Part 14 out of 14
were stationed as far as possible along the Bormida, each with
The whole of the night was occupied by the enemy in crossing the
river. At two in the morning two parties of scouts were captured;
seven of the eight men were killed, the eighth made his way back
to camp crying: "To arms!"
A courier was instantly despatched to the First Consul, who was
sleeping at Torre di Galifo. Meanwhile, till orders could be
received, the drums beat to arms all along the line. A man must
have shared in such a scene to understand the effect produced on
a sleeping army by the roll of drums calling to arms at three
in the morning. The bravest shuddered. The troops were sleeping
in their clothes; every man sprang up, ran to the stacked arms,
and seized his weapons.
The lines formed on the vast plains of Marengo. The noise of
the drums swept on like a train of lighted powder. In the dim
half-light the hasty movements of the pickets could be seen.
When the day broke, the French troops were stationed as follows:
The division Gardannes and the division Chamberlhac, forming
the extreme advance, were encamped around a little country-place
called Petra Bona, at the angle formed by the highroad from Marengo
to Tortona, and the Bormida, which crosses the road on its way
to the Tanaro.
The corps of General Lannes was before the village of San Giuliano,
the place which Bonaparte had pointed out to Roland three months
earlier, telling him that on that spot the fate of the campaign
would be decided.
The Consular guard was stationed some five hundred yards or so
in the rear of Lannes.
The cavalry brigade, under General Kellermann, and a few squadrons
of chasseurs and hussars, forming the left, filled up, along
the advanced line, the gap between the divisions of Gardannes
A second brigade, under General Champeaux, filled up the gap on
the right between General Lannes' cavalry.
And finally the twelfth regiment of hussars, and the twenty-first
chasseurs, detached by Murat under the orders of General Rivaud,
occupied the opening of the Valley of Salo and the extreme right
of the position.
These forces amounted to about twenty-five or six thousand men,
not counting the divisions Monnet and Boudet, ten thousand men
in all, commanded by Desaix, and now, as we have said, detached
from the main army to cut off the retreat of the enemy to Genoa.
Only, instead of making that retreat, the enemy were now attacking.
During the day of the 13th of June, General Melas, commander-in-chief
of the Austrian army, having succeeded in reuniting the troops of
Generals Haddich, Kaim and Ott, crossed the Tanaro, and was now
encamped before Alessandria with thirty-six thousand infantry,
seven thousand cavalry, and a numerous well-served and well-horsed
At four o'clock in the morning the firing began and General Victor
assigned all to their line of battle. At five Bonaparte was awakened
by the sound of cannon. While he was dressing, General Victor's
aide-de-camp rode up to tell him that the enemy had crossed the
Bormida and was attacking all along the line of battle.
The First Consul called for his horse, and, springing upon it,
galloped off toward the spot where the fighting was going on.
From the summit of the hill he could overlook the position of
The enemy was formed in three columns; that on the left, comprising
all the cavalry and light infantry, was moving toward Castel-Ceriolo
by the Salo road, while the columns of the right and centre,
resting upon each other and comprising the infantry regiments
under Generals Haddich, Kaim and O'Reilly, and the reserve of
grenadiers under command of General Ott, were advancing along
the Tortona road and up the Bormida.
The moment they crossed the river the latter columns came in
contact with the troops of General Gardannes, posted, as we have
said, at the farmhouse and the ravine of Petra Bona. It was the
noise of the artillery advancing in this direction that had brought
Bonaparte to the scene of battle. He arrived just as Gardannes'
division, crushed under the fire of that artillery, was beginning
to fall back, and General Victor was sending forward Chamberlhac's
division to its support. Protected by this move, Gardannes' troops
retreated in good order, and covered the village of Marengo.
The situation was critical; all the plans of the commander-in-chief
were overthrown. Instead of attacking, as was his wont, with
troops judiciously massed, he was attacked himself before he could
concentrate his forces. The Austrians, profiting by the sweep of
land that lay before them, ceased to march in columns, and deployed
in lines parallel to those of Gardannes and Chamberlhac--with
this difference, that they were two to the French army's one.
The first of these lines was commanded by General Haddich, the
seeond by General Melas, the third by General Ott.
At a short distance from the Bormida flows a stream called the
Fontanone, which passes through a deep ravine forming a semicircle
round the village of Marengo, and protecting it. General Victor
had already divined the advantages to be derived from this natural
intrenchment, and be used it to rally the divisions of Gardannes
Bonaparte, approving Victor's arrangements, sent him word to
defend Marengo to the very last extremity. He himself needed time
to prepare his game on this great chess-board inclosed between
the Bormida, the Fontanone, and Marengo.
