The military situation had been simplified by treaties with Prussia and Spain, but Austria refused peace so long as France clung to her conquests in the Netherlands and along the Rhine. England continued the war at sea, and granted a subsidy of £600,000 to Austria to finance the war on land. Austria had ruled Lombardy since 1713. She was now allied with Charles Emmanuel IV, king of Sardinia and Piedmont, who hoped to regain Savoy and Nice, taken by the French in 1792.
The Directory, led in this matter by Carnot, planned its military operations for 1796 as a three-pronged assault upon Austria. One French army, under Jourdan, was to attack the Austrians on the northeast front along the Sambre and the Meuse; another, under Moreau, was to proceed against the Austrians along the Moselle and the Rhine; a third, under Bonaparte, was to attempt the expulsion of the Austrians and the Sardinians from Italy. Jourdan, after some victories, encountered the superior forces of the Archduke Karl Ludwig, suffered defeats at Amberg and Würzburg, and retreated to the west bank of the Rhine. Moreau advanced into Bavaria almost to Munich, then, learning that the victorious Archduke could cut his line of communications or attack him in the rear, he withdrew into Alsace. The Directory, as a final hope, turned to Napoleon.
Reaching Nice on March 27, he found the “Army of Italy” in no condition to face the Austrian and Sardinian forces that blocked the narrow entrance into Italy between the Mediterranean and the towering Alps. His troops numbered some 43,000, brave men accustomed to mountain war, but ill-clothed, ill-shod, and so poorly fed that they had to steal in order to live;43 hardly thirty thousand of them could be called upon for arduous campaigns. They had scant cavalry and almost no artillery. The generals over whom the twenty-seven-year-old commander had been placed—Augereau, Masséna, Laharpe, and Sésurier—were all older than Napoleon in service; they resented his appointment, and were resolved to make him feel their superior experience; but at their first meeting with him they were awed into quick obedience by the confident clarity with which he explained his plans and gave his orders.
He could overawe his generals, but he could not free himself from the spell that Josephine laid upon him. Four days after reaching Nice he put his maps and orderlies aside and wrote to her a letter hot with the ardor of a youth who had just discovered depths of passion under his dreams of power:
Nice, 31 March, 1796
Not a day passes without my loving you, not a night but I hold you in my arms. I cannot drink a cup of tea without cursing the martial ambition that separates me from the soul of my life. Whether I am buried in business, or leading my troops, or inspecting the camps, my adorable Josephine fills my mind.…
My soul is sad, my heart is in chains, and I imagine things that terrify me. You do not love me as you did; you will console yourself elsewhere.…
Goodbye, my wife, my tormentor, my happiness, … whom I love, whom I fear, the source of feelings that make me as gentle as Nature herself, and of impulses under which I am as catastrophic as a thunderbolt. I do not ask you to love me forever, or to be faithful to me, but simply … to tell me the truth.… Nature has made my soul resolute and strong, while yours she has constructed of lace and gauze…. My mind is intent on vast plans, my heart utterly engrossed with you…
Goodbye! Ah, if you love me less it must be that you never loved me at all. Then were I indeed to be pitied.
He wrote to her again on April 3 and 7, amid the rising tempo of the war. He studied all the information he could get about the enemy forces that he must defeat: an Austrian army under Beaulieu at Voltri near Genoa; another under Argentau at Montenotte, farther west; and a Sardinian army under Colli at Ceva, farther north. Beaulieu assumed that his lines of communications would serve to inform him should any of his armies need urgent help. On that basis he could reasonably expect to repel the French attack, for his combined forces outnumbered the French about two to one. Napoleon’s strategy was to move as many of his troops, as secretly and rapidly as possible, to confront one of the defending armies, and overwhelm it before either of the other two could come to its aid. The plan involved rapid marches by the French over rough and mountainous routes; it required hardy and resolute warriors. Napoleon sought to arouse them with the first of those famous proclamations that were no small part of his armament:
SOLDIERS, you are hungry and naked. The Republic owes you much, but she has not the means to pay her debts. I am come to lead you into the most fertile plains that the sun beholds. Rich provinces, opulent towns; all shall be at your disposal. Soldiers! with such a prospect before you, can you fail in courage and constancy?45
It was an open invitation to plunder, but how else could he get these unpaid men to bear long marches and then face death? Napoleon, like most rulers and revolutionists, never allowed morality to hinder victory, and he trusted to success to whitewash his sins. Should not Italy contribute to the cost of her liberation?
