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Napoleon: The Italian Campaign- For Glory and Plunder

Updated on August 19, 2012

A Quick Recap

Napoleon and his French army have marched into Italy and thus far have suffered barely any setbacks. It seems, the only danger the French face is from themselves, their army, on several occasions have lost their heads in the midst of victory, going on a looting and pillaging rampage. However, this didn’t stop them from winning key victories at Millesimo, Dego, Ceva and Mondovi and thus knocking the Piedmontese out of the war. Napoleon now turns his army east for a march across the Po Plains, to battle the last remaining foe, the Austrians.

Crossing the Po Plains

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French Infantry

The French Infantry only started to wear blue after the Revolution.
The French Infantry only started to wear blue after the Revolution.

Austrian Infantry

The White worn by the Austrian army was very similar to what the French army wore prior to the Revolution
The White worn by the Austrian army was very similar to what the French army wore prior to the Revolution

March across the Plains

After the Armistice of Cherasco, which officially ended Piedmont’s participation in the war; the French army took an opportunity to pause and reorganise itself. General Beaulieu took advantage of the pause to evacuate his base at Alessandria and cross the Po River at Valenza. Meanwhile, Bonaparte managed to bolster his forces with an extra 36,000 fresh new recruits. He also took the time to open up a new line of communications with French forces on the Col di Tende.

Napoleon however, faced a tricky problem; he knew he had to cross the river, but he would have to do it without any sort of Bridging Train, and there was also the additional risk of running into Beaulieu’s army. He made the choice not to chance such a risky move; instead he marched his army 50 miles downstream, and crossed at Piacenza. When Beaulieu realised what the French had done, he hastily abandoned his position at Valenza and marched his men eastwards to join up with General Liptay, who was holding a small village called Fombio, which lay just north of the Po. The idea behind the move was to protect a possible line of retreat from Valenza to Cremona.

On the 8th May, the French attacked Liptay, driving him out of the village, forcing him to pull back his army, bar a rearguard he left in Codogno, northeast of Fombio. The same night, the French moved against Codogno and managed to easily drive out the rearguard, claiming the town for themselves. However, as dawn broke the next day, a fresh Austrian advance guard attacked Codogno with intense violence. The French were taken aback by the sheer ferocity of the attack, and were panicked enough to accidentally kill their general, Leharpe as he was making his way back to camp. For a short time, the French seemed vulnerable and confused, but Leharpe’s replacement, Berthier took the situation by the scruff of the neck and drove the advance guard out of Codogno before Beaulieu arrived with the main force.

As the sun set on the 9th May, French Generals, Massena and Augereau had entered the fray, crossing the river and uniting at Casalpusterlengo. Realising the situation was lost; Beaulieu ordered a full retreat northwards, crossing the River Adda at Lodi.

The Battle of Lodi

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The Battle of Lodi

By now it was certain to everybody that Milan was going to fall, as it now lay undefended after Beaulieu’s retreat. Even so, Bonaparte maintained an almost obsessive determination to annihilate his opponent’s army. So instead of making for the iconic city, he pushed his men onwards towards Lodi, hoping to finish Beaulieu off once and for all. The town itself was located on the west bank of Adda, a heavily fortified place, with four bastions, protected by four ditches. Despite this, the Austrians made no attempt to defend the city, opting to retreat once again, to take up a defensive position at the eastern end of the bridge that crossed the River Adda. Just, as the first French Skirmishers entered the town, the last of the Austrians were scurrying over the bridge.

The French Infantry eager to continue fighting charged across the bridge, but came under heavy fire; their eagerness had cost them, with no support they were forced to withdraw. When Napoleon arrived, a couple of hours later, he was far from happy, as he never intended to just simply send his infantry over the bridge. Instead he sent General Beaumont and his cavalry up river to try to outflank the enemy. However, Beaumont was delayed by the lack of a crossing opportunity, leaving Napoleon no choice but to order his infantry over the bridge again, the infantry were nervous, but Napoleon whipped them up into such a patriotic frenzy, that they charged with little fear. The first wave met with fiery resistance and was forced back, from halfway across. Unbowed, Bonaparte ordered Massena to lead the second charge, this time it was successful, with some soldiers even jumping into the river to wade a few feet to the opposite bank.

The Austrians responded with a Cavalry attack, which very nearly succeeded in forcing the French back, but the timely arrival of General Beaumont put paid to any hopes of an Austrian victory. Once more, they retreated, firstly to Fontana, then on to Cremona, all the while being hotly pursued by the French. Napoleon sent Massena on to occupy Milan, intending to join him in a few days.

An Entry fit for an Emperor

Napoleon's entry into Milan was a throwback to the Roman Emperors of old.
Napoleon's entry into Milan was a throwback to the Roman Emperors of old. | Source

Entry into Milan

The victory at Lodi guaranteed French domination of Lombardy. On the 15th May 1796, Bonaparte arrived in Milan by coach, escorted by 500 cavalry and 1000 foot soldiers. As he entered the town centre, he encountered a scene, reminiscent of the triumphal entries of the Romans. He stopped close to the ancient gateway known as the Porta Romana, got up and mounted his small, white horse, Bijou. He rode alone, at the front, with his generals just behind him. As a reminder to the people of Milan who was now in control, a small group of Austrian prisoners had preceded the procession. They marched proudly towards the gateway where the city dignitaries had emerged to hand Bonaparte the keys to the city.

