Military historians have always understood that a few battles and campaigns in history achieved immense importance and permanent legacies for the world while most others did not. Among those military operations deserving of special recognition during the Napoleonic Era were the Italian Campaign of 1800 and Battle of Marengo fought in northwestern Italy on June 14, 1800.
The backdrop of the battle
It is impossible to appreciate the significance of that campaign without a consideration of the state of affairs in France and Europe at the beginning of the year 1800. France had been convulsed by more than a decade of Revolutionary turmoil, chaos, and uncertainty in the political, social, economic, cultural, and religious realms that exposed deep divisions among the French populace. Furthermore, the nation had endured nearly eight years of war against the European powers with inconclusive consequences after an erratic series of victories and defeats. As a result, the French people desperately yearned for peace on the international front as well as stability and tranquility on the domestic scene. However, French armies still encountered the Allied armies of the Second Coalition in Holland against the English, in Germany against mainly the Austrians, and in Italy against the Austrians with no end in sight to the fighting.
Meanwhile, only seven weeks prior to January of 1800, General Napoleon Bonaparte had overthrown the unpopular and ineffective Directory government and prevailed in the creation of a constitution that assigned preeminent executive authority to himself as First Consul. Almost immediately, Napoleon formulated a list of seven accomplishments that his regime aspired to fulfill. Nevertheless, the attainment of all of his plans depended initially on achieving a rapid and decisive triumph on the battlefield that would compel the Allies to negotiate a peace settlement. Toward that purpose, he organized a 45,000-man Army of Reserve around the eastern-central French city of Dijon and quickly prepared its combination of veterans and recent conscripts to march into either southern Germany or northwestern Italy to assist French armies already fighting there to defeat the enemy.
The importance of the Italian theatre
The Italian Campaign of 1800 and Battle of Marengo can be summarized briefly. Napoleon ascertained correctly that the most crucial war-front was located in Italy because the Austrians had concentrated their most formidable forces there to consolidate their control over the peninsular northern half. Therefore, he assumed command of his Reserve Army, directed it in a daunting march across the 8,000-foot Grand St. Bernard Pass, outflanked the main Austrian army besieging a French force under Andre Massena at Genoa, cut the enemy supply lines, trapped them between two French armies, and commenced maneuvers to inflict a swift strike on the adversary.
A ‘decisive battle’?
The decisive battle that Napoleon sought, however, did not unfold as he had hoped. Miscalculating that the Austrian commander, Michel Melas, would endeavor to escape his entrapment by choosing flight over a fight, the First Consul dispatched two divisions under Louis Desaix toward the south and a smaller contingent toward the north of his central position near Alessandria. Moreover, faulty French intelligence apparently encouraged Bonaparte toward the erroneous assumption that the bridges over the Bormida River had been destroyed. Thus the Reserve Army was unprepared for the all-out Austrian offensive that was launched on the morning of June 14. For three hours the French courageously held their ground in spite of being outnumbered at least two-to-one while sustaining much higher casualties than the enemy. By the early afternoon, however, an Austrian massed column was methodically pushing French forces from the field in a retreat verging on collapse. Yet by three o'clock Desaix had arrived with news that reinforcements would soon appear on the scene.
Three events turned certain defeat into smashing victory. Auguste Marmont, commander of the artillery, hastily assembled a battery of eighteen cannon whose deadly blasts disrupted the enemy ranks. Then musket volleys plus a vigorous charge by the Desaix division into the Austrian front blunted and shocked its advance. Finally, a timely heavy-cavalry charge by four hundred horsemen under Francois Kellermann completed the enemy confusion and commenced their retreat and rout. After twelve hours of fighting the Austrians had lost forty guns, 8,000 prisoners, and 6,000 dead. A traumatized General Melas requested an immediate armistice that evening and signed a convention the next day ceding Lombardy to France and committing the Austrian government in Vienna to enter peace negotiations.
On the negative side, however, Marengo had been a very costly and inconclusive win. The Reserve Army had suffered over 5,000 casualties who comprised one-fourth of all French soldiers engaged in the fighting. On July 17, only three days after the battle, Napoleon departed for Paris with no guarantee of a peace settlement and a strong likelihood of the resumption of war on all fronts.