The first goal of his strategy was to smash the Sardinian army and induce the King of Sardinia to retire to Turin, his Piedmont capital. A series of crucial and successful engagements—Montenotte (April 11), Millesimo (April 13), Dego (April 15), and Mondovi (April 22)—shattered the Sardinian forces and compelled Charles Emmanuel to sign at Cherasco (April 28) an armistice ceding Savoy and Nice to France, and, in effect, withdrawing from the war. In those battles the young commander impressed his subordinates with his keen and quick perception of developments, needs, and opportunities, his clear and decisive orders, the logic and success of tactics completing the foresight of strategy that often caught the enemy on flank or rear. The older generals learned to obey him with confidence in his vision and judgment; the younger officers—Junot, Lannes, Murat, Marmont, Berthier—developed for him a devotion that repeatedly faced death in his cause. When, after these victories, the exhausted survivors reached the heights of Monte Zemoto—from which they could view the sunlit plains of Lombardy—many of them broke out in a spontaneous salute to the youth who had led them so brilliantly.
Now they did not have to plunder in order to live; wherever he established French rule Napoleon taxed the rich and the ecclesiastical hierarchy, and persuaded or ordered the towns to contribute to the upkeep and orderly behavior of his troops. On April 26, at Cherasco, he addressed his army in a clever eulogy that cautioned them against pillage:
You have in a fortnight won six victories, taken twenty-one standards, fifty-five pieces of artillery, and conquered the richest part of Piedmont…. Without any resources you have supplied all that was necessary. You have won battles without cannon, passed rivers without bridges, made forced marches without shoes, camped without brandy and often without bread…. Your grateful country will owe its prosperity to you….
But, soldiers, you have done nothing as yet compared with what there still remains to do. Neither Turin nor Milan remains to you…. Is there anyone among you whose courage is lacking? Is there anyone who would prefer to return across the summits of the Apennines and the Alps and bear patiently the disgrace of a slavish soldier? No, there is none such among the conquerors of Montenotte, of Dego, of Mondovi. All of you are burning to extend the glory of the French people….
Friends, I am promising you this conquest, but there is one condition which you must swear to fulfill. That is to respect the peoples whom you deliver, and repress the horrible pillage which certain scoundrels, incited by our enemies, commit. Otherwise you will not be the deliverers of the people but their scourges…. Your victories, your bravery, your success, the blood of your brothers who have died in battle—all will be lost, even honor and glory. As for me and the generals who have your confidence, we should blush to command an army without discipline and restraint…. Anyone who engages in pillage will be shot without mercy.
Peoples of Italy, the French army comes to break your chains; the French people is the friend of all peoples. You may receive them with confidence. Your property, your religion, and your customs will be respected…. We have no grudge except against the tyrants who oppress you.
There had been much pillage in that first campaign; there would still be some despite this plea and threat. Napoleon had some looters shot, and pardoned others. “These wretches,” he said, “are excusable; they have sighed for three years after the promised land, … and now that they have entered it they wish to enjoy it.”46 He appeased them by letting them share in the contributions and provisions that he exacted from the “liberated” towns.
Amid all this turmoil of marches, battles, and diplomacy he thought almost hourly of the wife he had left so soon after their wedding night. Now that she might safely pass over the Cévennes he begged her, in a letter of April 17, to come to him. “Come quickly,” he wrote on April 24, 1796; “I warn you, if you delay longer, you will find me ill. These fatigues and your absence—the two together are more than I can bear…. Take wings, and fly…. A kiss upon your heart, another a little lower, another lower still, far lower!”47
Was she faithful? Could she, so accustomed to her pleasures, content herself for months with epistolary adulation? That same April a handsome officer, Hippolyte Charles, aged twenty-four, found his way to her. In May she invited Talleyrand to meet him. “You will be wild about him. Mesdames Récamier, Tallien, and Hamelin have all lost their heads over him.”48 She became so enamored of him that when Murat came to her from Bonaparte with money and instructions for joining him in Italy, she delayed on the ground of illness, and allowed Murat to send word to his chief that she gave signs of pregnancy. Napoleon wrote to her on May 13: “It is true, then, that you are pregnant! Murat … says that you are not feeling well and that thus he does not deem it prudent for you to undertake so long a journey. So I am to be still longer deprived of the joy of clasping you in my arms! … Is it possible that I shall be denied the joy of seeing you with your little pregnant belly?”49 He rejoiced prematurely; she was never to give him a child.
