Napoleonic Literature
The Memoirs of Baron de Marbot - Volume I
Chapter XI

THE obstinate courage with which Masséna had held Genoa had important consequences. Major Franceschi, sent by him to the First Consul, succeeded, both going and returning, in passing through the enemy's fleet at night undetected. He was back at Genoa on the 6th Prairial with the news that he had left Bonaparte descending from the Great St. Bernard at the head of his reserve force. Field-marshal Melas was so convinced of the impossibility of bringing such an army across the Alps, that while the force under General Ott was blockading us he had gone with the rest of his army to attack General Suchet on the Var, fifty leagues away, with the intention of invading Provence. This allowed the First Consul to enter Italy unopposed, so that the army of reserve was at Milan before the Austrians had begun to believe in its existence. Thus the resistance of Genoa had effected a powerful diversion in aid of France. Once in Italy, Bonaparte's first wish would have been to succour the valiant garrison of that town; but in order to do this he had to wait until his whole force was assembled, and the passage of the Alps offered great difficulties to the artillery and commissariat wagons. This delay allowed time for Melas to hasten up with the bulk of his forces from Nice to oppose the First Consul, who was thus unable to continue his march upon Genoa except by previously defeating the Austrian army.

But while Bonaparte and Melas were marching and countermarching in Piedmont and the province of Milan previously to the battle which was to decide the fate of Italy and France, the garrison of Genoa was at the last gasp. Typhus was doing frightful execution; the hospitals were charnel-houses; the measure of misery was full. Nearly all the horses had been eaten, and the half-pound of wretched food, which was all that the troops had for some time received, was never secure for one day in advance. Absolutely nothing was left when, on the 15th Prairial, the commander-in-chief summoned all the generals and colonels, and announced that he had determined to take such sound men as remained and try to cut his way through and reach Leghorn. The officers, however, declared with one voice that the troops were utterly unfit to fight, even to march, without a sufficient meal to sustain their strength before starting. The stores were completely exhausted. So Masséna, deeming that by facilitating the entry of the First Consul into Italy he had carried out his instructions, and that it was now his duty to save the fragments of a garrison which had fought so valiantly, and which, in the interests of the country, ought to be preserved, finally decided to offer terms for the evacuation of the place. He would not hear of capitulation.

For more than a month past the English admiral and General Ott had been proposing an interview, but Masséna had always refused. Now, however, he was constrained by the circumstances to send them word that he agreed to it. The meeting took place in a little chapel which stands on the bridge of Conegliano, and was situated between the sea and the French and Austrian outposts. The French, Austrian, and English staffs took their stand at the ends of the bridge. I was present at this most interesting scene. The enemy's commander allowed special marks of esteem and respect to Masséna. Although the conditions which he required were unfavourable to them, Lord Keith said repeatedly: 'General, your defence has been so heroic that we can refuse you nothing.' It was agreed, therefore, that the garrison should not be prisoners, should retain their arms, and should proceed to Nice. As soon as they had reached that town they were free to take part again in hostilities.

Masséna well understood how important it was that the keen desire which the First Consul must be feeling to come to the aid of Genoa should not lead him into any movement which might compromise his safety. He demanded, therefore, that the conditions should include a safe-conduct through the Austrian army for two officers who were to bear to him the news of the evacuation of the place by the French troops. General Ott objected, having in view a speedy departure to join Melas with 25,000 envoys of the blockading force, and he did not wish that warning of this should be brought to the First Consul by Masséna's troops. But Lord Keith overruled this objection. The treaty was on the point of being signed when sounds as of distant cannon were heard far away among the mountains. Masséna put down his pen, exclaiming, 'There comes the First Consul with his army!' The hostile generals were amazed; but after waiting some time it became evident that the sound was that of thunder, and Masséna decided to sign.

The loss to the garrison and its commander of the full credit of holding Genoa till the First Consul could come up was not the only source of regret; Masséna would have been glad to hold out a few days longer, and by so much to delay the departure of General Ott's force. He clearly foresaw that this general would march to join Field-Marshal Melas, and thereby afford him valuable help in meeting the First Consul. His fear, though well founded, was unnecessary, for Ott was not able to effect a junction with the main Austrian army till the day after Marengo. The result of that battle would have been very different if the Austrians, whom we had so much trouble to beat as it was, had another 25,000 men to bring against us. Thus Masséna's defence of Genoa had not only kept the Alps open for Bonaparte, and given Milan into his hands, but had also kept 25,000 men out of his way on the day of Marengo.

On the 16th Prairial the Austrians took possession of Genoa, after a siege of just two months.

So important did our commander-in-chief deem it that the First Consul should have timely notice of the treaty just concluded, that he had asked for a safe-conduct for two aides-de-tamp, in order that if one fell ill the other might take on the despatch. It was as well that the officer to whom the duty was entrusted should be able to speak Italian, so Masséna selected for it Major Graziani, a Piedmontese or Roman in the French service. With his wonted excess of suspicion, however, fearing that one who was not a Frenchman might be tampered with by the Austrians and induced to delay, he attached me to him, with special instructions to urge him forward till we fell in with the First Consul. There was really no need for this, for M. Graziani was perfectly loyal, and thoroughly understood the importance of his errand. We started on the 16th Prairial, and came up with Bonaparte the next evening at Milan.

