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The 1799 Campaign in Italy

The 1799 Campaign in Italy: The Last Battles & the End of the Directory’s Wars August-December 1799

By Enrico Acerbi


The French and Russian Disengagements

On August 11, Dąbrowski was ordered to deploy his division at Ronco but on the eve of the battle the Polish general was ordered to advance to Arquata Scrivia. The movement was completed on August 15, in the early afternoon, during the battle of Novi. The Cisalpins and the 55th Demi-Brigade went to the left to reinforce Watrin. The rest of the division was withdrawn to Serravalle to cover the army’s retreat. Dąbrowski was ordered by St. Cyr to move and to seize the passes of Arquata and Rigoroso, standing there “until the last man”. The move began during the night.  They were  escorted by the 25th Chasseurs which had joined the division. On  the morning of August 17, the Polish Legion attacked the Austrian vanguards, with the support of the 8th Demi-Brigade (from Borlasca) and the 17th Demi-Brigade (from Pratolungo), while the 55th Demi-Brigade and the cavalry remained in reserve. The Austrians retreated to Serravalle, leaving behind supplies and equipment, while the actions continued till the 18th of August. This allowed Watrin to deploy at Ronco Scrivia, behind the Poles, and to exchange the front with Dąbrowski, who withdrew toward Campofreddo, leaving back only the 25th Chasseurs. The division reached the new position by August 20, with the Polish cavalry between Voltri and Masone, the headquarters, the grenadiers and the 1st Battalion (Legion) at Campofreddo (Campo Ligure), the 2nd Battalion. at Ronciglione (Rossiglione), the 3rd Battalion. at Cabana (Capanne) and Marcarolo and the Chasseurs (à pied) at Montebello (Morbello?). The divisional French troops remained forward in order to stay linked with Watrin near Carosino.  The center extended through Monte Banno and Costa, the link reaching St. Cyr’s right wing near San Luca and Montebello (Morbello?).

The 1st Polish Battalion reached Genoa on August 24, while the 2nd Battalion was attached to the divisional HQ at Campofreddo. In the same time the 106th Demi-Brigade, attached to the Poles, seized the positions of Capanne di Marcarolo and Montebello. The Polish Chasseurs and  the 3rd Battalion of the Legion marched to the left occupying the positions of Cerreto di Sopra and San Luca, extending the center through Rossiglione and Rossiglione Alto. While these movements occurred, the Austrian vanguards engaged the Poles with musket fire.  The French tried to attack Voltaggio, defended by the Württemberg Dragoons [i]  but they were repulsed (September 4).  While this occurred south of the bloody Novi’s battlefield on the extreme right of the French defence line, at sea, General Miollis had the task to stop the Austrian infiltration of Klenau gruppe. On August 20 the French abandoned Sestri (Levante) after a massive attack, which the 400 men of the garrison were unable to impede. Chef de Battalion Pinot, of the 16th Light infantry, also supported by 300 soldiers of the 73rd Line, were forced to retreat to Chiavari. There they decided to resist till the last man. Otherwise the course of the campaign was palpably awful and many Ligurian soldiers began to leave the ranks, deserting from the army. On August 25, a British frigate bombarded Recco, near Genoa and this, with the eight men killed by the naval howitzers, was a very bad indicator. The Ligurian people, tired of war, began to protest the partial blockade, and the nobles and the bankers began to refuse loans to the French army.  This and the murder of some of French soldiers, who were foraging because of the lack of food and clothes, determined the adoption of the martial law in the Genoese territory. A solid camaraderie became close to being broken, but generally most of the Ligurians, true republicans, suffered the bad times along with the French. St. Cyr and Moreau could not wait any longer for the supposed “great Austro-Russian attack from the north”. They decided to act, above all to loosen the pressure of Klenau at the Scoffera pass and along the coast.

