Chateaubriand's memoirs, XIX, 12

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Mémoires d'Outre-tombe


Book XIX, chapter 12
The Italian Campaign



Arriving in Nice, at the headquarters of the Army of Italy, Bonaparte found the soldiers in a state of total deprivation, half-naked, without boots, bread, or discipline. He was twenty-six years old; under his command he had Masséna with thirty-eight thousand men. It was the year 1796. He opened his first campaign on the 27th of March, a notable date among those which came to be etched on his life. He defeated Beaulieu at Montenotte; two days later, at Millesimo he split the Austrian and Sardinian armies. At Ceva, Mondovi, Fossano, and Cherasco the success continued; the spirit of war itself had descended. The proclamation of peace caused a new voice to be heard, just as the battles had announced a new man:

‘Soldiers, in fifteen days, you have gained six victories, taken twenty-one flags, fifty-five pieces of canon, fifteen thousand prisoners, and killed or wounded more than ten thousand men! You have won battles with guns, crossed rivers without bridges, made forced marches without boots, bivouacked without brandy, and often without bread. The Republican phalanxes, the soldiers of liberty alone were capable of suffering what you have suffered; thanks are due you, soldiers! ...
People of Italy! The French army has come to break your chains; the French people are friends with all nations. We are angry only with the tyrants who enslave you.’

On the 15th of May peace was concluded between the FrenchRepublic and the King of Sardinia; Savoy was ceded to France with Nice and Tende. Napoleon kept advancing, and wrote to Carnot:

‘From headquarters at Piacenza, 9th of May 1796
We have crossed the Po at last: the second campaign has begun; Beaulieu is confounded; he miscalculates badly, and constantly falls into the traps one sets for him. Perhaps he is keen to give battle, since the man has the courage of anger, and not that of genius. One more victory and we are masters of Italy. The moment that we cease the advance, we will re-equip the army. It always inspires fear; but has grown fat; the soldiers only eat white bread, and excellent meat in quantity, etc. Discipline is being established day by day; but it is often necessary to shoot some of them, since they are intractable creatures without self-control. What we have done to the enemy is incalculable. The more men you send me the more easily I will feed them. I am having twenty paintings by the most important masters, Corregio and Michelangelo, shipped to you. I owe you special thanks, for the attention you have been so good as to show my wife. I recommend her to you: she is a true patriot, and I love her deeply. I hope things are going well, being in a position to send to you in Paris, twelve millions: that will not do you too badly for the Army of the Rhine. Send me four thousand un-mounted cavalrymen, I will find a way to provide them with mounts here. I will not conceal from you, that since the death of Stengel, I no longer have a first class cavalry officer for a fight. I would like you to send me two or three adjutants with some fire, and a firm resolution never to make cautious retreats.’

It is one of Napoleon’s most remarkable letters. What vivacity! What variety of genius! With news of heroics we find, thrown into this triumphant profusion, pell-mell, Michelangelo’s art, sharp wit directed against a rival regarding adjutants firmly resolved never to make cautious retreats. On the same day, Bonaparte wrote to the Directory, to give notice of the suspension of hostilities agreed with the Duke of Parma, and to send on Correggio’s Saint Jerôme. On the 11th of May, he announced to Carnot the crossing of the bridge at Lodi, which gave France possession of Lombardy. If he did not proceed to Milan immediately, it was because he wished to pursue Beaulieu and finish him off. – ‘If I take Mantua, there is nothing to stop me from penetrating Bavaria; in twenty days I can reach the heart of Germany. If the two Armies of the Rhine begin a campaign, I beg you to let me know their positions. It would be worthy of the Republic if three united armies signed a peace treaty at the heart of Bavaria and a stunned Austria.’

The eagle does not march it flies, adorned with the banners of victory draped from its neck and wings.

He complains that they want to give him Kellerman as deputy: ‘I cannot serve willingly with a man who thinks himself Europe’s greatest general, and I believe a single bad general is better than two good ones.’

On the 1st of June 1796 the Austrians were driven from Italy completely and our advance-guard was reconnoitring the mountains of Germany: ‘Our grenadiers and our carabiniers,’ Bonaparte wrote to the Directory, ‘toy with and laugh at death. Nothing equals their fearlessness, unless it is the cheerfulness with which they endure long forced marches. You might think that once they have made camp they at least must sleep; not at all: each makes up his report or describes his plan of campaign for next day, and often one sees by that who come across most soundly. The other day I was watching a half-brigade marching by; a chasseur approached my horse: “General,” he said to me, “such and such must be done”. – “Wretch,” I said to him, “will you be silent!” He disappeared instantly; I had him searched for in vain: precisely what I ordered had been done to him.’

The soldiers promoted their commander: at Lodi he was a corporal, at Castiglione a sergeant.

On the 17th of November they advanced on Arcola: they young general crossed the bridge which made him famous; ten thousand men were left on the field. ‘It was a chapter from the Iliad!’ Bonaparte cried at the mere memory of that action.

In Germany, Moreau carried out the celebrated retreat that Napoleon jealousy called a sergeant’s retreat. Bonaparte was preparing to say to his rival, on beating Archduke Charles:

‘I will follow your illustrious retreat, so near
As to handle him without an interpreter.’

