In early January 1797, Lieutenant Celso Gallenga of the French 7th Hussars led a half-troop of cavalry on a reconnaissance mission that would have a profound effect on the war between Austria and France. ‘My advance party took a prisoner,’ he recounted, ‘…a young gentleman, who was a cadet in Strasoldo’s Regiment. The sergeant reported to me that as they surrounded him they saw him swallow something, from which I naturally concluded that he was a bearer of dispatches and could give important information. I therefore hastened back with him to headquarters.’
The prisoner, however, maintained that he knew nothing when interrogated by Gallenga’s commander, General Napoleon Bonaparte.
‘I must have the dispatch,’ said General Bonaparte. ‘Shoot him!’
‘But sir,’ protested Gallenga, ‘he surrendered to me as a prisoner of war, and in uniform.’
‘Lieutenant,’ said the general, ‘there is room for two men in front of a firing squad.’
Wrote Gallenga, ‘It was less the threat than the look that accompanied it, which awed me to silence.’
While Gallenga correctly took the measure of Bonaparte’s determination, the young cadet did not. He continued to deny any knowledge of the dispatch. Immediately after the prisoner was shot, recounted Gallenga, ‘a surgeon opened the corpse, and found the dispatch wrapped in a ball of wax.’
Gallenga’s account says much about the character of Napoleon Bonaparte — and his urgent need for information. In January 1797, the 28-year-old general and his Army of Italy faced two serious problems. First, an indefatigable Austria, recovering from its defeat at the hands of Bonaparte at Arcola in November 1796, was raising yet another army to drive the French from Italy. Second, Pope Pius VI had broken his armistice with Revolutionary France and was re-mustering his Papal army against it.
In spite of their recent setbacks, the Austrians were in no mood for peace. Austrian successes against the French on the Rhine front encouraged them to erase their defeats in Italy, and to rescue their army and its 72-year-old commander, Feldmarschall (Field Marshal) Dagobert Sigismund Graf von Würmser, who the French had shut up in Mantua. In an effort to replace the losses suffered by Feldzeugmeister (General of Infantry) Jószef Alvintzy Freiherr de Berberek in his November attempt to destroy Bonaparte’s army, Vienna shifted troops from the Rhine to Italy, raised new regiments, and added 6,000 Tyrolese sharpshooters to Alvintzy’s force. Hapsburg Empress Maria Teresa Carolina Giuseppina presented colors she had personally embroidered to the new regiments.
Austria’s determination to drive the French from Italy was what encouraged the Pope to break his armistice with the French Republic and form a secret alliance with Austria. Bonaparte was aware that there was a close liaison between Vienna and Rome, and had been informed that another Austrian offensive could be expected at any time. Against that backdrop, the contents of Gallenga’s captured dispatch were of great importance. It held an order to Würmser to break out southward from Mantua if he could not hold the town any longer, then cross the Po River and take command of the combined Austro-Papal forces. Bonaparte now knew that he faced not only an Austrian offensive from the north and east but also the real possibility of a Papal attack from the south. The information came just in time. The next day, January 8, 1797, Austria opened its offensive by attacking French outposts on the lower Adige River.
Vienna had given Alvintzy 47,000 troops for his offensive. The 61-year-old Transylvanian commander’s plan was to hit Bonaparte with a one-two punch. First, Maj. Gen. Johann Provera would lead a 14,000-man force from the east across the Venetian plain and attack the French on the lower Adige. That alone, however, was only meant to draw the French army reserves to that sector. Alvintzy would then lead his main force, 28,000 strong, from the north down the Adige Valley.
The objective of both attacks was not to destroy Bonaparte’s army, but to reach Mantua and join forces with Würmser. If Provera’s attack succeeded in drawing off the bulk of Bonaparte’s army, Alvintzy would break through to Mantua from the north. If the French did not take the bait, and instead moved north to counter Alvintzy’s advance, then Provera would either push on to Mantua from the Adige or move south across the Po to join the Papal forces. To aid the offensive, Würmser would break out to the south if Alvintzy failed to reach him before his supplies ran out.