On September 7, the two French divisions of Watrin and Dąbrowski attacked, in order to force their enemies to retreat toward Alessandria. The French units advanced from Costa, with the 2nd Polish Battalion and the Polish grenadiers in a second line (reserve). Watrin advanced till the Novi neighborhood and St. Cyr reached Acqui. The Austrians were attacked in the evening, surprised and repulsed over the whole frontline.[ii]  On September 8, the French occupied a new line from Bisio in the Lemme valley (south of Francavilla), through Castel Adorno (old name of Silvano), Silvano d’Orba and Trisobbio, where the Polish Chasseurs organized the outposts, while the 2nd Polish occupied Rocca Grimalda. Dąbrowski, with his HQ, the grenadiers and the 3rd Battalion occupied Ovada while the Polish cavalry occupied Molare and Cremolino. Having the Austrians leave the valleys, the Poles advanced with their small vanguards till Spinola, Castel Vero (Castelferro?) and monte Alto. Watrin, otherwise, was not able to maintain the new positions near Novi and was forced to withdraw on the Appenins. So did also the Poles and St. Cyr completing the back movement on September 10.

In order to celebrate the fall of the Tortona fortress, [iii] on September 12, the Austrians advanced till Molare and seemed on the point to attack the Ponzone positions, but, observing the strong French positions, they returned back to the plains. In the meanwhile (September 7), Suvorov, having received orders to march toward Switzerland and to leave Italy, left the command to Mélas and begin to leave. The Russians marched through Mortara (September 12), Turbigo (13), crossed the Ticino (Tésin river) and reached the Switzerland by 15th of September; on 17th they were at Bellinzona. 

On the Monferrato hills and on the Appennins the weather was becoming wet and cold; a very hard affair for an army (Italy’s) without food, clothes and money. From the open line of communications with Nice, reinforcements continued to arrive, but the supplies were discontinued.  In Genoa was a future “star”, who reached the Ligurian capital with the 20th Light Infantry Demi-Brigade and 100 chasseurs: General Lannes. However he did not take part in the defence and suddenly returned in France, leaving the troops in the Riviera. Gouvion St Cyr, after the Novi battle, had secured his left flank with a small brigade, deployed on the mountain passes north of Oneglia, waiting for Championnet’s help from the Alps. The hardest task for Roguet’s units was not the control of the Austrians, but the control over the increasing number of deserters (all the Ligurian troops had already disappeared) and the ambushes of the local brigands, called “barbets”. [iv]

Brigade de l’haut Tanare et Oneille


Chef-de-brigade François Roguet [v] – provisional brigade general – deployed from Intrappa (Trappa) to Carnino (left) and linked with the St. Bernard of Garessio (right) and the Col di Tenda (left)

33rd Line Infantry Demi-Brigade – I and II Battalions. – Capraunetta camp and Ponte di Nava


33rd Line Infantry Demi-Brigade Grenadier Battalion with 41st Demi-Brigade Grenadiers (1 company) At Cantarana, ponte di Nava and Ormea


41st Line Infantry Demi-Brigade [vi] – II Battalion. – on Quarzina top, Carnino and Viozene


29th Light Infantry Demi-Brigade – only formally under Roguet with a coastal detachment. The rebuilt Demi-Brigade had one Battalion with Lemoine and with Miollis


Detachments, Ligurian troops and garrisons


A Missed Rendezvous

On August 13, a courier from Joubert had given to general Championnet, the new  commander of the Army of Italy, news that he was ready to engage the enemy and he had to leave his camp to link with the main army. The Alps Corps, otherwise, was already marching toward Coni and Susa. Championnet had ordered the Mont Cenis commander to seize La Ferriére and the Novalaise territory and the Little St. Bernard commander to capture La Thuile, at the head of the Aosta valley. These early moves were successful. The Alps Corps, had been organized without money and supplies. Almost the 60% of them were conscripts, come to Grenoble and to the Alps departments, had already deserted and Championnet was forced to ask for financial loans in order to train the new soldiers. Bernadorre and the Directory agreed with that financial plan. From a projected number of 30-35000 men, the Corps in August reached only around 12-16000 combatants, with no artillery apart from a small company (arrived on August 20). He wanted, in few days, to cross the Alps at Mont Cenis and Mont Genèvre passes, and to drive directly toward Coni (first) and then Pinerolo (second target); this plan had been endorsed by General Joubert.

On August 26, the Alps Corps made a general movement advancing toward Piedmont. Grenier reached Coni, while Duhesme entered the Susa valley; Championnet gave orders to store 9 months of supplies into the Fenestrelle fortress and took the field artillery materials there. A short skirmish at the Assietta, forced the Austrian outpost to retreat and opened the valleys. The French caught Susa with the garrison and unblocked Fenestrelle and Coni, under siege.  Championnet had the sad new of his friend’s death, Joubert, at his camp of Tourneaux (mont Genèvre).

