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Marengo Revisited

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The Battle of Marengo

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A microhistory is a close examination of a very specific action, usually an attack, which happened during a much larger battle. Such detailed investigations are becoming more popular as the ongoing explosion in communications highlights the well-trodden ground of general histories relating to the more popular conflicts such as the Napoleonic Wars, The American Civil War and World War Two. A prime example is a recently published work which gives a detailed account of Pickett's Charge during the Battle of Gettysburg in 1863. This welcome development in the area of writing and research reveals the "silent demand" for military history research and related works. Hopefully the future will see more work of this kind as researchers and enthusiasts big ever deeper into the mountains of records, accounts and artifacts still remaining from these tragic struggles.

The microhistory below represents an effort to shed new light on a famous event which occurred at the end of Marengo. As the Austrian pursuit column and Boudet's division fought each other to a standstill, French General Kellermann's brigade of heavy cavalry charged into the left flank of the Austrians, who immediately surrendered. This shocking incident was notable in many respects. Not only was it unusual for so many elite infantry to surrender en-masse under such conditions, but the results of the victory quite literally changed the course of European history. Also worth noting is the rancorous disagreement which followed, mostly regarding the inspiration for the charge itself. Like the death of the Red Baron many years later, the final cavalry charge at Marengo brought forth several competing views of those last moments, with the key participants sometimes giving the most divergent views. This problem may never be solved, but we can at least attempt to present all possible views and assess each of them for their merits.

Marengo Microhistory : Kellermann's Charge
The finale to Marengo was profoundly influenced by General François Kellermann's brilliantly executed cavalry charge against the Austrian column which was threatening the French center. This charge has long been portrayed as a purely spontaneous act, conceived and executed by an observant cavalry officer who saw what needed to be done and acted, saving the day and his nation.

However, there are problems with the spontaneous act story; first, the very subject of the charge itself is fraught with partisan accounts, many of which are just as heavily based on opinion as actual facts. Second; there is the problem as to how a cavalry officer stationed several hundred yards (400 hundred yards according to Kellermann) to the right rear of an echeloned division managed to spot and identify an enemy formation which lay on the far side of a vineyard to the left front of the aforementioned adjoining division. Even well known combat reports state that the Austrian column itself could not see much of Desaix's division until it was almost on top of it, so visibility across the ground held by Desaix was obviously not good.

Also, as will be seen, even Napoleon was mostly uninformed as to the true nature of the advancing Austrians, another indicator that the front of the main Austrian pursuit column was not clearly distinguishable from the rest of the Austrian troops which were also to the front of the French positions. Keeping this in mind, both General Berthier, effectively the Chief-of-Staff for the French Army, and General Savary, Desaix's aide-de-camp at Marengo, stated later that Napoleon ordered Kellermann to charge, with Savary further stating that it was at Desaix's request. According to Berthier:

"Dans ce moment Bonaparte ordonne à la cavalerie qu'il avait conserveé en resérve, en arrière de la droite de la division Desaix, de passer au galop par les intervalles, et de charger avec impétuosité cette formidable colonne de grenadiers..."

TRANSLATION: " At that moment Bonaparte ordered the cavalry held in reserve to the right rear of Desaix's division, to pass at the gallop through the intervals, and charge with elan that tremendous column of grenadiers"

Savary's relation of the incident from the first volume of his 1828 memoir was more personal, and therefore especially interesting. As it begins, he is receiving instruction from Desaix regarding the precarious nature of the impending counterattack:
" 'Tell him [Napoleon] that 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 delivered my message to him, and after listening to it with attention, he reflected a moment, and addressed me...'have you well examined the column?' ...'Yes, General' ...'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 order than that he should attack or retreat - one or the other ; and the latter movement would be at least as hazardous as the first.' "
" '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...it was the opening attack of General Desaix."
" 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."

If this account is accurate, it is full of valuable details regarding the last moments of Marengo. First of all, it likely includes some of Desaix' final recorded words. More importantly, it explicitly states that Kellermann was operating under orders when he charged, an act not so unbelievable when viewed from a soldier's perspective. Another interesting detail is that even Napoleon did not know the specifics of the advancing Austrian column. His questioning of Savary reveals that only the troops immediately to its front were really getting a good look at that formidable column of Austrians. That French headquarters was still in control of the process of issuing orders however, is reinforced by Joseph Petit, who stated that when the Austrians approached, orders "flew everywhere in a moment," indicating a continuing control over the conduct of the battle.

