Empire of Liberty: A Damned Game of Chess

Excerpt from Konijeti Beevti’s “Years of Revolution: Boston to Bhārata”, Vij Publishing House, 1962 (translation by Earl Henderson).

Napoléon’s Egyptian and Syrian campaigns were part of a larger war effort by the French Republic that became the War of the Second Coalition. There was no one cause of the war but rather an unfortunate chain of events that combined ego, miscommunication, finances and the general system of European alliances.

The XYZ Affair put America and France at war overseas and at roughly the same time Napoléon instigated the European war with his operations in the Mediterranean. The attack on Malta, and subsequent invasion of Egypt, drew Britain and the Ottomans into the war. Tsar Paul I, the head of the knightly order that ruled Malta, brought Russia into the war on their behalf. Failures with the Congress of Rastatt and the growing coalition against France, brought Austria and the Holy Roman Empire back into the war as well.

In the Italies, the Hapsburgs organized the “Holy Alliance” between themselves, their cousins in Tuscany, the Bourbon line that ruled Naples and Sicily, the exiled Savoyard king on Sardinia and the Pope. The whole of the Italian Peninsula prepared to bear down on the French in Piedmont and their Ligurian and Cisalpine clients.

Spain and Portugal came into the war due to their alliances with Britain.

This left France terribly isolated. The Directorie remained ineffective corrupt and increasingly unpopular. Its best general was adventuring in Egypt. The Neapolitan-Spanish fleet would soon destroy the French Mediterranean fleet. The only allies Paris had were the shaky client republics in northern Italy and in Holland [1].

Despite the Directorie’s weakness, they had an incredible pool of martial talent to work with, even if Napoléon was adventuring in Egypt. With Prussia choosing to remain neutral, Generals Jourdan and André Masséna determined to keep the fighting concentrated on a line running roughly from Strasbourg to Milan. Much of the fighting in this war would center around Switzerland as the French and the Coalition vied for control of strategic mountain passes.

In March of 1798, French forces invaded and conquered the Swiss Cantons. They proclaimed the “Helvetic Republic” in April. Swiss revolutionaries and their French patrons attempted to sweep away the cantonal system and the framework of the old confederation to replace those structures with a progressive centralized state modeled on France. They were never truly successful. Much of the center and eastern portions of Switzerland remained hostile to French interference and as fighting between French, Austrian and Russian forces occurred throughout the Alps, the cantons became a battleground for partisans and rebels.

In Italy, three Franco-Italian armies assembled. Two armies, led by Generals Barthélemy Louis Joseph Schérer and Jean Victor Marie Moreau, would push towards Vienna while the third, led by General Léonard Mathurin Duphot, would head south via Florence towards Naples [2]. The French saw a mixed start to their Italian campaigns. Baron Paul Kray of Krajova and Topolya, the Austrian general in command of the Italian approaches to Vienna, defeated Schérer at the April 1798 Battle of Magnano. This victory secured much of Lombardy for the Austrians. The Austrian victory upset the gains by Moreau who hoped to take Venice and Trieste before turning north and attacking Vienna in conjunction with Schérer. Forced to abandon a siege of Padua, Moreau turned his army west and set off towards Verona to relieve the retreating Schérer.

At the same time, Duphot saw great success to the south. He defeated a makeshift Italian army at Orvieto that same April and captured Rome the following week, about the time the first Imperial Russian troops began arriving in Italy under the undefeated General Alexander Suvorov. Notably, at the urging of the College of Cardinals, Pope Pius VI, left Rome in favor of Cagliari, under the protection of the Savoyards on Sardinia. In his absence, Duphot proclaimed the entirety of the Papal States to be the new Roman Republic. The move sent shockwaves throughout Europe’s catholic population. Duphot defeated the Army of Naples on June 20 at Caserta and took the capital the next day. King Ferdinand retreated to the island of Sicily and the French established the Parthenopean Republic. Having found so much luck in the south, Duphot sent detachments to invade Tuscany, whose Hapsburg-led armies had opted to reinforce Austrian positions to the north. With Tuscany exposed, Siena and Florence quickly fell and a new Etrurian Republic declared.

