Here all regard him [Napoleon] as a man of genius…. his calmness amidst the most stirring scenes is as wonderful as his extraordinary rapidity in changing his plans if obliged to do so by unforeseen circumstances.
–Henri Clarke, from a report on the Italian Campaign
As eager as Napoleon had been to assume command of the Army of Italy, the situation that confronted him upon taking charge of the army in the spring of 1796 was hardly promising. Following their tactical victory over the Austro-Prussian army at Valmy, French forces had gone on to push the Allies out of Belgium and Holland, but the defection of General Pichegru had led to a reversal in French fortunes, and the counter-revolutionary attack on the Tuileries in October 1795 had only highlighted the essential fragility of the Republic’s strategic situation. The advent of the Directory had brought the promise of greater political stability, but whether the new government could provide effective military leadership was still very much in doubt. Following the initial expansion of the pent-up forces of nationalism released by the revolution, the steam seemed to be going out of the French war effort. Ill-paid, ill-fed, and ill-equipped, the armies that guarded the country’s newly-expanded frontiers could not be expected to remain patient for long. Unless the troops were provided with money, food, guns, and above all, victories, their morale, and with it their loyalty to the Republic, was bound to wane preciptously.
It was under these conditions that Napoleon arrived in Nice with orders to drive a combined Austrian and Sardinian army out of northern Italy. The army with which he was to do so numbered about 60,000 men spread along a thin strip of coastline from Marseille to the village of Voltri, some ten miles west of Genoa. This extended position had resulted from a failed attempt by Napoleon’s predecessor, General Scherer, to persuade the Genoese to back the French cause, which left the French vulnerable to attack from both the mountains and the sea. Indeed, within a week of Napoleon’s arrival, the Austrian commander, Johann Beaulieu, began massing troops at Bolchetta with plans to coordinate with the British fleet in an attack on the French garrison at Voltri. Due to delays in coordinating with the British, however, the Allied offensive did not get underway until 10 April, by which time Napoleon was prepared to receive it. Abandoning his own advance on Genoa, the new French commander ordered the garrison at Voltri to fight a delaying action back to Savona, where he had been gathering his forces for an attack with the larger strategic objective of driving a wedge between the Austrian and Sardinian armies. As Napoleon had anticipated, the Allied capture of Voltri effectively extended the enemy’s front while concentrating his own, and that night under cover of darkness he ordered five French divisions forward against the Austrian right flank at Montenotte. On the morning of the 11th, his lead divisions routed the Austrians, driving them northeastward and opening the way for a French advance on Dego. Two days later Dego and its garrison of 4,000 Sardinians surrendered, and Beaulieu’s demoralized forces withdrew to the village of Acqui.
Thus far the Austrian commander had managed his forces badly, giving confusing directions and failing to coordinate the movements of his various units. On the 15th, however, he received a rare stroke of luck when an isolated Austrian force misinterpreted orders and stumbled into Dego to find the French victors of the previous day unguarded and asleep. (Following the occupation of the town, the French commander on the scene had returned to more comfortable quarters, leaving his exhausted men on their own.) The ensuing attack sent the French fleeing southward, and Dego passed back into Allied hands. With some 14,000 Austrian troops on hand, the accidental victory might easily have been exploited, but the Austrian commanders simply couldn’t believe reports of their good fortune and failed to send reinforcements.
Meanwhile, infuriated at the lapse of discipline within his own command, Napoleon organized a fresh advance and retook the town. Consolidating his position around Dego, he prepared to attack the Sardinians, who had withdrawn from Ceva in favor of a strong defensive line along the west banks of the Tanaro and Corsaglia rivers. With the rivers running high and the French soldiery running out of food, Napoleon’s initial advance failed, but subsequent maneuvers caused the Sardinian commander to abandon his position lest his line of communication be cut. This forced the Austrians in turn to withdraw, and in the course of this displacement, Napoleon moved quickly to exploit the enemy’s vulnerability, enveloping both Sardinian flanks and eventually scattering the entire force. Shortly thereafter, the Sardinian commander requested an armistice, to which Napoleon responded by demanding the surrender of two key strongholds. Next, continuing to press his advantage, he drove his forces northward to prevent the remnants of the Sardinian army from rejoining the Austrians. On the 24th, his terms met, an armistice was signed.