Marengo in the bigger picture
In truth, the indecisive victory at Marengo was only one of several developments that eventually destroyed the Second European Coalition against Revolutionary France. Even before Napoleon had returned from Egypt on October 13, 1799, a French army commanded by Massena had won an impressive triumph over a Russian force at the 2nd Battle of Zurich on September 26, 1799. Almost simultaneously, a second Russian army under the celebrated Alexander Suvorov, attempting to join the other contingent by crossing the St. Gotthard Pass from Italy, had been devastated by severe winter weather and French resistance in the Reuss Valley of Switzerland. These two disasters prompted the Russian Tsar Paul (1796-1801) to quit the Second Coalition in December. Furthermore, an enormous problem for the Allies was the divisive rivalries and jealousies among their statesmen and generals that contributed to fatal strategic and tactical blunders. After Marengo, French forces under Guillaume Brune and Alexandre MacDonald steadily pushed the Austrians out of Italy and then penetrated Austrian territory. Meanwhile, the English in Holland were pressured to abandon their Continental invasion. Finally, General Jean-Victor Moreau won a major decision over the Austrians at the Battle of Hohenlinden outside of Munich in January, 1801. The Treaty of Luneville that ensued in February, 1801 brought jubilation to France, although British diplomats prolonged peace negotiations for another year until the Treaty of Amiens in February, 1802.
Yet historians and the world have always focused on Marengo for obvious reasons as the most crucial event that terminated the Second Coalition. It can also be stated that rarely in history has such an indecisive victory contributed so much to very decisive results. The First Consul had departed from Paris shortly after midnight on May 6 and returned on July 2 after an absence of only fifty-eight days with his reputation for brilliance, genius, and invincibility not only intact but actually enhanced. More than any other event or development, Marengo elevated Napoleon's popularity, prestige, and power in France to its zenith while solidifying his regime and strengthening his authority. In addition, the political opposition intriguing for his overthrow during his absence on campaign had been thwarted. Furthermore, Marengo demonstrated to the European monarchs and aristocrats of the Old Regime that in the short span of only a few days General Bonaparte could leave Paris, assume command of French forces, and inflict deadly destruction on their armies. The entire endeavor was worthy of the description of a “lightning campaign”.
The Romantic Slant
Also, in this Age of Cultural Romanticism, the Marengo Campaign included various occurrences that sparked the imagination of a world susceptible to sentimentality and sensationalism. There was the bold strategic conception and superb execution of the entire campaign, the masterful and calm tactical handling of the battle under very tense circumstances, the spectacular crossing of the St. Bernard Pass by 45,000 men with artillery amidst snow and ice, the gift of two rescue-dogs to the General by the monks at the summit-refuge, the dramatic denouement of the battle that turned tragedy into triumph, the instantaneous death of the heroic General Desaix during the charge that marked the turning point in the combat, the quick armistice and evacuation by the Austrians, and the victorious reappearance of the First Consul in Paris after his earlier disappearance from the capital city for nearly two months.
The Grand Consulat!
The four years of peace following these events provided Napoleon with sufficient time to devote his extraordinary energy and scintillating intellect to the inauguration of reforms and the creation of institutions that have identified him ever since as one of the most successful rulers in all of history. The First Consul rapidly proceeded to establish the most efficient and vigorous central government in the world staffed by highly competent, educated, and honest administrators recruited from all political backgrounds and persuasions. Some of the governmental institutions and practices, such as the Council of State, have survived to the present.
In the economic and financial sphere, after more than a decade of disorder and governmental bankruptcy, Napoleon consolidated the national debt, attained relatively balanced budgets, increased state revenues vastly, reorganized the system of taxation in the direction of fair assessment and collection, expanded trade, and founded the Bank of France to assist business enterprises.
The supreme contribution of Napoleon to France and Western Europe was the codification of the civil and criminal laws, or Code Napoleon, that largely succeeded in preserving many of the revolutionary principles of liberty & equality while combining them with some of the best concepts of authority and order from the Old Regime. The Code still applies today in modified form in most nations of Western Europe.
