Napoleon’s Italian Campaign

Hello, history nerds! Today we are going to discuss Napoleon’s Italian campaign. As you probably know by now, Napoleon was a great general known for his tactical planning, his skilled leadership, and his incredible empire. Today we are going to discuss his first campaign.


Napoleon as a dashing youngster.

Napoleon Bonaparte was born August 15th, 1769, on the Island of Corsica to Carlo and Letizia Bonaparte. His father initially opposed the French occupation of Corsica but later embraced it, which meant he landed a cushy job and could afford to send his two sons to an exclusive French school. After five years, Napoleon moved on to a military school. When his father died, it reduced the family’s income, but Napoleon nevertheless graduated in 1785 as a second lieutenant. When the French Revolution broke out, Napoleon was appointed commander of the artillery forces at Toulon. The siege was a success, and Napoleon was appointed brigadier general at age 24. After the failed royalist attempt to overthrow the Republic in Paris (which Napoleon defended, thanks to his “Whiff of Grapeshot”), Napoleon was given command of the French army of Italy.

The French government (The Directory) was anxious to lose the ambitious young officer and saw the Army of Italy as a perfect way to distract Napoleon. On Paper, the Army of Italy numbered 63,000 men, but it actually had 35,000 starving, barefoot men, unpaid and lacking 1,000 muskets,  while facing 30,000 Piedmontese (Piedmont was a monarchy in northwest Italy)  and 25,000 Austrian troops. Rather than retreat to France, Napoleon instead went on the offensive. His plan was to break into the rich Lombard plain, where he could feed his men, providing partial pay and telling them that they he would lead them to “honor, glory, and riches.” On April 10th Napoleon opened an offensive against the Piedmontese. The Piedmontese troops were spread out to block Napoleon’s advance into Italy. This strategy was good but flawed at the same time. Although they were blocking Napoleon’s advance, the Piedmontese could not reinforce their troops. Napoleon quickly took the advantage, and, using superior numbers, he divided the Austrians from the Piedmontese and drove the Austrians back

The Battle of Lodi

Napoleon leads his troops against the Austrians

Fearing the collapse of their kingdom, the Piedmontese signed a treaty, giving the French full access to their land as well as a reparation. After feeding his army, beefing it up with captured artillery and muskets, and–above all–shoes and pay, Napoleon boasted that he would be in “the mountains of Tyrol” next.The Austrian general Beaulieu thought of a plan to defend the city of Milan with his 20,000 troops, but Bonaparte fooled Beaulieu into thinking that he would make a head-on assault with only two divisions. Actually, Napoleon would force march the rest of his army 115 kilometers in two days.

With the Austrians retreating, Napoleon moved to strike the key fortress of Mantua, which was defended by 25,000 Austrians. Napoleon knew the Austrians would try to relieve the garrison, and entrenched his army around the fortress. But the French Government which needed money ordered Napoleon to dispatched a division to extract riches from the Papal states and Tuscany (Southern Italy). Despite having yielded 30 million francs the expedition allowed the Austrians time to Raise a new army under General Dagobert Wurmser, Dagobert tried to relive the siege by sending too columns along lake Garda.


Battle of Castiglione, 5 August 1796

Napoleon needed to lift the siege of Mantua to meet this threat. Napoleon concentrated on on one column at a time while both were still divided, and through incredible marching feats, defeated one column at Lonato, giving Napoleon the advantage. Wurmser and his 25,000 men were defeated in the battle of Castiglione by Bonaparte’s 30,000 men, forcing Wurmser back. In early September, Wurmser tried again; this time with more men. He moved down the Brenta Valley while he sent a second force under General Davidovich, who marched on the east side of Lake Garda. But Napoleon used his same strategy, marching behind and hitting Wurmser’s rear on September 8 at the battle of Bassano. Once again, Napoleon had superior numbers (20,000 French vs 10,000 Austrians), and the battle was a major French success. 3,000 Austrians were captured, including all of their ammunition, cannons, baggage, and supplies. The reminder of the surviving Austrians retreated into Mantua, just at the point when the Austrians were running out of food.


