Macdonald And Prince Eugene: the Battle Of The Piave, 1809
The famous victor of Hohenlinden, Jean Victor Moreau, was exiled for his part in the failed plot to overthrow France's powerful first consul, and soon to be emperor. Suffering the bitter consequences of his long association with Moreau, General Jacques Macdonald (1765-1840) could only watch in indignation as Napoleon ignored him the first appointments to the prestigious Marshalate in 1804. Although he was made a Grand Officier of the newly founded Legion of Honor, Macdonald, twice a widower, found himself and his young daughters forgotten and excluded from life at Napoleon's imperial court. Resigned to his premature retirement at Courcelles-le-Roi, his new country estate near Bourges, Macdonald and his girls quietly spent five years under the watchful eyes of Fouché's secret police.
As the years of disgrace passed, Macdonald agonized as fresh news came from the war front year after year, and campaign after campaign. He missed the soldier's life and it pained him to hear the glorious exploits of the emperor and his former colleagues at Ulm and Austerlitz (1805), Jena and Auerstadt (1806) and Friedland (1807).
Returning to Paris from Spain in early 1809, Napoleon found himself on the verge of yet another war with the Hapsburgs. Austria had been mobilizing for some time and despite early warnings, the emperor was caught off guard when Archduke Charles invaded Bavaria in early April. The campaign is notable to historians in that Napoleon would suffer his first decisive defeat at Aspern-Essling and fight his largest battle to-date at Wagram. But, the campaign was also somewhat significant in that it saw the return of General Macdonald to the command of French soldiers and his rise to the Marshalate.
The Army Of Italy And The Piava Campaign
With several marshals and many more generals of division occupied in Spain and Portugal, Napoleon found a great dearth of experienced senior field officers available to him. A large proportion of his best veteran corps were also busy on the Iberian peninsula. Therefore, the Emperor suddenly found himself short of trained troops and experienced generals to lead them into battle. This unfortunate situation ultimately led to Macdonald's recall to service under the imperial eagles.
Eugène Rose de Beauharnais was the only son of Alexandre and Josephine de Beauharnais. An army officer by trade, the elder Beauharnais had lost his head during the zenith of the Jacobin Terror. His mother had been imprisoned and came close to losing her life as well, but was saved during the Thermidorean reaction when Robespierre fell from grace. Some years later she clung to Bonaparte's rising star and assured herself and her children a future. Eugène served his stepfather in the campaigns of 1796-97 and in Egypt in 1798-99 as an aide-de-camp. With the founding of the Empire in 1804, he was promoted to general, soon followed by the honorary title of Colonel General of the Chasseurs à Cheval de la Garde Imperiale. In 1805 he was named a prince of the empire and made Napoleon's viceroy in Italy, where he served his stepfather loyally. In 1809 he was only 28-years old and eager to make a great reputation for himself. War with the Austrians was imminent and his inexperience was the source of great anxiety for Napoleon and the viceroy alike.
In a letter to Napoleon dated November 27, 1808, Eugène reported that his spies on the Austrian frontier were observing the recruitment, formation and training of new Austrian regiments to the east. In addition, the British navy was frequenting the port at Trieste where their officers openly visited the café's and theaters of the Italian city each evening. In January, Napoleon wrote his young viceroy, detailing a strategic plan of action should hostilities commence on the Italian front. The emperor made contingencies in a series of letters for either an offensive or defensive campaign. 
Although he believed an Austrian offensive was more likely in Eugène's Italian theater of operations, Napoleon remained confident that the Danube would be the principal front in 1809 as it had been four years before, while Italy would be of secondary importance strategically. In response to the aggressive nature of the Austrian mobilization, Napoleon began to raise troops to bolster his numbers in Germany and Italy. In January, 110,000 conscripts of the class of 1810 were prematurely called to service under French arms. Some of these raw recruits were destined for Italy where they would increase Eugène's Army of Italy. Simultaneously, the emperor authorized a fresh levy of Italian conscripts to join the viceroy's Italian division. The formation of a second such division was also authorized. French troops and garrisons were consolidated into a new French division under General of Division Pierre Durutte, a veteran of Hohenlinden who was disgraced in 1804 because of his previous association with Moreau.