While Duphot was having success to the south, the French situation in northern Italy deteriorated. Schérer could not halt the Coalition advance against his army and Suvorov defeated Moreau at Carpenedolo in July. The summer, Suvorov, in command of the Austro-Russian army, laid siege to Milan.

The situation was not much better in the Germanies. In the spring of 1799, General Jean-Baptiste Jourdan invaded the Baden region, pushed through the Black Forest and set up defensive positions between Lake Constance and the head of the Danube River. Jourdan made some tactical errors in setting up his defenses, and the Austrian Archduke Charles took full advantage. The Austrians decisively defeated the French at Ostrach and Stockach. Jourdan left for Paris to request more troops but ultimately took a medical leave and never returned to the front. Jourdan’s Armée d’Observation merged with Masséna’s Armée d’Helvétie, and attempted to hold their advance line from Zürich to Stuttgart. Despite the reforms, the Archduke twice defeated Masséna and Zürich fell. A combined Austro-Russian army, led by the Archduke, prepared to engage the remnants of Masséna’s army when an order from Vienna arrived sending the Archduke to Mainz.

This order was a disaster. The Archduke had the French cornered and the army’s second-in-command, the Russian General Alexander Korsakov, was talented but inexperienced. Archduke Charles, and even Suvorov to the south, doubted Korsakov could hold Zürich by himself, much less defeat Masséna. Ultimately, the Archduke followed his orders and went north. The Coalition’s reservations proved correct. Once the Archduke had left, Masséna attacked Züirch and decisively defeated Korsakov. He took more than half of the Coalition army prisoner, captured their baggage train and most of their cannons, and inflicted over 8,000 casualties. Earlier that summer, the Coalition was one victory away from exposing France to a full on invasion. Now, in September, they had lost Switzerland and southwest Germany while exposing Munich and Vienna to attack.

Naturally, the question of “why?” arises when one considers the seemingly oblivious message from Vienna that sent the Archduke to the north. This dispatch was not just a meaningless blunder; there were strategic reasons for it. First, the French, after the First Battle of Zürich, seemed demoralized and defeated. There was good reason to doubt their ability to launch an offensive. Secondly, experienced leadership was on the way. Suvorov was not even 150 miles away. The legendary Russian had captured Milan and Turin, been made an honorary member of the House of Savoy, and reversed all of Napoléon’s previous gains in northern Italy. It was always the Coalition’s plan to have Suvorov roll back the French in northern Italy and then cross the Alps (becoming the third general to do so after Hannibal and Charlemagne) and join the fight in the Germanies. With Turin having fallen in August, and Switzerland exposed, there was little reason in Vienna to doubt that Suvorov could not have crossed the Alps, in the summer, and arrived in Zürich with Korsakov having been in command for less than a month. Lastly, the Archduke truly was needed in Mainz. Not only was there considerable French activity along the northern Rhine boundary but the Imperial Army of the Holy Roman Empire needed a commander in the region to support an audacious Anglo-Russian amphibious invasion of Holland. The Holy Roman Emperor and the Tsar had serious hopes that a Coalition army comprised of British, German and Russian soldiers could mobilize in the former Austrian Netherlands, march on Paris and end the revolution once and for all.

The problem is the Coalition put the cart before the horse. Everything hinged on Suvorov crossing the Alps in time and Korsakov holding Zürich until Masséna could be defeated. In preparing for war in the north, the Coalition forgot about the war in the south.

Three events in the fall of 1799 unraveled the entire plan.

