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Marengo Revisited

Summary Articles
The Battle of Marengo

Research Articles
Questions & Debates

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Primary Documents
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Questions and Debates
The creation of any detailed account of the Battle of Marengo is a difficult task. This is due to the battle's pivotal role in shaping modern day Europe. The narrow victory by French forces at this battle enabled Napoleon Bonaparte to consolidate his power base as First Consul of France. This in turn forced the other major powers of Europe into the position of negotiating with the man who had inherited the Revolution, the same Revolution which those powers had been trying to crush since 1792. This narrow victory also forced a youthful Napoleon to take aggressive propaganda measures in order to stabilize his slippery grip on power. These measures did not diminish over time, and any official reports about Marengo, while not pure fiction, must still be read with a cautious awareness of their intent. Austrian and other "foreign" military reports connected to Marengo were just as prone to the ravages of uncertainty and political pressure, so these sources must also be evaluated with great care.

What then is to be done? How does one describe a battle in which many key participants had an agenda which did not always coincide with actual events? Where does one draw a full picture of a battle which, like all battles, is confusion at best, and complete mayhem and death at worst? The time for an accurate picture of this battle is probably lost. We can, however, maintain the search for previously unknown documents and strive to understand this battle and others like it in a neutral light. This last item is of crucial importance. The length of the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars rubbed nationalistic feelings raw, and the propaganda machines of all nations involved had already moved into high-gear long before the conflicts reached their height. These attitudes and misconceptions resonate even in today's world, for even at the time of this writing, a casual observer can note distinct groups or individuals, some of whom have noticeable agendas. This has been exacerbated by the post-war recovery as nations who suffered grievous embarrassments during World War II attempt to highlight more glorious and favorable roles from earlier times. This form of revisionism requires caution because of the nationalistic fervor which often accompanies it. People caught up in such movements may consider an author or source to be neutral one decade, and radical the next, depending on where the pendulum of opinion sways at the time. When reading any secondary source ¹ , readers are encouraged to watch for signs of rancor or partisanship which can distort facts.

With all of the above factors in mind, let's review a few of the better known debates and questions regarding Marengo. Some of these issues will be covered by Microhistory articles scheduled to be released here in the Research Articles section.

The Bormida Bridges: Late on June 13th, the evening before the battle, Napoleon ordered the elimination of the Austrian bridgehead on the Bormida River west of Marengo. This would have been a typical precaution since bridgeheads have long been recognized as unknown and therefore dangerous quantities in any equation. At the very least, disruption of an enemy bridgehead can impede an opponent's plans, as indeed happened at Marengo. ² That evening however, the French officers charged with the destruction of the bridgehead were not able to achieve their goals. This fact was supposedly transmitted to Napoleon who persistently claimed that this was not done. The ensuing failure in communications resulted in French Headquarter's belief for several crucial hours that the main Austrian attack on the 14th was a diversionary attack.

Clarification of this situation would help to establish how much French Headquarters, and especially Napoleon, knew about the status of the Bormida bridge and hence the possibility of a genuine Austrian threat. Possible witnesses: Napoleon, Lauriston, Gardanne, Victor.

Monnier's Performance: The movements of General Jean Monnier's division at Marengo has been the subject of debate, partially because of the reputedly disgraceful performance of at least one of the division's regiments, and also due to Monnier's actions, which brought criticism from his C-in-C (Napoleon). It appears that post-battle official accounts "transformed" Monnier's battlefield deployments in an attempt to gloss over any appearance of impropriety on the part of French troops during the battle.

Clarification of this situation would help to establish the level to which French officials "embroidered" battle reports with fictitious actions. Possible witnesses: Napoleon, Monnier, St.Cyr, Ott, Elsnitz.

The Consular Guard Attack: Most accounts from this period indicate that the French Consular Guard infantry conducted a rearguard action against heavy odds, suffering substantial (but not crippling) casualties in the process. At least one Austrian secondary source dating from 1823 claims the actual destruction of the Consular Guard infantry at the hands of Austrian cavalry.

Clarification of this situation would help to establish what actually happened to the Consular Guard during its famous rearguard action. Possible witnesses: Napoleon, Lannes, Victor, Murat, Bessieres, Vogelsang, Retz, Sticker, Frimont.

Desaix's Return: General Louis Desaix's return to the battlefield is surrounded with some uncertainty. He has been credited with marching to the sound of the guns, forcibly being recalled and having halted for further orders. Since he unfortunately died, the matter devolves to his subordinates and fellow officers, many of whom wrote lengthy reports and post-war memoirs.

Clarification of this situation would help to establish what actions were undertaken by Desaix before his actual return to the battlefield east of Marengo. It would also hopefully establish what time he returned and with how much time to spare before the battle resumed. Possible witnesses: Desaix, Savary, Napoleon, Berthier, Dupont, Lebrune, Boudet..

Kellermann's Charge: The climax of the final battle at Marengo occurred when General Francois Kellermann charged his cavalry brigade into the flank of the Austrian pursuit column which was then tightly engaged with Boudet's division. There was later much debate as to whether Kellermann's charge had been a spontaneously conceived act, whether orders were issued for the move, or whether some other combination of actions lay between the two main options.

Clarification of this situation would help to establish whether Kellermann was under general orders to support Boudet's division, or under specific orders to aid in Desaix's counterattack against the Austrian pursuit column. It would also help to establish the reliability (or lack thereof) of several different sets of reports and memoirs. Possible witnesses: Kellermann, Desaix, Savary, Boudet, Lejeune, Guenand, Napoleon, Berthier. Return to Top
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