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The 1799 Campaign in Italy

The 1799 Campaign in Italy: Macdonald’s Wars in Central Italy and What He Left Behind April-June 1799

By Enrico Acerbi

Seizing the Appennine’s Passes

General Dąbrowski, on May 18, received orders to occupy the Apennines, and to take the command of the troops under the orders of General Merlin[1], with the name of Division des Débauches des Appennins. The Austro-Russians already threatened to seize Spezia and to cut off there any communication with the army of Italy . Having no time to waste, Dąbrowski separated the legion, and gave orders to the 2nd Polish Battalion, under Chief  Chlopicki, to reinforce the San-Pellegrino Pass, occupied by the 3rd Demi-brigade, forming the right wing of the division, to cover with more forces the Modena Passage. The main group even went through Lucca to Sarzana, but left a reserve of French troops and Polish cavalry. The enemy had already penetrated until Borghetto on Vara, Aulla on Magra, and Sassalbo on the tops of the Apennines. The 3rd Polish Battalion, reinforcing the pass of Fivizzano, then joined the 55th Demi-brigade under  Chief  Ledru. The 1st Battalion reinforced the Borghetto point, while joining the 8th Demi-brigade, under Chief  of brigade Brun. Dąbrowski stopped in Sarzana with his grenadiers and chasseurs, and part of the cavalry under Forestier, to observe the enemy  at Aulla. His principal objective was to drive out the enemy, who was in force in Pontremoli, and to force it to leave the Apennines by 19. On May 23, consequently, he gave his orders. They were all carried out well, except for the center column, where the 3rd Polish Battalion, instead of encircling Pontremoli, by leaving this town to its left (according to the orders given),  joined, on 27, the reserve close to Scorsetolo, and did not occupy Monte Sungo. If this column had not missed the prescribed road, none of the enemy could have avoided capture. TLedru’s left wing column, in which was the lst Polish Battalion, attacked the enemy, on 25, at Borghetto, and pushed it back. Having then taken position at Cento-Croci, it still attacked there and forced the Austrian to escape, after a very rough combat.

5th Division General Jan Henryk Dąbrowski [2]

Dąbrowski (Pole) (1755-1818): 28/09/94 Generalmajor (Poland) then 1796 Lieutenant General (Poland) then 07/01/97 Général de division (Cisalpine Italy) then 04/07/01 Général de division (France army) « à effet rétroactif » from 10/02/00  commander of the 2e division 8 corps of the Grande Armée (at Friedland and the Beresina passage).

Division des débauches de l’Apennin – Armée de Naples

(April 19 – May 20 1799)  Campaign in Lunigiana

Commander of the Polish Legion (1st and 2nd Legion) – General Jan Henryk Dąbrowski
Vice commander – General Władysław Jabłonowski
Commander of the 1st Legion – Chef-de-brigade Maciej Forestier
Vice commander of the 1st Legion – Jan Strzałkowski
Major of the 1st Legion – Piotr Świderski

In May the 1st Polish legion had around 2800 effectives (900 per Battalion ).

Réserve Brigade Władysław Jabłonowski


16th Dragoon Regiment with Rusca at the Trebbia Chef-de-Brigade Michel-Bernard Leblanc


Chef-de-Escadron François Marie Clément de La Roncière (from July Chef-de-Brigade)

Polish Uhlans Lancers of the Legion (2 sqns) Chef-de-brigade Andrzej Karwowski


Polish Grenadier Battalion chef – Kazimierz Małachowski  (3 companies)


Polish Chasseurs (Inf.) Battalion     


Avant-Garde Detachement Eclaireurs (100 French + 220 Genoese)

Left Wing Brigade or Colonne Graziani

8th Light Infantry Demi-brigade Chef-de-Brigade Jacques-François Brun  [3]


I Battalion  1st Polish Legion Chef – Szymon Białowiejski


1st Light Ligurian Battalion  Genova and Sarzanato Lapoype in June


2nd Line Ligurian Battalion  Genova and Savona to Lapoype in June


Centre Brigade Chef-de-bataillon Ledru [4]