By April 1, the Army of Italy comprised nearly 70,000 effectives, although a large number of these, especially in the Italian divisions, were untested, poorly trained recruits unaccustomed to the din of battle and the rigorous life on campaign. Eugène's army was composed of six French infantry divisions under the orders of Generals Serras, Broussier, Grenier, Lamarque, Durutte and Barbou d'Escourieres. The two Italian divisions were commanded by Italian Generals Severoli and Fontanelli. Theodore Lecchi, an Italian brigadier led the Italian Royal Guard. Macdonald's former subordinates Grouchy and Pully each had a division of French dragoons, while Louis Sahuc, a veteran of Valmy, Flerus and Hohenlinden commanded the light cavalry division. Eugène was also in nominal command of General Auguste Marmont's Army of Dalmatia across the Adriatic, which included two small, but veteran divisions under Clauzel and Montrichard.
In fact, Macdonald would be at no loss for former colleagues in the Army of Italy. Eugène was ably served by his chief of staff, General H. F. M. Charpentier who had fought under Macdonald at the Battle of the Trebbia, ten years earlier. The viceroy's commander of artillery, who joined the army in early May, was none other than General Jean Sorbier, Macdonald's chief artillerist during the Grisons campaign in 1800. Indeed, General Macdonald found himself surrounded by familiar faces and trustworthy companions among the Army of Italy commanders and Eugène's staff.
The Army of Inner Austria destined for Italy was under the command of the Archduke John, the younger brother of Charles and the Emperor Francis. John had a reputation as an enlightened prince, sympathetic to popular causes, but not as an experienced general. Thrashed by Moreau at Hohenlinden in 1800 when he was only eighteen, he had barely developed into an adequate field commander in 1809, and was a year younger than Prince Eugène, but he had the political support of Charles and Francis I. The mission of his army in the coming campaign was threefold; reconquer as much territory as possible, contain Marmont in Dalmatia, and instigate a popular revolt in the Tyrolean Alps positioned between Napoleon north of the Alps and Eugène in the south. 
John's Army of Inner Austria looked impressive on paper, numbering almost 100,000 troops. Unfortunately for its green commander-in-chief, only about half of this number were regular German and Hungarian regiments. The other 45,000-50,000 included recently raised conscript landwehr battalions, Hungarian Insurrection militia and assorted reserve formations, all of dubious quality. In June 1808, the Empire reluctantly began to recruit these landwehr units playing upon their nationalistic sentiments. They added another seventy raw battalions to the Hapsburg orders of battle. Very feudalistic in nature, the bulk of these conscripts were poor, unhealthy and uneducated peasants led by officers of inferior stock from the rural landed nobility.
In March, John's army was concentrating in the provinces of Carinthia and Carniola, while a small column, 10,000 strong, composed of Croatian border Grenz under General Andreas von Stoichewich stood ready to the south to oppose Marmont. The main army was composed of two corps; the 8th Corps under Feldmarschall-Leutnant Albert Gyulai and the 9th Corps commanded by the hereditary Ban of Croatia (military governor), Ignaz Gyulai. Feldmarschall-Leutnant Johann Marquis de Chasteler directed a small corps in the Austrian Tyrol. John could in reality field roughly 60,000 men without Stoichewich on the eve of the campaign. But, reinforcements were coming in daily.
In Milan, Napoleon's viceroy discovered that the Army of Italy was rapidly becoming a large, unwieldy command, beyond the grasp of one so inexperienced. Napoleon favored a corps system which allowed Eugène to organize his army and have it function in the contemporary French method. However, the selection of corps commanders meant the possibility of one or more of the emperor's marshals joining the army. Eager to shine in his first campaign in command, the viceroy feared the intrusion of a marshal who might undermine his authority or question his every move. On March 8, Eugène wrote his stepfather from his headquarters in Milan.
"I desire that your Majesty does not send here any of the marshals... I would prefer to deal directly with my divisional generals. I know them all and would work better with them. They are all very good and do not have the pretensions of the marshals."
