partial victories, Napoleon let them go, and devoted his whole energy to creating for himself a “natural” position about Milan. If he sinned, at any rate he sinned handsomely, and except that he went to Milan by Vercelli instead of by Lausanne and Domodossola (on the safe side of the mountains), his march is logistically beyond cavil.
Napoleon’s immediate purpose, then, was to reassemble the Army of Reserve in a zone of manœuvre about Milan. This was carried out in the first days of June. Lannes at Chivasso stood ready to ward off a flank attack until the main army had filed past on the Vercelli road, then leaving a small force to combine with Turreau (whose column had not been able to advance into the plain) in demonstrations towards Turin, he moved off, still acting as right flank guard to the army, in the direction of Pavia. The main body meanwhile, headed by Murat, advanced on Milan by way of Vercelli and Magenta, forcing the passage of the Ticino on the 31st of May at Turbigo and Buffalora. On the same day the other divisions closed up to the Ticino, and faithful to his principles Napoleon had an examination made of the little fortress of Novara, intending to occupy it as a place du moment to help in securing his zone of manœuvre. On the morning of the 2nd of June Murat occupied Milan, and in the evening of the same day the headquarters entered the great city, the Austrian detachment under Vukassovich (the flying right wing of Melas’s general cordon system in Piedmont) retiring to the Adda. Duhesme’s corps forced that river at Lodi, and pressed on with orders to organize Crema and if possible Orzinovi as temporary fortresses. Lechi’s Italians were sent towards Bergamo and Brescia. Lannes meantime had passed Vercelli, and on the evening of the 2nd his cavalry reached Pavia, where, as at Milan, immense stores of food, equipment and warlike stores were seized.
Napoleon was now safe in his “natural” position, and barred one of the two main lines of retreat open to the Austrians. But his ambitions went further, and he intended to cross the Po and to establish himself on the other likewise, thus establishing across the plain a complete barrage between Melas and Mantua. Here his end outranged his means, as we shall see. But he gave himself every chance that rapidity could afford him, and the moment that some sort of a “zone of manœuvre” had been secured between the Ticino and the Oglio, he pushed on his main body—or rather what was left after the protective system had been provided for—to the Po. He would not wait even for his guns, which had at last emerged from the Bard defile and were ordered to come to Milan by a safe and circuitous route along the foot of the Alps.
At this point the action of the enemy began to make itself felt. Melas had not gained the successes that he had expected in Piedmont and on the Riviera, thanks to Masséna’s obstinacy and to Suchet’s brilliant defence of the Var. These operations had led him very far afield, and the protection of his over-long line of communications had caused him to weaken his large army by throwing off many detachments to watch the Alpine valleys on his right rear. One of these successfully opposed Turreau in the valley of the Dora Riparia, but another had been severely handled by Lannes at Chivasso, and a third (Vukassovich) found itself, as we know, directly in the path of the French as they moved from Ivrea to Milan, and was driven far to the eastward. He was further handicapped by the necessity of supporting Ott before Genoa and Elsnitz on the Var, and hearing of Lannes’s bold advance on Chivasso and of the presence of a French column with artillery (Turreau) west of Turin, he assumed that the latter represented the main body of the Army of Reserve—in so far indeed as he believed in the existence of that army at all. Next, when Lannes moved away towards Pavia, Melas thought for a moment that fate had delivered his enemy into his hands, and began to collect such troops as were at hand at Turin with a view to cutting off the retreat of the French on Ivrea while Vukassovich held them in front. It was only when news came of Moncey’s arrival in Italy and of Vukassovich’s fighting retreat on Brescia that the magnitude and purpose of the French column that had penetrated by Ivrea became evident. Melas promptly decided to give up his western enterprises, and to concentrate at Alessandria, preparatory to breaking his way through the network of small columns—as the disseminated Army of Reserve still appeared to be—which threatened to bar his retreat. But orders circulated so slowly that he had to wait in Turin till the 8th of June for Elsnitz, whose retreat was, moreover, sharply followed up and made exceedingly costly by the enterprising Suchet. Ott, too, in spite of orders to give up the siege of Genoa at once and to march with all speed to hold the Alessandria-Piacenza road, waited two days to secure the prize, and agreed (June 4) to allow Masséna’s army to go free and to join Suchet. And lastly, the cavalry of O’Reilly, sent on ahead from Alessandria to the Stradella defile, reached that point only to encounter the French. The barrage was complete, and it remained for Melas to break it with the mass that he was assembling, with all these misfortunes and delays, about Alessandria. His chances of doing so were anything but desperate.
On the 5th of June Murat, with his own corps and part of Duhesme’s, had moved on Piacenza, and stormed the bridge-head there. Duhesme with one of his divisions pushed out on Crema and Orzinovi and also towards Pizzighetone. Moncey’s leading regiments approached Milan, and Berthier thereupon sent on Victor’s corps to support Murat and Lannes. Meantime the half abandoned line of operations, Ivrea-Vercelli, was briskly attacked by the Austrians, who had still detachments on the side of Turin, waiting for Elsnitz to rejoin, and the French artillery train was once more checked. On the 6th Lannes from Pavia, crossing the Po at San Cipriano, encountered and defeated a large force, (O’Reilly’s column), and barred the Alessandria-Parma main road. Opposite Piacenza Murat had to spend the day in gathering material for his passage, as the pontoon bridge had been cut by the retreating garrison of the bridge-head. On the eastern border of the “zone of manœuvre” Duhesme’s various columns moved out towards Brescia and Cremona, pushing back Vukassovich. Meantime the last divisions of the Army of Reserve (two of Moncey’s excepted) were hurried towards Lannes’s point of passage, as Murat had not yet secured Piacenza. On the 7th, while Duhesme continued to push back Vukassovich and seized Cremona, Murat at last captured Piacenza, finding there immense magazines. Meantime the army, division by division, passed over, slowly owing to a sudden flood, near Belgiojoso, and Lannes’s advanced guard was ordered to open communication with Murat along the main road Stradella-Piacenza. “Moments are precious” said the First Consul. He was aware that Elsnitz was retreating before Suchet, that Melas had left Turin for Alessandria, and that heavy forces of the enemy were at or east of Tortona. He knew, too, that Murat had been engaged with certain regiments recently before Genoa and (wrongly) assumed O’Reilly’s column, beaten by Lannes at San Cipriano, to have come from the same quarter. Whether this meant the deliverance or the surrender of Genoa he did not yet know, but it was certain that Masséna’s holding action was over, and that Melas was gathering up his forces to recover his communications. Hence Napoleon’s great object was concentration. “Twenty thousand men at Stradella,” in his own words, was the goal of his efforts, and with the accomplishment of this purpose the campaign enters on a new phase.
On the 8th of June, Lannes’s corps was across, Victor following as quickly as the flood would allow. Murat was at Piacenza, but the road between Lannes and Murat was not known to be clear, and the First Consul made the establishment of the
- This may be accounted for by the fact that Napoleon’s mind was not yet definitively made up when his advanced guard had already begun to climb the St Bernard (12th). Napoleon’s instructions for Moncey were written on the 14th. The magazines, too, had to be provided and placed before it was known whether Moreau’s detachment would be forthcoming.
- Six guns had by now passed Fort Bard and four of these were with Murat and Duhesme, two with Lannes.
- It is supposed that the foreign spies at Dijon sent word to their various employers that the Army was a bogy. In fact a great part of it never entered Dijon at all, and the troops reviewed there by Bonaparte were only conscripts and details. By the time that the veteran divisions from the west and Paris arrived, either the spies had been ejected or their news was sent off too late to be of use.