On the 14th of January 1797, hostilities were renewed at the battle of Rivoli. Two confrontations with Wurmser, at San Giorgio and at La Favorita, entailed for the enemy the loss of five thousand dead and twenty thousand prisoners; the inhabitants barricaded themselves in Mantua; the town, blockaded, capitulated; Wurmser, with the twelve thousand men remaining to him, surrendered.

The March of Ancona was soon invaded; later the Treaty of Tolentino brought the French pearls, diamonds, precious manuscripts, the Transfiguration, the Laocoon, the Apollo Belvedere, and ended this sequence of military operations during which in less than a year four Austrian armies had been destroyed, northern Italy subjugated and the Tyrol opened up; there was hardly time to know where one was: the lightning and the blow fell together.

Archduke Charles, hastening to defend the Austrian front with a fresh army, is forced back at the River Tagliamento; Gradisca falls; Trieste is taken; the preliminaries of peace between France and Austria are signed at Leoben.

Venice, created during the fall of the Roman Empire, betrayed and troubled, opened its lagoons and palaces to us; a revolution (31st of May, 1797) took place in its rival Genoa: the LigurianRepublic was born. Bonaparte would have been astonished if, in the midst of his conquests, he could have known that he was seizing Venice for Austria, the Papal Legations for Rome, Naples for the Bourbons, Genoa for Piedmont, Spain for England, Westphalia for Prussia, and Poland for Russia, like those soldiers who, in sacking a town, load themselves with spoils they are forced to abandon, being unable to carry them, while at that very moment they are losing their native land.

On the 9th of July, the CisalpineRepublic was proclaimed. In Bonaparte’s correspondence one can see him shuttling between these links in the chain of revolutions connected to our own: like Mahomet with the scimitar and the Koran, we advanced with a sword in one hand, the rights of man in the other.

In the mass of general activity, Bonaparte lets no detail escape him: now he fears lest the old masters, works of the great painters of Venice, Bologna, and Milan get a wetting crossing Mont Cenis; now he is anxious lest a papyrus manuscript from the Ambrosian Library is lost; he begs the Minister of the Interior to let him know if it has arrived at the National Library. He gives the Executive Directors his opinion of his generals:

‘Berthier: talent, energy, courage, and character, he has everything going for him.
Augereau: plenty of character, courage, steadiness, energy; liked by the soldiers, fortunate in what he undertakes.
Masséna: active, indefatigable, has the courage, quickness of eye, and readiness to make decisions.
Sérurier: fights alongside his men, lacks initiative; steadfast; has a poor opinion of his troops; is ill.
Despinois: lethargic, without energy or courage, not fit for war, not liked by his men, does not fight at the front; other than that he has stature, intelligence, and sound political principles; fine as a commander in the interior.
Sauret: good, a very good soldier, not bright enough to be a general; unlucky.
Abbatucci: not fit to command fifty men, etc, etc.’


Bonaparte writes to the leader of the Maniots: ‘The French esteem that small, but brave people who, alone of ancient Greece, have retained their virtue, worthy descendants of Sparta, who only lack a presence in a wider theatre to achieve their ancestors’ fame.’ He instructs the authorities to take possession of Corfu: ‘The island of Corcyra,’ he remarks, ‘was, according to Homer, the land of Princess Nausicaa.’ He sends off the peace treaty concluded with Venice: ‘Our navy acquired four or five men of war there, three or four frigates, and three or four million lines of rigging – Give me French or Corsican sailors,’ he requests; ‘I will take those of Mantua or Guarda. – A million for Toulon, as I told you, goes off tomorrow; two millions, etc., will make the sum of five millions that the Army of Italy will have supplied during the latest campaign. – I have charged…with going to Sion to try and open negotiations with the Valais. – I have sent an excellent engineer to find out how much it would cost to open up that route (the Simplon)…I have charged the same engineer with seeing what it would take to blow up the rocks through which the Rhône escapes, and by so doing to make the exploitation of the woods of Valais and Savoy possible.’ He gives notice that he is about to send a load of wheat and steel from Trieste to Genoa. He makes a present to the Pasha of Scutari of four cases of rifles, as a mark of friendship. He orders several suspects to be sent back to Milan, and has several others arrested. He writes to Citizen Groignard, the naval administrator at Toulon: ‘I am not your judge, but if you were under my command, I would put you under arrest for having sanctioned such a ridiculous requisition.’ A note handed to the Pope’s minister reads: ‘The Pope will perhaps consider it worthy of his wisdom, of the holiest of religions, to issue a Bull or a mandate ordering priests to obey the government.’

All this was intermingled with his negotiations with the new Republics, details of festivals celebrating Virgil and Ariosto, explanatory dockets for twenty Venetian paintings and five hundred manuscripts; all this conducted in an Italy deafened with the sounds of battle, an Italy become a furnace in which our grenadiers existed like salamanders in the flames.

Within this whirlwind of events and victories the 18th Fructidor arrived, encouraged by Bonaparte’s proclamations and the debates among his troops jealous of the Army of the Meuse. Then the man who, perhaps wrongly, was considered the author of the plans which brought Republican victories, vanished; we were assured that Danissy, Lafitte and D’Arcon, three superior military geniuses, had directed those plans: Carnot found himself proscribed through Bonaparte’s influence.

On the 17th of October, the latter signed the Peace treaty of Campo-Formio: the first Continental War waged by the Revolution ended thirty leagues from Vienna