The 1799 Campaign in Italy: the Combat of Cassano and the Verderio Affair (April 27)
Placed on the right bank of the Adda, Cassano is today part of Milan Province, that city being approximately thirty kilometers away. The Martesana Channel, established in 1457, determined its northern borders with the Vaprio lands. Also there, many Villas (Borromeo, Bramilla….), of important Milanese families, witnessed the history of its countryside utilized for weekends holidays, farms and estates from which bore the village core. The south-eastern Adda channel called Muzza, built to protect the ancient castle and to carry the necessary water for the local hospital, had fortifications which defended the bridge over the Adda, the main way to reach Bergamo from Milan. On Adda’s left bank was the village of Cascina Franca, after San Pietro on the Muzza channel. Since 1323, in order to pass the only bridge over the Adda at Cassano, one had to paid a tax called “Thelonius”, specifically levied for the passage on the bridges. From this period the two hamlets, on the opposite river banks, begun to compete one against the other: Cassano on the Milanese side and the Cascina Franca on the Bergamo side, the former Celtic village Bergias. Cascina Franca was Farm “duty-free” regarding the toll to pass the bridge and to use the port of Cassano.
The bridgehead was controlled by Grenier’s troops and afterwards by troops from Victor’s command. The opposite side of the Muzza Channel (and the island) were occupied by the Austrian vanguards of Melas’ Gruppe. Some firing occurred along the Ritorto Channel, south of Cassano, but not more than a “scaramouche”. On April 27, Cassano was abandoned by Victor’s troops which retreated towards Gorgonzola and Melzo.
“The odds here were overwhelmingly against the French” say Christopher Duffy in his masterpiece ”even after the 106th Demi-Brigade was reinforced from the corps of Victor, for they confronted Melas and thc two Austrian divisions of Kaim and Frelich. However the 106th had an outer defence in form of a bridgehead fortification on the left (eastern) bank of the Adda, and this in turn was covered by the outlying Canale Ritorto.
For most of the day Melas had contented himself with cannonading the French works until, under pressure from Suvorov, his pioneers braved heavy fire to make a trestle bridge across the canal. once the passage was complete, the regiment of Reysky doubled across with such speed that the French at once abandoned the bridgehead along with three pieces, and did not have the time to set fire to the combustible materials which they had heaped upon on the Adda bridge behind. The main Austrian force now crossed the intact bridge, and encountered little more than a token resistance on the far side, for Ott, Zoph and the Russians had already broken through further to the north in the way already described.”
Hauptarmée Feld Marshal Leut. Michael Friedrich Benedikt Mélas
Generalquartiermeister: GM. Johann Gabriel Chasteler Marquis de Courcelles
(Chasteler was with Suvorov at Trezzo and Vaprio)
2nd Division Generalmajor Freiherr Michael von Fröhlich
Under provisional command of Generalmajor Franz Joseph Marquis de Lusignan
2nd Division Fröhlich
HQs at Treviglio
2nd Division Fröhlich at Treviglio
Feldbrigade Generalmajor Franz Joseph Marquis de Lusignan
K.K. Grenadier Battalion Oblt Franz Xavier Weber von Treuenfeld (called Weber Battalion.)
K.K. Grenadier Battalion Graf Joseph Fiquelmont Count Johann Morzin
K.K. 14th Light Dragoon Regiment Franz Freiherr von Levenehr
Commander: Oberst Joseph Zinn. (it had 6 Squadrons. On 3 Division I – 2 – 3) the 4th Division was in Friaul 2 Division ObLt. Josef Prohaska – 3 Division Major Franz Graf Latour (Major Albert Graf Unverzagt missing after the battle)
Feldbrigade Generalmajor (provisional) Oberst Marquis Hannibal Sommariva
K.K. 18 Line Infantry Regiment. Graf Patrick Stuart
Commander: Obst Franz Weber von Treuenfels – I and 2 Battalions
2nd Battalion K.K. IR 40 Hungarian Line Infantry Regiment. FZM Graf Joseph Mittrowsky
K.K. 19 Hungarian Line Infantry Regiment. Freiherr Jozsef Alvinczy de Berberek
1st and 2nd Battalions + 2 Companies from the 3 Battalion. – Commander: Barone Lelio Spannocchi.