The Concordat of 1801, to a great extent, began to bridge the wide gap between religious and secular Frenchmen while mandating a high degree of spiritual freedom that would be embraced at least in theory by all subsequent French governments and that would have won the admiration of Voltaire, Diderot, and “good” King Henry IV. (1589-1610).
Most of the philosophes of the Age of Reason had promoted the idea of a supreme ruler possessing high intelligence and wisdom who might wield absolute authority in the attainment of efficient government, rational and universal laws, religious toleration, scientific advancements, and significant human progress. Many of the 18th-century intellectuals would have probably hailed Napoleon as the almost perfect personification of Voltaire's enlightened despot and Aristotle's philosopher-prince.
Marengo in art, cuisine and music
Less monumental yet noteworthy nonetheless were three legacies of the Marengo Campaign in the areas of art, cuisine, and music. On the subject of painting, Jacques-Louis David, later known as the official “first painter to the Emperor”, created several canvasses entitled Napoleon Crossing the Alps at Mont Saint Bernard. The painting became one of the most famous and recognizable works in the history of art. In a style of Romantic extravagance, David depicted a handsome First Consul as the penultimate embodiment of heroic dynamism and dramatic action, wearing a flowing red cape while riding a rearing grayish-white horse. In reality, as honestly expressed in the official Bulletin of the campaign, Bonaparte unspectacularly traversed the pass wearing simple furs and riding a brown mule from which he fell in the snow on at least one occasion.
In the culinary category, Napoleon always endeavored to eat his dinner on the battlefield where so much human exertion had conjured up a healthy appetite. However, his chef discovered on the evening of Marengo that sufficient ingredients for a chicken dish were lacking, especially cream for the sauce. Therefore, after reconnoitering that locality of Italy, he collected enough tomatoes, garlic, and white wine to produce a dish that is still called Poulet Marengo today.
In the world of serious music, most lovers of grand opera classify Tosca composed by Giacomo Puccini and initially performed in 1900, as one of the ten or even five greatest operas ever. Not coincidentally, this musical masterpiece premiered during the centennial year of the Battle of Marengo. Puccini had been inspired by the tragic drama of the same name written in 1887 by the most famous French playwright of the day, Victorien Sardou, who had intentionally created his work for the most celebrated actress in the world–“divine” Sarah Bernhardt. The event around which the plot revolves was the Battle of Marengo. The initial reports from the battlefield announced a French defeat and Austrian victory that inspired consternation in Paris while eliciting celebration in Vienna, Rome, and London. The villain of the play and opera was the corrupt, depraved, and sadistic Papal minister of police in Rome, Baron Scarpia. He has ordered the singer Floria Tosca to sing a Te Deum to commemorate Bonaparte's defeat while he is torturing Tosca's lover Mario Cavaradossi, both of whom are liberal-minded revolutionary sympathizers. One of the opera's most memorable arias is sung by Cavaradossi as he addresses Scarpia after the arrival of accurate information that Napoleon had actually won at Marengo:
The avenging dawn appears
that makes the wicked tremble!
You will see me here rejoice
at the torture suffered;
your heart is trembling,
O Scarpia, executioner!
A monumental battle…
In summation, the historian can persuasively propose that truly there was monumental meaning at Marengo because that battle, more than any other occurrence, enhanced Napoleon's power, stabilized the Consulate government, and enabled the transformation of modern France and Western Europe that became his permanent legacy in the political, legal, social, economic, and religious realms. No other soldier-statesman (army general-turned-political leader) in history accomplished as much of a positive and beneficial nature with his reforms and institutional foundations as did Napoleon–not Alexander the Great, not Julius Caesar, not Charlemagne, not Frederick the Great, not the Duke of Wellington, not George Washington or Andrew Jackson or Ulysses Grant or Dwight D. Eisenhower, and not Charles de Gaulle. Indeed, few political figures in all of history came close to matching his achievements. It is one of the most significant reasons why the world continues to study with fascination and awe the General, First Consul, and Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte.
Vive la France et Vive le Premier Consul!