The Italian campaign
1796-97 / 1800-01
First Italian campaign
Days after his marriage, Bonaparte took command of the French “Army of Italy” on 27 March 1796, leading it on a successful invasion of Italy. At the battles of Montenotte and Lodi, he defeated Austrian forces, then drove them out of Lombardy and defeated the army of the Papal States. Pope Pius VI had protested at the execution of Louis XVI, so France retaliated by annexing two small papal territories.
Bonaparte ignored the Directory’s order to march on Rome and dethrone the Pope. It was not until the following year that General Berthier captured Rome and took Pius VI prisoner on 20 February. The Pope died of illness while in captivity. In early 1797, Bonaparte led his army into Austria and forced it to sue for peace. The resulting Treaty of Campo Formio gave France control of most of northern Italy, along with the Low Countries and Rhineland, but a secret clause promised Venice to Austria. Bonaparte then marched on Venice and forced its surrender, ending more than 1,000 years of independence. Later in 1797, Bonaparte organised many of the French-dominated territories in Italy into the Cisalpine Republic.
His series of military triumphs was a result of his ability to apply his knowledge of conventional military thought to real-world situations, as demonstrated by his creative use of artillery tactics, using it as a mobile force to support his infantry. As he described it: “…Although I have fought sixty battles, I have learned nothing which I did not know at the beginning. Look at Caesar; he fought the first like the last.” Contemporary paintings of his headquarters during the Italian campaign depict his use of the Chappe semaphore line, first implemented in 1792. He was also adept at both intelligence and deception and had a sense of when to strike. He often won battles by concentrating his forces on an unsuspecting enemy, by using spies to gather information about opposing forces, and by concealing his own troop deployments. In this campaign, often considered his greatest, Napoleon’s army captured 160,000 prisoners, 2,000 cannons, and 170 standards. A year of campaigning had witnessed breaks with the traditional norms of 18th century warfare and marked a new era in military history.
While campaigning in Italy, General Bonaparte became increasingly influential in French politics. He published two newspapers, ostensibly for the troops in his army, but widely circulated within France as well. In May 1797 he founded a third newspaper, published in Paris, Le Journal de Bonaparte et des hommes vertueux. Elections in mid-1797 gave the royalist party increased power, alarming Barras and his allies on the Directory. The royalists, in turn, began attacking Bonaparte for looting Italy and overstepping his authority in dealings with the Austrians. Bonaparte sent General Augereau to Paris to lead a coup d’etat and purge the royalists on 4 September (18 Fructidor). This left Barras and his Republican allies in firm control again, but dependent on Bonaparte to maintain it. Bonaparte himself proceeded to the peace negotiations with Austria, then returned to Paris in December as the conquering hero and the dominant force in government, more popular than the Directors.
Second Italian campaign
In 1800, Bonaparte returned to Italy, which the Austrians had reconquered during his absence in Egypt. He and his troops crossed the Alps in spring – he rode a mule, not the white charger on which David famously depicted him.
While the campaign began badly, Napoleon’s forces eventually routed the Austrians in June at the Battle of Marengo, leading to an armistice. Napoleon’s brother Joseph, who was leading the peace negotiations in Lunéville, reported that due to British backing for Austria, Austria would not recognise France’s newly gained territory. As negotiations became more and more fractious, Bonaparte gave orders to his general Moreau to strike Austria once more. Moreau led France to victory at Hohenlinden. As a result, the Treaty of Lunéville was signed in February 1801: the French gains of the Treaty of Campo Formio were reaffirmed and increased. Later that year, Bonaparte became President of the French Academy of Sciences and appointed Jean Baptiste Joseph Delambre its Permanent Secretary. He also re-established slavery in France; it had been banned following the revolution.