The emperor decided to divide the Army of Italy into "wings," each under the command of a lieutenant general subordinate to Eugène. Although, Napoleon left it to his stepson to nominate his wing commanders, he would have the final say. Apparently, through the recommendation of the Empress Josephine and his sister, Hortense, Eugène nominated the unemployed General Macdonald for the first wing command, soon followed by two other veterans; Baraguey d'Hilliers and Paul Grenier. Like Macdonald, these men were no strangers to campaigning in Italy. D'Hilliers had served Macdonald well in 1800 in the Army of the Grisons and Grenier was one of Eugène's most experienced divisionals in the Army of Italy. The viceroy was young and hungry for glory in his first campaign, but he recognized the value of experience.
On April 1 or 2, the war ministry informed Macdonald of his appointment which he readily accepted with some reservations. After all it had been nine long years since he had taken the field. All Macdonald knew was that he was to prepare to travel to Italy where he would receive new orders from the viceroy. His carriage left Paris on April 13 after a sad farewell from his beloved young daughters, who were now old enough to understand the dangers Macdonald would inevitably face. The day before leaving Paris, the Austrians invaded Bavaria rather unexpectedly and the Franco-Austrian War of 1809 was begun ahead of the emperor's schedule.
Two days earlier (April 10), Napoleon approved his Italian viceroy's nominees, confirming it in a simple letter.
"You may, if you judge it convenient, employ Grenier, Macdonald, and Baraguey d'Hilliers as your lieutenants."
Again on the 12th, the emperor reiterated his decision.
"My son, I have given orders for General Macdonald to serve in the Army of Italy; he is going there immediately...I suppose that he will serve you to his utmost, and that he will serve in areas that call upon his talents and previous services. I have said nothing to him. He will be employed as a general of division, but he will be given command of a wing. This favor he will receive from you will tie him to you entirely."
In this last sentence, Napoleon once again displayed his mistaken belief that Macdonald could be easily duped, as he had attempted to do after Brumaire when he played him against Moreau. It would be many more years before the emperor could correctly gauge Macdonald's true character and motivations.
The editor of Prince Eugène's memoirs, Andre Du Casse, and the viceroy's chief apologist, Professor Epstein, note that Napoleon's letter of the 12th proves that it was not the emperor's intention to make Macdonald Eugène's military tutor or deputy commander-in-chief; a popular conception held by historians like Arnold, Thiers, Petre and contemporaries Pelet and Macdonald. Certainly, Macdonald held no such official or even unofficial position, yet that is in effect exactly what occurred. Macdonald was always free with advice, whether it was with previous superiors, or even Napoleon himself. In fact, to accept that Napoleon told his young viceroy the complete truth in this letter, without considering Napoleon's implicit desire to surround Eugène with experienced officers who would offer him valuable counsel, seems naive in the least. The emperor had already shown his reluctance to leave such an important command to his stepson. Surely he didn't send the viceroy veteran army and corps commanders with campaign experience thinking they would keep their advice and opinions to themselves. It's more reasonable to assume that Napoleon intended for his senior wing commanders to speak their minds openly, and in Macdonald's case plainly, and keep the virgin general from steering a disastrous course.
Far from Epstein's conspiratorial assertions of the existence of an "anti-Eugène" school of history, many prominent historians, including Petre, Arnold, Thiers and Pelet have chosen to bestow upon Macdonald a large portion of the credit for Eugène's success in 1809 based strictly on the record. That is not to say that the Prince did not develop into a fine and trustworthy field commander. In fact, as an individual Eugène remains one of the most virtuous and commendable figures of the Napoleonic saga. However, his performance at the Battle of Sacile (April 16, 1809) was lackluster to say the least; being thrashed by the less than highly regarded Archduke John. The Prince's record turned around dramatically with the arrival of Macdonald and the news of French victories in Germany. In the end it was Macdonald who effectively led the Army of Italy at Wagram and earned a marshal's baton; the one token Eugène coveted above all else.
As we have said, Macdonald hastily left Paris on April 13. In Italy, he stopped only briefly in Turin to visit his friend Caeser Berthier before passing on to Milan, where he first heard confused reports of the Army of Italy's defeat at Sacile. His carriage sped east toward Verona. At every stop the general found confusion and a lack of reliable information about Eugène's purported defeat at the hands of the Austrians. Macdonald remained calm. Napoleon believed the main campaign would be fought in Germany and any setback in Italy would be of secondary importance, and Macdonald would not question the great man's instincts.