On 31 August (14 fructidor), at 11 hours p.m., in Embrun, Championnet received the Directory’s Order of 12 fructidor (29 August) imposing the disbanding of the armée des Alpes and its merging with the armée d’Italie, under the command of the same general Championnet. On 1 September (15 fructidor) the order was applied with the disbanding of the General Staff and the reassignment of the command to General Paul Grenier, who became the commander of the Left Wing of armée d’Italie, with the new name of the armée des Alpes.

Changing the Commanders-in-Chief

When Championnet became the supreme commander of the  former armies, he immediately went to Genoa.  He was welcomed by Colonel Roguet at the Ligurian border. On September 17, the chief’s column reached Oneglia and on the 22nd [vii] Championnet entered Genoa. His first orders were a complete reorganization of the army. Gouvion St. Cyr remained commanding the large right wing with four divisions: Miollis, Watrin, Victor and Lemoine; Grenier was charged with the left wing with the two divisions of Duhesme and Richepance (Muller). He, otherwise, failed the attempt to link the two wings together and, for a short period, the former two armies continued to fight separately: St. Cyr in Liguria and Grenier near Coni. Championnet renamed the division with simple numbers; so Miollis became the 1st Division, Watrin the Second and so on. The Poles, i.e. were attached to the 2nd Division, partially reinforced with the Axamitowsky detachment (256 men of the former Mantua garrison) and partially weakened by the volunteers who wanted to reach the new Polish Legion, being organized in Germany. Later Dąbrowsky will have again his command in a mixed division.

The Ligurian front remained relatively quit until the end of September, except for a bloody affair which occurred at Torriglia during  Klenau’s attack at the frontline. However, the war did not rest, raising its fires by the other side of the front: the plains in front of Coni (Cuneo). The new Commander-in-Chief of the Austrian side, Mélas, had ordered the army to move westwards in order to block the French infiltrations down from the Alps. General Kray Corps was sent northwards to secure the flank of the marching Russians and to block hypothetical French advances (Lecourbe) from Switzerland; when Kray reached the plains of Novara, he was suddenly recalled to Brà. By September 16, Mélas had camped near Brà, rallied the army on 17 and, the following day morning, he formed two attack columns which began to advance at 11a.m., toward Fossano and Savigliano.

Fossano was a small town in northwestern Italy, 65 km south of Turin. It has an imposing castle with four towers: the Acaia fortress. The fortress, in 1796, was besieged by General Serurier. It had strong walls (the Austrians said 3 klasters the width and 8-10 schuh the height, where 10 Schuh or feet were 2,9 meters) and was erected on a steep slope of earth and bushes. It had two gates, which could be closed with iron doors and which were served by movable bridges; Fossano had also two bulwarks (1 ½ Schuh wide).

On the road which leads to Savigliano, another important strategical town near Cuneo, is the hamlet of Genola, which gave the name to the larger battle of the 1799 Campaign. In effect there is some confusion on the clashes and battles names fought north of Cuneo. For an easier understanding I will follow the Digby Smith’s classification. [viii]

The battlefield, in the triangle Fossano, Centallo, Savigliano, was rich of waters and swamps, having three rivers (creeks) which ran parallel northwards; they were the Varaita, often dry in Summer, the Maira, which always had some water for the well-springs emerging from the fields and the Mellea, which south of Genola had the name of Grama creek, this being the smaller but the richest in waters and having marsches in its right and left banks. South of Savigliano, before the hamlet of Levaldigi (or Valdigi), there were not swamps but a good number of deep ponds. All was more complicated by artificial channels and ditches, used in agriculture. These rivers, today poor of waters and often dry, were actually difficult to cross and in autumn the rivers tides became violent and destructive, with many inundations harassing citizens. [ix] So, with these premises, the only military solution it was to fight along the road.


[i] This regiment left the Novi area on September 11 and was attached to the main army (brigade Elsnitz, division Liechtenstein, Kray gruppe), reaching the Brà camp by the 16th of the month, where, deployed with the 2nd attack column, participated to the Savigliano battle (September 18 day).

