Napoleon's Near Disaster at Marengo: June 14, 1800

This text comes from our book, Light to the Nations II: The Making of the Modern World.

While the cardinals wrangled over who would be the next pope, Napoleon Bonaparte turned his tireless energy to bring lasting peace to France. This was a daunting task, for France again faced war from without, and rebellion from within. Angry over the Directory’s persecution of religion, the Vendée had again risen in rebellion; meanwhile, the allied powers were threatening to invade France to place Louis XVIII on the throne he claimed was his own.

Napoleon Bonaparte as First Consul

How did Napoleon meet these challenges and threats? As for the Vendée, he showed tolerance. He promised the Vendeans complete freedom of religion and, in February 1800, they laid down their arms. To the allies, however, he would not be so gentle. With them, he would meet force with force.

Napoleon’s campaign against the allies would be twofold. He appointed the talented general, Jean Victor Moreau, to command the “Army of the Rhine,” and sent him to fight the allies in Germany. Napoleon himself, however, would lead the second force, the “Army of the Reserve,” into Italy. During the first months of 1800, he gathered his forces; in April, he began his march into Italy.

To invade Italy, Napoleon chose the St. Bernard, a high and perilous pass over the Alps. The Austrian general in Italy, the 71-year-old Michael Friedrich Benoit Melas, would not expect an army to enter Italy by that route. The passage of the St. Bernard, which began in mid May, required a tremendous effort; Napoleon’s army had to dismantle its artillery and carry it, piece by piece, along the high, narrow dirt road that climbed 8,100 feet before plunging into the Lombard plain. On the Italian slope, a small “castle,” Fort Bard, guarded the pass. Napoleon thought that he would have no difficulty taking Fort Bard; but to his surprise, its stout defenders held the French army off for over two weeks, from May 21 to June 5, 1800.

Heroic depiction of Napoleon crossing the Alps by his court painter, Jacques-Louis David

While Napoleon tried to take Fort Bard, the Austrian army under Melas was finishing its own siege of the city of Genoa, where a French army had been holed up since April 20. In early June, the French commander in Genoa had learned that Napoleon was coming; but the siege had been so bitter (his men were forced to eat hair powder to keep themselves alive) that on June 4 he surrendered his army to the Austrians. The next day, Napoleon at last took Fort Bard and continued his march into the plains of northern Italy.

The Austrian commander Michael Friedrich Benoit Melas

Thinking the Austrian army was not large, Napoleon did what he normally would have thought foolish. He divided his army, sending units off in different directions. Thus, when he met Melas at Marengo, south of Alessandria, Napoleon’s army was both outnumbered and outgunned—the Austrians had 270 cannon while Napoleon had less than 20. Not long after the battle began on June 14, 1800, Napoleon realized his mistake—before him was the full Austrian force, not just a part of it. As the battle progressed, and the French were being pushed back farther and farther, Napoleon sent pleas to his detached forces to hurry to him. But would they arrive in time? By 2 p.m., it seemed that the Austrians would overwhelm Napoleon’s forces.

Christophe Kellermann

Napoleon was heading toward his first defeat and the possible destruction of his entire army. Such a defeat would mean the end of Napoleon’s power, for it would break the spell that made people think him invincible. But in the late afternoon, his fortune changed. One of his army’s scattered detachments, 6,000 men, arrived and joined the 5,000 Napoleon had left on the field. (He still had 5,000 in reserve.) His forces were still outnumbered and outgunned, but Napoleon calmly formed up his men for the final act that would either win him the battle or destroy his army.

Shortly before dark, one of Napoleon’s generals, François Christophe Kellermann, spied a weakness in the Austrian line and commanded a cavalry charge. The 400 mounted French rushed into the Austrian lines. First one and then another Austrian battalion fell back before the onslaught. Soon the Austrians were in full retreat to the bridge spanning the river that separated them from Alessandria. As night fell, the Austrians made good their escape, but the field was Napoleon’s. Against all odds, he had won a great victory.

Melas was still powerful enough to fight, but he chose not to. Instead, he surrendered and signed an armistice with Napoleon that allowed the Austrians to keep their guns and ammunition but demanded that they leave Italy.

With the Battle of Marengo, Napoleon had recaptured all of Lombardy for France. But for himself he gained much more. Because of Marengo, Napoleon now really seemed invincible. His victory assured him the affection and confidence of his countrymen and the fear and dread of his foes.

Battle of Marengo, by Louis-François Lejeune.

But Napoleon was not the only general to win a victory in this war. A few months after Marengo, on December 3, 1800, Moreau and his Army of the Rhine beat the Austrians at the Battle of Hohenlinden, east of Munich, and then pushed into Austria. By Christmas 1800, the French stood only 100 miles from Vienna. That same month, another French army defeated the Austrians in northern Italy while a third French army occupied Trent. On January 11, 1801, the Austrians signed an armistice with the French. In February, both sides signed the Treaty of Lunéville.

The Treaty of Lunéville brought an end to the war on the continent. Great Britain was at war with France; but, being a sea power, she could do little to France by land. At long last, after many years, France and Europe were at peace. But how long peace would last, no one could say.

A Harbinger of a Musical Revolution

Only two months before the Battle of Marengo, a composer who admired Napoleon premiered his first symphony, in Vienna, the capital of Napoleon's great enemy, Austria. This composer, named Ludwig van Beethoven, wrote in a style characteristic of the music of the previous generation, particularly that of his teacher, Josef Haydn; yet, one can hear in the symphony an earnest of the style that would soon transform European music much like Napoleon was altering the continent's map. This performance of the Symphony 1 in C major features the Vienna Philharmonic under the direction of Herbert von Karajan.

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