"I had a high opinion of the military talents of the Emperor, who had so often performed miracles; I trusted him now, and I was right."
At Desenzano, near Lake Garda, Macdonald collected his first reliable piece of information concerning the fate of the Army of Italy. His carriage stopped a French colonel carrying orders to immediately begin preparing the forts of Piedmont for a defensive posture. Tired and visibly shaken, the colonel only briefly mentioned the defeat at Sacile before proceeding with his dispatches. Entering Verona Macdonald beheld the disorder of the Army of Italy.
"All was in confusion. The wounded were coming in large numbers, as well as fugitives, riderless horses, carts, baggage wagons, carriages..blocking the streets, and filling the squares; in short all the horrors of a rout."
A long column of siege artillery passed on its way west to Mantua. No one had any orders or news to relate to the arriving Macdonald. It was rumored that the army would rally at Mantua, but Macdonald could not believe Eugène would abandon the Milan-Brescia-Verona-Venice road. The following morning, Macdonald left for Vicenza against the advice of the local authorities. As his carriage lumbered through the gates of Verona that morning on the road east, he encountered a courier who confirmed that the prince was at Vicenza with his headquarters approximately 20 miles away.
An astonished crowd observed the general's carriage pull into the city some hours later while all others were preparing to march in the opposite direction before the pursuing Austrian army. Immediately Macdonald was surrounded by familiar faces of soldiers and officers whom he had led in the Roman Republic and in Naples so many years earlier (1798-99). Many complained loudly, blaming their defeat on the inexperience of their young commander-in-chief or the incompetence of their generals. The viceroy, upon learning of Macdonald's arrival sent for him and received him kindly, but the viceroy was in a state of despair, fearing his stepfather's reaction to the news of the French reverse at Sacile.
Macdonald asked the prince for his account of the affair before discussing the matter privately with the senior generals. Shamefully, each of them claimed their innocence and pointed their fingers at the inexperinced Eugène. Broussier and Grenier had performed well enough, but Sahuc and Barbou were uncooperative and showed very little ability in their commands. The prince claimed to have been drawn into battle on the Livenza River by the political pressures of Italian authorities who didn't want to see Hapsburg ascendancy over their territories once again. In truth, the desire for his first battlefield victory, his own impatience and an unhealthy lack of respect for the Austrian army were to blame for the disaster at Sacile.
In brief, the Army of Italy was widely dispersed before Sacile at Napoleon's orders. He wanted to avoid antagonizing the Austrians prematurely by aggressively concentrating the army. The emperor underestimated Hapsburg intentions and readiness in the spring of 1809 and in this respect he was to blame for Eugène's initial predicament. The viceroy expected any Austrian attack to begin at Tarvis. He was thoroughly surprised when John's VIII and IX Corps moved against Udine in the south. The Army of Italy fell back in good order across the Livenza and Tagliamento Rivers. On April 15, General Sahuc's ad hoc rear guard was surrounded and destroyed at Pordenone; a bad omen of the coming battle. The entire 35th Regiment of the Line (2,100 men) was surrounded and captured by two flanking Austrian columns. Half of the 6th Hussar Regiment was also lost in casualties and prisoners under the assault of the Hapsburg cavalry which heavily outnumbered Sahuc's rear guard.
On the 16th, Eugène unwisely decided to turn and receive John's onslaught with only 36,000 troops at his disposal. Sensing an easy victory, the archduke pressed the Army of Italy with 45,000 men and a five to one advantage in cavalry. Eugène suffered a crushing defeat at Sacile with the Livenza River at his back. One of the viceroy's staff officers, and a close friend, Baron Vaudoncourt put French and Italian losses at 3,000 killed and wounded with 3,500 more and 15 cannon captured on the battlefield by John's army. In addition, many officers and generals were wounded in the rout, including: Severoli, Garreau, Teste, Pagès, Dutruy and Martel. Conversely, the Austrians lost around 3,600 killed and wounded while 500 were made prisoners with the majority of the losses in the IX Corps.
Prince Eugène was greatly depressed over the loss at Sacile and on the 18th he expressed his distress in a letter to his young wife in witnessing "..the complete rout of our army."  While the Army of Italy retreated to the west many of the generals of the army blamed the viceroy in disgust for the humiliating setback. Many of them envied the position of the emperor's stepson and he had yet to earn their respect as a commander-in-chief. Vaudoncourt admitted most of the French generals "suffered impatiently under the command of Eugène who they considered a child." The Army of Italy, from general to drummer boy was bitter and demoralized after Sacile.