To counter those Austrian combinations, Bonaparte’s Army of Italy had a strength of about 45,500. His army was disposed in six divisions. Général de Division (Major General) Barthelémy C. Joubert, with 10,300 soldiers, held the town of La Corona, blocking the approach from the Tyrol down the upper Adige Valley, with a few troops held back at Rivoli a few miles south. Général de Brigade (Brigadier General) Charles Pierre François Augereau’s division, with 10,500 men, held the Adige from Verona to Rovigo, while to the west, Brig. Gen. Baron Louis Emmanuel Rey, with 4,150 men, held the Chiese Valley approach. Major General André Masséna, with 9,300 troops, lay in reserve near Verona. At Mantua, Maj. Gen. Philibert Sérurier, with 8,500 men, was responsible for keeping Würmser in check, while south of the Po, Brig. Gen. Jean Lannes, with 6,800 soldiers, kept an eye on the Papal frontier.
For his attack, Provera divided his force into two columns. His own force, 9,000 men, was directed on Legnago while Maj. Gen. Adam von Bayalitsch Freiherr von Bajahaza, with 5,000 troops, advanced on Verona. It was the latter force that opened Provera’s offensive on January 9 by attacking Augereau’s cavalry screen to the east of Verona. By January 10, French patrols reported that Bayalitsch was near Verona, while Provera’s troops had reached the Adige near Legnago and were looking for a crossing.
At his headquarters at Roverbello, Bonaparte was uncertain as to which direction the main Austrian attack would come from. He suspected that the Austrians would attack Joubert, but neither Joubert nor Rey had reported any activity in front of their positions. Moreover, at that time of year the main Austrian thrust was more likely to come across the Venetian plain than through the Tyrol. Events continued to support that view, for under the cover of a fog, at dawn on January 12, Masséna was attacked by Bayalitsch at Verona. Masséna threw the Austrians back, then launched a counterattack with Maj. Gen. Guillaume Marie Anne Brune’s brigade. After heavy fighting, during which Brune himself had his uniform pierced by seven bullets without being wounded, the Austrians withdrew, leaving behind three guns and 600 prisoners.
On that same day, a report arrived from Joubert that he was being attacked at La Corona, but was holding his own. Bonaparte asked him to report as soon as possible whether he considered the Austrian attack real or diversionary. Meanwhile, Bonaparte issued orders to meet either an attack from the mountains or from the Venetian plain. He ordered Masséna to withdraw through Verona to the west bank of the Adige, so that he could move rapidly north or south. Masséna was to leave part of his force to cover Verona, and be prepared to march with three brigades, about 7,000 strong. Rey was to concentrate two brigades, about 4,500 strong, at Castelnuovo. Augereau would remain at Ronco with outposts watching for Austrian attempts to cross the Adige, while Lannes marched north to reinforce the Badia area, leaving only 4,000 troops to guard against the Papal forces. Once in place at Badia, Lannes was also to stop any attempt by the Austrians to break through to the Papal States.
Late on the afternoon of January 13, more news came from Joubert. The attacks that he had reported the day before had developed into a major offensive. He had been outflanked by a superior force and had to fall back to Rivoli to avoid being cut off.
Joubert’s report left Bonaparte in no doubt about Alvintzy’s plan. He left immediately for Rivoli and ordered every man the Army of Italy could spare to follow him. Masséna, with three brigades, was ordered to march on Rivoli and take up a position on Joubert’s left, pushing out one brigade toward Lake Garda to meet any wide turning movement by Alvintzy. His division was to reach Rivoli before daybreak on January 14. Rey would follow Masséna, but his division was not expected to reach Rivoli before midday. Augereau was to release designated artillery and cavalry units, and send them north. Even Sérurier was ordered to detach 600 infantry from his blocking force to join Bonaparte. Bonaparte left 24,000 troops behind him on the plain: 3,000 of Masséna’s division near Verona, 7,000 of Augereau’s division around Ronco, 6,000 under Lannes at Badia, and 8,000 under Sérurier around Mantua. Those forces about equaled those of their opponents, as Würmser could add about 10,000 soldiers to Provera’s 14,000 if he made a sortie from Mantua.
