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Marengo Revisited

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The Battle of Marengo

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Battle Summary
The Battle of Marengo began early on the morning of June 14, 1800, when Austrian Army troops under the command of Lieutenant General Michael Melas crossed the Bormida River in Northern Italy and attacked several isolated divisions of a French army commanded by First Consul Napoleon Bonaparte. Earlier that morning Napoleon had sent part of his strength away to the north and south in the belief that Melas would attempt to circumvent the approaching French Army. This inaccurate appraisal of his enemy's intent nearly spelled disaster, for as the Austrian Army of Italy marched out of their bridgehead east of the city of Alessandria the French Army lay scattered before them.

The first serious fighting of the day was actually delayed until long after dawn because of the constricted Austrian bridgehead and swampy terrain which lay beyond. Only around mid-morning did Austrian Major General Andreas O'Reilly's attacking columns deploy and lash out at Lieutenant General Claude Victor Perrin's infantry, all of whom had been moved into a defense line which ran along Fontanone Creek. Also in the vicinity was Brigadier General Francois Kellermann with 600 well mounted French heavy cavalry. Kellermann's presence on Victor's left flank was to save the situation many times that day.

As the mid-morning Austrian attacks gained in intensity and scope, confused fighting broke out on both flanks of Victor's positions. O'Reilly's command, joined by those of Major Generals Conrad Kaim and Karl Haddik, continued to be frustrated by a combination of rough terrain and tenacious French resistance. Far away to the east at Torre di Garrofoli, Napoleon considered the attack across the Bormida to be an enemy diversion. Fortunately for Victor, French Lieutenant General Jean Lannes helped to stabilize the situation by moving Major General Watrin's infantry division and Brigadier General Champeaux's cavalry into the fight on his own initiative.

Napoleon's Uniform
As the long hot morning passed, brutal fighting continued to rage among the clogged passages of the Fontanone and the adjoining groves and houses. Austrian Major Generals Karl Ott and Anton Elsnitz finally managed the tight passage through the bridgehead area and moved past Lannes' northern flank toward the town of Castel Ceriolo. Slowly but surely, Melas managed to crush the French right flank back on itself. All he needed was more time to develop his attacks against the sturdy defensive positions to which the French Army tenaciously clung. Back at Torre di Garofoli, increasingly desperate battle reports and the prolonged rumble of fighting in the direction of Marengo, coupled with revelations about the state of the Austrian bridgehead ¹ convinced Napoleon that Victor and Lannes were indeed facing the main Austrian Army. Once this conclusion was reached, orders of recall were immediately dispatched to the two divisions of infantry which had left the army early that morning. Only the infantry division of Major General Boudet under overall command of Lieutenant General Louis Desaix was within recall range, and those troops were still hours away.

Morning turned into afternoon, and the Austrian assaults against Victor and Lannes' tattered lines were joined by detachments of Ott's men moving in from the north. Each time the Austrians attacked, they penetrated a little further into the French defenses until French units began withdrawing on their own initiative. At that point, a fighting withdrawal began, covered by numerous stiffly contested cavalry charges by Kellermann and Champeaux's brigades. As the embattled French line withdrew to the vineyards east of Marengo, Napoleon arrived with the small units of Consular Guard infantry and cavalry. As a last resort, both the guard infantry and part of Major General Jean Monnier's infantry division were thrown into the yawning breaches in the French lines in a desperate effort to buy time for Victor and Lannes' withdrawing men. With portions of Monnier's division refusing to move forward, and the covering troops quickly engaged, often from several directions, the fact that Napoleon's officers extracted their men from the field of battle without a complete rout is little short of amazing.

Amazing withdrawals, however, do not win battles. By mid-afternoon all of the French divisional commands present on the field limped back toward a new position just west of San Guiliano. The 70 year old Melas pronounced the French Army beaten and tasked his chief of staff, Major General Anton Zach, with the pursuit of their battered foe. At roughly the same time that Melas transferred battle command to Zach, Napoleon's friend and confidant Desaix arrived with the encouraging announcement that Boudet's division was not far behind.

The next phase of the battle carried on into the late afternoon, and was destined to make history. As French headquarters staffers rode among the formations whipping troops back to their units, the remaining line cavalry moved into new positions to support Boudet's division, which entered the battle-line west of San Guiliano. During the lull in fighting which had enabled French headquarters to reform the army, Zach and the other Austrian commanders allowed their men the luxury of a short break to forage for meals. This may have been unavoidable considering the hot weather and severe casualties suffered by Austrian officers during the course of the fighting. ²

French General Louis Desaix
Zach finally caught up with the reformed French Army after a lengthy delay and pursuit. In imitation of the morning's combat Zach engaged in a head-on assault which attempted to break the reforming French. It did not go especially well for him. One of the Austrian infantry regiments was forced back by Desaix's fresh infantry, and after a short delay the attack resumed only to be met by a full counter-attack from Desaix who led forward Boudet's division in a desperate assault. The counter-attack began well but Desaix was suddenly shot from his saddle. Boudet's division continued the attack, pushing back the Austrians and penetrating their second defense line until they were forced to stop and engage fresh Austrian grenadiers. At this moment, as the battle hung in the balance, Kellermann's brigade of heavy cavalry entered the fray, charging into the left flank of the main Austrian pursuit column and sabering anyone who wasn't French. To the astonishment of all, the 2,000 Austrians at the front of the pursuit column threw down their weapons and surrendered, allowing Zach to be captured in the process.

This singular event changed the entire complexion of the battle. The surviving French cavalry made a last effort in conjunction with Boudet's division, which took advantage of the dislocation caused by the beheading of the Austrian pursuit column. As panic spread among the slowly withdrawing Austrians a few brave formations maintained a rearguard and managed to hold Marengo until evening, when they withdrew to their starting positions of that morning.

So ended the Battle of Marengo, possibly one of the strangest and certainly one of the most crucial engagements of the Napoleonic Wars. Both sides fought tenaciously and with great professionalism, both commanders-in-chief made decisions for which they were later criticized and both armies continued in periodic conflict for another 15 years. When pondering the actions of this much studied battle, future readers are asked to keep in mind the appallingly difficult nature of combat and the benefits of hindsight, which are rarely apparent to those sweating in combat. Return to Top
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