His first step was to recall Desaix, then marching, as we have
said, to cut the retreat to Genoa. General Bonaparte sent off
two or three aides-de-camp with orders not to stop until they
had reached that corps. Then he waited, seeing clearly that there
was nothing to do but to fall back in as orderly a manner as
possible, until he could gather a compact mass that would enable
him, not only to stop the retrograde movement, but to assume
But this waiting was horrible.
Presently the action was renewed along the whole line. The Austrians
had reached one bank of the Fontanone, of which the French occupied
the other. Each was firing on the other from either side of the
ravine; grape-shot flew from side to side within pistol range.
Protected by its terrible artillery, the enemy had only to extend
himself a little more to overwhelm Bonaparte's forces. General
Rivaud, of Gardannes' division, saw the Austrians preparing for
this manoeuvre. He marched out from Marengo, and placed a battalion
in the open with orders to die there rather than retreat, then,
while that battalion drew the enemy's fire, he formed his cavalry
in column, came round the flank of the battalion, fell upon three
thousand Austrians advancing to the charge, repulsed them, threw
them into disorder, and, all wounded as he was by a splintered
ball, forced them back behind their own lines. After that he
took up a position to the right of the battalion, which had not
retreated a step.
But during this time Gardannes' division, which had been struggling
with the enemy from early morning, was driven back upon Marengo,
followed by the first Austrian line, which forced Chamberlhac's
division to retreat in like manner. There an aide-de-camp sent by
Bonaparte ordered the two divisions to rally and retake Marengo
at any cost.
General Victor reformed them, put himself at their head, forced
his way through the streets, which the Austrians had not had
time to barricade, retook the village, lost it again, took it
a third time, and then, overwhelmed by numbers, lost it for the
It was then eleven o'clock. Desaix, overtaken by Bonaparte's
aide-de-camp, ought at that hour to be on his way to the battle.
Meanwhile, Lannes with his two divisions came to the help of
his struggling comrades. This reinforcement enabled Gardannes
and Chamberlhac to reform their lines parallel to the enemy,
who had now debouched, through Marengo, to the right and also
to the left of the village.
The Austrians were on the point of overwhelming the French.
Lannes, forming his centre with the divisions rallied by Victor,
deployed with his two least exhausted divisions for the purpose
of opposing them to the Austrian wings. The two corps--the one
excited by the prospect of victory, the other refreshed by a
long rest--flung themselves with fury into the fight, which was
now renewed along the whole line.
After struggling an hour, hand to hand, bayonet to bayonet, General
Kaim's corps fell back; General Champeaux, at the head of the first
and eighth regiments of dragoons, charged upon him, increasing
his disorder. General Watrin, with the sixth light infantry and
the twenty-second and fortieth of the line, started in pursuit
and drove him nearly a thousand rods beyond the rivulet. But
this movement separated the French from their own corps; the
centre divisions were endangered by the victory on the right,
and Generals Watrin and Champeaux were forced to fall back to
the lines they had left uncovered.
At the same time Kellermann was doing on the left wing what Champeaux
and Watrin had done on the right. Two cavalry charges made an
opening through the enemy's line; but behind that first line was
a second. Not daring to go further forward, because of superior
numbers, Kellermann lost the fruits of that momentary victory.
It was now noon. The French army, which undulated like a flaming
serpent along a front of some three miles, was broken in the
centre. The centre, retreating, abandoned the wings. The wings
were therefore forced to follow the retrograde movement. Kellermann
to the left, Watrin to the right, had given their men the order
to fall back. The retreat was made in squares, under the fire
of eighty pieces of artillery which preceded the main body of
the Austrian army. The French ranks shrank visibly; men were
borne to the ambulances by men who did not return.
One division retreated through a field of ripe wheat; a shell
burst and fired the straw, and two or three thousand men were
caught in the midst of a terrible conflagration; cartridge-boxes
exploded, and fearful disorder reigned in the ranks.
It was then that Bonaparte sent forward the Consular guard.
Up they went at a charge, deployed in line of battle, and stopped
the enemy's advance. Meantime the mounted grenadiers dashed forward
at a gallop and overthrew the Austrian cavalry.
Meanwhile the division which had escaped from the conflagration
received fresh cartridges and reformed in line. But this movement
had no other result than to prevent the retreat from becoming
It was two o'clock.
Bonaparte watched the battle, sitting on the bank of a ditch
beside the highroad to Alessandria. He was alone. His left arm was
slipped through his horse's bridle; with the other he flicked the
pebbles in the road with the tip of his riding-whip. Cannon-balls
were plowing the earth about him. He seemed indifferent to this
great drama on which hung all his hopes. Never had he played so
desperate a game--six years of victory against the crown of France!
