Battle of the Mincio River (1814)

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Battle of the Mincio River
Part of the War of the Sixth Coalition
Albrecht Adam - General von Bellegarde und seine Offiziere vor einer Schlacht (1815).jpg
Field Marshal Heinrich von Bellegarde and his staff at the battle of the Mincio River, by Albrecht Adam.
Date8 February 1814
Location
Result Indecisive
Belligerents
Flag of France.svg First French Empire
Flag of the Napoleonic Kingdom of Italy.svg Kingdom of Italy
Flag of the Habsburg Monarchy.svg Austrian Empire
Commanders and leaders
Flag of the Napoleonic Kingdom of Italy.svg Eugène de Beauharnais Flag of the Habsburg Monarchy.svg Heinrich von Bellegarde
Strength
34,000 35,000
Casualties and losses
3,500 dead and wounded 4,000 dead, wounded, and captured

In the War of the Sixth Coalition, the Battle of the Mincio River was fought on 8 February 1814 and resulted in an inconclusive engagement between the French under Eugène de Beauharnais and the Austrians under Field Marshal Heinrich von Bellegarde. Fought on the same ground as Napoleon's victory at the Battle of Borghetto in 1796, the battle was not as decisive as Eugène hoped, and in the end it had little significant impact upon the war, whose outcome was to be decided in France rather than Italy.

War of the Sixth Coalition Part of the Napoleonic Wars

In the War of the Sixth Coalition, sometimes known in Germany as the War of Liberation, a coalition of Austria, Prussia, Russia, the United Kingdom, Portugal, Sweden, Spain and a number of German States defeated France and drove Napoleon into exile on Elba. After the disastrous French invasion of Russia of 1812, the continental powers joined Russia, the United Kingdom, Portugal and the rebels in Spain who were already at war with France.

Eugène de Beauharnais French general and adoptive son of Napoleon I

Eugène Rose de Beauharnais, Duke of Leuchtenberg was the first child and only son of Alexandre de Beauharnais and Joséphine Tascher de la Pagerie, first wife of Napoleon I.

Austrian Empire monarchy in Central Europe between 1804 and 1867

The Austrian Empire was a Central European multinational great power from 1804 to 1867, created by proclamation out of the realms of the Habsburgs. During its existence, it was the third most populous empire after the Russian Empire and the United Kingdom in Europe. Along with Prussia, it was one of the two major powers of the German Confederation. Geographically, it was the third largest empire in Europe after the Russian Empire and the First French Empire. Proclaimed in response to the First French Empire, it partially overlapped with the Holy Roman Empire until the latter's dissolution in 1806.

Contents

Strategic background

Following Napoleon's defeat at the Battle of Leipzig in 1813, French armies retreated westwards in a bid to save the Empire from the main Allied thrust. However, the 1814 campaign involved other theaters besides France, and one of these was Northern Italy, which the Austrians were making another attempt to recover. Murat, the King of Naples, had defected to the Allied side and was threatening the main French army under Napoleon's stepson, Eugène. An Austrian army commanded by Bellegarde advanced from the east and convinced Eugène that a battle was needed to eliminate one opponent before he could deal with the other. Since the Austrians were the more immediate threat, Eugène decided to make a stand on the Mincio River.

Napoleon 18th/19th-century French monarch, military and political leader

Napoléon Bonaparte was a French statesman and military leader who rose to prominence during the French Revolution and led several successful campaigns during the French Revolutionary Wars. He was Emperor of the French as Napoleon I from 1804 until 1814 and again briefly in 1815 during the Hundred Days. Napoleon dominated European and global affairs for more than a decade while leading France against a series of coalitions in the Napoleonic Wars. He won most of these wars and the vast majority of his battles, building a large empire that ruled over much of continental Europe before its final collapse in 1815. He is considered one of the greatest commanders in history, and his wars and campaigns are studied at military schools worldwide. Napoleon's political and cultural legacy has endured as one of the most celebrated and controversial leaders in human history.

Battle of Leipzig 1813 Napoleonic battle

The Battle of Leipzig or Battle of the Nations was fought from 16 to 19 October 1813, at Leipzig, Saxony. The coalition armies of Russia, Prussia, Austria, and Sweden, led by Tsar Alexander I of Russia and Karl Philipp, Prince of Schwarzenberg, decisively defeated the French army of Napoleon I, Emperor of the French. Napoleon's army also contained Polish and Italian troops, as well as Germans from the Confederation of the Rhine. The battle was the culmination of the German campaign of 1813 and involved 600,000 soldiers, 2,200 artillery pieces, the expenditure of 200,000 rounds of artillery ammunition and 127,000 casualties, making it the largest battle in Europe prior to World War I.

First French Empire Empire of Napoleon I of France between 1804–1815

The First French Empire, officially the French Empire, was the empire of Napoleon Bonaparte of France and the dominant power in much of continental Europe at the beginning of the 19th century. Although France had already established an overseas colonial empire beginning in the 17th century, the French state had remained a kingdom under the Bourbons and a republic after the Revolution. Historians refer to Napoleon's regime as the First Empire to distinguish it from the restorationist Second Empire (1852–1870) ruled by his nephew as Napoleon III.