The village of Rivoli, 15 miles northwest of Verona, is situated on a low plateau a few hundred meters from the west bank of the Adige. Below the village, the river runs through a steep and narrow gorge known as La Chiusa. In 1797, the village consisted only of 50 houses, but it formed a natural stronghold. It was bordered on the east by the river, and on the north, south and west by a semicircle of low hills about two kilometers away. To the west of that perimeter ridge is the shallow valley of the Tasso Brook, beyond which rises the formidable height of Monte Baldo. In mid-January 1797, Monte Baldo was covered with a deep layer of snow and could be held only by a thin outpost screen. Joubert’s main line of defense was the Rivoli plateau, which in turn was the key to the defense of the French northern flank.
Against Alvintzy’s 28,000 soldiers, Joubert’s 10,000 had been able to do little but fight delaying actions. Pushed steadily back, his force had reached Rivoli at 4 a.m. on January 13. There he held his position all day awaiting Bonaparte’s orders. As darkness fell, Joubert could see the extent of the Austrian campfires and realized that he would be overwhelmed if he stayed to receive Alvintzy’s assault. No orders had arrived from Bonaparte, so he decided to withdraw at midnight toward Bussolengo, leaving only rear guards at Rivoli.
At 2 a.m. Bonaparte reached Rivoli and examined the Austrian positions. ‘The weather had cleared up,’ he recorded, ‘the moon shone brilliantly; I ascended several heights, and observed the lines of the enemy’s fires, which filled the whole country between the Adige and Lake Garda, and reddened the atmosphere. I clearly distinguished five camps, each composed of a column, which had commenced their movements the preceding day. From the fires of the bivouacs I calculated that there must be from 40,000 to 45,000 men. The French could not bring more than 22,000 men into action on this field; this was a real disproportion; but then the French had the advantage of sixty pieces of cannon and several regiments of cavalry.
‘It seemed evident from the positions of the five bivouacs of the enemy,’ Bonaparte noted, ‘that Alvintzy would not attack before ten in the morning. The first column, that of [General François-Joseph, Marquis de] Lusignan, on the right, was at a great distance; its intention seemed to be to get behind the level of Rivoli in order to surround it; it could not reach its destination before ten o’clock. The second column, that of [Maj. Gen. Antal von] Lipthay, seemed to intend to attack the position on the left of the level [plateau]. The third, that of [Maj. Gen. Samuel von] Knoblos, was spread along the foot of Monte Magnone, in the direction of Saint-Mark’s chapel. The fourth column was composed of fourteen battalions, and of the artillery, cavalry, and baggage of the army; it had passed the Adige at Dolce, having marched down the right bank to the foot of Monte Magnone: It was now opposite Osteria della Dugana, in echelons near the hamlet of Incanole, at the foot of the level of Rivoli. It was to debouch by this road, and thus Alvintzy would have united his infantry, artillery and cavalry. The fifth column, under [Field Marshal Philipp Freiherr] Vukassovi´c, was on the left bank of the Adige, opposite the Venetian Chiesa.’
Bonaparte was correct. Alvintzy’s plan was to employ Generals Lipthay and Knoblos and Maj. Gen. Jószef Ócksay Freiherr von Ócksa, with a joint strength of 12,000 troops, in a frontal assault over the Tasso Brook to seize the Trombalore Heights leading around the Rivoli plateau. Meanwhile, General Peter Quasdanovitch, with 7,000 more, would storm the Osteria Gorge from the Adige and turn the French right. He would be supported by Vukassovi´c and his 35 guns from across the Adige. Finally, Lusignan, with 4,000 men, would swing out on a long right hook to come in behind the entire French force and cut its line of retreat.
To Bonaparte, the size of Quasdanovitch’s bivouac indicated that this was Alvintzy’s main striking force. The only way that force could attack Rivoli was through the Osteria Gorge, which was narrow and steep. To use that approach, the Austrians would have to clear the ridge of Monte Magnone, which dominated the gorge. In particular, they would have to take the Trombalore Heights near the Chapel of San Marco, from which the French could observe the whole of the defile and the Adige Valley. Bonaparte realized that if he held San Marco, and if he sited guns to cover the Osteria Gorge, Quasdanovitch’s column could be stopped and Alvintzy would be prevented from bringing his artillery into action. But if Bonaparte was to gain time for Masséna’s troops to rest after their night march and for Rey’s division to arrive, he would have to forestall Alvintzy with a spoiling attack early the next day.