As for Kellermann himself, as early as 1818 he claimed very openly that the inspiration for the charge was his alone. ¹ He and his supporters always maintained that the only orders he received were very general operational orders to support Boudet's division, and that the French counterattack was being repulsed at the moment of his charge. In 1834 he responded to the claims and counterclaims of his own conduct at Marengo with the following tersely worded reply:

" Cette action decisive et imprévue ne fut ni préparée ni combinée ; elle fut moins longue à exécuter qu'à raconter. L'armée francaise aurait eu le temps d'être culbutée, si un ordre avait du être transmis pour l'exécution de cette charge. Le général Kellermann avait reçu l'ordre d'appuyer Desaix, ce qui implique l'ordre de charger dans un moment favorable ; mais l'intelligence de ce moment, l'inspiration soudaine qui l'a fait réussir appartient au général Kellermann"
TRANSLATION: " This decisive and unforeseen action was neither prepared nor combined ; it took less time to execute than to tell. The French Army would have had the time to be toppled, if an order had to be transmitted for the execution of this charge. General Kellermann received the order to support Desaix, which implies the order to charge in a favorable moment ; but the intelligence of this moment, the sudden inspiration that made it succeed belongs to General Kellermann. "

Modern readers must understand the atmosphere surrounding this issue, and hence the rather confused reading of Kellermann's statement. The accusations and recriminations following the Napoleonic Wars went on for years after Napoleon's final exile. The royalist government took a dim view of those who had participated so successfully in the revolutionary and Napoleonic forces, and this does not even begin to address the rancorous arguments between those who felt that the revolution had been betrayed. It is not surprising then, that Kellermann would surround a terse third person ² acknowledgment of having received an order ("...General Kellermann received the order to support Desaix...") with a great deal of language meant to reinforce and enhance his own role that day, a subject which will be covered further on in this article.

The important point is that this statement by Kellermann only partially agrees with Savary's account. Both acknowledge that Kellermann was ordered to support Desaix, but Kellermann maintains that his orders were general support orders. Savary on the other hand, spent six pages of his 1828 memoirs reciting a detailed account of the entire event in which he emphatically maintained that Kellermann received explicit orders to charge at a particular moment in a particular place. In the first volume of his 1828 Memoirs of the Duke of Rovigo, Savary claimed to have spoken with Kellermann about this very issue and recalled the conversation in this way:

" 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...As we were conversing one day respecting that battle, I called to his mind my having brought him the First Consul's orders, and he appeared not to have forgotten that fact. "

Later, at the end of the third volume in the series, Savary re-opened the "Kellermann case" upon discovery that Kellermann and other undisclosed friends were indeed claiming full credit for the final victory. The most glaring detail to come out of Savary's third volume rebuttal is the claim that Kellermann actually argued with him momentarily upon receiving his orders to support Boudet. According to Savary, Kellermann claimed that his troops were too tired to execute an attack. Savary claims to have avoided mentioning this detail in his earlier volume, but supposedly felt forced to mention it given the ongoing claims with which he so strongly disagreed. This one claim alone raises the stakes of the competing views, not the least because it casts a considerable pall over the writings of either Savary or Kellermann. It remains to be seen which is the most accurate.

There are of course, several primary sources who support the position that Kellermann originated the idea for the charge. Colonel Lejeune stated such points without hesitation. And while he was indeed Berthier's aide-de-camp, his memoirs have few tangible details, giving only a brief and fleeting glimpse of the fighting at Marengo. His painting of the battle, while interesting, was executed with an eye for drama and not for technical accuracy. Some of the many questionable details in the painting include the depiction of Kellermann's cavalry charge sweeping in from the right side of the Austrian pursuit column instead of the left, and the portrayal of the artist himself as well as Napoleon and Berthier on the scene of the final action, with the later even shown as being out in front of the French lines. The painting itself was apparently commissioned by Berthier, which may explain the dramatic distortion of the scene.

As for other officers in that area of the field at the time, Marshal Auguste Marmont was at Marengo as general in charge of artillery, and has often been quoted in order to support the spontaneous charge idea, with the most commonly used quote being:

"It is absurd and unjust to gainsay the glory of this memorable circumstance and the immense service that it has rendered."

Even this less than descriptive line however, is drawn from a section of Marmont's personal memoirs which also specifically mentions Kellermann as having been under general orders to support Desaix:

" Kellermann avait été mis aux ordres du général Desaix; il avait pour instruction de suivre le mouvement des troupes et de charger quand il verrait l'ennemi en désordre et l'occasion favorable. "
TRANSLATION: " Kellermann had been under orders of general Desaix; he had instructions to follow the movement of the troops and to charge when he saw the enemy in disorder and the opportunity favorable ."

