On This Day in Napoleonic History – 14 June 1800

14Battle of Marengo

The battle was fought during the War of the Second Coalition between the French and Austrian forces. Marengo was a surprise attack by the Austrians that almost resulted in French defeat, which in turn could have led to the overthrow of the Consulate. The night before the battle, the Austrians slept without bivouac fires to mislead the French as to their positions and numbers. When the sun came up, 15,000 French soldiers with only 15 guns faced 23,900 Austrian infantry, 5,200 cavalry and 92 guns. By noon the French were pounded by cannon and musket shot and were running low on ammunition. By 2 PM Marengo had fallen.

Napoleon sent desperate word to General Louis Desaix, who was marching south to Novi Ligure with 6,000 men, ordering him to return as quickly as possible. ‘I had thought to attack the enemy. Instead, it was he that attacked me,’ read Napoleon’s message. ‘In the name of God, come back if you still can.’ Fortunately for Napoleon, Desaix was severely delayed by the swelling river. He marched to the sound of the guns and turned the certain defeat into a brilliant victory.

As was his usual custom, Napoleon was to be found in the fray of battle. ‘The Consul seemed to brave death,’ recalled one of his officers. ‘And to be near it, for the bullets were seen more than once to disturb the ground between his horse’s legs.’ He encouraged his soldiers with cries of ‘Soldiers, remember it is my custom to bivouac on the field of battle!’ Austrians fled in disorder and the French indeed slept that night on the field of battle.

It was at the most triumphant moment that Desaix was struck in the chest and killed. ‘Why am I not allowed to weep?’ exclaimed grief-stricken Napoleon. Later he would say of Marengo, ‘The fate of the battle is the result of a single instant, a thought.’

Marengo confirmed Napoleon in his position as the First Consul and contributed to the myth of his invincibility.