With those factors in mind, Bonaparte ordered Joubert to countermarch and reoccupy the Rivoli plateau. One of Joubert’s brigades was to take San Marco and Osteria; the remainder of the division was to occupy the northern edge of the Rivoli plateau overlooking the valley of the Tasso, opposing Lipthay, Knoblos and Ócksay. Masséna was to send the brigade that had been earmarked to stop Lusignan’s approach around the left flank through the Tasso Valley. The remainder of Masséna’s division was to remain in reserve at Rivoli.
Joubert’s brigades, supported by the bulk of the available artillery, advanced — and just in time, for the brigade detailed to seize San Marco arrived only moments ahead of some of Ócksay’s troops, who had moved up onto Monte Magnone, and drove the latter back along the ridge. By 4 a.m., the plateau was back in French hands. At first light, Joubert’s division launched a full attack against the Austrians, but was halted by their superior numbers. At 9 a.m., Knoblos and Lipthay counterattacked. Joubert stopped Knoblos, but Lipthay outflanked and routed one of Joubert’s brigades. Bonaparte immediately led one of Masséna’s brigades in support and managed to stabilize the position.
Meanwhile, on the French right flank, Vukassovi´c had advanced down the east bank of the Adige and had established batteries opposite Osteria. The fire of his guns and pressure from Quasdanovitch forced the French out of the village of Osteria and onto the Rivoli plateau. That opened the road up the defile on to the plateau. Before Quasdanovitch could use that approach, however, he had to secure San Marco and the parts of the Magnone ridge that overlooked the road. To do that, he sent three battalions up the mountainside to seize San Marco, which was now unoccupied because the French brigade responsible for holding it had pushed forward along the ridge to keep Ócksay in check. Joubert rushed three battalions back to San Marco. They arrived just in time to prevent the Austrians from seizing that vital point, but it was clear that Quasdanovitch was about to storm his way up.
On the French left, the situation was even more serious. Lusignan had driven Masséna’s detached brigade before him and was approaching Affi, well in the rear of the French positions. He would soon cut the French route of withdrawal and be in a position to stop any further reinforcements from reaching Rivoli.
By about 11 a.m., Bonaparte’s position was becoming desperate. Joubert, with the support of one of Masséna’s brigades, was just managing to hold the northern edge of the plateau. The brigade at San Marco was hard pressed by Quasdanovitch, who was about to launch his forces up the Osteria Gorge, supported by Vukassovi´c’s guns positioned on the east bank of the Adige. Lusignan was almost across the French line of communications. Rey could not be expected for at least another hour. The only reserve left was Masséna’s third brigade, resting at Rivoli.
Bonaparte realized that the defeat of Quasdanovitch was the key to the battle. The troops of Lipthay, Knoblos and Ócksay, though not defeated, were spent. First, though, Bonaparte had to reopen the line of retreat. That task he entrusted to Masséna’s 18th Demi-Brigade, newly arrived from Lake Garda. ‘Brave 18th,’ Bonaparte shouted, ‘I know you; the enemy will not stand before you.’ He was followed by Masséna. ‘Comrades,’ cried the latter, ‘in front of you are 4,000 young men belonging to the richest families in Vienna; they have come with post horses as far as Bassano; I recommend them to you.’ With a roar of laughter, the troops advanced, crying ‘en avant!‘
While Masséna’s soldiers kept Lusignan occupied, Bonaparte turned his attention to Quasdanovitch. He thinned out Joubert’s line facing north to strengthen the infantry and artillery around the head of the gorge. As the Austrian column stormed forward, a battery of 15 French cannons poured rapid-fire volleys of grapeshot into its close-packed ranks. One lucky shot exploded two Austrian ammunition wagons, causing terrible carnage. When the head of Quasdanovitch’s column mounted the plateau, it was charged by 500 infantry and horsemen. While Colonel Victor Emmanuel Leclerc led the infantry forward, singing, ‘Français, laisserons-nous fléchir! (Frenchmen, leave it to us to destroy them!),’ a young daredevil major named Charles Lasalle spurred ahead with the entire available cavalry — 26 horsemen of the 22nd Chasseurs. As a result, an entire battalion of the Deutschmeister Regiment threw down its arms in panic. The remainder of the column recoiled, and the soldiers fled back down into the gorge. Seeing that, Quasdanovitch realized he could not force the defile and ordered his troops to fall back out of artillery range.