55th Line infantry Demi-brigade Chef François-Roch baron Ledru des Essarts


Had only two battalions. III/55e was in Ancona


III Battalion  1st Polish Legion Chef – Ignacy Zawadzki


Right Wing Brigade Des Partes

3rd Line Infantry Demi-brigade Chef-de-Bataillon Des Partes   III Battalion


II Battalion  1st Polish Legion Chef – Józef Chłopicki


Brun went, on 27, to Borgo-Taro, initially sending detachments to Bardi, Varzi and Belforte, along the Zeno and Taro Creeks, to observe the enemy till Fornovo. This group of the French light troops, with a Genoese battalion, under Chef Graziani, drove out the enemy deployed between the Vara and Magra creeks, and occupied Cisa on May 27. Dąbrowski, in person, led the reserve. He attacked the enemy  at Aulla from both flanks, and drove  them from their positions; the Austrians stopped and fortified themselves in Villafranca. However, realizing the Polish general had issued orders to surround the town with the chasseurs, and to attack them, in the same time, frontally with the grenadiers, they withdrawn into Filattiéra, pursued by the Poles who forced them to reach Pontremoli. In the meanwhile, the center column lost its way, as told, not being able to arrive at Monte Sungo, before 8 a.m. Dąbrowski, on the same day, entered Pontremoli  and returned to the center column of Monte Sungo, where the enemy, wanting to offer some resistance, was suddenly attacked and put in rout. The column pushed forward its outposts until San Terenzo, where the Austrians were rallying. A detachment of this column, intended to dislodge the Imperials from Sassalbo, attacked again, forcing the opponents to retreat to Collagna and the Secchia valley and occupying the fortified position of Linari.

The right column, in which was the 2nd Polish Battalion, under the Chief  Des Partes, went forward, on June 6, and attacked the enemy  at Sillano on the Serchio on the 7th, routed them and continued the advance until Ospedaletto, where it was joined by a patrol of the center column. The main column was directed by Des Partes towards Frassinoro, from where the Austrians threatened to fall onto his flank. The Austrians, protected by mountains, and defending the ground step by step, however were charged so impetuously, that they were forced to withdraw until Pavullo and Sassuolo. This column made its junction, on its right wing, with Montrichard’s division, deployed in Pieve-Pelago, having made a retrograde movement until the Apennines, after the retreat of the Moreau’s army of Italy . The French-Polish troops thus became, by this movement, lords of the Apennines and of all the passes, which led to the plain. Six artillery pieces, taken in Aulla, a large provision of cartridges, which were welcome since the French were rather short of them, large quartermaster’s stores given up by the enemy in Pontremoli, and 600 prisoners, were the results of this victory. The Polish legion lost, in these combats, about sixty men, and counted as many as wounded. General Dąbrowski had finished, on May 27, his advance and occupied the positions the General Victor, detached from the army of Italy , would have to take, for, at the moment, he was only arrived to Spezia.


[1] The famous revolutionary Antoine Merlin, called “de Thionville” in order to distinguish him from homonym Merlin de Douai, jurist, had three brothers in the army. The younger (1771) was Christophe-Antoine arrived to the lieutenant-General rank; Jean-Baptiste-Gabriel (1768) arrived to be brigadier general. The last, Antoine François, was born in Thionville (26 January 1765). The Adjudant-général Antoine François Merlin, in 1791, was a volunteer, sergeant major of the IV battalion de la Moselle. In 1793 he was Adjudant-général at the armée du North and, for a short time, was also brigadier general. In 1798 he was arrested in Coblenz, by order of the Directory and judged guilty by a martial court. Therefore he was suspended from the active duty. Recalled to the service as provisional chef de brigade, he was assigned to the armée of Italie. After the lose of Pontremoli, which caused the interruption of all the the connections between Genoa and the armée de Naples, he was again suspended from Macdonald and sent to Fort Carré, in Antibes, to be again judged in a new trial.

[2] General Jan Henryk Dąbrowski (pronounced Dombrowski) (1755-1818), Polish general, was born at Pierszowice in the palatinate of Cracow, on August 29, 1755. Raised and educated in Saxony, Dąbrowski served in the Saxon army where he reached the rank of Rittmeister in a guard cavalry regiment. He served for some years in the Saxon army; but when, in 1791, the Polish diet recalled all Poles serving abroad, he returned to his native land. Under Poniatowski, he took part in the campaign of 1792 against the Russians. In 1794 he distinguished himself under Kosciuszko in the defence of Warsaw. After the failure of Kosciuszko’s Insurrection Dabrowski was invited to serve Russia by Suvorov and Prussia by Frederick William II but he turned them both down, making his way to Paris where he was fested for his military successes. After the collapse of the Insurrection many Polish political activists had fled to Paris. In Paris, thousands of Poles offered to fight in the service of revolutionary France and to reinforce Bonaparte’s exhausted armies in Italy .