Regardless of his historical detractors, it is undeniable that Macdonald's presence had a positive effect on the morale of the army, especially at Vicenza. Having left Paris in a rush, Macdonald didn't have time to have new uniforms tailored for the coming campaign in Italy. Consequently, when he stepped from his carriage and met with Eugène and his staff and generals in Vicenza, he wore his antiquated Republican uniform, just the right touch to recall headier times for French arms among the soldiers. One artillery officer noted that his attire "gave pleasure to the old soldiers, but was ridiculed by the young ones and some presumptuous officers."
Nevertheless, Macdonald's sage counsel had an effect on Eugène. The general advised him to closely observe John's movements to determine events in Germany. If John moved slowly and hesitated, then nothing was settled in Germany. However, if the Austrian commander retired then Charles must be beaten on the Danube. Macdonald also reiterated the relation of the secondary theater in Italy to the emperor's primary operations to the north across the intervening Alps. While Macdonald is justly critical of Eugène's generalship when warranted, he praised the viceroy in his Recollections as a "really courageous and high-spirited young man."
On April 17, before Macdonald's arrival, Eugène had resolved himself to adhere to the emperor's earlier instructions, maintaining a defensive campaign upon the line of the Adige. In Vicenza on the 25th or 26th, Eugène held a staff meeting with his senior generals and ordered the withdrawal of several of his bruised divisions behind the Adige where they could regroup and await the archduke's lackadaisical pursuit. By the 27th, the movement was complete.
Macdonald takes much of the credit for the viceroy's deployments. By his account, a mentor-student relationship developed between the two men. In one instance, Eugène gave orders to a major of engineers for the construction of some defensive works when Macdonald, standing nearby, noticed the dumfounded expression on the officer's face. After the engineer was dismissed, Macdonald told the viceroy to call the major back and have him repeat his previous orders. When the officer couldn't, Macdonald told Eugène that this is how mistakes occur. He explained that he should always have subordinates repeat their verbal orders back to him to make sure he was understood.
On the last day of April, Napoleon at last received a sketchy, incomplete and deliberately vague after action report of the battle of Sacile. Infuriated by his stepson's incompetence, and a letter devoid of accurate information, the emperor ordered him to write to Murat, now King of Naples, and turn command of the Army of Italy over to him. Napoleon tried to patronize Eugène that serving under an older commander, such as Murat, would inevitably bring him great credit and much glory. Due to the great delay in communications caused by Austrian control of the Alps, it was several weeks before Eugène received this letter. By the time he did, events had changed dramatically for the Army of Italy with word of French victories on the Danube, and he was well on his way to pushing Archduke John into Hungary and out of the decisive campaign in central Austria. The viceroy never bothered to write for Murat.
Returning to Eugene's position on the 27th, he had concentrated the remainder of his main body, that is the divisions not sent beyond the Adige, around Caldiero, with his right at Arcola and his left to the north at Illasi and Cazzano. Archduke John's main army was centered at Villanouva, only a few miles east. However, due to the need for garrisons and flank and rear guards, his main body had dwindled to a mere 30,000. On the 28th, the viceroy ordered a two-pronged sortie from Caldiero which was rapidly repulsed with minor damage on each side. Macdonald commanded one wing of the attack, but was told to withdraw prematurely when the other French probe faltered.
At the same time, Eugène, Charpentier and staff set about reorganizing the Army of Italy. A reserve artillery component was formed under General Sorbier by retracting a portion of each infantry division's cannon and combining these with the guns of the Italian Royal Guard. Furthermore, Eugène stripped his voltigeur companies from the line battalions, who along with two squadrons of cavalry and a few guns, formed a "light brigade" which was to be employed as his advance guard under the leadership of General of Brigade Debruc. The army was growing daily as sick and wounded returned to their regiments and depot battalions arrived from other parts of Italy and Naples. Baraguey d'Hilliers had managed to suppress the Tyrolean rebels and militia rabble under Chasteler in the Alps and leaving a brigade to watch the far left flank of the army, complied with orders to rejoin the main body with the remainder of his force at Caldiero.