This closely matches Kellermann's position that he was under general orders, but that the actual inspiration of the charge itself was his own. In either case, Marmont was busy giving direct fire support to Boudet's division and does not appear to have been present either at French Headquarters or with Kellermann's division at the time of the charge. So his opinions regarding Kellermann's inspiration or lack thereof can not carry the same weight as those who were on the scene at French Headquarters or Kellermann's brigade.

Another witness to the battle was Marshal Soult, who was held prisoner at the time in nearby Alessandria. He witnessed the battle from a distance, and so was hardly in a position to know the nature of Kellermann's orders. Soult mentioned in his memoirs that Napoleon ordered Kellermann to make the charge, but as with Marmont, he was not in a position to really know this first hand, and so his account is most likely representative of his opinion.

Finally, we come to Napoleon and Desaix, two of the small group of people who knew most about what happened that day. Sadly, Desaix died at the start of his counterattack, and probably did not even live long enough even to utter the last words attributed to him. ³ In the years following Marengo, Napoleon was to utterly confuse this issue by blatantly manipulating much of the information available about this battle. This gave natural rise to beliefs that all things officially stated about the battle were false. The 1806 report by Berthier is possibly suspect in some places, and such actions would have reinforced any convictions Kellermann might have had as to whether his valid role was properly recognized. That Napoleon somehow refused to recognize any of Kellermann's part in the battle is doubtful, given what Savary also had to say about that:

" [The First Consul] often did me the pleasure in recurring to the events of this action, and often did me the honor to tell me what deep uneasiness it had given him until the moment when Kellermann executed the charge, which wholly altered its aspect."

Several times during the course of his reign, Napoleon intervened in order to rescue Kellermann from various forms of trouble. In one case, Kellermann personally visited the palace in Paris to repute an accusation against him. According to a witness, Napoleon said to Kellermann that he only needed to think of Marengo and no more justification need be made. If accurate, this short conversation clearly demonstrates the ongoing appreciation which Napoleon had for Kellermann's charge at Marengo. Despite these private accounts, the public relationship between Bonaparte and Kellermann following Marengo seems to have been rather chilly. According to Bourrienne, this partial falling out may have begun the very evening of the battle. During a 7 P.M. discussion, Bourrienne quotes Napoleon as having said:

" Little Kellermann made an excellent charge, and most opportunely : we owe much to him. Observe upon what accidents affairs may depend."

Later on, when Kellermann arrived, the conversation continued, with Napoleon purposely speaking to Kellermann in a less glowing tone, saying:

" You made a pretty good charge, Kellermann ;"

Then, looking over to Bessieres, who commanded the horse grenadiers, he said:

" Bessieres, the guards covered themselves in glory."

Bessieres' horse guards had not been involved in the final charge, but they had taken part in the pursuit afterwards, scattering Austrian cavalry in a magnificent charge of their own. Apparently though, the awkward appearance of impropriety at this point caused more than a little ill will. Kellermann himself was so incensed by this dry reception that he wrote to Lasalle: "Would you believe it my friend? Bonaparte has not made me general of division - me! who have just placed the crown upon his head!" Words to this effect circulated around headquarters within a day after the battle, and were caught in writing by Napoleon's postal censor.

As with Savary's writings, the accounts by Bourrienne are full of valuable insights. First of all, one of several management techniques used by Napoleon involved using "tough talk" when publicly dealing with even the most successful subordinates. It worked very well with self driven and dedicated people, but also ran the risk of alienating those who were outside of Napoleon's clique. That Napoleon congratulated Bessieres in Kellermann's presence may have been a devious snub aimed at Kellermann, but it was more likely an impromptu attempt to keep Bessieres from thinking that his men were not appreciated, hence accidentally snubbing Kellermann. After all, Bessieres' guardsmen also contributed greatly, first as the only reserve left on the field, and finally in the pursuit back to the Bormida River . Yet another possibility is that when many men lay dead, especially popular generals like Desaix, there is less tolerance with those who appear to claim credit for themselves too soon, which may have been (rightly or wrongly) the perception toward Kellermann that evening. Whatever the motivations behind this short but important conversation, the end result was for these two men, Bonaparte and Kellermann, to begin a slow process of polarization, in which information was to be bent to their views as much as possible. This process did not manifest itself as much while Napoleon remained in power, but after 1815, the story changed dramatically.

The questions remain. Is Savary's detailed account about Marengo's last moments closest to the truth? Or did Kellermann really launch one of history's most important cavalry charges on his own initiative? Did General Louis Desaix really request a bold cavalry attack on the flank of his target? Or did he launch his attack simply hoping that French cavalry would support? Most officers today would agree that in no way are the final acts diminished just because they occurred within a standard chain of command. What is ultimately important is that on this day these men performed incredible feats in the line of duty.  Return to Top

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