The Porta Romana was so narrow that only two cavalrymen could pass through at one time. Beyond that, was a field where a commemorative arch of leaves and flowers had been erected for the occasion. The new National Guard, charged with protecting the city were dressed in green uniforms with tricolour cockades in their hats. They smartly formed a guard of honour along the route to the cathedral, keeping the crowds at bay, who had come to see this little man from France who had marched into their city. Most of the crowd, it has to be said were not of the people, rather they were Bourgeoisie; many were sympathetic to the French course or were just curious.

So, there it was, barely a month into the campaign and Bonaparte had managed to conquer a major Italian city. However, the initial popular acclaim that he was greeted with did not last; as the French once again embarked on a pillaging rampage, stripping the city of cash, supplies and priceless works of art, that were transported back to the National Museum in Paris. By doing this Napoleon hoped that he would be regarded as a modern day version of Caesar. It certainly seemed ironic; Caesar had marched out of Rome and conquered France, now France’s version had marched out of France and had made quick progress into Caesar’s homeland.

The Porta Romana, Milan

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The Pursuit Continues

Napoleon stayed in Milan for a week in order to personally organise the transportation of the city’s fine art back to Paris. Satisfied, he left on the 22nd May to continue his pursuit of Beaulieu, but suffered a setback as he was forced to return to Milan two days later to quell a number of riots that had broken out among the native population. Once the native hostility had been cooled, he was able to resume his campaign by storming the town of Borghetto on the 30th May; he achieved the added bonus of scattering Beaulieu’s rapidly depleting army. Two days later though, Napoleon and his staff were surprised by several Austrian scouts. He barely evaded capture, managing to vault over several garden walls, losing a boot in the process.

Bologna From the Air

In 1796, Napoleon expelled the Papal Authorities from this city.
In 1796, Napoleon expelled the Papal Authorities from this city. | Source

Siege and the Lure of Plunder

Buoyed by their success at Borghetto, the French pressed on, with Augereau attacking Peschiera, while Serurier concentrated on advancing towards Castel Nuova. Massena after claiming the honour of being the first to enter Milan now marched into another famous Italian city, Verona. Beaulieu retreated up the shores of Lake Garda to the town of Trento. However, around 4000 of his men were cut off and forced to take refuge in Mantua.

Mantua was another very impressive fortress town, swamped with cannon and 12,000 men tucked safely behind the city walls. Serurier and his men arrived on the 4th June, and was charged with capturing the fortress, but it was more than evident that he didn’t have enough men to complete the task fully. Instead he opted for a blockade and made preparations to bombard the city into submission. By the end of July, over 12,000 shells had been fired into the city, and it seemed that Serurier was ready to plan a direct assault on the city. But the defenders of Mantua would soon get some much needed help.

While Serurier was encountering difficulties at the walls of Mantua, Napoleon’s incurable lust for plunder led him to conduct a barely believable invasion of the Papal States, the heartland of Catholicism. The official reasoning behind the invasion was out of vengeance for the murder of Ugo Bassville, a French Diplomat in February 1793, but it was more likely that hatred of the church and the prospect of Papal gold that was driving him onwards. On the 19th June, Napoleon entered Bologna and expelled the Papal authorities based there. Pope Pius VI conscious of the desperateness of the situation tried to sue for peace, and got his wish four days later, with the Peace of Bologna, which gave Napoleon control of the areas surrounding Bologna and Ferrara, thus securing the southern approach to Mantua. Additionally, the Pope was ordered to pay 21 million francs, surrender 100 pictures, over 500 manuscripts and busts of Junius and Marcus Brutus, two heroes of the Roman Republic.

The French Government were less than satisfied with the treaty and refused to acknowledge it until the Pope agreed to scrap a number of the terms outlined in the Civil Constitution of the Clergy, which is thought to have been one of the many factors behind the French Revolution. Pius refused to accept such terms, but Napoleon would have to wait before he could strike against the Papacy again, as assistance was required to maintain the siege on Mantua.

More to follow:

References

http://www.historynet.com/general-napoleon-bonapartes-italian-campaign.htm

http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/campaign_napoleon_italy_1796.html#1

http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/people_napoleon.html

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Napoleon_Bonaparte

Boycott-Brown, Martin,The Road to Rivoli, Cassell & Co, 2001

Chandler, D,The Campaigns of Napoleon, Macmillan, 1966

Dwyer, P, Napoleon- The Path to Power 1769-1799, Bloomsbury Books, 2008

Fiebeger, G. J,The Campaigns of Napoleon Bonaparte of 1796–1797, US Military Academy Printing Office, 1911

Foreman, L & Phillips, E, Napoleon’s Lost Fleet, Discovery Books, 1999

Grant, R.G, Battle, Dorling Kindersley, 2010

Rothenberg, Gunther, The Napoleonic Wars, Cassell, 1999

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