Key Point: The new dictator had great plans to try and conquer Europe. Here is how he would win one of his first victories that might have been a terrible defeat.
On March 17, 1800, Napoleon Bonaparte closeted himself in his study at the Tuileries Palace in Paris and ordered his private secretary, Louis Fauvelet de Bourrienne, to unroll a large map of Italy and lay it on the floor. Bonaparte was First Consul of the French Republic, head of a new government that had been installed the previous November, but he was still only 30 and didn’t stand on ceremony. Once the map was on the floor Bonaparte lay on top of it; Italy was not only at his feet, it was under his knees.
The First Consul was a short man, only five-foot-six in height, but he acted with the sure authority of a man born to command. Thin, almost wiry, his uniform fit him well, and the corpulence of his later career was still in the distant future. The aquiline nose and high forehead gave his face an almost Roman cast and his long locks had been recently cut short, earning him the nickname “Le Tondu” (the shorn one).
But above all it was his eyes, blue-gray and commanding, that set him apart from ordinary mortals; a mere glance of displeasure could reduce subordinates to abject terror, a look of approval was better than the highest honor. Right now Bonaparte’s eyes were fixed on the map of Italy that was spread before him. After a moment’s deliberation he stuck pins in the map. The pins with black wax tips were enemy formations, and red wax pins marked where Bonaparte hoped to place his own troops.
France had been convulsed by a decade of revolution, a period of turmoil and bloodshed, idealism and reform. By 1800 the revolutionary “fever” had broken, leaving the country drained and weakened by its long ordeal. The French economy was in chaos, its ports blockaded, and its roads infested with brigands. The treasury was empty, and its legal system cried out for reform.
But before Bonaparte could even begin to consider rebuilding France he had to deal with the overriding issues of war and peace. The country was war-weary and looked to Bonaparte to secure a lasting peace with its neighbors. In 1800 France was fighting a powerful Second Coalition composed of Great Britain, Austria and Russia. Russia had effectively withdrawn from the fighting late in 1799, but Austria—backed by Britain’s powerful Royal Navy and British gold—was still a formidable land adversary. French peace overtures were soundly rebuffed; even Bonaparte’s personal appeals to Britain’s King George III and Austria’s Emperor Francis II fell on deaf ears.
The Austrians in particular were in no mood to be conciliatory. They had overrun Italy in 1799 and destroyed the French-backed Cisalpine Republic in the northern part of that country. Dealing from what they thought was a position of strength, the Austrians spurned Bonaparte’s proffered olive branch. Great Britain, too, was in no mood for peace. The First Consul had no choice but to turn his thoughts to war.
Poring over his map, Bonaparte could see possibilities in an apparently hopeless situation. In southern Germany a large Austrian army of over a hundred thousand men under General Kray confronted Gen. Jean Victor Marie Moreau’s Army of the Rhine. In northern Italy, Austrian Gen. Michael Melas opposed a weak French Army of Italy under Gen. Andre Massena. In fact, thanks to Massena’s earlier victory at Zurich, the French still held most of Switzerland, and in Bonaparte’s eyes that country was the key to victory.
Switzerland occupied a central position between Germany and Italy, in essence connecting two seemingly disparate fronts. Bonaparte’s ultimate objective was the destruction of the Austrians in a great battle: Either Kray’s or Melas’s armies would suit his plans. As events unfolded, Melas and Italy were to be the main French target, with Moreau’s Army of the Rhine in a secondary role as a buffer protecting the French left against Kray’s possible intervention.
It was all incomprehensible to his secretary Bourrienne, so Bonaparte motioned him down to the floor to explain. “Where do you think I shall beat Melas?” Bonaparte queried his puzzled scribe.
Bourrienne responded with the honest answer, “How the devil should I know?”
Slightly exasperated, Bonaparte continued, “Melas is at Alessandria with his headquarters… Crossing the Alps here [he pointed to the Great St. Bernard pass] I shall fall on Melas, cut off his communications with Austria, and meet him here on the plains of Scrivia.” As Bonaparte explained his concepts he put a red pin at San Giuliano. Other towns and villages in the area included Villanova and Marengo.
