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The death of Desaix at Marengo (click to enlarge)

'Great men are those who can subdue both good luck and fortune' - Napoleon

On 22 June 1799, Britain joined Austria, Russia, Turkey, the Vatican, Portugal and Naples in the Second Coalition against France. The first success for the coalition was the capture of Rome by a Neopolitan army led by Austria's General Karl Mack.  Their high watermark, however, was short-lived as French troops ejected them two weeks later. With Napoleon still busy in Egypt, the military leadership of France fell to Lazare Carnot, the genius behind the great levee en masse who decided the best form of defense was to attack all of Franceís enemies at once.

Carnotís master strategy called for three operations, one against Austria and Russia in Italy, another against Austria in Germany and the third against Russia and England in the Netherlands. There were some big-ticket commanders maneuvering against them, Russia's General Alexander Suvarov leading the Italian forces, Austriaís Archduke Charles leading the forces in Germany and the Duke of York in the Netherlands.

General Jean-Baptiste Jourdan initially took the offensive in Germany, but was pushed back at Ostrach and then beaten four days later at Stockach. General Andre Massena performed well in Switzerland and, when Jourdan resigned, he took over the German forces as well. He was pushed back at Zurich, but did the same to the Austrians at Dottingen.

Facing a mutiny in the army of Naples, Mack threw himself on the mercy of the French and his loss meant the disorganized Neopolitans were brushed aside by the rampant forces of General Etienne Championnet. The victory in southern Italy did nothing for the French cause, however, as defeat after defeat set its armies reeling back and the Allies recovered almost of of the ground lost to Bonaparte's brilliant 1796 Campaign.

Led by General Paul Kray, the Austrians defeated a French army at Magnano, then a combined Russo-Austrians army under Suvarov routed the new French commander General Jean Moreau at Cassano. Having lost the major cities of Turin and Milan, the situation was already dangerous for France. And when General Etienne MacDonald lost at Trebbia, and Moreau was dismissed and his replacement General Joubert was defeated and killed at Novi, things looked hopeless.

Fortune then took a hand in the war, with the Allies deciding to switch Charles to the Netherlands and Suvarov to Germany. This gave General Massena the opening he needed. Attacking the Russians at Zurich, Massena routed General Alexander Korsakov's troops and effectively took control of Switzerland from the Allies.

In the Netherlands, the Allied efforts were hampered by poor supply lines and worse cooperation. The Duke of York's forces were halted twice within a fortnight at Bergen and a third poor result at Castricum on 6 October had the commander reassessing the campaign. When the prime target for the invasion, the Dutch fleet, fell into French hands, he abandoned the venture.

Russiaís francophilic Tsar Paul I, who was thoroughly sick of the war, gave up on participating in the coalition. Something more dangerous, however, occurred on 9-10 November 1799. The returning General Bonaparte staged the coup díetat of 18th Brumaire, ending the Directory and setting the stage for his new vision for France.

General Louis Desaix by Appiani

One of Bonaparte's first aims was to regain the territories lost in Italy. Only Massena remained on Italian soil, and he was bottled up in a siege at Genoa. With the Austrians forcing French forces through Nice on the Cote d'Ńzur, Bonaparte decided on a daring campaign that would see his army cross the Alps and hopefully surprise the Austrians and cut them off from their homeland.

The Second Italian Campaign of 1800 would begin with the strategically brilliant and perilous crossing of the Great St. Bernard Pass, the French Army of the Reserve emerging from the Alps into the Bormida Plain to surprise the Austrians from the rear. The Austrians, however, had learned a few tricks of their own, and by skillfull use of both a double agent and some rather nifty maneuvering of their own, they managed to delude Napoleon into believing they would evacuate Genoa and not give battle.

The Austrian commander, General Michel Melas, quickly pulled his men back to face the new threat. The only good news he received was that of the surrender of Massena. It was, however, the beginning of bad tidings for Austria. An Austrian army was beaten at Montebello by General Jean Lannes, but the situation almost worked in Melas' favour as an overconfident Bonaparte stretched his forces too far, two full divisions off looking for the Austrians, and walked into the Austrian commander's full force at Marengo.

Early on the morning of June 14th, The Austrians marched out of their camp at Alessandria and attacked the French at Marengo. What Napoleon had assumed was merely a feint was a full-scale Austrian attack supported by 80 pieces of artillery which battered the French positions.

Realizing the desperate situation he was now in, Napoleon dispatched riders to recall the two divisions he had sent earlier to flank the Austrians whom he believed were actually retreating, but only Boudetís division of Gen. Louis Desaixís IV Corps received the orders and turned around while near Rivalta along the Alessandria-Genoa road.

Napoleon then set about trying to hold off the vastly superior enemy. After several hours of fighting and with no reserves, Bonaparte's position was perilous. By 3 pm, and despite a heroic holding action by Napoleon's, the French line began to give way, and Napoleonís forces were finally driven back to the town of San Giuliano.

Believing he had achieved a decisive victory, General Melas left his army under the command of his Chief-of-Staff, General Zach, and headed back to Alessandria. The Austrian pursuit of the retreating French, however, was far too slow, giving Napoleon time to reorganize. At this critical juncture, in one of the great moments of military history, Desaix approached the battlefield at the head of Boudetís division and quickly saw something had gone terribly wrong with Napoleonís game plan:

'You see how matters stand, I can no longer put off the attack without danger of being myself attacked under disadvantageous circumstances. If I delay I shall be beaten, and I have no relish for that.'

Desaix swung his fresh division around and marched to the sound of the guns at Marengo. Upon his arrival on the field, Desaix told Napoleon that while one battle had obviously been lost, there was still time enough left to try and win another. His division was committed late in the afternoon, shortly before 7pm.

Napoleon as President of the Italian Republic

Launching a counterattack closely supported by a wedge of cannon, Desaix's men threw themselves furiously at the Austrians. Riding at the head of the 9th Demi-Brigade (Light Infantry), Desaix himself was killed at almost the beginning of the attack, falling with a bullet through the heart. The Austrian forces, however, had been completely caught off-guard by the determined French counterattack and faced an equally determined assault by French cavalry under the command of General Francois Kellerman, who along with his troopers slashed his way through the Austrian infantry.

What was a short while before a complete Austrian victory turned into an equally complete French one, with Kellermanís cavalry continually attacking the Austrian lines well supported by both infantry and artillery, the battle culminating in a complete rout of Zach's command.

By midnight, the battle was over, a great victory for the Republic. French casualties were 5,835, the most costly being the talented and popular Desaix, with 9,402 Austrians also lost. On hearing the news, General Melas quickly agreed to a truce and withdrew his troops east of the Mincio River and north of the Po.

The last major battle of the Second Coalition was a big one, at Hohenlinden where the Austrians again were decisively beaten, this time by the enigmatic General Jean-Victor Moreau, who would one day join the enemies of France in their fight against Napoleon and die at Leipzig from a French cannon shot. With French forces advancing on Vienna from several directions the Austrians sued for peace, signing the Treaty of Luneville shortly afterward.

France's victory in the War of the Second Coalition inspired Italian patriots hoping for a free and united Italy. To solidify their new ties to revolutionary France, they sent their delegates to Lyons to facilitate formal acceptance of the consulta of Milan and designate Napoleon himself as President of the newly created Italian Republic, which all but officially recognized French hegemony over the Italian states to the chagrin of the Vatican, but that's another story covered in greater detail in the Politics & Diplomacy section.

Vive Napoleon!