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The Life of Napoleon I (Volume 1 of 2) by Rose

Were certain to concentrate either at Turin or Alessandria


already Melas' dream of triumph had vanished. On the 21st, hearing the astonishing news that a large force had crossed the St. Bernard, he left 18,000 men to oppose Suchet on the Var, and hurried back with the remainder to Turin. At the Piedmontese capital he heard that he had to deal with the First Consul; but not until the last day of May did he know that Moncey was forcing the St. Gotthard and threatening Milan. Then, realizing the full extent of his danger, he hastily called in all the available troops in order to fight his way through to Mantua. He even sent an express to the besiegers of Genoa to retire on Alessandria; but negotiations had been opened with Massena for the surrender of that stronghold, and the opinion of Lord Keith, the English admiral, decided the Austrian commander there to press the siege to the very end. The city was in the direst straits. Horses, dogs, cats, and rats were at last eagerly sought as food: and at every sortie crowds of the starving inhabitants followed the French in order to cut down grass, nettles, and leaves, which they then boiled with salt.[141] A revolt threatened by the wretched townsfolk was averted by Massena ordering his troops to fire on every gathering of more than four men. At last, on June 4th, with 8,000 half-starved soldiers he marched through the Austrian posts with the honours of war. The stern warrior would not hear of the word surrender or capitulation. He merely stated to the allied commanders that on June 4th his troops
would evacuate Genoa or clear their path by the bayonet.

Bonaparte has been reproached for not marching at once to succour Massena: the charge of desertion was brought by Massena and Thiebault, and has been driven home by Lanfrey with his usual skill. It will, however, scarcely bear a close examination. The Austrians, at the first trustworthy news of the French inroads into Piedmont and Lombardy, were certain to concentrate either at Turin or Alessandria. Indeed, Melas was already near Turin, and would have fallen on the First Consul's flank had the latter marched due south towards Genoa.[142] Such a march, with only 40,000 men, would have been perilous: and it could at most only have rescued a now reduced and almost famishing garrison. Besides, he very naturally expected the besiegers of Genoa to retreat now that their rear was threatened.

Sound policy and a desire to deal a dramatic stroke spurred on the First Consul to a more daring and effective plan; to clear Lombardy of the Imperialists and seize their stores; then, after uniting with Moncey's 15,000 troops, to cut off the retreat of all the Austrian forces west of Milan.

On entering Milan he was greeted with wild acclaim by the partisans of France (June 2nd); they extolled the energy and foresight that brought two armies, as it were down from the clouds, to confound their oppressors. Numbers of men connected with the Cisalpine Republic had been proscribed, banished, or imprisoned by the Austrians; and their friends now hailed him as the restorer of their republic. The First Consul spent seven days in selecting the men who were to rebuild the Cisalpine State, in beating back the eastern forces of Austria beyond the River Adda, and in organizing his troops and those of Moncey for the final blow. The military problems, indeed, demanded great care and judgment. His position was curiously the reverse of that which he had occupied in 1796. Then the French held Tortona, Alessandria, and Valenza, and sought to drive back the Austrians to the walls of Mantua. Now the Imperialists, holding nearly the same positions, were striving to break through the French lines which cut them off from that city of refuge; and Bonaparte, having forces slightly inferior to his opponents, felt the difficulty of frustrating their escape.

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