K.K. 10th Light Dragoon Regiment Joseph Fürst Lobkowitz
Had 6 Squadrons in 3 divisions: Commander: Oberst Marquis Hannibal Sommariva – Second Oberst and Commander Max Joseph Fürst Thurn und Taxis. 2 Division ObstLt. Alois Graf Harrach – 3 Division Major Ignatz Molitor
Feldbrigade Generalmajor Christoph Freiherr von Lattermann
K.K. 43 Line Infantry Regiment. Graf Anton Thurn-Val Sassina
(1st and 2nd Battalions.) The 3rd Battalion was at Zara ( Dalmatia) on garrison duty. Commander: Freiherr Ignaz von Loen
K.K. IR 13 Line Infantry Regiment. Freiherr Franz Wenzel Reisky von Dubnitz Commander: Oberst Freiherr Carl von Brigido
K.K. 5th Hussar regiment– 2 Squadrons Major Ferdinand Steingruber
Left Wing Gruppe: Generalmajor Konrad Valentin Kaim
K.K. IR 24 Rifle Regiment (former Preiss) Cmdr Oberst Carl Philipp von Weidenfeld
K.K. IR 28 Line Infantry Regiment. (future Freiherr Michael von Fröhlich)
(the former Regiment Wartensleben – on 3 Battalions) Cdr.:Oberst Paul Candiani de Ragaini
K.K. 4th Light Dragoon Regiment. GM Andreas Frh. von Karacsaj de Vale-Sakam 4 Squadrons.
Commander: Oberst Joseph Graf Nimptsch. It was originally detached as linking unit with the Russian Corps Rozenberg. 2 Division ObstLt. Carl von Provencheres – 3 Division Major Leopold Freiherr Ludwigsdorf (see Russians)
Lodi was a Celtic village that Romans called, in Latin, “Laus Pompeia” (probably in honour of Consul Gnaeus Pompeius Strabo) and was also known because its position allowed many Gauls of Gallia Cisalpina to obtain Roman citizenship. A free Municipality around 1000, it fiercely resisted the Milanese, who destroyed it in April 24, 1158. Emperor Frederick Barbarossa rebuilt it on its current location. Lodi was ruled by the Visconti family, who built a castle. In 1454, representatives from all the regional states of Italy met in Lodi to sign the treaty known as the Peace of Lodi, by which they intended to work in the direction of Italian unification, but this peace lasted only 40 years. The town was then ruled by the Sforza family, France, Spain , and Austria . In 1786 it became the capital of a province that included Crema. On May 10, 1796 the young Corsican general Bonaparte won on the River Adda, his first important battle, defeating the Austrians and later entering Milan. After that battle the most important of Adda’s bridge became the Lodi bridge. Memorials to this bridge can be found in many French towns, such as in Paris, 6th Arrondissement, Rue du Pont de Lodi.
Austrian Flanking Units
Feldgruppe Generalmajor Friedrich Freiherr von Seckendorff
Combined Battalion Grenzregiment Warasdiner of Varazdin ( Croatia )
K.K. 5th Hussar Regiment 4 Squadron .
It had 6 Squadrons with 3 Divisions. The 4th Division was in Croatia as a garrison. Commander: Obst Anton Freiherr von Révay – 2 Division ObstLt. Freiherr Andreas Szörenyi – 2nd Major Wilhelm Fulda present at the battle.
Feldgruppe Generalmajor Friedrich Xavier Fürst Hohenzollern-Hechingen
Gruppe Hohenzollern (at Pizzighettone)
5073 Feldbrigade Generalmajor Freiherr Anton von Mittrowsky
K.K. IR 32 Hungarian Rifle Regiment. Graf Samuel Gyulai
Commander: Oberst Franz Posztrehowsky von Millenburg – (I-2-Battalions) 3 Battalion to Mantua
K.K. IR 36 Rifle Regiment. Fürst Carl Fürstenberg Commander: Oberst Conrad von Thelen
K.K. 1st Light Dragoons Regiment “Emperor” Kaiser Franz 2
They had 6 Squadrons in three divisions. Commander: Oberst Franz Freiherr von Pilati. 2 Division ObstLt. Baron Karl Kölbel – 3 Division Major Bernard Kees
The Verderio Affair
The bad news about the battle reached Milan in the evening of April 27. Therefore almost the whole Cisalpine government left Milan, taking the national treasure with it. The city was abandoned by four of the five Directeurs (Marescalchi, Sopransi, Vertomati and Franchi) along with the French Minister Rivaud and General Schérer. On April 28, Moreau entered Milan leaving Grenier’s division free to continue its march. Géneral Hatry was left at the Sforzesco Castle (the Citadel) in order to organize the 1800 men of the garrison. Eight thousand men with 22 guns and 1000 cavalrymen in three columns passed quickly through the city during that morning. The day after Moreau reached Novara in Piedmont and there he got the knowledge of the “Verderio affair”.
Sérurier’s Division was split in two large groups. While Soyez rescued his Demi-Brigade moving through Lake Como and Guillet saved his units marching back to Como, the main group had tried to rally south of Brivio in order to link the right flank with Grenier. The rallying attempt continued through the day (April 27), while the battle enraged on the Adda banks.
