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  • James Houser

November 17, 1796 - The Battle of Arcole & Napoleon's Italian Campaign

Updated: Jun 17, 2021

November 17, 1796. Outmatched and outnumbered, the French Revolutionary army stands triumphant at the bloody Battle of Arcole in northern Italy. The highlight of the battle is when their brave young commander took up the flag and led his regiments in an attack across a fire-swept bridge. General Napoleon Bonaparte, all of 26 years old, has won yet another victory in his famous Italian Campaign – the journey that will make him a military superstar.

Before Napoleon was…well…Napoleon, he was just a French officer. Talented, obviously intelligent, and relentlessly ambitious, but still just an officer. There was no reason to expect he would ever rise to become Emperor of France and one of the world’s great military leaders – and he certainly could never have gotten so far so fast without the chaos of the French Revolution. The French Revolution made Napoleon, even if his rise to power probably signified its end. Only the Revolution’s obliteration of old class structures and remarkable ability to make or break reputations allowed someone like Captain Bonaparte of the French artillery to become a general in command of an army before he was as old as I am now. Napoleon’s rise was a product of his time.

But it was also the product of a man. Napoleon was one of the singular figures of history, utterly unique and irreplaceable. Sure, someone may have risen to become the dictator of Revolutionary France, but Napoleon placed such a personal and influential stamp on both France and Europe that he changed the courses of most of history. In the 19th Century, the preeminent theory of history was what is now called “great man” theory, where forceful personalities are the drivers of human events and change and most people just sorta get dragged along. While that theory was rightfully discarded as bunk a long time ago, the idea of “great man” theory was pretty much a direct result of Napoleon’s outsized influence on history. Just as Napoleon could never have come to power without the French Revolution – a force that can be assigned to no one “great man” – the modern world would have looked completely different without his influence. So let’s see how he went from obscurity to worldwide fame.

Napoleon was born in 1769, the son of a prominent but poor noble on the island of Corsica. Corsica was a backwater Mediterranean island only recently conquered by France from the Italian city-state of Genoa, so it was far more Italian in character and culture than French. Had this little acquisition never happened, the footnotes of history might record our hero as Napoleone di Buonaparte. Of course, France did take over Corsica, and Napoleon was the most intelligent child of a large brood, most of whom would find their way into cushy jobs once their bro took power, and most of whom would fail to live up to their sibling’s lofty expectations.

Napoleon, as a young noble child with an obvious aptitude for mathematics and latent authoritarian tendencies, was sent off to education in mainland France. He did time in Catholic mission schools and a youth military academy, marking himself out with his brooding demeanor and thick Corsican accent. He wound up at France’s budding national military academy of the Ecole Militaire in Paris, and graduated in 1785 to become an artillery officer. In pre-Revolution France, the artillery was considered a haven for middle-class officers, while infantry and cavalry units were mostly led by the scions of dukes and lords. Compared to the “noble” branches, the less prestigious artillery was ultimately far more meritocratic than the cavalry or infantry. This suited Napoleon, who had become embittered towards French aristocracy and favored the workmanlike manner of the gunners.

Napoleon was still serving as a junior artillery officer when the French Revolution broke out in 1789 with the storming of the Bastille. Though he was an early supporter of the Revolution, the young Lieutenant Bonaparte took little active part in the rapid events from 1789 to 1792. He was present in Paris for much of it, watching mobs in the streets, witnessing the great political events and smelling the change in the air – but he was an observer, not a participant, and certainly not a mover or shaker. His only real involvement in Revolutionary events was his brief involvement in a Corsican independence movement, but this backfired, and he was forced to flee the island with his family in 1793. Napoleon would never set foot on his home island again.

So far in the young Captain Bonaparte’s career, his involvement in real military operations had been limited to putting down a couple of riots and the fiasco on Corsica. It was at the Siege of Toulon, in 1793, that he began his rise to worldwide fame. The critical French naval base and dockyard had been seized by anti-Revolutionary, pro-Royalist forces in early 1793, and soon the British had occupied the great port city on the Mediterranean. Napoleon happened to be in the neighborhood, and offered his services as artillery officer to the French general besieging the port. The young man launched into a flurry of activity, executed a successful attack on the forts overlooking the harbor, and soon set up his guns to drop shells on top of the British ships in the bay. By December 1793, the British were forced to evacuate Toulon. Much of the credit for this rightly went to Napoleon Bonaparte, now Brigadier General at the age of 23.