Preparing for his counteroffensive against John, Eugène placed Macdonald in command of the right wing with the divisions of Broussier and Lamarque, numbering 13,800 men. Grenier took the center with the divisions of Pacthod and Durutte, while Baraguey d'Hilliers was given command of the left with Rusca and Fontanelli. The viceroy held the Italian Royal Guard and General Serras' Division in reserve. The cavalry was comprised of Sahuc's light cavalry division and the dragoon divisions of Grouchy and Pully; forty squadrons and nearly 4,200 sabers in all. Sabers that Napoleon would soon need near Vienna.
While he reformed his army, Eugène decided to attack on May 2. He would attempt to catch John's depleted army in a double pincer movement between his 8,000 man garrison in Venice and his main army centered on Caldiero. The plan was bold and militarily sound and probably developed with the aid, experience and guidance of Macdonald, Grenier and the other senior generals of the army whom the viceroy trusted. His plan was interrupted, however, by the precipitous withdrawal of the Army of Inner Austria on May 1. Eyeing the enemy caissons and baggage trains on the move east through their spy glasses that morning, Macdonald confidently remarked that the French were victorious in Germany. Eugène shook the older general's hand with joy. The pursuit had begun.
Macdonald's assumption was correct. Archduke John had received a courier from Charles on April 29 informing him of the defeat of the main Austrian army in Bavaria. Left without support in the face of a strengthening opponent and the threat of a French force falling on his right flank through the passes of the Tyrol, John opted for a retreat back to the Austrian border. The withdrawal began around midnight on May 1 in three columns. It was this movement that Eugène and Macdonald witnessed from a distance.
On the 29th Macdonald had advised a reconnaissance in force to probe John's positions and the viceroy concurred. This reconnaisance became a full-fledged pursuit. The corps of Macdonald and Grenier marched on Soave and Villanouva while the reserve division of General Serras and the Italian grenadiers of the Royal Guard drove the Austrians from Monte Bastia, the plateau just east of Caldiero. John's strategy was simple. Leaving his rear guard to slow Eugène, his main body would recross the Brenta, Piave and Livenza Rivers, burning the bridges in their wake. Then his army would split into two columns. One army would march for Carniola and raise the feudal ban in Croatia, calling tens of thousands of militia to arms, while the second column marched north for Vienna, collecting landwehr formations from Hungary to lend succor to Charles' battered army. However, if the French and Italians held Monte Bastia they could outflank him on the right and cut off his only line of retreat. So, the following day (April 30), John threw eleven battalions at the high ground and succeeded in forestalling the French pursuit.
The bridges over the Alpone before John's position were blown, buying him yet another day before the French could cross the river. The main Austrian body fell back upon Citadella where John awaited the junction of his screening force from Venice. The nasty chore of commanding the Austrian rear guard befell one of the rare talents in the archduke's army, Feldmarschall-Leutnant Johann Maria Freiherr Frimont von Palota, the same man who had distinguished himself as commander of John's advance guard during the previous weeks. Frimont's rear guard included two regiments of hussars, two battalions of the Oguliner Grenz, and three battalions of the Erzherzog Franz Karl Regiment of line infantry, plus two and a half companies of artillery.
Eugène sent Durutte's Division south to Padua to collect the garrisons there and link up with the troops in Venice before moving north to harass the Austrians from the southern flank. The French crossed the Alpone at midnight on May 2 and before the sun rose in the morning sky, Debruc's advance guard was hotly engaged with Frimont's brigade at Montebello. Outnumbered in guns and cavalry, Debruc could make no headway against the skillful and determined Frimont. Wounded in the action, Debruc was replaced by Colonel Renaud of the 30th Dragoons. Frimont passed safely beyond the Brenta, burning the bridge behind him.
The French engineers worked feverishly to repair the bridge over the Brenta. Durutte in the south collected a large force and began to march north with troops and a supply train. Meanwhile, the viceroy ordered General Rusca, one of Macdonald's veterans from the Army of Naples in 1799, to repossess Trent, thereby denying Chasteler in the southern Tyrol the ability to join with John's army. As the Austrians passed through Treviso, John directed the army to Conegliano where he would concentrate behind the Piave River before his retreat continued to the Tagliamento. Eugène and the Army of Italy made great exertions to follow step for step. As he massed his corps on the Piave for an all out attack on May 6, he received Napoleon's admonishing letter of April 30, calling for the viceroy's replacement with the King of Naples. About to unleash his advantage in numbers and momentum upon his equally youthful adversary, Eugène ignored the letter.