Thus, in little more than three weeks the Army of Italy had disposed of half its opposition and established a solid base in Piedmont from which to stage further operations. Scarcely pausing for breath, Napoleon now turned his attention back to the Austrians, who had withdrawn eastward, crossing to the north side of the Po River and destroying the bridges in their front. Feinting toward Valenza, he ordered his main force downstream along the south side of the river and, after capturing several large boats, forced a crossing at Piacenza on 7 May. The next day the Austrian left flank was driven back to the vicinity of Pizzighettone and Beaulieu began withdrawing further eastward. Late the following day, one of Beaulieu’s advance units ran into a French outpost near Codogno and suddenly flashes of musket fire lit up the darkness. Riding forward to investigate, the French divisional commander, General Laharpe, was accidentally killed by his own men, and as the enemy continued to press forward the leaderless French troops fled in panic. For the Austrians, an opportunity now offered to drive the French into the Po, but again, as at Dego, the commander on the scene failed to seize the moment, contenting himself with having put a scare into the French.
The next day, in the absence of an enemy attack, Napoleon recovered the lost ground and resumed his advance. Now it was Beaulieu who was in peril, for unless he moved quickly he was in danger of being cut off from his base at Mantua, in which case all of northern Italy would likely be lost. Racing eastward, he fell back on Crema, seeking to establish a new defensive line east of the Adda River. At the village of Lodi, on the west bank of the river, his rear-guard covered the approaches to a wooden bridge some 200 yards long, while on the eastern end of the bridge sixteen guns stood ready to prevent the enemy from crossing. With their own troops still occupying the town, however, the Austrians made no preparations to destroy the bridge.
Thus, on the morning of 10 May, Napoleon arrived outside Lodi even as his troops were driving the Austrian rear-guard through the village. Hurrying forward with his artillery, the French commander took part in shelling the enemy positions on the eastern bank of the river in an effort to prevent the bridge from being destroyed. At the same time, the Austrian guns on the opposite shore commenced a murderous fire, preventing the French from crossing. Sending a cavalry unit upstream with orders to find a ford and flank the enemy position, Napoleon awaited the arrival of fresh troops and, bringing up more guns, continued to pound the enemy position. Then, with the sun low in the sky and still no sign of his flanking force on the opposite shore, he gathered some 3,000 infantrymen in the town square and, astride a white horse, delivered a speech calculated to goad the weary men into a reckless assault. He wanted to storm the bridge, he said, but wasn’t sure they were up to it. Instead of charging as a unified mass, they would likely hesitate, stop to fire their guns, and in the end be repulsed. For the young commander (who appeared boyish even on horseback) the speech itself was a gamble, yet there was about him an aura of leadership that inspired confidence.
Having worked on their pride, Napoleon gave the order for the assault, which went forward amid shouts of “Vive la Republique!” Now nothing remained but to charge straight for the muzzles of the enemy guns, and when, about half-way across, a well-timed Austrian volley crashed into the attackers, the bridge was suddenly littered with the fallen. At this point, seeing the men falter, a group of French officers led by General Berthier, rushed onto the bridge to press forward the attack. At the same time, a group of carabiniers dropped from the bridge onto a shoal of sand and began firing, breaking up the Austrians’ first line of defense and enabling the initial wave of attackers to gain the opposite shore. A sharp fight now blew up as the Austrians struggled to bottle up the advance, but it was at this moment that the French flanking force appeared on the enemy’s right. Soon another group of cavalry–having swum the river downstream–began to envelop their opposite flank, and with darkness falling and the French fanning out from their bridgehead, the Austrians turned and fled, leaving their guns behind.
