Bonaparte now ordered his forces to Milan, the great metropolis on the Lombardy plain and the former capital of the Cisalpine Republic. Milan was astride Melas’s line of communications as well as a major Austrian base bursting with stores. There were also political advantages to consider; the capture of Milan would be a bloodless victory that would not go unnoticed in Paris. The First Consul’s political stock would rise and his fledgling rule given a boost that it really needed.
When Bonaparte entered Milan on June 2, the populace thronged the streets and acclaimed him with tumultuous cheers. There was more good news when word reached Milan that Fort Bard finally fell on June 1. Artillery and supplies could now flow through the St. Bernard unimpeded. During his six-day sojourn in Milan, Bonaparte the general seemed replaced by Bonaparte the First Consul and consummate politician. He addressed the catholic clergy and even attended an opera at the famed La Scala. But beneath the surface Bonaparte was acutely aware of his military responsibilities. The great Po River was between him and Melas; it was essential that the French establish a bridgehead across the river.
On June 4 Genoa finally capitulated, but Massena managed to procure very favorable terms. The French garrison was not to be taken prisoner, but instead would be allowed to withdraw beyond the Var, there to reunite with their Army of Italy comrades under General Suchet. Once beyond the Var, Massena would be free to resume operations again.
In the meantime Melas was busy concentrating his forces at Alessandria, a movement that had begun as early as May 31. Bonaparte’s anxiety was increasing, but on June 7 Gen. Joachim Murat crossed the Po and seized Piacenza on its southern bank. Once Piacenza was secured the French lost no time in building a pontoon bridge over the river. Soon other bridges were completed, and by June 10 long columns of blue-clad Frenchmen were trudging across the Po. Lannes, in the forefront as always, encountered a force of 18,000 Austrians under General Ott at Montebello and defeated them.
Lannes had gained a notable victory, but the clash was only the curtain-raiser of the unfolding drama. By nightfall of June 11, around 28,000 men had gathered at the concentration point at Stradella, but the French columns were finding it slow going due to heavy rains. A campaign that had begun with such promise was literally bogging down, diluted by the incessant downpour. Even the First Consul was “under the weather,” complaining to his wife Josephine, “I have a wretched cold.”
But Bonaparte’s spirits were lifted when Gen. Louis Desaix joined the Army of the Reserve. Desaix had been in Egypt and had been recently repatriated to France. Bonaparte’s joy in seeing him was real, not feigned; he looked on Desaix as a true friend, not a rival for power. The First Consul at once created a Corps d’ Armee (Army Corps) for Desaix composed of Boudet’s and Monnier’s divisions.
But satisfaction was soon replaced by new anxiety: Where was Melas? So far, apart from one or two isolated clashes such as Montebello, the Austrians seemed to be playing will-o’-the- wisp. The whole object of the campaign was to gain a decisive victory—but how could that victory be achieved if there were no enemy to fight?
Determined to come to grips with his elusive foe, Bonaparte ordered Lannes, Victor, and Murat across the Scrivia river and to head east in the direction of Alessandria. The Austrians seemed to be withdrawing, deliberately avoiding contact. Melas was probably around Alessandria, but Bonaparte reckoned the Austrian had no more than 22,000 men under his command. Melas was indeed in Alessandria, but with 33-35,000 men. It was a miscalculation that would lead to a series of near-fatal errors.
The First Consul became convinced the Austrians were trying to give the French the slip. If so, there were two possible escape routes: Melas could fall back on Genoa, which could be supplied by the British Royal Navy, or he could try and slip northward and cross the Po. Once over the river, he could march home or even resume the offensive with a thrust at Milan and French communications.
Bonaparte was certainly human and capable of mistakes, even self-delusion. He now knew Melas was in Alessandria, but Austrian units still were falling back. Melas was abandoning the plain of Scrivia (sometimes called the plain of Marengo). This seemingly trivial fact seemed very significant, since the plain was almost the only one in Italy where masses of cavalry could charge at full speed. The Austrians had superior cavalry forces; if Melas had wanted to fight, why give up this ground?
The Austrian quarry was escaping, or so it seemed to a worried Bonaparte. Melas had to be trapped, cornered, and forced to fight. The First Consul had posted units along the banks of the Po, at Piacenza, Crema, Milan, and Turin, in an effort to “cover all bases” against Austrian moves. Now, he weakened his field army further by dispatching General Desaix toward Rivalta and Novi, with a thought of eventually cutting the road to Genoa. Bonaparte still felt Melas would try to bolt toward the Mediterranean port. Thanks to this delusion, the First Consul violated one of his own precepts of war: Concentrate your forces for a decision in the field.
It continued to rain throughout the 13th, the deluge punctuated by thin veins of lightning and booming claps of thunder. Bonaparte visited the village of Marengo, climbed a tower, and anxiously scanned the western horizon. There, in the distance just beyond the Bormida River, lay Alessandria and the Austrian army. He couldn’t shake his firm conviction that Melas was about to slip the net.
Evening came, and the French settled down to a thoroughly wet, cold, and miserable night. Rations were as sodden as the men’s spirits; Private Coignet of the 96th Demi-Brigade recalled years later how they had to choke down damp and moldy bread. Even the elite Consular Guard was having a rough time of it, the grenadiers soaked to the skin and their feet ankle-deep in glutinous muck.
Bonaparte still thought he had the initiative, but he was living in a dream world, a dream world aided and abetted by sloppy staff work. It was reported that the Austrians had retired beyond the Bormida River, destroying the bridge behind them. This was not true. Bonaparte dispatched a staff officer who not only confirmed the earlier report, but failed to notice the Austrians had built a second pontoon bridge over the waterway. The night had been dark and rainy, but this was a serious lapse.
In fact Melas was going to attack, not retreat. At 71 the old “fox” was not about to be cornered by the French “hounds.” If he retreated to Genoa and the British fleet, he might be trapped by Bonaparte on the one hand and Massena on the other and not reach his destination. A northward escape also held little interest. No, the prey was going to the predator, and Melas was determined to attack.
The Austrian offensive began in the early-morning hours of June 14, 1800. The Battle of Marengo was about to begin, a contest that would not only decide the outcome of the Italian campaign, but also determine Napoleon Bonaparte’s future as ruler of France.
In Marengo, French Awakened by a “Reveille of Gunfire”
The French center rested on Marengo, variously described as a farmstead or village, but generally a cluster of rural stone buildings. The area was generally flat, but on closer inspection some variety was provided by pockets of willow, chestnut, and poplar trees. Other farms dotted the landscape, which favored the defense. Fontanone Creek fronted Marengo, but what was normally a little vein of water was now an engorged artery choked by the recent rains, its banks steep and slippery with mud. Generals Gardanne and Chambarlhac of Victor’s corps held Marengo supported by only five guns.
The sleeping French were rudely awakened by a “reveille of gunfire” and taken by almost complete surprise. Melas marched his army across the Bormida bridges in three columns. General O’Reilly was the first over the river and turned south to form the Austrian right wing. General Melas and his chief of staff General Zack were in the second column of some 18,000 men; they were to form the main attack at Marengo. A third column under General Ott wheeled north to form the Austrian left.
Melas, too, was capable of making mistakes, and made some major errors at Marengo. The third column was particularly strong because Melas thought the French had the bulk of their forces at Castel Ceriolo, an erroneous assumption. He also did not add Alessandria’s large garrison to his field army, which could have boosted his advantage even further. Finally, Melas detached about a third of his cavalry from the center and sent them south because there was information General Suchet’s cavalry was at Acqui. The report was false.