Napoleon after the Battle of Bassano

But Napoleon’s army was not as powerful as it seemed. Popular rebellions started in his rear. Harsh measures were taken, and Napoleon even established two puppet states–the Transpandane and Cisalpline Republics. This was Napoleon’s first time organizing a government, and it would help him in the future when he would eventually become First Consul of France.

October was uneventful. The winter reduced the French army to 25,000 effectives, while the Austrians mustered yet again another army for the third relief attempt of Mantua, this time under the command of General Josef Alvinczy. Alvinczy sent his main column across the Venetian plain, while General Davidovich with 20,000 men went down through the Adige valley. Starting his offensive on November 1, Alvinczy faced minor resistance from General Massena and General Augereau (Napoleon’s division commanders). The Austrians advanced to Caldiero, and on November 12 repulsed a frontal attack made by Napoleon. Meanwhile, Davidovich pushed the weak French forces away from the Adige Valley and halted at the Rivoli Plateau.

Napoleon realized that he would be defeated if the Austrians crossed the Rivoli plateau, so he decided to attack through the Adige Valley and strike at the Austrian left flank, including their rear. Napoleon attacked the Austrians across the bridge near the town of Arcole, where he famously grabbed a regimental flag and led his forces across the bridge, where he was forced back. But after three days of hard, confused fighting, Napoleon won. Alvinczy withdrew, battered and bruised. French losses were also quite heavy: nine generals were killed. Despite the desperate fighting, Napoleon’s strategy had worked. When Davidovich finally attacked the Rivoli position, Napoleon could face him, and by November 19, the Austrians were in full retreat. As the year 1796 drew to a close, Napoleon had control of most of Italy, while the Austrians still retained control of Mantua.


Napoleon leading his troops across the bridge at Arcole

Alvinczy regrouped and had nearly 45,000 men and was prepared to yet again try to relieve Mantua. This time he sent five columns (28,000 men and 90 cannons) to try to overwhelm General Barthelemy Joubert (one of Napoleon’s division commanders). If he could break through Barthelemy’s lines, he would be in a position to relieve Mantua. Alvinczy attacked on January the 14th, but Joubert’s 8,000 men held a stiff resistance, and Alvinczy was forced back. Napoleon arrived shortly thereafter with small detachments coming one by one. Alvinczy and his separated columns would try to do the same plan over again, but Napoleon’s position was strong. Even though outnumbered (23,000 French men and 40 cannons), he still had his best troops by his side: battle-experienced soldiers versus the hastily organized Austrians.

The battle at first went quite well for the Austrians. Austrian cannon forced the French to withdraw from most of their positions. Napoleon put pressure against General Davidovich, who advanced. The battle began to turn when the Austrian columns were forced through a narrow gorge, where Napoleon had set up a battery of 15 guns. The Austrian columns were massacred. Joachim Murat, Napoleon’s able cavalry man, attacked the Austrian flank and routed them. Immediately, Napoleon rushed to Mantua and captured another Austrian column that was trying to relieve Mantua. The garrison of Mantua surrendered on February 2nd, and Napoleon now had complete control of Italy. He marched to Vienna next. The Austrians appointed their best commander, Archduke Charles, but Charles lost hope. Napoleon was 100 miles from Vienna and closing in. The Austrians agreed to sue for peace.


Napoleon receives the keys to Vienna.

So, there you have it, history nerds: the conclusion of Napoleon’s epic Italian campaign. Through incredible tactics and amazing courage, Napoleon had secured peace for France. Little did he know that seven years later, he would crown himself emperor of the French. But that’s for another post!


One thought on “Napoleon’s Italian Campaign

  1. Wow-eee! He graduated as a lieutenant at 15 or 16?! Was it normal for young men to be lieutenants so early?
    What do you mean by his “Whiff of Grapeshot”?
    And why were the French trying to conquer Italy anyway? Was it just ’cause they wanted more territory?
    Also, part of the Italian campaign was taking Austria too, I gather; he took Italy and Austria? (Or were they part of the same country back then…)


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