Helena   It had small detachments in outposts along the Nure Stream.

Piacenza Citadel Garrison Commander: Major Rheinwald with 35 guns and 6 weeks of provisions

VI Battalion: GrenzRegiment Banat –  2 companies left at Piacenza (garrison)


K.K. IR 28 Infantry  Regiment  Freiherr Michael von Fröhlich III Battalion: 3 Companies


(former Regiment  Wartensleben)– Had 4 Companies with the Piacenza garrison and the other two at Bobbio.

Bobbio Garrison

K.K. IR 28 Infantry  Regiment . Freiherr Michael von Fröhlich III Battalion: 2 companies


(former Regiment  Wartensleben)

K.K. 4th Light Dragoons Regiment . GM Andreas Frh. von Karacsaj de Vale-Sakam


The alarm generated, by the arrival of Macdonald at Piacenza, forced Field Marshal Suvorov not only to run in order to help Ott, but also to reinforce Bobbio, in order to avoid an movement of the Moreau’s army along the Trebbia Valley.

Russian Reinforcements – Detachment Major General  Mihail Mihailovich Veletsky

Veletsky was the commander of the Suzdal Musketeers Regiment . He was promoted major general on October 31, 1798 and was commander of the Butyrsk Musketeers Regiment until June 20, 1799 when he became the Chief of the same Regiment until September 16, 1800.

I Battalion: Imperial Russian Musketeers Regiment Young-Baden (malado-badensky) or Butyrsk Regiment .


2nd Don Cossacks Pulk Sujchev – detachment


Meanwhile General  Dąbrowski had received the order to concentrate his division in Fivizzano, as soon as Victor had occupied Pontremoli, and General  Salme occupied Sillano.  He had to give back all the French demi-brigades and detachments to their original divisions, except for the 8th and a battalion of the 62nd. By June 2, the Polish Legion, with the above mentioned troops, occupied the outlets of Fosdinovo, Fivizzano, and Sassalbo. On June 4, the 1st Battalion of the legion, under Chef de brigade Forest, drove out the enemy outposts near Bussano, and the 2nd Battalion, under Chlopicki, went there to reinforce it. On June 7, an order dated June 6, arrived, by which the Polish division had to concentrate with the bulk of the army at Reggio.

When, on June 8, Macdonald   wanted to change all the provisions of the plan coordinated with Moreau, the Polish Division went to Sassalbo.  The 1st Battalion, led by Chef Brun,  drove out the enemy outposts at Cervarezza and Campo-Forte. On June 12, the Austrians tried to stop the advance of the Poles close to Grassano, at the last mountains slopes. They deployed the infantry in line, and the cavalry on the plain. The French-Poles were very poor in cavalry, considering the causeway, which they held at Sassalbo, was almost impossible to pass with the horses; moreover the enemy had deployed all the armed peasants bands, in order to dispute the passages. The battalion of Polish Chasseurs was split into two parts, on the two sides of the avantgarde, being on the right of the  Crostolo Creek. The peasants were soon dispersed by the Chasseurs, and the Austrians pushed forward some detachments to engage the Poles. Therefore the division continued to go ahead, while the Austrians were giving up their positions, over and over again, and, threatened by several skirmishers on their flank, they withdrew until the plain of Reggio. The Poles, thus, camped at Vezzano, and pushed their outposts until the hills in front of Rivalta. They took some prisoners and killed some hussars, while taking their horses, which could had not crossed hedges and which could had not jumped over the ditches. Many peasants were massacred without pity. On June 13, in the morning, the Polish division was ready to attack the enemy at Reggio, and was beginning its movement, when it learned the Austrians had already left the place. The division passed through Reggio, along the road to Parma, close to Quaresimo (today Codemondo). About midday, the army of Naples, led by Macdonald, arrived from Modena and reached the Polish rearguard. This junction took place after the battle of Modena, with Macdonald suffering from his wounds.

On June 14, the Franco-Polish army [4] reached Parma, and, the following day, Piacenza. The Poles went to Gaida, through the road to Montecchio and Montechiarugolo, to the Vicofertile camp, near Parma, and closed on the right of the Montrichard Division. To that division were attached: a battery of light artillery, two Polish cavalry squadrons, under Major Biernacki, and a squadron of French cavalry. By June 15, the Poles went over the Taro River and, the day after, camped at San Giorgio di Nure, where the right wing linked with the Rusca’s Division.