As soon as Quasdanovitch withdrew, Bonaparte threw the weight of his attack on Lipthay, Knoblos and Ócksay, whose columns were unsupported by artillery or cavalry. Unable to withstand the general French assault, they were driven down to the Tasso.
Meanwhile, Lusignan, who was engaged frontally by the 18th Demi-Brigade, found himself attacked in the rear by Rey’s division, just arriving from the south. Half his force was taken prisoner, and he was lucky to escape westward to Lake Garda with about 2,000 men.
‘Never was there so confused a battle as the Battle of Rivoli,’ wrote Lieutenant Gallenga. ‘The Austrians, shaken by the fire of two batteries personally posted by Bonaparte at the top of the approach to the Incanale, and assailed in the flank by Joubert — in short, finding French troops on every side — imagined that it was they who were surrounded and broke and fled. A cavalry charge under LaSalle completed their rout. Meanwhile, my brigade charged out from Rivoli; and actually met Louis Bonaparte’s force face-to face, hurling Lusignan back on Rey, who finished his destruction.’
By 4 p.m. Alvintzy’s army was in full retreat. Bonaparte wished to pursue, but news arrived from Augereau that Provera had crossed the Adige and was making for Mantua. Leaving Joubert reinforced by Rey to pursue Alvintzy, he set off for the plains with Masséna’s division. When Joubert broke off the chase on the following evening, Alvintzy’s withdrawal had dissolved into a rout. Only 14,000 of his original 28,000 soldiers remained with the colors.
Soon after Bonaparte rode north to Rivoli on the night of January 13-14, Provera made a surprise crossing of the Adige a few miles north of Legnago. Augereau — spread out along the Adige — was too weak to stop him, and the Austrians punched through his forces. Leaving a garrison of 2,000 to defend his pontoon bridge, Provera took 7,000 men and set off southwestward. At dawn on January 15, a hussar regiment, wearing white cloaks that resembled the cloaks of the French 1st Hussars, trotted toward the French garrison at Fort Saint-Georges on the MantuaLegnago road. ‘But an old sergeant of the garrison,’ Bonaparte recorded, ‘who was gathering wood about two hundred yards from the walls, observed this cavalry; he conceived doubts, which he communicated to a drummer who accompanied him; it seemed to them that the white cloaks were too new for Bercheny’s regiment. In this uncertainty these brave fellows threw themselves into Saint-Georges crying, ‘To arms, and shut the barrier.” As the Austrian cavalry charged, the French guard opened fire, and the garrison manned the parapets. Provera attacked it for the remainder of the day but failed to capture the fort and open the road into Mantua.
That night, however, one of Provera’s liaison officers made contact with Field Marshal Würmser, who agreed to try to break out early the next day through La Favorita on the northern side of the fortress city and join Provera. What neither of the Austrian leaders knew was that Bonaparte had reached Mantua that very night and had bivouacked Masséna’s troops between La Favorita and Saint-Georges.
When Würmser started his breakout at first light on January 16, he was brought to an abrupt halt by Sérurier’s blockading troops, then driven back into Mantua. Provera, meanwhile, found himself surrounded by Masséna on the north and Augereau, who had chased him from Legnago, from the rear. He and his 7,000 troops had no choice but to surrender.
When Würmser heard of Alvintzy’s defeat at Rivoli, he realized that his chances of relief were at an end. His men had long subsisted on half-rations, and his supplies would last only a few more days. Winter barred any renewed Austrian offensive until March, and Bonaparte offered generous terms — so generous that a few days later a grateful Würmser would alert Bonaparte to a plot to poison him. On February 2, Mantua opened its gates, and the stout Austrian septuagenarian surrendered. The Pope, too, realized all hope of Austrian aid was gone. On February 18, his plenipotentiaries met an advancing French force at Tolentino and requested an armistice.
As falling snow closed the Alpine passes, the campaign came to an end. The Army of Italy again occupied the Tyrol and northern Italy up to the Piave River. Austria could not muster a fresh army before spring. Although the war had still to be won, Bonaparte’s victory at Rivoli had firmly locked Italy in the hands of the French Republic.
This article was written by James W. Shosenberg and originally appeared in the December 1996 issue of Military History magazine.
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