Meanwhile he led his men through a dozen battles to the prize of Lombardy—the rich and cultured city of Milan. At Lodi, on the west bank of the Adda, his main force caught up with the main Austrian army under Beaulieu. Beaulieu retreated, crossed the river on a 200-meter-long wooden bridge, and then placed his artillery in a position to prevent a similar crossing by the French. Napoleon bade his cavalry to ride north till they could find a place to ford the stream, and then to pass south and attack the Austrian rear. Keeping his infantry sheltered behind the walls and houses of the town, he shared actively in directing the fire of his artillery against the Austrian guns that covered the bridge. When his cavalry suddenly appeared on the east bank and charged into the Austrians, he ordered his grenadiers to lead the way across the bridge. They tried, but the Austrian artillery halted them. Napoleon rushed forward and joined Lannes and Berthier in leading them. The Austrians were routed (May 10, 1796), losing two thousand prisoners. Beaulieu withdrew to Mantua, and the French army, after a day’s rest, marched on to Milan. It was from this action that the French troops, moved by Bonaparte’s reckless but inspiring exposure of himself to enemy fire, conferred upon him the affectionate title “Le Petit Caporal”—the Little Corporal.
Shortly after this victory he received from the Directory a proposal so insulting that he risked his career on his reply. Those five men, who had been enjoying the celebrations with which Paris received the news of Napoleon’s achievements, informed him (May 7) that his army was now to be divided into two parts; one was to be put under the command of General François-Etienne Kellermann (son of the victor of Valmy), and charged with protecting the French in north Italy from Austrian attacks; the other, under Bonaparte, was to march south and bring the Papal States and the kingdom of Naples under French control. Napoleon saw in this not only a personal injury but, even more, a cardinal error in strategy: not only would an attack upon the Papacy enflame all the Catholics of Europe, including France, against the Revolution, but Catholic Austria was already preparing to send a powerful force, under the experienced Field Marshal Count Dagobert von Wurmser, to drive him back into France. He answered that the Army of Italy would need its united and replenished strength to preserve its gains; that it could be successfully led only by an undivided command; that he would therefore yield his place to General Kellermann, and would offer his resignation.
The Directory received this message along with reports of Napoleon’s latest military and diplomatic successes. For the young general—proud with victory, and feeling that those distant politicians were not as well placed as he to negotiate treaties according with the resources of the enemy and the condition of the French army—had assumed the right to make peace as well as war, and to determine the price that each Italian city or state should pay to enjoy the protection, rather than suffer the avidity, of his troops. So, after entering Milan in triumph (May 15, 1796), he arranged truces with the Duke of Parma, the Duke of Modena, and the King of Naples, by which he guaranteed them peace with France and protection from Austria, and specified what donations each of these principalities was to pay for this benevolent amity. They paid painful sums, and bore in grim impotence the theft of art masterpieces from their galleries, palaces, and public squares.
Milan made him welcome. For nearly a century it had longed for freedom from Austrian rule, and this young warlord was unusually gracious for a conqueror. He was congenial to Italian speech and ways, appreciative of Italian women, music, and art; they did not realize at once how fondly he appreciated Italian art. In any case, was he not, except for a month or so, an Italian? Visibly he gathered about him Italian artists, poets, historians, philosophers, scientists, and talked familiarly with them; for a time he seemed to be Lodovico Sforza and Leonardo da Vinci reborn and merged. What could be more charming than his letter to the astronomer Barnaba Oriani?—
Learned men in Milan used not to enjoy the consideration they deserved. Hidden in their laboratories, they thought themselves happy if kings and priests did them no harm. It is not so now. In Italy thought has become free. There is no more Inquisition, no more intolerance, no more tyranny. I invite all learned men to meet together, and to tell me what methods should be adopted, or what needs supplied, in order to give the sciences and the fine arts a new life.… Pray express these sentiments for me to the distinguished men of learning dwelling in Milan.50
Napoleon incorporated Milan and other cities in a Republic of Lombardy, whose citizens were to share with the French in liberty, equality, fraternity, and taxes. In a proclamation to the new citizens (May 19, 1796) he explained that since the liberating army had paid a high price for freeing Lombardy, the liberated should contribute some twenty million francs to the upkeep of his troops; this, surely, was a small contribution for so fertile a country; moreover, the tax should “be levied on the rich … and on church corporations,” so as to spare the poor.51 Not so much publicity had accompanied the previous day’s order that “an agent should follow the French army in Italy, to seek out and transfer to the Republic all the objects of art, science, and so forth, that are in the conquered towns.”52 The Italians could only revenge themselves with a pun: “Non tutti Francesi sono ladroni, ma buona parte” (Not all Frenchmen are robbers, but a good part are). Napoleon, however, was following the example set by the Convention and the Directory.