General Bonaparte spoke with much sympathy of my recent loss, and promised if I behaved well to act a father's part to me. He kept his word. He was never tired of questioning M. Graziani and me both as to what had happened at Genoa and about the strength and direction of the Austrian forces which we had passed on our way to Milan. He kept us near him, and lent us horses from his stable. We had performed the journey on post-mules. We accompanied him to Montebello, and on to the battle-field of Marengo, where we were his orderly officers. I will not enter into the details of this memorable fight, in which no harm befell me. As is well known, we were on the verge of defeat, and should probably have been defeated if Ott's 25,000 men had come up before the end of the battle. The First Consul, fearing that they would appear every moment, was very anxious, and only recovered his spirits when our infantry and the cavalry of Desaix (whose death he only learnt later) had decided the victory by repulsing Zach's column of grenadiers. Just then, noticing that the horse which I rode was slightly wounded in the leg, he took me by the ear and said, laughing, 'You expect me to lend you my horses for you to treat them in that way!' As Major Graziani died in 1812, I am the only French officer who was present both at the siege of Genoa and at the battle of Marengo.

After the battle I returned to Genoa, which the Austrians were compelled, by the treaty made as a result of our victory, to evacuate. I met again Colindo and Major R-------, visited the grave of my father, and we embarked on board a French brig, which brought us to Nice in twenty-four hours. A few days later a Leghorn vessel brought Colindo's mother, who came to look after her son. This excellent young man and I had had our friendship cemented by the severe trials which we had gone through together; but our destinies lay apart, and with keen regret we had to separate. As I mentioned above, Masséna's aide-de-camp, Franceschi, bearing despatches to the First Consul, had passed through the English fleet at night and succeeded in reaching France. He brought the news of my father's death. On receiving this my mother had had administrators of his estate 1appointed, and they had sent orders to old Spire, who had remained at Nice with my father's travelling outfit, to sell everything and return at once to Paris. This having been done, I had nothing to keep me on the banks of the Var, and was eager to rejoin my mother--not an easy thing to do, for there were few public conveyances then. The coach from Nice to Lyons went only every other day, and all the places were taken weeks in advance for the crowd of sick and wounded officers coming also from Genoa. To get out of this difficulty, Major R--------, two colonels, a dozen of other officers, and myself decided to form a little caravan and walk to Grenoble, passing along the lower spurs of the Alps, by Grasse, Sisteron, Digne, and Gap. Our scanty luggage was carried by mules, so that we could do eight or ten leagues a day. Bastide was with me, and I found him a great help, for I was not used to going so far on foot, and it was very hot. After eight days of a difficult march we reached Grenoble, where we found carriages to take us on to Lyons. It was with pain that I again beheld that town, where my father and I had stayed in a happier time. I longed and dreaded to see my mother and brothers. I felt as if they would demand of me an account for husband and father; I was returning alone, and had left him in his grave in a strange land. My grief was very keen. I needed a friend who would comprehend and share it; and mean while the wild spirits of Major R--------, revelling, after so much privation, in abundant good cheer, cut me to the heart. I resolved, therefore, to set out for Paris without him; but, now that I needed him no longer, he averred that his duty was to restore me to the arms of my mother, and I was obliged to endure his company in the mail coach as far as Paris.

I will not attempt to recount my meeting with my mother and brothers. Some scenes can be realised by everyone who has a heart, but are too sad to describe. Adolphe was not at Paris, but at Rennes, with Bernadotte, then commanding the Army of the West. My mother had a rather pretty country house at Carrière, near the forest of St. Germain. I passed two months there with her, my uncle Canrobert, who had come back from abroad, and an old Knight of Malta, M. d'Estresse, a former friend of my father's; my young brother and M. Gault came now and then to visit us. In spite of the loving care and the proofs of affection which all bestowed on me, I fell into a gloomy state of melancholy, and my health gave way. Both in mind and in body I had suffered much. I became incapable of any work; reading, of which I had always been fond, grew intolerable to me. I spent a great part of the day alone in the forest, lying in the shade and plunged in sad meditation. Of an evening I would accompany my mother, my uncle, and the old gentleman in their customary walk along the banks of the Seine; but I joined little in the conversation, keeping my sad thoughts to myself. I was ever thinking of my poor father dying for want of proper care. My mother, my uncle, and M. d'Estresse, though alarmed at my state, had sufficient tact not to take notice of it--a thing which only irritates a mind out of health; but they endeavoured gradually to remove the sad recollections which were torturing me by getting the holidays of my two younger brothers hastened forward. They joined us in the country, and the presence of these two lads, of whom I was very fond, allowed me to divert my mind from my sorrow by the trouble which I took to make their stay at Carrière pleasant. I took them to Versailles, to Maisons, to Marly, and their childish satisfaction gradually revived my heart after the crushing sorrow which it had undergone. Who could then have foretold that these two handsome boys, so full of life, would have shortly ceased to exist?


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1. Probably the nearest English approach to conseil de tutel1e. These however, would also have personal authority over the children. Return to chapter text.