Marengo, Battle of


Marengo, Battle of
(1800)
   The decisive last-minute victoire politique of French First Consul Napoleon Bonaparte over the Austrian army under General der Kavallerie Michael Melas, which secured Napoleon’s grip on political power in Paris in the aftermath of the Brumaire coup of 1799. Despite having assembled his Army of the Reserve, nominally under the command of General Louis André Berthier, in western Switzerland in early 1800, Bonaparte was wrong-footed by the surprise Austrian advance toward the key city port of Genoa, held by French troops under General André Masséna, in mid-April. He was forced to make a hasty march over the St. Bernard Pass to cross the Alps into Italy in mid-May and, aided by a local double-agent, reached Milan on June 2. After Bonaparte’s advance-guard under Lieutenant General Jean Lannes defeated Feldmarschalleutnant Ott at Montebello on June 9, the 29,000 French marched to engage the 31,000 strong Austrian army near Alessandria. Meanwhile, Genoa had surrendered to the Austrians on June 4, although Masséna was allowed to rejoin the campaign and joined General Suchet in a march north from the coast. French troops were also marching from Turin, adding to Melas’ fear of being encircled. Partially deceived by the same agent acting for the Austrians, Bonaparte dispatched large forces to the north and south during June 13, as he believed the Austrians would try to break out north, while troops from Genoa would advance from the south. The French advance-guard, now under Lieutenant General Claude-Victor Perrin, seized Marengo village that evening. However, 8 A.M . on June 14 brought Melas’ surprise advance against the main French army under General Berthier, as the Austrians sought to fight their way out directly eastward. Initially, the two Austrian assaults across the Fontanone stream near Marengo village were repelled and Lannes reinforced Perrin’s right wing. At 11 A.M ., Bonaparte realized the true situation and recalled the detachments, while moving his reserve forward. On the Austrian left wing, Ott had taken Castel Ceriolo and then, on his own initiative, sent his small advance-guard to tackle Lannes’ flank. Melas took his chance and tried to push cavalry across the Fontanone on his right wing, but it was routed by French cavalry under General François Kellerman. Nevertheless, a third assault on Marengo village succeeded after bitter fighting, and by 2:30 P.M . the Austrians had broken the French position. The French were driven back east into the main vine belt just as Bonaparte reached the battlefield. In a desperate move to halt Ott’s column coming from the north, Bonaparte committed his consular guard, but they were surprised and destroyed by Oberst Frimont’s cavalry. Knowing that French troops under General Charles Louis Desaix were approaching, Bonaparte organized a steady withdrawal eastward from about 4:15 P.M . toward San Giuliano, followed by an Austrian column led by Chief of Staff, Feldmarschalleutnant Zach. Desaix’s arrival around 5:30 P.M . stabilized the French position as his infantry delayed the Austrian pursuit. Just north of Cascina Grossa, the pursuing Austrian troops met a mix of musketry and artillery fire, which covered a surprise flank attack by Kellerman’s cavalry. The French cavalry threw the Austrian column into disordered flight, and a wave of French troops then shattered the center of Melas’ army. Exhausted after fighting all day, many Austrian infantry surrendered or fled back over the Bormida River, while in the north Ott failed to intervene. Both sides had sustained about 2,100 casualties, with another 2,500 Austrians captured. The next day, the Armistice of Alessandria obliged the Austrians to evacuate northwestern Italy. Had Bonaparte failed at Marengo, his authority back in France might well have been overthrown by Jacobins or royalists.
   See also <>; <>.
   FURTHER READING:
    Arnold, J. Marengo and Hohenlinden. Lexington, VA: Napoleon Books, 1999;
    Furse, G. Marengo and Hohenlinden. London, 1903;
    Hollins, D. Marengo. Oxford: Osprey Military Publishing, 2000;
    Rose, J. Holland. The Revolutionary and Napoleonic Era, 1789–1815. London: Cambridge University Press, 1935.
   DAVID HOLLINS

Encyclopedia of the Age of Imperialism, 1800–1914. 2014.

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