2) Mastering Luck

Is it because they are lucky that [great men] become great? No, but being great,
they have been able to master luck… What is luck?
The ability to exploit accidents.


Having thwarted the Directory’s attempt to clip his wings and with his enemy’s main force securely beseiged in Mantua, Napoleon may well have thought the greater part of his difficulties in northern Italy were behind him. If so, he was mistaken. By the end of July 1796, the Austrians had replaced general Beaulieu with Dagobert Wurmser, a career soldier of long experience, who advanced southward from Trent in two columns, straddling Lake Garda and threatening the French line of communication. In well-coordinated attacks east of the lake, Wurmser forced Napoleon to abandon his line on the Adige River. West of the lake the Austrian right wing, under Peter Quasdanovich, seized Brescia, cutting the French off from the most direct route to their base at Milan. At this point, fully alive to his predicament, Napoleon abandoned the siege of Mantua to prepare a new line of communication via Cremona and Piacenza.

Next, rather than continue to press the French back upon Milan, Wurmser moved to resupply the Austrian forces besieged at Mantua, allowing Napoleon a temporary breathing space. Even so, the French position remained precarious, and when Wurmser crossed the Mincio River and advanced westward, Napoleon considered making a general withdrawal. With the two wings of the Austrian army within five miles of effecting a crucial linkage at the base of  Lake Garda, the safest bet would have been to retreat to the south. Instead, however, he opted for a hail-Mary sort of gambit, ordering attacks on both wings of the enemy’s advancing forces at once. In heavy fighting at Castiglione the divisions of Augereau and Kilmaine succeeded in pushing Wurmser’s force out of the town, while at  Lonato, General Masséna routed Quasdanovich’s lead division, preventing the two enemy armies from joining forces. Indeed, the next day, convinced that Wurmser had failed to cross the Mincio, Quasdanovich withdrew the bulk of his force northward, abandoning the attempted linkage.

In the course of this action, some 2,500 of Quasdanovich’s men were cut off from their main body and, uncertain of their position, proceeded south in hopes of linking up with Wurmser’s troops. Entering Lonato late in the evening, they discovered Napoleon and a force of only 1,000 men preparing to bivouac for the night, at which point an Austrian officer rode forward under a flag of truce, confronted the French commander and demanded his surrender. Napoleon responded by cooly informing him that it was the Austrians who were surrounded and that he must either surrender at once or be overwhelmed. Taken in by the performance, the officer indeed surrendered, giving up his sword to a man with less than half his force, and providing another heroic story for readers of Napoleon’s thrill-packed bulletins from the front. 

By this time, the French forces besieging Mantua had been ordered to cover a new line of communication along the road to Cremona, and on 4 August a division under General Fiorello made a grueling all-night march, arriving in the rear of the Austrian line at Castiglione. Taking Wurmser completely by surprise, the move forced the Austrian commander to retreat east of the Mincio. Though exhausted and much reduced in number after eight days of nearly continuous fighting and maneuvering, the French nonetheless remained on the offensive, pushing the Austrians out of Peschiera and threatening their line of communication. Thus in short order, the pursuers had become the pursued, and the suddenness of the shift in fortune was enough to give Wurmser deep misgivings. After ordering the garrison at Mantua reinforced, the Austrian commander disengaged and retired northward along with his subordinate, Quasdanovich. 

Having thus flirted with disaster on several fronts, Napoleon had prevailed, yet as long as Mantua remained in enemy hands, his situation remained precarious and now the newly-resupplied town could be expected to hold out months longer than originally anticipated. Napoleon again laid siege to the stronghold but was not about to stand by, awaiting its surrender. Reorganizing and reinforcing his army, he formulated plans for an advance northward in hopes of linking up with General Moreau’s Army of the Rhine, which was even then advancing eastward into Tyrol. By the 5th of September, Napoleon was in Trent, where he learned that Wurmser was on his way south again. Leaving one division to secure the approaches to Tyrol, he gave chase, and on 8 September two French divisions fell upon a hastily organized Austrian rear-guard outside Bassano, chasing the fleeing Austrians into the town and defeating them in heavy fighting.

Wurmser, meanwhile, was only ten miles away at Cittadella, where he gathered together the remnants of his command and continued his determined bid to break the siege of Mantua. Racing southward by way of Vicenza, he managed to outpace his exhausted pursuers and break into the fortress on the 13th. Two days later, his numbers increased by the city’s garrison, he attempted a sortie to the east, but by this time the French had arrived in force, and the breakout attempt was driven back with losses of some 4,000 men. Subsequent efforts to break the French cordon around the city were likewise defeated, and once again the French siege was reinstated.


