A last-grasp victory, a horse and a chicken – Napoleon at the Battle of Marengo

14 June 1800, near Alessandria in Piedmont, Napoleon finally defeated the Austrians under Michael von Melas in a last-gasp victory at the Battle of Marengo.

“Victory! Victory! The avenging dawn now rises to make the wicked tremble! And liberty returns, the scourge of tyrants!“ (Carvadossi in Puccini’s “Tosca” after hearing the news of Napoleon’s victory at Marengo)

Likewise memorable: "Napoleon Crossing the Alps" by Jacques-Louis David (1801)    

With his whole army cut off and conveniently forgotten in Egypt, Napoleon turned up rather unexpectedly in Paris, pulled off a coup d’état, proclaimed himself First Consul in November 1799 and set about to clear up the French Republic’s unfinished business in Northern Italy. During the following winter, the Second Alliance’s only commander who would have been able, by and large, to stand up to Napoleon, old Alexander Suvorov, a military genius in his very own right, was recalled to Russia. Suvorov’s successor, the Austrian field marshal Michael von Melas was busy mopping up what remained of French troops and French satellite states in Italy, finally captured Genoa in June, providing him with a base to get supplies in from the sea and, if necessity arose, a way to escape on the ships of the Royal Navy that lay off shore. Napoleon, in the meanwhile, had led 40,000 men across the still snow-covered Alps into Northern Italy, re-established the Cisalpine Republic in Milan, but was too late to save Massena in Genoa. The Austrians were divided in three major groups across the region. One ensured the surrender in Genoa, one was at Turin and one retreating from the Riviera. The French covered Northern Italy, severing Melas’ lines of communication with Vienna and tried to prevent the Austrians from assembling forces for a counter-strike. At Montebello on June 9th, Lannes managed to bounce back Ott’s 18,000 Austrians with his corps of 8,000 men despite the French being certainly spread to thin over the a comparatively huge area to exercise effective control. Melas, however, sat in Alessandria, 50 miles southeast of Turin, and was paralysed by the news from Montebello. Nevertheless, he had assembled 31,000 men and 100 guns there when the French arrived and he just had decided to break out towards Piacenza.

The final stages of the battle by Louis-François, Baron Lejeune (1802)

About nine o’clock in the morning, the Austrians had unexpectedly crossed the river Bormida and pushed forward to the French lines positioned across the plain with the centre at the village of Marengo. It took them three attempts, but around noontime, Marengo was taken and the French centre broken. Napoleon himself lead the Consular Guard into the gap to stop the Austrian advance but was likewise thrown back. However, it bought his commanders the time they needed for an orderly withdrawal from the field and regrouping what was left of their divisions, all under the direct threat of excellent Austrian cavalry. And astonishing feat all by itself. When the French retreat was accomplished, Melas, over seventy and slightly wounded during the morning, decided the battle was won and retired to take refreshments with his senior staff, admittedly after very hard fighting. Things were not quite over, though. While Melas’ chief-of-staff Zach was tasked with pursuing the fleeing French, another French corps of 6,000 men under Desaix, actually en route to occupy Novi, appeared on the field and charged the Austrians immediately. French artillery deployed at close range and a timely cavalry charge led by Kellermann and Murat finally finished Zach’s advance. By 6 pm, Napoleon had won the Battle of Marengo.

Napoleon riding Marengo (1814) by Jean-Louis-Ernest Meissonier

A day later, Melas entered into negotiations that ended the War of the Second Coalition in Italy while Napoleon’s position as autocrat was more than strengthened. In fact, the course of the battle that he had almost lost, was re-written three times over the next 15 years, according to the favours the generals enjoyed at Napoleon’s court at a given time. And while it took another hundred years until La Tosca jumped to her death from the walls of Castel Sant’Angelo with the cry of  "O Scarpia, Avanti a Dio!" after Napoleon’s victory at Marengo had turned her world upside down, at least according to Puccini, a horse and a chicken made the battle truly memorable. As legend has it, the French baggage train was somehow misplaced during the course of events and Napoleon’s chef Dunant, desperate about what to serve his master to celebrate his victory, sent soldiers to forage and they came back with a chicken, tomatoes, eggs and crayfish and Dunant conjured of it a dish that is known as Chicken Marengo to this day. The horse the Corsican rode during the battle, a somewhat smallish grey imported from Egypt the year before, was named Marengo afterwards and it served the future emperor from Austerlitz to Jena-Auerstedt, Wagram and finally Waterloo. Marengo was captured there, came to England where he died at the ripe old age of 38. Two of his hooves were made into a snuff box and an inkwell while the rest of Marengo is now on display at the National Army Museum in London.

And more about the Battle of Marengo on:

And a recipe for “Chicken Marengo” can be found here: