Such was the Battle of Monte Notte, the first of Bonaparte’s victories; eminently displaying the truth and mathematical certainty of combination, which enabled him on many more memorable occasions . . . .
Continuing Napoleon’s First Campaign,
our selection from Life of Napoleon Bonaparte by Sir Walter Scott published in 1839. The selection is presented in five easy 5 minute installments. For works benefiting from the latest research see the “More information” section at the bottom of these pages.
Previously in Napoleon’s First Campaign.
Place: Northern Italy
At the head of his left wing, Beaulieu himself moved from Novi upon Voltri, a small town nine miles west of Genoa, for the protection of that ancient city, whose independence and neutrality were like to be held in little reverence. Thus it appears, that while the French were endeavoring to penetrate into Italy by an advance from Sardinia by the way of Genoa, their line of march was threatened by three armies of Austro-Sardinians, descending from the skirts of the Alps, and menacing to attack their flank. But, though a skilful disposition, Beaulieu’s had, from the very mountainous character of the country, the great disadvantage of wanting connection between the three separate divisions; neither, if needful, could they be easily united on any point desired, while the lower line, on which the French moved, permitted constant communication and cooperation.
On April 10, 1796, D’Argenteau, with the central division of the Austro-Sardinian army, descended upon Monte Notte, while Beaulieu on the left attacked the van of the French army, which had come as far as Voltri. General Cervoni, commanding the French division which sustained the attack of Beaulieu, was compelled to fall back on the main body of his countrymen; and had the assault of D’Argenteau been equally animated, or equally successful, the fame of Bonaparte might have been stifled in its birth. But Colonel Rampon, a French officer, who commanded the redoubts near Montelegino, stopped the progress of D’Argenteau by the most determined resistance. At the head of not more than fifteen hundred men, whom he inspired with his own courage, and caused to swear to maintain their post or die there, he continued to defend the redoubts, during the whole of the 11th, until D’Argenteau, whose conduct was afterward greatly blamed for not making more determined efforts to carry them, drew off his forces for the evening, intending to renew the attack next morning.
But on the morning of the 12th, the Austrian General found himself surrounded with enemies. Cervoni, who retreated before Beaulieu, had united himself with La Harpe, and both advancing northward during the night of the 11th, established themselves in the rear of the redoubts of Montelegino, which Rampon had so gallantly defended. This was not all. The divisions of Augereau and Masséna had marched, by different routes, on the flank and on the rear of D’Argenteau’s column; so that next morning, instead of renewing his attack on the redoubts, the Austrian General was obliged to extricate himself by a disastrous retreat, leaving behind him colors and cannon, a thousand slain, and two thousand prisoners.
Such was the Battle of Monte Notte, the first of Bonaparte’s victories; eminently displaying the truth and mathematical certainty of combination, which enabled him on many more memorable occasions, even when his forces were inferior in numbers, and apparently disunited in position, suddenly to concentrate them and defeat his enemy, by overpowering him on the very point where he thought himself strongest. He had accumulated a superior force on the Austrian centre, and destroyed it, while Colli, on the right, and Beaulieu himself, on the left, each at the head of numerous forces, did not even hear of the action till it was fought and won. In consequence of the success at Monte Notte, and the close pursuit of the defeated Austrians, the French obtained possession of Cairo, which placed them on that side of the Alps which slopes toward Lombardy, and where the streams from these mountains run to join the Po.
Beaulieu had advanced to Voltri, while the French withdrew to unite themselves in the attack upon D’Argenteau. He had now to retreat northward with all haste to Dego, in the valley of the river Bormida, in order to resume communication with the right wing of his army, consisting chiefly of Sardinians, from which he was now nearly separated by the defeat of the centre. General Colli, by a corresponding movement on the left, occupied Millesimo, a small town about nine miles from Dego, with which he resumed and maintained communication by a brigade stationed on the heights of Biastro. From the strength of this position, though his forces were scarce sufficiently concentrated, Beaulieu hoped to maintain his ground till he should receive supplies from Lombardy, and recover the consequences of the defeat at Monte Notte. But the antagonist whom he had in front had no purpose of permitting him such respite.
Determined upon a general attack on all points of the Austrian position, the French army advanced in three bodies upon a space of four leagues in extent. Augereau, at the head of the division which had not fought at Monte Notte, advanced on the left against Millesimo; the centre, under Masséna, directed themselves upon Dego, by the vale of the Bormida; the right wing, commanded by La Harpe, maneuvered on the right of all, for the purpose of turning Beaulieu’s left flank. Augereau was the first who came in contact with the enemy. He attacked General Colli, April 13th. His troops, emulous of the honor acquired by their companions, behaved with great bravery, rushed upon the outposts of the Sardinian army at Millesimo, forced and retained possession of the gorge by which it was defended, and thus separated from the Sardinian army a body of about two thousand men, under the Austrian General Provera, who occupied a detached eminence called Cossaria, which covered the extreme left of General Colli’s position. But the Austrian showed the most obstinate courage. Although surrounded by the enemy, he threw himself into the ruinous castle of Cossaria, which crowned the eminence, and showed a disposition to maintain the place to the last; the rather that, as he could see from the turrets of his stronghold the Sardinian troops, from whom he had been separated, preparing to fight on the ensuing day, he might reasonably hope to be disengaged.