Though not the decisive victory he had hoped for (Beaulieu had been able to escape eastward, keeping his army intact), the Battle of Lodi would prove an important episode in Napoleon’s growing legend. Prior to the battle, the youthful commander had been a distant figure, brilliant but aloof. In his speech to the troops about storming the bridge, however, he had struck a powerful chord, and in the process passed a crucial test, becoming not just a commander but a leader of men. At one point in the early fighting, he had exposed himself to enemy shellfire to sight several of his own guns, a job normally performed by a corporal. The incident stuck in the minds of those who had witnessed it, and after the battle, the French soldiery began referring to their youthful commander as “Le Petit Caporal,” –the little corporal. Having incited his men to win battles, Napoleon had won their hearts in the bargain.
Within a week of the battle, the French occupied Milan, capital of the rich province of Lombardy, where Napoleon set about consolidating his considerable gains. For much of the campaign, his ragged army had been accustomed to widespread looting to make up for the lack of regular army supplies. Through strict discipline, Napoleon managed to bring much of the looting under control, and from the proceeds of the conquered province, he paid the troops and undertook a general refitting of the army. The effect on French morale was profound. With money in their pockets and clothes on their backs, the French soldiers for the first time experienced the tangible results of their efforts. No longer forced to steal to provide for themselves, they moved through the streets and cafes of Milan with newfound self-respect, delighted to find themselves in a city renowned for its beautiful women and high culture. The Milanese–to whom Napoleon’s large requisitions were little more than looting on a grand scale–were not nearly so pleased, of course, and a number of local revolts broke out, which the French conquerors put down with a heavy hand. For Napoleon, who had pledged to the Milanese the “eternal friendship” of the French, such incidents no doubt marred the triumph of the occupation, but he had fulfilled the wishes of his own government with unimpeachable thoroughness and competence.
It therefore came as a shock to learn, during his hard-won respite in the capital of Lombardy, that back in Paris the Directory had decided to divide his army. General Kellermann was to be given joint command of the Army of Italy with orders to take over the pursuit of the Austrians, while Napoleon was to undertake a lesser campaign against Tuscany and the Papal States. Summoning all his tact and rhetorical skill, Napoleon responded with a series of forceful arguments against the plan. “General Kellermann has more experience and would do better than I,” he wrote, “but the two of us together would do very badly.” In fact, the idea of working with Kellermann–who, at sixty-one, would have clear seniority–was anathema to Napoleon, and he hinted broadly at the possibility of his resignation under such circumstances. Surely his recent successes warranted better treatment than an effective demotion. Yet it was precisely due to his success and the influence it conveyed that the government had proposed the change. Having already established a reputation for dangerously independent thinking, the popular young general posed a potential threat to the leadership in Paris, and the energy and aplomb with which he had handled diplomatic matters left the Directors feeling decidedly uneasy. But with the rest of France’s armies bogged down, they could ill afford to lose the one man who had brought them victories, and so they relented, leaving Napoleon in sole command with the proviso that, in addition to defeating the Austrians, he move to subdue the Papal States.
Much relieved by the outcome, Napoleon showed few signs of having been chastened by the incident. Just the same, the affair could not help but remind him of the tenuousness of his reputation in the volatile politics of the capital. One could not be too careful in such a world, especially an outlander whose native country was now under British control. Thus, it was during this period that he dropped the letter “u” from his last name, abandoning the Italian Buonaparte for the French Bonaparte. Under the circumstances, it couldn’t hurt to appear as French as possible, especially in the event he were ever to assume a role of political leadership.
Meanwhile, having garrisoned key strongholds along his line of supply, he pressed forward, maintaining the initiative against the demoralized Austrians. By the middle of May 1796, the Army of Italy was on the move again, crossing the Adda at Pizzighetone and forcing the enemy back upon a new defensive line at the Mincio River. Here, feinting north as if to strike Peschiera, Napoleon sent the bulk of his force against Borghetto, five miles to the south, at which point the Austrian commander, Beaulieu, his line broken, fled north, leaving some 13,000 men in the fortress city of Mantua. Establishing his own line along the Adige River from Rivoli to Legnago, Napoleon laid siege to Mantua and turned to the task of satisfying the Directory’s desire to subdue the Papal States. With two divisions he swooped southward, scooping up territorial concessions and a total of 50 million francs in tribute and supplies. By the middle of July, he was back on the Adige, having covered over 300 miles and given all of central Italy notice of France’s new ascendancy.