When it emerged that many of the prisoners captured during the Italian campaign were Poles from Galicia, drafted into the Austrian army, it was decided that Dąbrowski should organise a Polish Legion (formed in Milan, 9 January 1797); Dabrowski was given command over the Polish Legions in Italy (1798 – 1801). With the establishment of the Legion, Poles deserted from the Austrian army in droves and very soon a second Polish Legion was formed (1798) under General Zajaczek and later, in 1800, a third on the Danube under General Kniaziewicz.

This task he executed at Milan. In command of his legion he played an important part in the war in Italy , entered Rome in May 1798. The Polish Legions suffered terribly during the Italian campaigns; the Second Legion was virtually annihilated in the first battles on the Adige (26 March, 4 April 1799) and after the capitulation of Mantua when they were seized by the Austrians as deserters (as part of a secret agreement between the French commander Foissac-Latour and the Austrians). Dabrowski’s Legion also suffered terrible casualties both in the battle on the Trebbia (17 – 19 June 1799) and during the subsequent miserable conditions in the mountains of Liguria. After the peace of Amiens he passed, as General of division, into the service of the Italian republic. Summoned by Napoleon in 1806 to promote a rising in Poland , he organized several divisions of Poles, and distinguished himself at Danzig and at Friedland. Dąbrowski played an important role during the Polish Campaign when, after the liberation of Poznan, he established a military organisation made up of levies. When Napoleon reorganised the Polish army under the leadership of Poniatowski (taking the middle way between the extremes of Dabrowski and Zajaczek) Dąbrowski could not conceal his embitterment and animosity. Dąbrowski’s Legion was active in West Prussia and at the siege of Gdansk (Danzig), and later in East Prussia where it saw action at Friedland (1807). As part of the Army of the Duchy of Warsaw, Dąbrowski fought against the Austrians in 1809, the Russians in the campaign of 1812. In 1812 he commanded a Polish division in the being wounded at the passage of the Beresina. He fought under Marmont at the battle of Leipzig (1813), and in the following year returned to Poland .

Returning to Poland in 1813 he was designated by the Tsar to reorganise the Polish army, appointed General of the cavalry in 1815, and senator palatine of the Kingdom of Poland. He retired, however, in the following year, to his estates near Posen. From his estate at Wina-Gora, Dąbrowski acted as patron of the secret “Society of Scythemen” formed by former Napoleonic soldiers in Poznan; subsequently reformed as a branch of Warsaw’s “National Freemasonry” they were to play a useful part during the November Insurrection of 1830.General Dąbrowski died at his seat of Wina-Gora in Posen on the 26th of June 1818. He wrote several military historical works in the Polish language.

[3] Chef de Brigade Jacques François Brun (11.01.1762-31.10.1805) From 1794 to 1797 he served  in the Army of the Sambre-Meuse. During this period, in 1796, he was named provisional chef-de-brigade at the 8th Light infantry demi-brigade (August 3). The nomination was confirmed on January 22, 1797. In 1798 he was transferred in the Italy ’s army and then to the Tuscany division; finally to Macdonald’s army. In 1800 he was named general-de-brigade (May 21), a provisional award given by General Massena. He was confirmed General on October 26 and led a brigade at the Borghetto battle. He organised the French troops in the Cisalpine republic from July 1, 1801, and was awarded with the Commander Cross of the Legion d’Honneur (June 6, 1804). Leading the first brigade of the 2nd infantry division, from September 23, 1805, he fell on the battlefield, one month after, at Caldiero (October 31).

[4] Chef-de-brigade “provisional” Jean-François Roch Ledru baron des Essarts was born in Chantenay ( Sarthe), on August 16, 1766. His father was a notary. He made his studies in the Mans collége and entered the service as volunteer in July 1792, in a battalion of his department. The major Ledru ordered the 55th during the clash of Modena, under General Macdonald, as in the battle of Trébia, where he was wounded by a shot and was named Chief  of his brigade (ler messidor year VII – June 19). Directed on Genoa, he made the campaign under Masséna; he left there in a forced march towards Nice, in order to arrive before the enemy on the Var, and to defend the bridgehead.



Placed on the Napoleon Series: January 2008

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