But General Bonaparte’s fortunes flowed with the course of the Revolution. 1794 found him as a high-placed staff officer in the French armies fighting in Italy, gaining much local knowledge that he would put to good use later, but his political patrons had fallen out of favor back in Paris and Napoleon even found himself imprisoned for a time. He was lucky enough to be released, however, in time to take charge of a military force defending the new Revolutionary government – the “Directory” - from the Paris Mob. His artillery, loaded with canister, blew the Paris rebels away in a “whiff of grapeshot,” and the grateful government offered him any job he wanted. Napoleon knew what he wanted. He wanted the Army of Italy.

For someone like the newly minted Major General Napoleon Bonaparte, a young hero in his 20s who was obviously ambitious and glory-seeking, the Army of Italy seemed like a strange choice. Out of France’s 13 field armies, the Army of Italy was the most neglected and least prestigious. Poorly clothed, poorly supplied, and with its morale in the gutter, it was the last choice for any general who wanted to advance his career. Though the Directory’s leader Paul Barras had warned his colleagues about standing in Napoleon’s way, saying “Advance this man or he will advance himself without you,” Italy was an unusual choice for General Bonaparte. It would be like being in the Army and being told you could go to any duty station you wanted, and choosing Fort Polk for some reason.

But Napoleon Bonaparte at the ripe old age of 25 was determined to make a diamond from this coal. He had no higher command experience whatsoever. He was not rich, had little time in combat besides that flurry of battles at Toulon, and had never led more than a few men into battle. He had no noble title or ancient pedigree that granted him instant respect in the eyes of his fellows. It would have been a bad idea, if you didn’t know him, to place bets on this general who looked like he had been promoted way too far way too fast.

When Napoleon arrived to take command of the Army of Italy in March 1796, he found a bedraggled force of around 37,000 men, many without shoes or even complete uniforms. It was freezing, and they had no overcoats; no meat had been issued for three months, and mules pulled the artillery since all the horses had died of starvation. Most of the men had not been paid for months. His divisional commanders were all older than him and resented his rapid rise, and for the campaign of 1796 Napoleon was given 40,000 Francs – less than his own annual salary – to cover all expenses. The simple fact was that the Directory expected nothing out of the Army of Italy. The main campaigns of 1796 were supposed to be fought in Germany, and Napoleon was anticipated to do nothing more than hold the enemy forces in place to his front.

Napoleon immediately set to work turning the Army of Italy into a real fighting force. He summarily dismissed a brace of corrupt supply officers, appointed talented men from the lower ranks, and gained immediate control through energy, charisma and sheer force of will. One of his older generals, Pierre Augereau, told his comrade Andre Massena how “That little bastard actually frightened me!” Napoleon was a bundle of restless energy, gathering shoes, arranging for better food, and preparing plans. Plans, plans, plans. He was like a thunderbolt to the dispirited, demoralized Army of Italy, and soon they realized that their new boss wasn’t just doing all this for his own health. He expected them to fight.

The French only occupied the barest toehold in Italy, near the foot of the Alps where the French and Italian borders to meet. Almost all of northern Italy was occupied by or allied with the Austrians, who had been some of the most dedicated enemies of Revolutionary France. To the north through the Alpine passes along the Mediterranean coast, Napoleon faced the armies of Piedmont, an Italian kingdom allied with Austria. Three years of campaigns by French armies had failed to gain any ground in Italy, and Napoleon planned to succeed where they had not. Of course, the Austrians in support of Piedmont, and they held the Alpine passes in force. But what Frenchman would be crazy enough to attack when he was outnumbered – the Allies had 50,000 men to his 37,000 - and his army was widely known to be starving, low on ammunition, and liable to break and run at the first sign of trouble?

It seemed like suicide for Napoleon to attack with his rump of an army, but already he was showing signs of the audacity that would mark his career. The Austrians and Piedmontese were divided into two separate armies, which together outnumbered the French – but if Napoleon could get between them and defeat them one at a time, he could have LOCAL numerical superiority even if he was outnumbered as a whole. This strategy, known to military historians as “the central position” and more commonly as “divide and conquer”, was to be Napoleon’s favorite trick as a military commander. Even if the enemy outnumbers you overall, gaining overwhelming force at the critical point can assure victory.

Napoleon struck north with alarming speed, catching the Allies completely off guard. His drive and personal leadership propelled his starving, barefoot army over the passes and directly between the allied forces. He defeated each of their armies a few days apart, pushing the Austrians back towards the east then driving hard against Piedmont and their capital of Turin. By April 28, 1796, Napoleon had forced Piedmont to sign a peace treaty. It was shocking to everyone, even the French: just a month after he had arrived to take command of the Army of Italy, Napoleon had defeated Piedmont, a country that had foiled French plans for three years. After hashing out terms with his former enemy, Napoleon led his ecstatic troops eastward to confront the Austrians.

