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Savary: Memoirs of the Duke of Rovigo
Volume 1, Part 1, Chapter 17 b

After dispatching his orders, the First Consul directed the whole army to wheel its front upon the left wing of its centre, moving its right wing forward at the same time. By this movement he effected the double object of turning all the enemy's troops who had continued the pursuit of our broken left wing, and of removing his right to a distance from the bridge which had proved so fatal to it in the morning. There is no accounting for the motive which the general commanding the left of the Austrian army may have had for neglecting to prevent so decisive a movement ; but whether he did not anticipate it, or waited for orders, he merely sent some bodies of cavalry to intercept our retreat, not deeming it possible that we could have any other object in view than to secure it. Though placed in such a position as to enable him to dispute, with doubtful success at least, the First Consul's manoeuvre, he did not even attempt to obstruct it.

Whilst General Desaix was engaged in conversation with the First Consul the Austrians had not been inactive. Their march had been so rapid, that, when he rejoined his corps, he found them already firing upon his rear : he sent skirmishers against them, and hastened to make his arrangements. His troops, to the number of nine battalions, were ranged upon three lines, a little to the rear of the small village of Marengo, close to the high road from Tortona to Alexandria. The First Consul had deprived General Desaix of his artillery in order to unite it to the artillery of the guard, and thus form an overwhelming battery in the centre,

It was now three o'clock: very few musket-shots were heard: the two armies were manoeuvring, and preparing for a last effort

General Desaix's division occupied the point which came nearest in contact with the enemy, who were advancing in close, deep columns along the road from Alexandria to Tortona, leaving the latter town on their left. They had nearly come up to us, and we were only separated by a vineyard lined by the ninth light infantry, and a small corn-field, which the Austrians were entering. We were not more than a hundred paces apart, and could distinguish each other's features. The Austrian column halted on perceiving Desaix's division, the position of which became so unexpectedly known to them. The direction of its march would infallibly bring it upon the centre of our first line. It was no doubt endeavouring to ascertain our strength previously to opening its fire. The position was becoming every moment more critical. "You see how matters stand," said Desaix to me; "I can no longer put off the attack without danger of being myself attacked under disadvantageous circumstances: if I delay I shall be beaten, and I have no relish for that. Go then in all haste and apprise the First Consul of the embarrassment I experience; tell him I cannot wait any longer; that I am without any cavalry,* and that he must direct a bold charge to be made upon, the flank of that column, whilst I shall charge it in front."

I set off at full gallop, and overtook the First Consul, who was causing the troops placed to the right of the village of Marengo to execute the change of front which he had directed along the whole line. I delivered my message to him, and after listening to it with attention, he reflected a moment, and addressed me in these words: " Have you well examined the column ?" " Yes, General (he went by this title at the time I speak of)." "Is it very numerous?" " Extremely so. General." "Is Desaix uneasy about it?" " He only appeared uneasy as to the consequences that might result from hesitation. I must add his having particularly desired I should tell you that it was useless to send any other orders than that he should attack or retreat—one or the other; and the latter movement would be at least as hazardous as the first."

* He had no more than two hundred hussars of the first regiment.

" If this be the case" said the First Consul, " let him attack: I shall go in person to give him the order. You will repair yonder (pointing to a black spot in the plain), and there find General Kellermann, who is in command of that cavalry you now see ; tell him what you have just communicated to me, and desire him to charge the enemy without hesitation as soon as Desaix shall commence his attack. You will also remain with him, and point out the spot through which Desaix is to debouch ; for Kellermann does not even know that he is with the army."

I obeyed, and found Kellermann at the head of about six hundred troopers, the residue of the cavalry which had been constantly engaged the whole day. I gave him the orders from the First Consul. I had scarcely delivered my message when a fire of musketry was heard to proceed from the left of the village of Marengo; it was the opening attack of General Desaix. He rapidly bore down with the 9th light regiment upon the head of the Austrian column: the latter feebly sustained the charge; but its defeat was dearly purchased, our general having fallen at the very first firing. He was riding in the rear of the 9th regiment, when a shot pierced his heart: he fell at the very moment when he was deciding the victory in our favour.

Kellermann had put himself in motion as soon as he heard the firing. He rushed upon that formidable column, penetrated it from left to right, and broke it into several bodies. Being assailed in front, and its flanks forced in,* it dispersed, and was closely pursued as far as the Bormida.

* General Berthier had a picture painted of this battle. The painter, who is a military officer, is unquestionably a man of talent, but, following up the rules of his art, he has removed the charge to the right flank of the column, whereas it took place on its left. This does not affect the merit of the painting, and I only make the observation in adherence to historical truth.

The large masses of troops that were in pursuit of our left no sooner perceived this defeat than they retreated, and attempted to reach the bridge in front of Alexandria; but the corps of Generals Lannes and Gardanne had accomplished their movement: those masses had no longer any communication with each other, and were compelled to lay down their arms.

The battle, which until mid-day had turned against us, was completely won at six o'clock.

As soon as the Austrian column was dispersed I quitted General Kellermann's cavalry, and was returning to meet General Desaix, whose troops were debouching in my view, when the colonel of the 9th light regiment informed me that he had been killed. I was at the distance of only a hundred paces from the spot where I had left him: I hastened to it, and found the general stretched upon the ground completely stripped of his clothes, and surrounded by other naked bodies. I recognised him, notwithstanding the darkness, owing to the thickness of his hair, which still retained its tie.