On June 15, the Victor’s Division arrived at the main army at Borgo San Donnino. Macdonald reached the welcome General  asking him news about Moreau. Victor answered he was unware of him, who had left at Asti on May 18.  General  Salme had also met the main group and, leading the Avantgarde was sent along the right bank of the Po, occupying, on June 16, San Nazzaro, Bocche del Nure, Zerbio and Roncarolo, sending patrols towards Piacenza. Salme executed all what was ordered but, in the evening, charged, with 20 officers of his staff, an large patrol of Austrian Dragoons, which were slowly retreating. He was wounded by a sabre cut and was almost taken prisoner, however he was saved by his aides. The same day, Victor organized two march columns, which marched quickly along the two sides of the main Parma road. They engaged the Ott’s rearguard, repulsing it away from Asteno and pursuing the Austrians till Fiorenzuola. The French reached Piacenza at the same moment a group of Austrian sappers had   finished  dismantling the Po boat-bridge, supported by the citadel’s artillery, leaving all the materials on the opposite bank, guarded by a detachment of the Infantry Regiment Stuart, which had come from Mantua. Behind Victor marched Rusca and the Poles, escorting the equipment’s train, through Borgo San Donnino till San Giorgio di Nure. Olivier and Montrichard, the rearguard of the army, took position along the Taro River, having the task to fortify their camp, to watch the Po bank and to restrain the insurgent  threat.

Victor entered Piacenza at 3 a.m. on June 16, and immediately gave orders to block the citadel, where the defenders had filled the ditches with water. He left there one of his demi-brigades to control the hostile people and to support the Polish battalions ordered to siege the citadel. [5] General  Macdonald, full of pain because of his wounds, left Victor to lead the occupation. The French chief limited the occupation of Piacenza to the outer houses, as the night was coming darker. In the meanwhile he had ordered Montrichard to control Hohenzollern’s moves and Olivier to spread the falese rumour this division had to go to San-Benedetto, to pass the Po there, in the attempt to free Mantua. Therefore Macdonald, on his arrival into Piacenza,  was very surprised having found no news of Moreau there. He was expecting to, to meet there the “eclaireurs” of the Army of Italy, for his own speedy march towards Piacenza had automatically unblocked the road that  the troops of Moreau should have followed to reach him from Liguria. However Moreau had still a lot of doubts, having considered the advance to Piacenza too dangerous for Genoa, exposing himself to the danger of the loss of all his communications with the border of France.

“Erat in medio rivus…” – Titi Livii, a.U.C. XXI, 54 (In the middle there was a stream…)

…praealtis utrinque clausus ripis, et circa obsitu palustribus herbis, et quibus inculta ferme vestiuntur,…”(…and was very deep at one and the other side, with inaccessible banks, and all around covered with plants, marshy grasses, which were almost wild…). So began the 54th paragraph of the Annals of the history of Rome (Ab Urbe Condita or from the city’s foundation, by Titus Livius), describing the river, by which commander Hannibal choose to give battle against the Romans. Only few memories remained upon that ancient battle of the Trebbia, the town of Campremoldo, in example, which name was once Campomorto (Campus mortuis or the field of the deads). The fierce battle betweens the Romans and people from Carthage took place in 218 B.C., during the second punic war; the army of Hannibal defeated the troops led by Publius Cornelius Scipio.  However, then, it was time to another bloody fight, which was ready to begin on that middle June of ’99.

Victor then went on reconnaissance, pushing his vanguard into a sandy plain, which led to a small wood, in which was a Croatian detachment. The Croatians were repulsed and  the French  occupied Borgo di Sant’Antonio, an hamlet with large houses spread along the road to Castel San Giovanni. The vanguard reached the Trebbia River, without shooting a bullet. The river was quiet, its   was incredibly intact.

Finally, now, with General  Ott under strong pressure, the Coalition Armies could not ignore the march of the Army of Naples and Macdonald’s occupation of the town of Piacenza.