Battle of Marengo (1800)

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The Battle of Marengo was fought near the city of Alessandria, in Piedmont, north-western Italy on June 14 1800 during the war of the Second Coalition. It ended in a French victory and the evacuation by the Austrians of much of Italy.

French forces under Napoleon Bonaparte (newly made First Consul by the Brumaire coup) were attacked by the Austrians under General Melas. The French were taken by surprise, and fell back. However, the course of the battle was reversed by the return (in response to an urgent summons from Bonaparte) of previously detached forces under the French General Desaix. A counter attack led by Desaix , after a brief artillery bombardment, threw back the Austrian right wing and a cavalry charge by Kellermann (the son of the victor of the battle of Valmy) completed their defeat. The Austrians fell back into Alessandria, having lost about half the forces they had committed. The French casualties were considerably less , but included Desaix, who was killed.

With 24 hours of the battle, Melas entered into negotiations which led to the Austrians evacuating Northern Italy west of the Ticino, and suspending military operations in Italy. Bonaparte's position as First Consul was strengthened by the successful outcome of the battle and the preceding campaign. Austria, however, remained at war with France until their forces north of the Alps were defeated at the Battle of Hohenlinden (December 3 1800 by a French army under Moreau.


Before the Battle

The Battle of Marengo was the victory that sealed the success of Napoleon's Italian campaign of 1800 and is best understood in the context of that campaign see French Revolutionary Wars: Campaigns of 1800. In brief, by a daring crossing of the Alps almost before the passes were open Napoleon had placed himself across Melas's lines of communications in the belief that Melas would be forced to attack him. Melas had not done so: Napoleon became convinced that Melas would not attack, and further that Melas was about to retreat. Napoleon sent strong detachments to block Melas's routes northwards to the Po, and southwards to Genoa. At this point, Melas attacked, and for all the brilliance of the previous campaign, Napoleon found himself at a significant disadvantage for much of the battle.

Austrian attack and initial success

The Austrian troops (about 31,000 men, and 100 guns) advanced from Alessandria eastwards across the Bormida River by two bridges debouching in a narrow bend of the river (the river being not easily crossed elsewhere). This prevented any rapid development of their attack ; the movement began about 6 a.m. , but the attack was not fully developed until 9 a.m.

The Austrian advanced guard (a force of 3300 men under Major General Andreas O'Reilly) pushed French outposts back and deployed to become the Austrian right wing. The Austrian centre (about 18,000 under Zach) advanced towards Marengo until halted by French infantry (two divisions of Victor's corps) deployed behind a stream (the Fontanone) running just in front of Marengo village. On the Austrian left 7,500 men under General Ott headed for the village of Castel Ceriolo well to the North of the French positions (in the mistaken belief that it was French-held, but threatening either a flank attack on the French position, or a further advance to cut the French line of communication with Milan).

The French held the line of the Fontanone until about noon; but with both flanks in the air. Although it took Bonaparte (three miles away from Marengo) until about 10 a.m. to recognise that the Austrian activity was not a diversionary attack to cover the anticipated retreat by Melas, his subordinates (Lannes and Murat) had brought their troops up in support of Victor. Lannes' troops (Watrin's infantry division and Champeaux's cavalry) had deployed on the crucial right flank. Murat's cavalry and Kellermann's heavy cavalry took up a covering position on the left flank By 11 a.m. Bonaparte was on the battlefield and had sent urgent recalls to his recently detached forces, and summoned up his last reserves.

As they came up, these were committed to extend and shore up the French right, rather than to try to hold Marengo (where Victor's men were running short of ammunition). At about 2 pm the French attacked Castel Ceriolo. But at roughly the same time Marengo fell to the Austrians. The French left fell back 1-2 miles and attempted to regroup to hold the village of San Guiliano. With the French outnumbered (nominally 23,000 troops and 15 guns) and driven from their best defensive position, the battle was as good as won by the Austrians. Melas (who was slightly wounded, and 70) handed over command to Zach and the Austrians gathered a massive column for a fresh attack on the positions to which the French had fallen back.

French reinforcement and counter-attack

Shortly before 3pom , however, General Desaix, in charge of the force Bonaparte had detached southwards reported to Bonaparte in person with the news that his force (5,000 men and 8 guns of Boudet's division) were not far behind. The story goes that, asked by Bonaparte what he thought of the situation, Desaix replied

"This battle is completely lost, but it is only two o'clock, there is time to win another"

The French were fast to bring up and deploy the fresh troops in front of San Guiliano, and the Austrians were slow to mount their attack (a column of about 6,000 men). Most of the remaining French artillery was massed against the Austrian column as it advanced. Boudet's division advanced in line of brigades against the head of the Austrian column. Faced with the French line the Austrian column attempted to deploy but was hit with grapeshot at close range. Further back, an Austrian ammunition waggon exploded. In the temporary heightening of confusion the column was charged on on its left flank by Kellermann's heavy cavalry (c 400 men)and disintegrated. Zach and many of his men were taken prisoners and the Austrian right sought safety in flight behind the Bormida, with the French in pursuit (during which Desaix was fatally shot). The Austrian left under Ott withdrew in good order, but the Austrians had lost heavily in the 12 hours of fighting: 15 colours, 40 guns, 8,000 prisoners, and 6,000 dead. French casualties (killed and wounded) were of the order of 6-7,000, but they retained the battlefield and the strategic initiative.


A famous dish of braised chicken with onions and mushrooms in a wine and tomato sauce called Chicken Marengo is named after this battle.

In Puccini's opera Tosca , arrangements are made to sing a Te Deum (and for Tosca herself to sing at a gala evening)to celebrate Bonaparte's defeat at Marengo, news of which arrives in Act 1. In Act 2, the true situation (Napoleon has won) becomes apparent

External links

This link is really a taster for purchase of the whole thing: it is not live for the second volume (covering Marengo) or for the second half of the first volume

Interesting, but Berthier "lies like a bulletin"; the French loss of Marengo village is actually described straight-faced as a planned withdrawal to previously-prepared bei Marengo fr:Bataille de Marengo it:Battaglia di Marengo pl:Bitwa pod Marengo sv:Slaget vid Marengo


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