Marengo 1800 – a Lost Account
The Campaign of 1814: Introduction
By T.E. Crowdy
The battle of Marengo on 14 June 1800 was a pivotal moment in Napoleon’s career. It was his first battle as head of state and very nearly his last. At four o’clock in the afternoon his army was scrambling eastward across the plain of Alessandria being pursued by a victorious, albeit exhausted enemy. However, within two hours victory had been snatched from the jaws of defeat in the most dramatic of comebacks. Desaix lay slain at the head of the incomparable 9th Light Infantry, and Kellermann had ridden into the history books placing the crown of France on Napoleon’s head. Of course, the truth was not quite so simple . . .
Perhaps the most honest account of Marengo was written by one of Berthier’s ADCs, a young subaltern named Maurice Dupin. While in Turin in the weeks immediately after Marengo he described the battle in a letter written to his uncle as only a young man in his early twenties might:
The strength of Dupin’s account is that it does not attempt to dissect the battle into its component parts; but instead gives a sense of the overwhelming exhilaration he felt from being in battle. One imagines the many thousands of young men present that day could identify more with this colourful language than the sweeping prose of the bulletin which attempted to make sense of the chaos and to put the events of the day into some coherent order, whether they were completely accurate or not.
The main source book for the French participation in Marengo is Captain de Cugnac’s Campagne de l’armée de reserve en 1800. Published in 1900 on the centenary of the battle, de Cugnac compiled a variety of sources found in memoirs and in manuscripts held in the French army’s archives. While this is an excellent starting point for anyone interested in the battle, it is not an exhaustive record of the accounts.
The pivotal part of the battle was the phase in the early evening when the French regained the initiative. When I first went to Vincennes to study in the archives back in the late 1990s one of the first dossiers I examined was a collection of manuscripts relating to the battle most of which were reproduced by de Cugnac. Inexplicably de Cugnac did not use, or even reference, a letter written by General of Brigade Louis Charles Guénand, commander of the second brigade of Boudet’s division.
Guénand was a professional career officer. Born on 22 August 1755 he was a graduate of the École Militaire and a captain in the Navarre infantry regiment at the time of the French Revolution. Serving in the Army of the North he was promoted to the rank of colonel on 26 October 1792 and then provisionally made brigadier general the following August. At this point politics made a dramatic intervention in his career and promotional prospects. In October 1793 he was denounced as a former noble and forced to resign. He was not reemployed until 14 March 1800 when at the age of 44 he was given a brigade under General Boudet in the Army of the Reserve. After Marengo, Guénand requested a posting to Belgium where he became military commandant for the Dyle area. However soon after taking up the appointment he fell ill, was discharged from the army and then died on 9 May 1803. He went to his grave a disillusioned and dejected man, unable to fathom why his prominent part in the victory at Marengo had seemingly been ignored in all the accounts. The following account sheds light on Guénand’s state of mind after Marengo and, more critically, gives us greater detail on the course of the evening battle:
On the reverse of Guénand’s letter we read the following note:
Guénand included several pieces to justify his claims. The first was a letter to the first consul dated Piacenza, 6 Messidor Year 8 (25 June 1800), just eleven days after the battle.
After this letter, Guénand continued his commentary to Dumas:
This concludes the translation of Guénand’s account of Marengo to General Dumas. Needless to say, not a word of it was used by Dumas in his account of Marengo which eventually appeared in his
The sad fact is, the account of Marengo is far more dramatic when we follow the headlines, i.e. Desaix and Bonaparte held a conference and decided to attack; Marmont’s artillery opened fire; Desaix fell mortally wounded and spoke his last words to Lebrun, the son of a noted politician; the ‘incomparable’ 9th Light revenged him by attacking the Hungarian Grenadiers (actually ‘German’, but never mind), and Kellermann crowned the success with a glorious cavalry charge - all arms were involved and a famous hero of the Republic valiantly slain; what more could a story want?
To have continued the narrative, explaining that after the surrender of Zach’s advanced guard, there was still another four or five hours of hard fighting in order for the French to resume their morning positions, was an unnecessary detail which would have muddied the prose of a dramatic account telling of victory being clutched from the jaws of defeat.
However, the account is useful to us today for a number of reasons. The second battle appears far more chaotic; far more fluid, than standard accounts suggest, with Austrians hidden in the vines, with massed artillery and large formations of cavalry charging into the infantry formations. It shows that Guénand’s arrival had an impact on the action between the 9th Light and Zach’s grenadiers, if only that the arrival of a French brigade on their left threw the grenadiers into confusion just prior to being hit by Kellermann.
Smaller details include the formation employed by Guénand’s brigade: ‘in columns by echelon with a few battalions deployed’. Guénand is typically shown in the ‘mixed order’ formation popularised by Chandler and others to demonstrate the basic tactical French formation. Unusually, Guénand’s brigade was only composed of five battalions as one battalion of the 30th Line was serving with the army of Italy. We can assume by his description, that his battalions were initially formed (right to left) column, line, column, line, column. However, the interesting piece is the description ‘by echelon’. When Guénand gave the order to advance the right hand battalion would have advanced first; typically after one hundred paces, the second battalion would begin to advance, followed in turn by the others with a similar interval between them (the battalions in line formation would have formed closed column in order to pass through broken ground – Guénand confirmed he had to restore his original formation on exiting the vines). Thus Guénand’s brigade would have had a diagonal appearance, the right battalion up to five hundred paces ahead of the left most battalion:
Another interesting point is the conversation with Kellermann after the battle in Milan, where the two generals, both at brigadier level, appear to have found solace in one another’s company – Kellermann famously being upset at not being promoted after his charge. Guénand’s account corroborates the claim Kellermann was indeed unhappy with what he perceived as a snub.