The Battle Of The Piave
The Army of Italy moved into position along the Piave River and organized for battle on May 6-7. Eugène determined that his newly-formed light brigade would play a major part in the coming battle and he increased it to divisional size, replacing Colonel Renaud with one of Broussier's most able brigadiers, the energetic General Dessaix. The light division now comprised six voltigeur battalions, the 9th Chasseurs à Cheval, and four artillery pieces. The river standing between the French and their Austrian prey was several hundred yards wide and ran swiftly from the northwest to southeast, eventually spilling its snow-melt waters into the Venetian Gulf. Macdonald described the Piave as "a wide and swift torrent, like all those in Italy; but they can all be forded except in the case of heavy rain or melting snow."
Learning from his mistakes at Sacile, and with better counsel, this time Eugène managed to concentrate six infantry divisions, three cavalry divisions, Dessaix' light division, the Italian Royal Guard and Sorbier's reserve artillery before seeking battle. The Army of Italy reached nearly 50,000 while Archduke John could only manage 30,000. The Austrians, who were more concerned with their leisurely retreat home than facing a pursuing enemy bent on retribution, were concentrated between the river and Conegliano, less than six miles to the east.
After a careful reconnaisance of the east bank of the Piave on May 7 conducted by the 8th Chasseurs à Cheval, supported by Pully's dragoons, Eugène crafted a daring plan of attack for the following morning based on the fords across the Piave. That night, under the cover of darkness, the Army of Italy moved into position. The first ford on the French left at Nervesa was assigned to Serras' Division where he would feint and draw the Austrian main body, while Grenier's Corps and the three cavalry divisions of Sahuc, Grouchy and Pully would cross unnoticed at San Nichiol on the far right and attack them from the south. However, the critical sector would fall in the center at Priula where Frimont's rear guard had burned the bridge.
The French plan called for the light division under Dessaix to ford the Piave at dawn and hold a bridgehead across the river while the engineers hastily built a pontoon bridge to allow Macdonald's and Baraguey d'Hilliers Corps to cross and smash the confused Austrians as John scattered to cover the movements on either flank at Nervesa and San Nichiol. On the left bank in the center, Sorbier would place a massive artillery battery to cover Dessaix across the river until the bridge was completed.
The night before the battle, John was at Suisignano and his VIII Corps was strewn from that village to the hamlet of San Lucia. FML Ignaz Gyulai's IX Corps was camped between San Lucia and Bocca di Strada close to Nervesa. A total of three battalions and scattered cavalry pickets guarded the right bank from Nervesa to Priula. Eugène's reports during the night indicated that the Austrians were still in the retreat mode and were not anticipating an attack.
As dawn rose on the 8th, volumes of artillery fire erupted all along the twelve mile course of the Piave from Nervesa to Ponte di Piave. Serras' and Grenier's guns opened up barrages on the flanks while Sorbier's heavy 12 pounders of the reserve artillery swept the plain opposite the river near Priula, driving off a surprised Austrian battalion which was assigned the task of watching the burnt bridge left by Frimont. Under Sorbier's excellent cover, Dessaix and his voltigeurs and light cavalry splashed into the Piave and began wading for the right bank. The noise of the guns interrupted Archduke John who was having breakfast. The Austrian commander-in-chief did not desire a major engagement. However, if he failed to repulse the French attack, Eugène's divisions would be across the river before noon and the slow moving Austrian baggage and supply trains would certainly be caught in their tracks.
John's counterattack was poorly coordinated and confused. A division of cavalry under FML Christian Wolfskehl von Reichenberg accompanied John's chief of artillery, GM Anton von Reisner's twenty-four gun battery to hold the crossing in the center at Priula. Another infantry brigade of six white-coated battalions and the Archduke Joseph Hussars trotted off for San Nichiol to greet Grenier and the French cavalry. Four battalions of crack grenadiers and two battalions of Croatian Grenz formed the reserve at Campana, only a mile east of Priula, behind the protective line of the dike which ran parallel to the river.