It was a typically Napoleonic conception, simple in design, yet brilliant and audacious in the extreme. Yet, was Bonaparte’s prediction uncanny foresight, or merely wishful thinking? Only time would tell.
Napoleon’s Plan To Raise a New Army
Massena’s Army of Italy was hungry, ragged, and weak, and certainly in no condition to take on Melas alone. Its very plight would make it tempting bait, blinding Austrian eyes to French movements in their rear. Bonaparte planned to raise and equip a new formation that was to be called the Army of the Reserve. Led by Bonaparte personally, the Army of the Reserve would cross the Alps and fall upon Melas before he knew what was happening.
There were some problems in this budding plan of campaign, but to Bonaparte obstacles were made to be overcome, not fretted over. The Constitution of the Year VIII expressly forbade the First Consul to command armies outside of France, so Bonaparte resorted to a legal fiction: His chief of staff Alexandre Berthier was made the nominal chief of the Army of the Reserve. Raising this new army was no easy task at first because few troops were available. Assembling around Dijon, the Army of the Reserve grew steadily from 30,000 to 60,000 men.
But before Bonaparte’s plans could be implemented the Austrians turned the tables by launching a major offensive in Italy on April 5, 1800. General Melas, heavily reinforced, was to sweep down and defeat Massena’s scarecrow Army of Italy, capture Genoa, then invade southern France. The ultimate objective was the great French naval base at Toulon on the Mediterranean. On paper the scheme was admirable; certainly, such a Mediterranean strategy would allow the Austrians to be supplied and supported by the ships of the British Royal Navy.
Unfortunately for the Austrians, the Auric Council—their decision-making body for war—took little serious account of the growing Army of the Reserve assembling around Dijon. In Austrian eyes the Army of the Reserve was an amorphous body, seemingly neither fish nor fowl. Since it was scratch-built and had many raw, inexperienced troops, the Austrians tended to dismiss it out of hand.
Nevertheless, in its early stages the Austrian offensive in Italy met with considerable success. General Massena was a tough and talented soldier, but his outnumbered forces were forced to fall back under heavy Austrian pressure. Eventually the Army of Italy was cut in two, with part of it under Massena besieged in Genoa and the remainder under General Suchet pushed westward beyond the Var River.
All now depended upon the doughty Massena. By the third week of April, the general and 24,000 men were holding on in Genoa, the Austrians laying siege on land and the British blockading them by sea. It was a grim situation, and the prognosis was anything but rosy. The Genoese population was restive, even hostile, and so in a sense Massena was beset with enemies inside and out. Yet the general’s continued resistance delayed the projected Austrian invasion of France and, better yet, tied down a substantial number of Melas’s overall forces.
Bonaparte realized Massena could still play a crucial role in the campaign simply by holding out as long as humanly possible. In fact Massena’s resistance was more vital than ever, because he distracted Austrian attention from the Army of the Reserve. The First Consul was going to move his army through the Alps and fall on Melas’s rear, just as he told Bourrienne. But plans, however brilliant on paper, can fail in execution. Everything depended upon timing.
The First Consul needed a victory, not just to end the war but to secure his hold on power. Bonaparte was unproven as a ruler, his government embryonic. One false step might prove abortive and his regime could be swept away. A decisive victory would be the bedrock that would help to stabilize his government and assure the continuation of his power.
General Moreau resented Bonaparte’s sudden rise to prominence, and it’s likely he saw himself as better suited for the role of France’s ruler. The First Consul wanted him to attack Kray, but Moreau found plenty of excuses to delay action. The Army of the Rhine belatedly took the offensive on April 25, and by May 3 Moreau had defeated the Austrians at Stockach. With Moreau’s victory, Bonaparte’s left flank was secure from any unexpected Austrian intervention from Germany. Plans to cross the Alps could now proceed apace.