First, General Duphot reminded the Coalition that they never dealt with the third French army in Italy. As Suvorov prepared to swing north into Switzerland in August of 1799, Duphot’s Armee d’Rome reversed Coalition gains. Duphot did not understand the intricate timing of Suvorov’s departure but he did know he wanted to keep the old Russian general focused on Italy. A week after Turin fell, Duphot’s army took the fortress at Mantua. The strategic centrally located point simultaneously threatened Turin, Milan, Venice and Vienna. Suvorov gambled that Korsakov could hold Zurich against the battered French and spent three weeks trying to force a decisive encounter. The best Suvorov got for his trouble was the Battle of Tortona. Suvorov defeated Duphot but could not prevent a successful French retreat back to Mantua. With word that an Austrian army had arrived in Verona to engage Duphot, Suvorov crossed St. Gotthard’s Pass and entered Switzerland. The effort was too late. As Suvorov worked his way across the Alps, the French scattered the Coalition army at Zürich and Masséna began to harry the exposed Russian army. To his credit, Suvorov never lost even if his army was in a vulnerable position. He checked constant French attack while turning his army east towards Austria. Of the nearly 20,000 men that entered Switzerland, 3,000 succumbed to the steep cliffs, cold, battles and hunger of the strategic retreat, but the bulk of his army arrived safely in Hapsburg territory by the end of the year.

Secondly, the Betrayal at Huesca had shocked the Coalition. The work of El Triunvirato had done much to reinvigorate Spain over the course of the 1790’s but the reforms came at the price of enemies and consternation in Aragon and Catalonia. Until 1799, much of Spain’s contribution to the Coalition actually came through its naval supremacy in the Mediterranean. In May, the French Armée des Pyrénées, led by Louis Lazare Hoche, crossed into Spain and drove towards Zaragoza [3]. Madrid deployed a Spanish army north to meet them and squared off against the French at the Battle of Huesca. Just as the battle began though, 30,000 men of Spain’s 60,000-man army defected. The royalist Spanish army retreated and Madrid, indeed Europe, stood stunned. Hoche spent much of the summer shoring up the position with his new allies in northeast Spain. His forces proclaimed the Aragonese Republic on June 8 and the Catalonian Republic on June 26. Upon hearing of the betrayal the Count of Floridablanca, the chief Spanish minister at the time, exclaimed:

“It is a damned game of chess indeed when your enemies can steal your own pieces for their own!”

The shock of the betrayal reached Vienna just as Coalition leaders finalized plans for an invasion of France. Much of the push to Paris hinged upon Spain’s ability to capture or tie up resources in Gascony, the French Riviera and Toulouse. Instead, the Anglo-Russian landing in Holland was checked by Franco-Dutch forces before they could link with the disorganized German army. Instead of the Coalition pushing the French back on four fronts (Spain, Italy, the lowlands and Germany), the French, amazingly, were pushing the coalition back instead. To Spain’s credit, they checked Hoche’s army at the November Battle of Alcañiz, but Spain never recovered from the setback.

Thirdly, France’s best general had just returned.

——— Author’s Notes ———–

[1]: The Batavian, Piedmontese, Ligurian and Cisalpinese Republics. Something I want to note, because of changes to the timeline there is no 1797 French invasion of the Papal States creating the Roman Republic.

[2]: A consequence of this lack of 1797 activity in Rome is that Duphot is still alive to take command of an army. In our time his murder in Rome while acting as an envoy sparked the French invasion in the first place.

[3]: In this timeline General Hoche never contracts tuberculosis and is thus still alive in 1799.

Source Materials

Charles Mullié, Biographie des célébrités militaires des armées de terre et de mer de 1789 à 1850, 1852 (translated via Google Translate).

Davis, John. Naples and Napoleon: Southern Italy and the European Revolutions, 1780-1860. Oxford University Press, 2006.

De Bourrienne, Louis Antoine Fauvelet. Memoirs of Napoleon Bonaparte. Vol. III. New York: Charles Scriber’s Sons, 1891.

Encyclopædia Britannica. Vol V. 1911.

Hanson, Paul R. Historical Dictionary of the French Revolution. 2 ed. Rowman & Littlefield, 2015.

Kudrna, Leopold, and Digby Smith. “Biographical Dictionary of all Austrian Generals during the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars.” Napoleon-Series.org. Accessed February 04, 2018. http://www.napoleon-series.org/research/biographies/Austria/AustrianGenerals/c_AustrianGeneralsK.html#K73.

Rickard, J. “Battle of Magnano, 5 April 1799.” Historyofwar.org. Accessed February 04, 2018.  http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/battles_magnano.html

Roberts, Andrew. Napoleon: A Life. Penguin Books, 2014.

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