It also appears Guénand witnessed the famous council of war held by Bonaparte after Desaix’s arrival. He clearly states Desaix ‘told’ the first consul to attack. On hearing this we learn Guénand offered to lead the assault with his brigade.
Another interesting point is Guénand mentions Desaix ordering Kellermann’s charge. In the 1820s Kellermann and Desaix’s ADC at Marengo, Savary waged a veritable war of words on this subject, with Kellermann claiming not to have received an order to charge and that the initiative was solely his.
Perhaps the most important piece of information in the document is ‘where’ the battle took place. Many accounts say the battle occurred in front of San Giuliano; I have always suspected it took place much further forward, level with Cascina Grossa. Guénand says his brigade advanced beyond San Giuliano and then deployed. However, at the point he comes into contact with the grenadier’s fighting the 9th Light, he variously describes himself being a mile or half a league in front of the army. This places the evening battle much further west than the standard accounts allow; it also perhaps explains the reason for the 9th Light receiving the title ‘incomparable’ after the battle. They were already well in advance of the army and fighting alone well before Guénand advanced. Their attack bought Guénand time to deploy his brigade and for the rest of the army to regroup.
So in conclusion, this paper at least grants Guénand his wish of recognition, albeit two hundred years late. Clearly his five infantry battalions were in the thick of the action for a long period of time and they have been overlooked: all the more reason for a full account of Marengo to be written.
Note: I would like to acknowledge my colleague Pierre-Yves Chauvin who photographed and helped transcribe the original manuscript. The translation of the document is mine and, with the usual fair usage provisions, should not be republished without permission.
 [Translation ©T.E. Crowdy 2013; original text from Albert Le Roy’s Georges Sand et son amis (Paris : P. Ollendorff, 1903) p.7]
 See the dossier at S.H.D. MR610.
 Note on this translation: the original document gives the impression of being hurriedly written; it is rambling (if not melodramatic), poorly punctuated and proper nouns are often misspelt, i.e. Maringo, for Marengo; Hoot, for Ott; Zaac, for Zach; Dessaix, for Desaix, etc. I have corrected the names and added punctuation where necessary. Where Guénand underlined certain passages, I have retained this emphasis.
 Technically speaking, Desaix’s corps also included Monnier’s division. Here Guénand refers only to Boudet’s division, which was detached on the evening of 13 June.
 In fact the guard cavalry was under the command of Murat and led by Bessières. The guard cavalry took no part in Kellermann’s attack.
 Zach commanded the Austrian advanced guard located on the main Alessandria road, to the left of Guénand’s brigade. Ott commanded a column of Austrian troops which were on the French right flank, marching more or less level with Zach. This body of troops had engaged the infantry of the Consular Guard before Desaix’s arrival.
 Pierre Louis Roederer (1754-1835); a noted politician, economist and historian who supported Bonaparte’s ‘Brumaire’ coup in 1799.
 Berthier would have had some inkling of Guénand’s actions through Boudet’s report. In his journal of operations we read the following description of the action Guénand’s brigade took part in: ‘My second brigade, composed of the 30th and 59th Half-Brigade and directed by me, drove in with a surprising audacity, strength and speed, the centre of the enemy army and cut it in two. This brigade had to continually defend itself at the same time on its flanks and rear against artillery, musketry and different corps of cavalry. The latter particularly came at the charge several times to attack our rear; but the perfect order of our closed columns in which our battalions remained, although crossing vineyards and other obstacles, not only rendered the attempt of this cavalry useless, but caused it a considerable loss. The resistance of the enemy in certain positions was terrible. One might have amused oneself uselessly trying to drive them away by musketry. Bayonet charges were the only way to drive them away and these were executed with a swiftness and fearlessness without example. Undoubtedly we cannot give enough eulogies to this brigade, partially composed of conscripts who competed in courage and in firmness with the oldest soldiers. In the bayonet charge, two flags were taken, one by citizen Coqueret, captain of grenadiers of the 59th, and the other by citizen Georges Amptil, fusilier and conscript of the 30th Half-Brigade, who pursued and killed he who carried it and seized it in view of a platoon which looked to take it back.’ Translation ©T.E. Crowdy 2013.
 At the beginning of the action, Boudet had been with Musnier’s brigade, which was composed of the 9th Light Infantry. After his conference with Bonaparte, Desaix joined Musnier’s brigade and ordered Boudet to rendezvous with Guénand’s brigade and to pierce the enemy centre, breaking it with enough rapidity to separate Zach’s advanced guard with the Austrian left wing under Ott. [See Boudet’s Rapport des marches et opérations de la division Boudet].
 Two battalions of the 72nd Line had been left in reserve by General Monnier. These joined Boudet’s forces in the evening counterattack. Presumably they fought on the right of Guénand’s brigade. [See Monnier’s report in de Cugnac].
 The 9th Light were already engaged against Zach, on the main road, far in advance of the army.
 Guénand speculates here. Desaix was probably dead by the time Guénand intervened.
Placed on the Napoleon Series: September 2013