By 8:00 a.m. Dessaix' men were across the river and the pontoon bridge was well underway. At almost the same time, Reisner's artillery battery began to fire on Dessaix' exposed division, which was formed neatly into checkerboarded squares to fend off the first Austrian cavalry assault which had descended upon them from Wolfskehl's Division. The Austrian fire was horribly destructive, tearing gaping holes in the French files. The dead surrounded the perimeters of the squares while the wounded crawled to the middle of the formations. Only a vicious counter-battery fire from Sorbier's reserve guns saved Dessaix.
By mid-morning, the French cavalry had crossed the San Nichiol ford and joined Dessaix' Division. Eugène sent Sahuc and Pully into a double envelopment of the main Austrian position in the center, which succeeded in catching the Austrian cavalry and artillery in flank. Wolfskehl's Division was routed and the artillery battery butchered by the French cavalry. Fourteen Austrian guns fell into their hands and Wolfskehl and Reisner were both killed in the struggle. After reordering their regiments, Sahuc and Pully pursued the broken Austrian cavalry fleeing toward Campana until they halted in the face of the Hapsburg infantry waiting in reserve.
John's defense at Priula was broken, and the young commander-in-chief prayed he could contain the French foothold on the right bank until evening came affording his battered corps the opportunity to slip away beyond Conegliano. Still, the French could not yet claim victory. Nature and time were working against them. The swirling waters of the Piave began to rise and gain momentum as the noon hour approached. The pontoon bridge was sunken below water level leaving only submerged guide posts and two parallel ropes to direct the infantry across.
Macdonald who was waiting with his two divisions on the left bank made every effort to stop some of the broken, disordered troops of Dessaix' Division who had fled their formations during the Austrian bombardment and were seeking the safety of the left bank. Macdonald jumped into the water, sword in hand, shouting at the demoralized fugitives. Then his divisions under Broussier and Lamarque began to wade through the torrent, completing the passage before 1:00 p.m. Several men were washed downstream. Reforming on the right bank, Macdonald joined the cavalry divisions, Sorbier's artillery which had crossed the pontoon bridge earlier, and part of Durutte's Division from the San Nichiol ford. By 3:00 p.m., the river was impassable. With nearly 30,000 troops on the right bank, and the archduke's line spread thinly across his front, Eugène opted to press home his attack before nightfall. At 4:00 p.m., the French artillery pounded the Austrian line in preparation for the attack while the light division and Sahuc's cavalry pinned the VIII Corps on Eugène's left. General Grenier attacked on the right of the French line in an attempt to turn John's weak left flank. The two dragoon divisions supported Grenier's infantry. The main assault in the center was left to Macdonald, the viceroy's senior and most experienced corps commander.
When John's left flank caved in under the weight of Grenier's flank attack, Macdonald's columns charged home against the center of John's line. The Austrian IX Corps crumbled before Macdonald's Division's. The archduke committed his last reserve grenadier brigade, but they were heavily outnumbered and quickly gave way to Macdonald's attack. Broussier and Lamarque swept into Campana before Macdonald pushed them on to Bocca di Strada where they linked up with Grouchy's and Pully's dragoons. The Austrians were routed as the sun finally sank in the western sky around 7:00 p.m. on May 6. John's corps fled toward Conegliano and Sacile further to the east.
Eugène and the Army of Italy had found their revenge at the Piave. Epstein figures the Austrian losses at 5,000 casualties and 2,000 more captured to maybe as many as 2,000 French. Also crucial to the archduke's losses were the French capture of fourteen guns, thirty caissons and the numerous baggage and supply wagons on which the lifeblood of an Austrian army in the field depended. Coincidental or not, the viceroy's conduct of the campaign improved dramatically after Macdonald joined the army, especially at the Piave. And while Macdonald's Recollections on the affair might be too harsh and critical of Eugène's role as commander-in-chief, there is also no denying Macdonald's important contribution to the victory at the Piave and the viceroy's dependence on his senior lieutenant general. This pattern of reliance and trust would become more evident during the following pursuit of John's army into Hungary and in the campaign's apex at Wagram as Macdonald's role becomes more independent of Eugène's direction.