With the effective capture of Wurmser’s force in Mantua, Napoleon achieved another breathing space in which to consolidate his gains, yet the respite would not last long, and his overall situation was still doubtful. Mantua remained the key to northern Italy and its fall was not imminent. If Wurmser’s 25,000 men could be relieved, the French might yet be driven out of Austrian territory and the Directory’s war of conquest ended. Elsewhere, General Moreau’s campaign on the Danube had become thoroughly stalled, enabling the Austrian leadership in Vienna to redirect fresh men and resources to Italy under Baron Josef Alvintzy. With a main body of 28,000 men based in Trieste, Alvintzy was to proceed west, while an additional force of 18,000 under General Paul Davidovich marched south from Tyrol. Their initial objective was Verona, where the two armies were to combine to break the siege on Mantua. Outnumbered on both fronts, the French would be forced onto the defensive.

Getting underway on the last day of October, the two wings of the Austrian army made good progress despite aggressive French resistance, and by the 9th had advanced as far as Mori in the north and Vicenza in the east. At this point, however, Davidovich showed signs of running out of steam, and Napoleon began concentrating for a strike on Alvintzy. On the 12th of November an attack on the Austrian advance guard at Caldiero was repulsed with substantial losses, and now it was French morale that began to flag. Already outnumbered, Napoleon could ill afford another such encounter, and rather than confront the Austrians head-on he determined to slip around their flank, threaten their supply train, and knock Alvintzy off balance. The ground he chose for the attack was well-suited to the purpose, for the confluence of the Adige and Alpone rivers was surrounded by extensive marshes that could only be crossed by a series of narrow dikes, limiting opportunities for maneuver and mitigating the Austrian advantage in numbers.

The ensuing battle lasted three days, during which the French made repeated attempts to capture the town of Arcola, immediately east of the area of marshy ground and accessible by a single bridge across the Alpone. On the third day, the French threw a trestle bridge across the mouth of the river to engage Alvintzy’s left flank north of Albaredo while a small force of French cavalry (a mere 29 men) slipped around the Austrian line to make a noisy charge in the enemy’s rear. Thoroughly spooked, the Austrians began to give ground and were eventually driven back to Arcola even as an Austrian sortie was being chased back across the Alpone. Assailed in front and flank, Alvintzy ordered a withdrawal to San Bonifacio, and eventually fell back to the Brenta River.

Napoleon next turned north once more to confront Davidovich, who had resumed his advance. On the 20th, with the bulk of the French army once more on the offensive against him, Davidovich fled northward, narrowly escaping disaster. The moment of crisis had come at Arcola, where the crossing of a narrow wooden causeway secured the victory much as at Lodi. So too, the Battle of Arcola would spawn yet another episode in the legend of the French commander. With time running out on his efforts to cut off the Austrian escape, he attempted to lead a charge in person, seizing a tricolor and starting across the bridge at the head of a small force. In an effort to prevent him, one of his aides grabbed him around the waist and both men tumbled off the bridge into the shallow water, where they became hopelessly stuck in the mud. But for the quick response of his staff, Napoleon would have been an easy target for the Austrian counterattack that followed, but as it happened, both men were rescued in the nick of time.

Meanwhile, Wurmser, though besieged in Mantua, remained a potential threat in the event of a break-out, and though driven back, Alvintzy was not yet beaten. At the same time, in secret negotiations with the Pope, the Austrians were plotting to create a southern front in Italy, and on top of everything else, Napoleon’s own government continued to be suspicious of him. Indeed, an agent of the Directory, General Henri Clarke, was even then in Brescia on a mission to investigate Napoleon’s conduct and report back to Paris. As it happened, Clarke’s assessment would broadly vindicate the young commander’s actions, and on the strength of his report fresh reinforcements were sent east, which Napoleon used to consolidate his position around Verona. In addition, he was able to send a single division to Bologna to discourage any interference from the Pope.

Next, convinced that the French were moving south in force to invade the Papal States, Alvintzy gathered his forces for yet another effort to relieve Mantua. Sending two divisions southwest to probe the French line along the lower Adige, he took the bulk of his army along the northern route through Rivoli. The advance began on 7 January, and by the 13th French reports from Rivoli confirmed the general disposition of the enemy troops, at which point Napoleon concentrated his forces against the main attack in the north. Arriving in Rivoli early on the morning of the 14th, he sent General Joubert’s division forward to occupy the high ground north of the town, where three enemy columns were on the move from La Corona. Meanwhile, a fourth enemy column under Quasdanovich slipped around the French right and started uphill directly in rear of Joubert’s line. A hastily deployed battery of fifteen guns brought the attackers to a halt, and a regiment of heavy cavalry sent them reeling back downhill. Their flank thus secured, the French now faced a threat on the left from a fifth enemy column at Affi. Proceeding east, the Austrian flanking force gained the heights of Mt. Pipolo, threatening to catch the French in a trap. By this time, however, Napoleon had reinforced Joubert’s isolated division and sent it forward against the main Austrian line, which broke and fled to the north. Eventually surrounded by French reserves, the Austrians on Mt. Pipolo were forced to surrender.