Suddenly he roused from his revery. Amid the dreadful roar of
cannon and musketry his ear caught the hoof-beats of a galloping
horse. He raised his head. A rider, dashing along at full speed,
his horse covered with white froth, came from the direction of
Novi. When he was within fifty feet, Bonaparte gave one cry:
The latter dashed on, crying: "Desaix! Desaix! Desaix!"
Bonaparte opened his arms; Roland sprang from his horse, and flung
himself upon the First Consul's neck.
There was a double joy for Bonaparte in this arrival--that of
again seeing a plan whom he knew would be devoted to him unto
death, and because of the news he brought.
"And Desaix?" he questioned.
"Is within three miles; one of your aides met him retracing his
steps toward the cannon."
"Then," said Bonaparte, "he may yet come in time."
"How? In time?"
Roland glanced at the battlefield and grasped the situation in
During the few moments that had elapsed while they were conversing,
matters had gone from bad to worse. The first Austrian column,
the one which had marched on Castel-Ceriolo and had not yet been
engaged, was about to fall on the right of the French army. If
it broke the line the retreat would be flight--Desaix would come
"Take my last two regiments of grenadiers," said Bonaparte. "Rally
the Consular guard, and carry it with you to the extreme right--you
understand? in a square, Roland!--and stop that column like a
There was not an instant to lose. Roland sprang upon his horse,
took the two regiments of grenadiers, rallied the Consular guard,
and dashed to the right. When he was within fifty feet of General
Elsnitz's column, he called out: "In square! The First Consul
is looking at us!"
The square formed. Each man seemed to take root in his place.
General Elsnitz, instead of continuing his way in the movement
to support Generals Melas and Kaim--instead of despising the
nine hundred men who present no cause for fear in the rear of
a victorious army--General Elsnitz paused and turned upon them
Those nine hundred men were indeed the stone redoubt that General
Bonaparte had ordered them to be. Artillery, musketry, bayonets,
all were turned upon them, but they yielded not an inch.
Bonaparte was watching them with admiration, when, turning in
the direction of Novi, he caught the gleam of Desaix's bayonets.
Standing on a knoll raised above the plain, he could see what
was invisible to the enemy.
He signed to a group of officers who were near him, awaiting
orders; behind stood orderlies holding their horses. The officers
advanced. Bonaparte pointed to the forest of bayonets, now glistening
in the sunlight, and said to one of the officers: "Gallop to those
bayonets and tell them to hasten. As for Desaix, tell him I am
waiting for him here."
The officer galloped off. Bonaparte again turned his eyes to
the battlefield. The retreat continued; but Roland and his nine
hundred had stopped General Elsnitz and his column. The stone
redoubt was transformed into a volcano; it was belching fire
from all four sides. Then Bonaparte, addressing three officers,
cried out: "One of you to the centre; the other two to the wings!
Say everywhere that the reserves are at hand, and that we resume
The three officers departed like arrows shot from a bow, their
ways parting in direct lines to their different destinations.
Bonaparte watched them for a few moments, and when he turned
round he saw a rider in a general's uniform approaching.
It was Desaix--Desaix, whom he had left in Egypt, and who that
very morning had said, laughing: "The bullets of Europe don't
recognize me; some ill-luck is surely impending over me."
One grasp of the hand was all that these two friends needed to
reveal their hearts.
Then Bonaparte stretched out his arm toward the battlefield.
A single glance told more than all the words in the world.
Twenty thousand men had gone into the fight that morning, and
now scarcely more than ten thousand were left within a radius
of six miles--only nine thousand infantry, one thousand cavalry,
and ten cannon still in condition for use. One quarter of the
army was either dead or wounded, another quarter was employed
in removing the wounded; for the First Consul would not suffer
them to be abandoned. All of these forces, save and excepting
Roland and his nine hundred men, were retreating.
The vast space between the Bormida and the ground over which
the army was now retreating was covered with the dead bodies
of men and horses, dismounted cannon and shattered ammunition
wagons. Here and there rose columns of flame and smoke from the
burning fields of grain.
Desaix took in these details at a glance.
"What do you think of the battle?" asked Bonaparte.
"I think that this one is lost," answered Desaix; "but as it is
only three o'clock in the afternoon, we have time to gain another."
"Only," said a voice, "we need cannon!"
This voice belonged to Marmont, commanding the artillery.
"True, Marmont; but where are we to get them?"
"I have five pieces still intact from the battlefield; we left
five more at Scrivia, which are just coming up."
"And the eight pieces I have with me," said Desaix.
"Eighteen pieces!" said Marmont; "that is all I need." An
aide-de-camp was sent to hasten the arrival of Desaix's guns.