This artistic spoliation of conquered or liberated lands had scant precedent; it aroused indignation everywhere except in France, and set a model for later warriors. Most of the spoils were sent to the Directory, were received there with pleasure, and found their way into the Louvre, where the Mona Lisa, though raped, never lost her smile. Napoleon kept little of the Italian revenues for himself;53 some of them were invested in judicious bribes; much went to pay the troops and so moderate their zeal to steal.
Having feathered a nest for his bride, he importuned her (May 18) to come and join him. “Milan … cannot but please you, for this is a very beautiful land. As for me, I shall be wild with joy…. I am dying of curiosity to see how you carry your child.… Addio, mio dolce amor…. Come quickly to hear the fine music and to see beautiful Italy.”54 While his letter traveled he returned to the business of driving the Austrians from Italy. On May 20 he was again with his troops; and knowing that they would soon have to face many obstacles and armies, he addressed them in another eloquent proclamation:
You have rushed like a torrent from the heights of the Apennines; you have overthrown and scattered every force that opposed your march…. The Po, the Ticino, the Adda could not stop your progress by a day…. Yes, soldiers, you have done much, but is there nothing left for you to do? … No! I see you already flying to arms; a slothful repose wearies you; every day lost for your glory is lost, too, for your happiness. Let us move on! We still have forced marches to make, enemies to overcome, laurels to win, wrongs to avenge….
Let not the people be disturbed by our advance; we are the friends of all peoples! … You will have the immortal glory of changing the face of the most beautiful part of Europe. The free French nation … will give to Europe a glorious peace…. Then you will return to your homes, and your fellow citizens, singling you out, will say, “He was with the Army of Italy.”55
On May 27 they resumed their advance through Lombardy. Ignoring the fact that Brescia was Venetian territory, Napoleon occupied it, and made it the first center of the new campaign. When Venice sent envoys to protest, Bonaparte, in one of his feigned rages, frightened them by demanding why Venice had already allowed the Austrians to use Venetian towns and roads; the envoys offered an apology, and agreed to his similar use of Venetian terrain.56 A swift march brought the French army to Peschiera; the Austriandetachment that had been left there fled; Napoleon had the strategic fortress strengthened to protect his communications, and pushed on to Mantua, where the remnants of Beaulieu’s three armies had taken refuge behind apparently inexpugnable defenses. Napoleon left part of his forces to besiege the citadel. Another part he sent south to drive the British from Leghorn; it was done, and a popular revolt soon forced them to leave Corsica. Murat found it simple to evict the Austrian envoy from Genoa, and to incorporate that Mediterranean bastion in a Republic of Liguria under French control. Seldom had Italy seen so many changes of power in so short a time.
Napoleon returned to Milan and awaited Josephine. She came, on July 13, and the victor embraced his conqueror. The next day the city honored her with a special performance at La Scala, followed by a ball at which all the local notables were presented to her. After three days of ecstasy the general had to return to his troops at Marmirolo, from which he sent her a paean of youthful adoration:
I have been sad every moment since our parting. I know no happiness save when I am with you…. The charms of my incomparable Josephine kindle a flame that burns incessantly in my heart, through my senses. When shall I ever be free of anxiety and responsibility, free to spend all my time with you, with nothing to do but love you …?
A few days ago I thought I loved you, but now that I have seen you again I love you a thousand times more….
Ah, I implore you, let me see that you have faults. Be less beautiful, less gracious, less kind, less tender. Above all, never be jealous, never weep. Your tears rob me of my reason, set my blood aflame….
… Come quickly to join me, so that at least before we die we can say: “We have had many joyous hours together.” …57
She obeyed despite the danger of enemy snipers en route, caught up to him at Brescia, and accompanied him to Verona. There a courier brought him word that a fresh Austrian army was entering Italy under the command of Count von Wurmser, who had recently driven the French from Mannheim. It was calculated that this host would outnumber three to one the forces under Napoleon. Anticipating possible disaster, he sent Josephine back to Peschiera, and arranged to have her taken thence to Florence. Meanwhile he ordered the French detachments that he had left before Mantua to abandon the siege and to come by a safe roundabout route to join his main army. They arrived in time to take part in the battle of Castiglione (August 5, 1796). Wurmser, not expecting so early an attack, was leading his divisions southward in too thin a line. Napoleon pounced upon the unprepared Austrians, confused them into flight, and took fifteen thousand prisoners. Wurmser retreated to Rovereto; the French pursued and defeated him there, and again at Bassano; the disheartened old general fled with the remnants of his army to seek refuge behind the battlements of Mantua. Napoleon left some regiments to hold him there.
