The Incidents at Milan and Pavia, June 1, 1796

Siege of Pavia, May 1796

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This letter is from Napoleon's first campaign in Italy. As high commander of all the armies in this theater Napoleon's first real field command was a significant one. While the famous 'Whiff of grapeshot' was the incident that opened the door to potential fame and fortune it was this first campaign that saw him step through that doorway and onto the world stage.

France was surrounded on all sides by hostile armies. Italy was a land of small states and principalities. In northwest Italy on the plains of Piedmont lay the combined armies of the Kingdom of Piedmont and those of the Austrian Empire. These armies were far superior to Buonaparte's command. They were nearly double in men and more then double in canon. They were better supplied and in better condition.

In Buonaparte's battles against these armies he was very successful. The movements under his command were strokes of lightning. The marching and counter-marching continued by day and night without collapse. The enemy factions were separated and defeated in detail and upon one, the Piedmontese, a victorious peace was imposed which left the other at the mercy of the victor.

Buonaparte's armies pushed eastward across Northern Italy occupying Milan and winning the battle at Lodi on the Adda river. This small rear guard action is famous in 3 ways. It was on the night after Lodi that Buonaparte, visiting the bivouacs on horseback as he so often did, heard those who now felt themselves to be veterans calling out to him by a new name. It was at Lodi that he found he had been baptized "The Little Corporal." Also from that day on the new French spelling of his name became universal and he became "Bonaparte" rather than "Buonaparte". And lastly, Napoleon was later to comment that it was after Lodi that he began to feel that he was destined for greater things.

As Bonaparte continued to push the Austrians further back his lines of supply back to France became longer and longer. Always at a numerical disadvantage he could only spare small detachments to guard his rear. Towards the end of May there were uprisings in Milan and the town of Pavia. Bonaparte with a small detachment quickly suppressed the revolts. The following letter discusses the incidents at Milan and Pavia.


HEADQUARTERS, PESCHIERA, 1st June 1796. When quiet had been restored at Milan, I resumed my march on Pavia. Lannes, in command of the light troops, attacked Binasco, where seven or eight hundred armed peasants appeared to be putting up a defense. He charged them, killed a hundred or so, and scattered the rest. I had the village set on fire immediately. The step was necessary, but the sight was none the less distressing, and I was painfully affected by it. But I foresaw that an even worse fate still threatened the town of Pavia. I therefore summoned the Archbishop of Milan, and sent him to convey to the insensate populace, on my behalf, the following proclamation.

'Proclamation to the inhabitants of Lombardy, Milan, 25th May 1796.

'A misguided mob, without any real means of resistance, is committing the wildest excesses, refusing to recognize the Republic, and defying an army which has conquered a succession of kings. Such incredible folly deserves pity: these poor people are being misled by men who wish to destroy them. In accordance with the principles of the French nation, which makes no war on common people, the general in command is anxious to leave open a door of repentance: but those who, within twenty-four hours, have not laid down their arms and taken a fresh oath of obedience to the Republic will be treated as rebels, and their villages will be burnt to the ground. Take warning by the terrible example of Binasco! Such will be the fate of every town and village that persists in the revolt.

But it was in vain. I reached Pavia at daybreak. The rebels' outposts were overwhelmed. The town seemed to be full of people, and in a state of defense. The castle had been taken, and our men were prisoners. I ordered up the artillery, and after firing a few rounds, summoned the wretched inhabitants to rely upon French generosity, and lay down their arms. They replied that they would never surrender, so long as Pavia had walls standing. General Dommartin accordingly drew up the 6th battalion of grenadiers in close order, axes in hand, and headed by two 8-pounders. The gates were broken down, and the mob scattered in all directions, taking refuge in the cellars or on the roofs, and trying in vain, by throwing down tiles, to prevent our entry into the streets. Three times I was upon the point of giving orders to set the whole place on fire. At that moment I saw the castle garrison appear-they had broken their fetters, and came with eager cries to embrace their deliverers. I called over the names, and there was not a man missing. If the blood of a single Frenchman had been shed I should have set up on the ruins of the place a column with the inscription: 'Here stood the town of Pavia.' As it was, I had the Town Council shot, arrested two hundred people, and sent them to France as hostages. To-day all is absolutely quiet, and I have no doubt that this lesson will be an example to the people of Italy.

Once I was asked to give a class on Napoleon at a local High School. I suggested that I wouldn't be able to cover the entire period in 90 minutes and that they aught to narrow the subject matter. Their response was that they were mostly interested in what kind of person Napoleon was. This might be the toughest of questions to answer. It is difficult enough to understand the people we come in contact with, never mind gleaming the personality of someone you only know through their own words and those of others. After reviewing numerous books I came to the conclusion that if I had to sum up Napoleon in one word it would be pragmatic. Webster's dictionary says these things about 'pragmatism'.

1. practical as opposed to idealistic<the problem solving mentality, the product of science and effort; men of power have had no time or inclination to deal with social morality.
2. a practical approach to problems and affairs.

I used the above letter to illustrate the point. Having hostile opposition to the rear threatening his supply lines and the survival of his army was totally unacceptable. Napoleon clearly makes attempts to resolve the problem amicably as it would be to his advantage to be on good terms with the local inhabitants. When that fails he takes violent and extreme measures to achieve his goal. He was successful and there were no other civilian revolts during the 1st Italian campaign. I will leave the reader to decide the level of sincerity in Napoleon's remorse over such incidents.