I had been too long attached to his person to suffer his body to remain on this spot, where it would have been indiscriminately buried with the rest.

I removed a cloak from under the saddle of a horse lying dead at a short distance, and wrapped General Desaix's body in it, with the assistance of an hussar, who had strayed on the field of battle, and joined me in the performance of this mournful duty. He consented to lay it across his horse, and to lead the animal by the bridle as far as Gorrofolo, whilst I should go to communicate the misfortune to the First Consul, who desired me to follow him to Gorrofolo, where I gave him an account of what had taken place. He approved what I had done, and ordered the body to be carried to Milan for the purpose of being embalmed.

Being only an aide-de-camp to General Desaix. at the battle of Marengo, my personal observations were limited to what the duties of that situation enabled me to see ; whatever else I have mentioned was related to me by the First Consul, who felt a pleasure in recurring to the events of this action, and often did me the honour to tell me what deep uneasiness it had given him until the moment when Kellermann executed the charge, which wholly altered its aspect.

After the fall of the Imperial government some pretended friends of General Kellermann have presumed to claim for him the merit of originating the charge of cavalry. That general, whose share of glory is sufficiently brilliant to gratify his most sanguine wishes, can have no knowledge of so presumptuous a pretension. I the more readily acquit him, from the circumstance that, as we were conversing one day respecting that battle, I called to his mind my having brought to him the First Consul's orders, and he appeared not to have forgotten that fact. I am far from suspecting his friends of the design of lessening the glory of either General Bonaparte or General Desaix: they know, as well as myself, that there are names so respected that they can never be affected by such detractions ; and that it would be as vain to dispute the praise due to the chief who planned the battle, as to attempt to depreciate the brilliant share which General Kellermann had in its successful result. I will add to the above a few reflections.

From the position which he occupied General Desaix could not see General Kellermann: he had even desired me to request the First Consul to afford him the support of some cavalry. Neither could General Kellermann, from the point where he was stationed, perceive General Desaix's division : it is even probable that he was not aware of the arrival of that general, who had only joined the army two days before, Both were ignorant of each other's position, which the First Consul was alone acquainted with ; he alone could introduce harmony into their movements; he alone could make their efforts respectively conduce to the same object.

The fate of the battle was decided by Kellermann's bold charge: had it, however, been made previously to General Desaix's attack, in all probability it would have had a quite different result. Kellermann appears to have been convinced of it, since he allowed the Austrian column to cross our field of battle, and extend its front beyond that of the troops we had still in line, without making the least attempt to impede its progress. The reason of Kellermann's not charging it sooner was, that it was too serious a movement, and the consequences of failure would have been irretrievable; that charge, therefore, could only enter into a general combination of plans to which he was necessarily a stranger.

The check recently suffered by the Austrian army was too severe not to be attended with disastrous consequences. General Melas had consumed that time in fighting which he ought to have employed in regaining the Po by way of Turin and Placentia. The favourable opportunity was lost, and that object was no longer attainable.

Massena, having been reinforced by the small corps commanded by General Suchet, had re-entered Piedmont, and might look forward to obtain successes over a defeated army like that of M. de Melas. Ours, on the contrary, was intoxicated with its victory, and ardently desired to give the Austrians a finishing blow. Had M. de Melas hesitated in coming to some resolution, he would have been irretrievably destroyed.

He was in a disagreeable position, more particularly after his triumphant entry into Genoa. He was compelled, however, to submit to necessity, and have recourse to negotiations. He sent a flag of truce to the head-quarters at Gorrofolo. General Zach, the chief of his staff, was still there. Having been taken prisoner on the preceding day, he had held a long conversation with the First Consul; and was acquainted with the desire felt by the latter for peace, and with his intention not to make a bad use of his victory, by imposing conditions upon the Austrian army which their honour would compel them to reject.

General Bonaparte proposed that he should go and acquaint M. de Melas with his intentions. M. Zach accepted the proposal: he departed with the flag of truce, joined his commander-in-chief, and hastened back to report that the latter accepted the bases transmitted to him. General Berthier immediately repaired to Alexandria, and concluded with M. de Melas a convention, in virtue of which the latter engaged to retire behind the Adige by filing off through our ranks: he was also to evacuate the fortified towns of Piedmont, and restore to our possession those of Italy as far as the Mincio. This convention having been ratified, the First Consul took his departure for Milan, and left to General Berthier the care of seeing it carried into effect. Some difficulties arose with respect to the article relating to Genoa. Massena had received orders to occupy that city, which had been only a few days out of his possession. He demanded it back of the Prince of Hohenzollern, who had been left as its governor by General Melas with a large body of troops. The prince, feeling wounded at such an act of humiliation, refused to comply. Massena made his report of this untoward event; but the Austrian army had already quitted Alexandria to repair to the Adige. The question was a delicate one. Nevertheless, as the stipulations were quite positive as the Prince of Hohenzollern's corps formed part of the army which was to evacuate Italy, and as Genoa was one of the cities the restoration of which was agreed upon, it became the duty of M. de Melas to put an end to the opposition lately raised : he acted on the occasion with a frankness which did him honour; he summoned the prince to obey, and declared, that if he persisted in his refusal, he should abandon him and his troops to the consequences that must be the result of his obstinacy. Being summoned in so peremptory a manner, Hohenzollern dared not persist in disowning the capitulation; he delivered up the city, and followed the road taken by the Austrian army.  Return to Top

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