But now 60,000 additional Austrians, under Baron Alvinczy, poured down over the Alps to meet the 45,000 men left to Bonaparte. He met them at Arcole, but they were on the other side of the River Adige, and could be reached only by crossing a bridge under fire. Again, as at Lodi on the Adda, Napoleon was among the first to cross.*“When I was in the raging turmoil of the fight,” he later recalled, “my adjutant, Colonel Muiron, threw himself toward me, covered me with his body, and received the bullet which was intended for me. He sank at my feet.”58 In the three-day battle that followed (November 15–17, 1796), the Austrians, after a brave fight, fell back in an orderly retreat. Alvinczy reorganized them at Rivoli, but there they were defeated again, and Alvinczy, having lost thirty thousand men, led the survivors back to Austria. Wurmser, losing hope of rescue, and taking pity on his starving men, surrendered (February 2, 1797), and the French conquest of Lombardy was complete.
Insatiate, Napoleon turned his face and forces south toward the Papal States and politely asked Pius VI to give him Bologna, Ferrara, Ravenna, Ancona, and their subject lands. By the Treaty of Tolentino (February 19, 1797) the Pope surrendered these city-states, and paid an “indemnity” of fifteen million francs toward the French army’s expense account. Then, master of all north Italy except Piedmont and Venice, Napoleon reorganized his army, added to them some regiments formed in Italy and a fresh division from France under General Bernadotte, led 75,000 men across the Alps through three feet of snow, and proposed to strike at Vienna itself, the imperial center of the attack upon the French Revolution.
The Emperor Francis II sent against him forty thousand men under the Archduke Karl Ludwig, fresh from victories along the Rhine. Surprised by the reported number of the advancing French, and respectful of Napoleon’s reputation, Karl adopted a strategy of retreat. Bonaparte followed until he was within sixty miles of the Austrian capital. With or without a battle he might have taken the city, then humming with old Haydn and young Beethoven. But in that case the government would fall back toward Hungary, the war could lengthen in time and space, and, with winter setting in, the French army would find itself in hostile and unfamiliar territory, subject at any moment to a flank attack. In a rare moment of modesty, and with a caution that might have served him well in his later years, Napoleon sent the Archduke an invitation to negotiate a truce. The Archduke refused; Napoleon inflicted severe defeats upon his forces at Neumarkt and Umzmarkt; Karl agreed to talk. At Leoben, April 18, 1797, the young commanders signed a preliminary peace, subject to ratification by their governments.
The road to ratification was blocked by Austria’s refusal to surrender—and Napoleon’s resolve to keep—his conquests in Lombardy. An apparently minor event gave him a gambler’s chance to escape this impasse. He had occupied several cities belonging to Venice; in some of these towns insurrections had broken out against the French garrisons. Charging the Venetian Senate with having instigated these uprisings, Napoleon deposed it and set up in its place a municipal structure subject to French control and shorn of its mainland possessions. When the time came to transform the preliminaries of Leoben into the Treaty of Campoformio (October 17, 1797), Napoleon offered Austria a free hand in absorbing Venice into her empire in return for the cession of Lombardy and Belgium, and recognition of French rights to the left bank of the Rhine. Nearly all Europe, forgetting a thousand treaties, reacted with horror to this diplomatic philanthropy with other people’s property.
The new Machiavelli insisted, however, on keeping for France the Venetian islands in the Adriatic—Corfu, Zante, Cephalonia. “These,” Napoleon wrote to the Directory on August 16, 1797, “matter more to us than all the rest of Italy put together. They are vital to the wealth and prosperity of our commerce. If we are effectively to destroy England we must get hold of Egypt. The huge Ottoman Empire, perishing day by day, forces us to anticipate events, and to take early steps for the preservation of our commerce in the Levant.”59 The graybeards of the chancelleries had little to teach this youth of twenty-eight.
With serene assumption of diplomatic authority, he reorganized his conquests into a Cisalpine Republic centering on Milan and a Ligurian Republic around Genoa, both governed by native democracies under French protection and power. Then, having revenged and reversed Caesar’s Roman conquest of Gaul, the Little Corporal, big with honors and spoils, returned to Paris to have his treaties ratified by the transformed Directory which he had helped to install.