[ii] The front area was defended by the vanguard brigade of general Karacsaj, while a defending cavalry suggested more an offensive plan than a defence. The HQ of baron Festenberg, oberst of the Württemberg’s Dragoons was at Carrosio, with outposts to Voltaggio and only a “Cavallerie-Batterie” as support. Karacsaj so described the fight, the day after the night attack: “At 15 p.m. the enemies were not only on the mount Mesma near Gavi, but a large column also was seen on the Gavi road, a second on the Tassarolo causeway and a third on the heights leading from Serravalle to Novi (monte Rotondo NoA). The enemies attacked our outposts with an impressive quickness, reaching the Novi’s environs. My infantry and the Württemberg’s Dragoons were forced to reorder the ranks at Pozzolo Formigaro. There we had to wait the French column of Tassarolo whenever it would enter the plain. The alarm was high and I knew the Russians had begun to move from Rivalta camp. I put my Dragoons in a chessboard formation in order to mask our weakness behind them and I deployed the battery near the road, to bombard the French flank. They advanced in skirmisher screen formation but did not attack the plain.”

[iii] Tortona capitulated on September 11, having chef-de-brigade Gast waited in vain for some rescue. The garrison had had100 killed or died of wounds or sick­ness. “After marching out with honours of war, the rest laid down their weapons and were free to go. The Battalion colour was taken but returned by FM Count Suvorov out of respect for their gallant defence”. Source: Digby Smith “The Greenhill Napoleonic Wars Data Book”, Greenhill 1998.

[iv] This name was formerly given to the Dauphiné inhabitants which had come from the canton Vaud, then was given also to the Camisards of the Cévennes, partisans of their ministers called “Barbes”. In the border mountain regions it exists, currently, the habit to call an uncle as lou barba, barba luc, barba juan. This term in 1640, for the first time, indicated also the criminals. But there is not a clear link with this and the actual Barbets.  In 1690, we knew the first Barbets fighting against the army of Louis XIV which invaded the Nice County. Between 1744 and 1748, in the valleys, during the French-hispanic wars, they fought again against the French invader. In 1792, this term was resumed, indicating partisans of the homeland, forced to live in the woods; actually brigands for the French republicans. We can suppose that those men, often bearded and bristly, for lack of being able to shave themselves in woods, caves or shelters of fortune, were likened by their detractors to the long haired shepherds dogs, called “barbets” (in English: water spaniels).

[v] In September, Chef Roguet obtained to led  his 33rd demi-brigade in battle, leaving the provisional status of brigade commander. The demi-brigade, after a short command period under Chef Laval, who substituted Roguet wounded at Magnano, killed at Mondovì in June, was commande by a Captain till September 22, when Roguet took again the command and organized the vanguard of Victor’s division.

[vi] Also this demi-brigade, come from Nice, was split between Laboissière and Roguet, then was with Miollis and finally took part at the end October’s offensive, probably with Lemoine troops.

[vii] As for another source, Championnet, after having left the command to Duhesme and Grenier, arrived at Genoa on 30 fructidor (September 16), got the keys of the army, while Moreau left to Paris, and St. Cyr reorganized the right wing.

[viii] In order to have an idea of which was the Austrian way of giving names to the Autumn 1799 engagements, here is a list of the Württemberg Dragoons fights (it was the cavalry unit which had less engagement till the Trebbia, so it was often employed in the later months of the campaign).

Clash of Carrosio (Sept 3, 1799)
Clash of Voltaggio (Sept 4, 1799)
Clash of Novi (Sept 8, 1799)
Clash of Fossano (Sept 18, 1799) – also known as Savigliano, while Fossano was on September 16
Clash of Pinerolo (Sept 23, 1799)
Clash of Lesegno (Sept 28, 1799)
Vanguard Clash of Margarita (Sept 30, 1799)
Clash of Beinette (October 13, 1799)
Clash of Centallo (Oct 31, 1799)
Battle of Savigliano (Genola) (November 5, 1799) – aka Genola battle
Clash of Murasso (Nov 5, 1799)
Clash of Madonna dell’Olmo  (Nov 6, 1799)
Clash of Mondovì (Vasco – San Lorenzo) (Nov 13, 1799)
Siege of Coni (Nov 17 – Dec 3. 1799)

[ix] One of the most impressive was the 1800 inundation which involved the Maira and Mellea creeks.