With the bulk of the French forces engaged at Rivoli, the larger Austrian strategy called for some 9,000 men under General Provera to relieve Wurmser in Mantua. Evading a French covering force at Legnago, Provera crossed the lower Adige, and on the 15th arrived on the outskirts of the besieged city. The next day, with the French racing south from Rivoli, Provera managed to get word to Wurmser inside Mantua and the two made a joint attack on the northern end of the French cordon at La Favorita, momentarily breaking the siege. No sooner had the door been opened, however, than French forces converged from the north and east to slam it shut again, forcing Provera to surrender and driving Wurmser back into Mantua. Less than three weeks later, with the death toll in the city surpassing 20,000, the besieged defenders of Mantua finally surrendered.

With the defeat of Alvintzy and the fall of Mantua, Napoleon’s reputation soared, and the Directory made due concessions to his triumph. Indeed, having failed of success on every other war front, the government in Paris latched onto its one rising star with something like desperation, making Italy the main theater of operations with the Army of the Rhine for once serving a supporting role. Supplied with fresh reinforcements and given a free hand to negotiate a treaty with the Austrians, Napoleon, at 27, was once again the man of the hour. Having pursued the remnants of Alvintzy’s army northward in the aftermath of Rivoli, Napoleon next established a new defensive line running roughly from Trent to Treviso. In February he paid another visit to the Papal States, where he exacted new concessions and indemnities from the Pope, then returned north to plan his advance upon Vienna. By this time, the Austrians had organized yet another army and placed it under the command of Archduke Charles, the brother of Emperor Francis II. Having defeated two of the Republic’s other generals (Jourdan and Moreau), Archduke Charles now carried Austria’s hopes that the French might yet be defeated and driven out of Italy. Thoroughly demoralized by its recent defeats, however, the army Charles inherited would take time to rebuild and retrain, and Napoleon was not about to grant him any breathing space. Confronting the Austrian line along the Tagliamento River, he met little resistance, but in the mountain passes at Malborghetto, the Austrians staged a fierce defense. Even so, the French prevailed, and driving the Austrians before him, General Masséna’s division proceeded to Tarvis, two miles from the Austrian border, arriving in time to cut off some 2,000 enemy troops on 25 March.

By 7 April French forces had battered their way as far as Leoben, 85 miles southwest of the Austrian capital, at which point, far from his base and with no hope of support from Moreau’s army, Napoleon agreed to a truce and began discussions of a peace settlement. Though the army’s proximity to Vienna allowed him to negotiate from strength, the talks would drag on for months, during which time he returned to Milan to administer the territories he had conquered. When the final agreement was signed at Campo Formio on 17 October 1797, France came away with dominion over the entire left bank of the Rhine, the Cisalpine Republic (northern Italy west of the Adige), and the Ionian Islands in the Adriatic. In addition, Napoleon’s conquests had filled France’s coffers with many millions in foreign gold as well as hundreds of treasured works of art.


By any measure, it had been a remarkable campaign. In large part Napoleon’s success was attributable to the speed with which he acted, or, more precisely, reacted. Revealing a keen appreciation for the dynamic nature of battle, he developed an instinct for deploying his forces in a way to allow for the greatest flexibility in responding to changing circumstances. “One engages, then one sees,” he wrote, emphasizing the commander’s role in responding to events on the battlefield rather than following preconceived plans. Possessed of acute powers of concentration, he “saw” the battlefield as few others were able to see it, taking in at a glance the implications of terrain as well as the relative objectives of the combatants. Perhaps most remarkable of all was his ability, once battle was joined, to remain aloof and undistracted in the face of unfolding events, a trait that quickly won the respect and admiration of his fellow soldiers, inspiring confidence by example. Yet the same quality would give rise to larger questions about his character. As General Clarke reported, “General Bonaparte is not without defects. He does not spare his men sufficiently… Sometimes he is hard, impatient, abrupt, or imperious. Often he demands difficult things in too hasty a manner.” For some, Napoleon’s ability to remain calm in the face of terrible events marked him out as a man of rare courage; for others, it pointed to an apparent inability or unwillingness to confront the human costs of battle, an insensitivity that allowed him to cast a cool eye on death and suffering. Indeed, in the years to come many thousands were to die beneath his impassive gaze.