His troops were advancing rapidly, and were scarcely half a mile
from the field of battle. Their line of approach seemed formed
for the purpose at hand; on the left of the road was a gigantic
perpendicular hedge protected by a bank. The infantry was made
to file in a narrow line along it, and it even hid the cavalry
During this time Marmont had collected his guns and stationed
them in battery on the right front of the army. Suddenly they
burst forth, vomiting a deluge of grapeshot and canister upon
the Austrians. For an instant the enemy wavered.
Bonaparte profited by that instant of hesitation to send forward
the whole front of the French army.
"Comrades!" he cried, "we have made steps enough backward; remember,
it is my custom to sleep on the battlefield!"
At the same moment, and as if in reply to Marmont's cannonade,
volleys of musketry burst forth to the left, taking the Austrians
in flank. It was Desaix and his division, come down upon them
at short range and enfilading the enemy with the fire of his guns.
The whole army knew that this was the reserve, and that it behooved
them to aid this reserve by a supreme effort.
"Forward!" rang from right to left. The drums beat the charge.
The Austrians, who had not seen the reserves, and were marching
with their guns on their shoulders, as if at parade, felt that
something strange was happening within the French lines; they
struggled to retain the victory they now felt to be slipping
from their grasp.
But everywhere the French army had resumed the offensive. On
all sides the ominous roll of the charge and the victorious
Marseillaise were heard above the din. Marmont's battery belched
fire; Kellermann dashed forward with his cuirassiers and cut
his way through both lines of the enemy.
Desaix jumped ditches, leaped hedges, and, reaching a little
eminence, turned to see if his division were still following him.
There he fell; but his death, instead of diminishing the ardor
of his men, redoubled it, and they charged with their bayonets
upon the column of General Zach.
At that moment Kellermann, who had broken through both of the
enemy's lines, saw Desaix's division struggling with a compact,
immovable mass. He charged in flank, forced his way into a gap,
widened it, broke the square, quartered it, and in less than
fifteen minutes the five thousand Austrian grenadiers who formed
the mass were overthrown, dispersed, crushed, annihilated. They
disappeared like smoke. General Zach and his staff, all that
was left, were taken prisoners.
Then, in turn, the enemy endeavored to make use of his immense
cavalry corps; but the incessant volleys of musketry, the blasting
canister, the terrible bayonets, stopped short the charge. Murat
was manoeuvring on the flank with two light-battery guns and a
howitzer, which dealt death to the foe.
He paused for an instant to succor Roland and his nine hundred
men. A shell from the howitzer fell and burst in the Austrian
ranks; it opened a gulf of flame. Roland sprang into it, a pistol
in one hand, his sword in the other. The whole Consular guard
followed him, opening the enemy's ranks as a wedge opens the
trunk of an oak. Onward he dashed, till he reached an ammunition
wagon surrounded by the enemy; then, without pausing an instant,
he thrust the hand holding the pistol through the opening of
the wagon and fired. A frightful explosion followed, a volcano
had burst its crater and annihilated those around it.
General Elsnitz's corps was in full flight; the rest of the Austrian
army swayed, retreated, and broke. The generals tried in vain to
stop the torrent and form up for a retreat. In thirty minutes
the French army had crossed the plain it had defended foot by
foot for eight hours.
The enemy did not stop until Marengo was reached. There they
made a vain attempt to reform under fire of the artillery of
Carra-Saint-Cyr (forgotten at Castel-Ceriolo, and not recovered
until the day was over); but the Desaix, Gardannes, and Chamberlhac
divisions, coming up at a run, pursued the flying Austrians through
Marengo was carried. The enemy retired on Petra Bona, and that
too was taken. Then the Austrians rushed toward the bridge of the
Bormida; but Carra-Saint-Cyr was there before them. The flying
multitudes sought the fords, or plunged into the Bormida under a
devastating fire, which did not slacken before ten that night.
The remains of the Austrian army regained their camp at Alessandria.
The French army bivouacked near the bridge. The day had cost the
Austrian army four thousand five hundred men killed, six thousand
wounded, five thousand prisoners, besides twelve flags and thirty
Never did fortune show herself under two such opposite aspects
as on that day. At two in the afternoon, the day spelt defeat
and its disastrous consequences to Bonaparte; at five, it was
Italy reconquered and the throne of France in prospect.
That night the First Consul wrote the following letter to Madame
MADAME--I have to-day won my greatest victory; but
it has cost me the two halves of my heart, Desaix and
Do not grieve, madame; your son did not care to live,
and he could not have died more gloriously.
Many futile efforts were made to recover the body of the young
aide-de-camp: like Romulus, he had vanished in a whirlwind.
None ever knew why he had pursued death with such eager longing.