Sérurier’s arrest at Verderio was an inexplicable thing. It was a well established custom, among the revolutionary Generals, to march wherever they heard the “son du cannon” (sound of the guns), even if waiting superior orders. Sérurier knew the Brivio crossing and the firing noises told him that a battle was going on at Vaprio. Waitinf for orders was the last thing to do. This conduct, at Verderio, is a reminder of Bonaparte’s opinion of him (1796): “ Sérurier se bat en soldat – ne prend rien sur lui – ferme- n’a pas assez bonne opinion de ses troupes – est malade. ” The behaviour of his subordinate, Soyez, which, being cut off blew up the fortifications at Lecco, embarked on the lake and landed in safety, is an evident contrast to the Chief’s indecision.
It is strange for a General, who had won a major battle (Pastrengo) performing always in a resolute and military correct way, to seal himself into a Castle (villa), only a month after, undecided on what to do. However Sérurier had been roughly criticized after the rout of Parona (March 30) for having let the attack to go too much in depth, an excess of bravery which had cost many losses. So is possible that, in a circumstance in which he had to operate again by own initiative, the decision was opposite: too much movement at Parona, so no action at Verderio.
The next morning (28 April) Sérurier was already surrounded in a nearly quiet battlefield. The French division, rapidly, entrenched into the Villa Confalonieri (today Villa Gnecchi-Ruscone), in the Castle and the cemetery. At Verderio the first Austrian squadron which made a reconnoissance near the town was led by Rittmeister Adam Albert Graf von Neipperg (the future general), GeneralStabsOffizier by Vukassovich. A frontal, attack was made by the Austrian Avant-guard while the Russians of Rozemberg marched around Sérurier flanks. The old, tired, general so reported to the War Minister:
Around 3.00 P.M. of 9 Floréal (of April 28) I realized that enemies were marching against me. Around 4.00 P.M. the fire combat was engaged with my outposts. Around 4.30 P.M. I was attacked by all sides, expecially by the enemy cavalry which caused us a lot of troubles. We resited with bravery taking masses of prisoners and killing a lot of enemies. They were, however, 17000 around us, of which 8000 engaged in the combats. When we had no more a.m. munitions the surrender was the only thing to do. Piedmontese cavalry of Fresia made wonders of bravery, more than 200 Dragons were wounded or died on the battlefield, the remaining troops (2400) were made prisoners by capitulation.”
Christopher Duffy reported other numbers: “When Vukassovich enumerated his prisoners he found that they amounted to two divisional generals (Sérurier and his cavalry commander Fresia), 241 other officers, 3,487 NCOs and men and 151 non-combatants, along with five cannon. The Austrians agreed to allow Sérurier and his officers to return to France under parole: ‘This latter condition was a mark of respect shown to the bravery of old Genera1 Sérurier, …”
Why did Moreau lose that battle? Knowing that the Austro-Russian did not have numerical superiority (Melas’ Gruppe was not engaged) we can only suppose a cause in the too difficult (and bad) army deployment. It was Schérer’s mistake to suppose a wide defence from the Po to Lake Como , but there were few alternatives. Probably Moreau came too late to take command with efficiency, so he did what he well knew: saving an army in difficulties. An initial withdrawal to the Ticino River could had designed a less wide front to guard, but would have sacrificed the important Piacenza Citadel, on the right bank of the Po unless he could have ordered Montrichard to leave Ferrara and Bologna and to defend Piacenza (this would have left open the gate to the Armée de Naples, coming to help). The Adda battle was a decisive one. It was the second, consecutive, defeat for the French main army and definitively lowered the troops morale, cleared the ranks (replenished with conscripts or Piedmontese soldiers) and added muscles to the weak and scattered Italian Insurgency.
“The victory on the Adda broke the French forces in northern Italy , doomed their puppet Cisalpine Republic and opened the way to the liberation of Piedmont. As regards the management of the battle on the French side, it is difficult to dissent from the judgement of Moreau in his report to the Directory, in which he pointed out that Schérer had teased out the army along an immense length, and that he himself had taken command ‘without knowing how the army was placed, and at a time when the line was already broken – a fact which was not known at headquarters.”
Chasteler reported, about the losses in the battle for the five bridges:
¾ of the losses were suffered at Vaprio = 2750 men
From other source “Campagne des Austro-Russes en Italie”
Total Men lost
The Archduke Joseph Hussar Regiment, on its own, lost 170 horses. (From Gachot Edouard “Suvorow en Italie”)
From a letter of the Sindaco (1st Citizen) at Vaprio
Total Men lost
Archive of Senate Palace, Milan, Reg. N. 466. (From Gachot Edouard “Suvorow en Italie”)
On May 1st, Suvorov gave these numbers about the losses:
Lecco Apr 26
Vaprio Apr 27
Verderio Apr 28
26 Cossack dead
Austrian 1000 dead or wounded
(Cassano losses known)
2000 dead and wounded
3000 dead and wounded
Situation of the French Forces after the Adda Battles
Ligurian and Genoan Riviera Garrison
Division General Montrichard
Division General Gauthier de Kerweguen
Armée de Naples: General Macdonald
Main Army General Moreau
Placed on the Napoleon Series: August 2007