Napoleon continued to display the qualities that would make him feared across Europe: he moved FAST, and he hit hard. The Austrian armies that had retreated from his advance took up positions near Milan to block his approach. Napoleon slipped south, under Milan, to strike behind them at the Po River crossings that carried their supplies. Like water, flowing across a surface, he followed the path of least resistance. The Austrian generals took their army in a headlong retreat, only stopping to fight a desperate rearguard action at Lodi on May 10. Though this was a relatively small clash, it apparently had a big effect on Napoleon, who claimed later that it was the event that had convinced him of his destiny.

With the Austrians in flight, Napoleon entered Milan in triumph on May 15. Already, he had fought one of the most incredible campaigns of the French Revolutionary Wars, doing in two months what all his predecessors had failed to accomplish in the last three years. The French government was looking for victories, since their main efforts in Germany had already been foiled by the Austrian army of Archduke Charles – one day fated to become Napoleon’s nemesis. The French government not only congratulated Napoleon, but sent him a small number of reinforcements with instructions to continue his campaigns.

Unfortunately, this had been the easy part. So far, Napoleon’s campaigns in Italy had been against relatively weak opposition. He was happily setting about turning Italy into a Republic, knocking the other Italian states into place, and even forcing the Pope to sign a truce. But in northeast Italy the Austrians were continuing to assemble, and their focal point was the great fortress city of Mantua on the Po River. As long as they could hold it as an arsenal, base, and rallying point, Napoleon could never hold his positions in Italy securely. To advance any farther, the young celebrity-general would have to capture Mantua. It would take him seven months.

In early July 1796, Napoleon struck into Austrian territory once again, defeating several Austrian forces in the vicinity of Mantua. This series of victories, unfortunately, left most of the Austrian armies retreating into the fortress, giving it a strength of 12,000. Napoleon did not have the troop numbers or the heavy artillery to attack the city directly, placing him in a difficult position. He would have to leave a blockading force surrounding Mantua, while at the same time retaining a large army to orient northwards. The Austrians were not about to let Mantua go without a fight, and were preparing large armies to march south across the Alps and rescue their trapped fortress.

For the next six months of the Italian Campaign, Napoleon would be in dire straits. He had to maintain a strong cordon around Mantua, while at the same time fending off no less than FOUR major Austrian counterattacks – each of which outnumbered his entire army – that aimed to save Mantua. The Italian town had become the focal point of the French Revolutionary Wars, and indeed all of Europe had its attention fixed on Mantua and the young, newly famous general who was unraveling the Austrian Empire in Italy. Surely it was impossible that Napoleon Bonaparte, with his broken-down army and deep in enemy territory, could defeat everything the mighty Austrian Habsburgs had to throw at him. Surely he would break somewhere.

From July 1796 to February 1797, Napoleon and his Army of Italy fought no less than a dozen battles near and around Mantua, as the Austrians threw army after army to try and break his fragile cordon. The French troops marched back and forth from one defensive position to another, a high-stakes game of chess played with tired soldiers who fought over Italian towns, fields, mountain passes and rivers. Though Napoleon himself led them in most of their battles, he was gaining a brace of capable generals like Andre Massena and Pierre Augereau who could carry out his instructions. Far from balking at their younger commander, these older veterans now obeyed without question. The men had already started to call Napoleon “Le petit corporal,” the Little Corporal, for his eagerness to lead from the front and willingness to share their burdens.

In August, Napoleon maneuvered his 20,000-man covering force with astonishing dexterity and drove back a 50,000 man relief force commanding by General Dagobert Wurmser. Wurmser had made the mistake of advancing in two different sectors, dividing his army and allowing Napoleon to pull off his “central position” trick yet again. Future Austrian commanders would make the same mistake, splitting up their larger armies and allowing Napoleon to dance between them and batter first one, then the other. Napoleon tried to deliver the same drubbing to Wurmser again in September, but this time the Austrian general outmaneuvered him and managed to break through to Mantua – but this proved to be a victory that backfired. Now Wurmser, too, was trapped in Mantua with no food and decreasing ammunition. Good job, Wurmser. You fell into the same trap.

Even though Napoleon had trapped his foe in Mantua along with its already starving garrison, that just meant he had to commit more troops to hold this larger quarry in place. It was increasingly clear that by trapping the Austrians in Mantua, Napoleon had trapped himself, since he was forced to divide his own army to A.) hold them in place and B.) fight off these increasingly dangerous attacks. In November 1796, a new Austrian commander – Joseph Alvinczy – took charge of 47,000 men. Napoleon only had 41,000 to both keep Mantua encircled and fight off this new attempt to break his army. It would be more desperate than ever.

On November 12, 1796, Napoleon suffered one of his first battlefield defeats at Caldiero when he failed to stop Alvinczy’s advance. Two other minor defeats by his subordinates caused further alarm: it looked like the Austrians finally had the upper hand and were closing in on the strung-out, tired, overwhelmed French Army of Italy. Alvinczy, though, had once again divided his armies, giving the young Bonaparte a chance to outflank his new opponent. He left miniscule holding forces to face the Austrian armies and took the bulk of his troops all the way around Alvinczy’s Austrians to force a crossing of the Adige River at the town of Arcole.

At this point, Napoleon was like a juggler trying to keep three balls in the air at once. An aggressive move by any of the Austrian armies would have revealed his charade. The French ring around Mantua was barely more than paper-thin, making Wurmser easily able to punch through if he wanted, while any of the approaching Austrian forces could easily push aside their reduced French opponents if they made the choice to. Napoleon had taken a spectacular gamble by pulling together this field force to make a dangerous flank march. And at Arcole, on November 15, he finally rolled the dice.

All movement near Arcole was restricted to a series of dikes and causeways over the marshy terrain, a great bog which extended all the way to Venice. By dawn on November 15, Augereau’s and Massena’s French divisions were hurrying across the plain toward Arcole, only to make contact with Austrian troops defending the main bridge over the Adige. Soon the French soldiers, exhausted and dejected after nearly eight months of straight marching and innumerable battles, were lying behind the causeway to shelter from the fire. Soon the Austrians were on the French side of the river, but Napoleon was quickly on the scene, rallying his men and urging counterattacks. It was not long before the Arcole bridge had become the focal point of the battle.

As the French attacks continued to stall under heavy fire, Napoleon himself must have felt desperation. If they didn’t win this battle, it was only a matter of time before the whole house of cards he had set up around Mantua crumbled. It was now or never. Napoleon seized one of the regimental flags and stood up a few paces from the bridge, shouting and waving it as he persuaded his men to rally, reminding them of their courage at Lodi. Exposed to enemy fire, the young general himself was untouched, but several of his staff were hit by the intense fire the Austrian infantry poured into the French lines. Napoleon led his troops forward in one final attempt to take the bridge – a great romantic move, certainly – but was tackled into a muddy ditch by an unknown officer who probably saved his life. Nevertheless, we got some good paintings out of it.

By November 17, 1796, though, Napoleon’s troops had managed to capture the Arcole Bridge and fully outflank Alvinczi’s troops. Frightened by this threat to his supply lines, the Austrian general retreated, as did the other forces coming to the aid of beleaguered Mantua. Against all odds, once again, Napoleon had escaped near disaster to hold his wafer-thin cordon around the fortress city of Mantua. Once again, his charisma, energy and personal fortitude had won the day.

Napoleon fought off Alvinczy’s last attempt to save Mantua in the heroic Battle of Rivoli in January 1797, in which Napoleon was literally surrounded at one point but managed to drive back the Austrians on all fronts. Within a few days, the city of Mantua – starving and totally isolated, with no hope left after four rescue attempts had all failed – finally surrendered. Against towering odds, with virtually no help from his own government, with a handful of reinforcements and sometimes by the skin of his teeth, Napoleon had won his famous Italian Campaign. It only took a threatening move towards the Austrian capital of Vienna before the Austrian Emperor was begging for peace, and a few months later Napoleon himself would sign the peace treaty that ended the war with Austria.

The Italian Campaign of 1796 was an incredible, brilliant achievement that instantly made the young, romantic Revolutionary General Bonaparte a household name. At 27, he was already acknowledged as the greatest general of his age, and the near-mythical events at Lodi and especially his charge at Arcole only burnished his brilliant reputation. Even if he had suffered a fatal accident sometime in 1797, long before he became Emperor, long before Egypt or Austerlitz or Jena or Russia or Waterloo, he would be acknowledged as one of history’s great generals.

He was General Bonaparte, the most beloved figure of the French Republic. Maybe he wasn’t Emperor yet, but I imagine you could already see the crown dancing in his eyes if you looked hard enough.

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