Prelude

Battle of Mincio.jpg

The battlefield was highly awkward for the armies involved; roughly 70,000 men would be fighting on a north-south axis of 20 miles that stretched from Lake Garda all the way down to the fortress of Mantua. The low force-to-space ratio meant that it would take time for each commander to understand the developing situation and would hamper effective responses. The Mincio River that interposed itself between Lake Garda and Mantua was dotted with villages and bridges that would become major focus points as the battle progressed.

Lake Garda lake in Italy

Lake Garda is the largest lake in Italy. It is a popular holiday location in northern Italy, about halfway between Brescia and Verona, and between Venice and Milan on the edge of the Dolomites. Glaciers formed this alpine region at the end of the last Ice Age. The lake and its shoreline are divided between the provinces of Verona, Brescia (south-west), and Trentino (north). The name Garda, which the lake has been seen referred to in documents dating to the eighth century, comes from the town of the same name. It is the evolution of the Germanic word warda, meaning "place of guard" or "place of observation."

Mantua Comune in Lombardy, Italy

Mantua is a city and comune in Lombardy, Italy, and capital of the province of the same name.

Eugène had an army of 41,000, but detached 7,000 troops to guard his southern flank on the Po River, leaving 34,000 for the upcoming battle. His army consisted of the Italian Royal Guards, a cavalry division, and two pseudo-corps (not at full strength) under generals Paul Grenier and Jean-Antoine Verdier. The former's troops were positioned around Mantua while those of the latter defended the fortress of Peschiera at the northern edge of the battlefield. Eugène's plan called for a double envelopment that would eventually unite Grenier's and Verdier's forces and allow them to drive the Austrians from the field. It was a good plan on paper, but double envelopment, especially on this scale, usually works with heavy numerical superiority or tactical mobility, neither of which the French had.

Paul Grenier French general

Paul Grenier joined the French royal army and rapidly rose to general officer rank during the French Revolutionary Wars. He led a division in the 1796-1797 campaign in southern Germany. During the 1800 campaign in the Electorate of Bavaria he was a wing commander. Beginning in 1809, in the Napoleonic Wars, Emperor Napoleon I entrusted him with corps commands in the Italian theater. A skilled tactician, he was one of the veteran generals who made the Napoleonic armies such a formidable foe to the other European powers. After the Bourbon Restoration he retired from the army and later went into politics. Grenier is one of the Names inscribed under the Arc de Triomphe.

Jean-Antoine Verdier French general

Jean-Antoine Verdier was a French General during the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars.

Peschiera del Garda Comune in Veneto, Italy

Peschiera del Garda is a town and comune in the province of Verona, in Veneto, Italy. When Lombardy-Venetia was under Austrian rule, Peschiera was the northwest anchor of the four fortified towns constituting the Quadrilatero. The fortress is on an island in the river Mincio at its outlet from Lake Garda.

Bellegarde's force was numerically equivalent to Eugène's, meaning rapid manoeuvring would be key if there was to be hope of success. His 35,000 soldiers were deployed in a manner that allowed for the observance of the French-controlled Peschiera and Mantua while still having enough troops to conduct an attack through Eugène's sadly depleted center around the village of Borghetto; a brigade under General Franz von Vlasits guarded against Peschiera, a division under General Anton Mayer von Heldenfeld watched Mantua, and three divisions under generals Paul von Radivojevich, Franz von Pflacher, and August von Vecsey were supposed to be the main thrust through Borghetto and Pozzolo. Bellegarde initially assumed the French would be retreating, but when Austrian patrols spotted a strong 'rearguard' presence across the Mincio, he decided not to commit as many troops as originally planned and ordered the reserve division under General Franz von Merville to remain on the east bank at Pozzolo, a decision which probably saved his army from disaster.

Paul von Radivojevich was an Austrian army corps commander in the army of the Austrian Empire during the late Napoleonic Wars. He joined the army of the Habsburg Monarchy in 1782 and fought in one of the early battles of the French Revolutionary Wars. He led a Grenz Infantry Regiment before being promoted to general officer in 1807. He led a brigade at Eckmühl in 1809, a division in the summer of 1813, and a corps at Caldiero in 1813 and at the Mincio in 1814. During the 1815 Italian campaign, he led a corps in Switzerland, Piedmont, and France. After the wars, he commanded part of the Military Frontier. He was Proprietor (Inhaber) of an infantry regiment from 1815 until his death in 1829.

Unknown to either side were each other's intentions, which would become all too clear once the battle commenced. Bellegarde expected Eugène to retreat while Eugène expected Bellegarde not to attack. So when the battle did start, Bellegarde discovering that his southern flank was collapsing and Eugène noticing his weakened center had disintegrated, both sides were stunned.

The battle

Without any conflict, two brigades of Radivojevich's division began to arrive at Borghetto at 8 am on 8 February. The French had abandoned their outposts in the center overnight and this further convinced the Austrians that their enemy was in fact retreating. The Austrians pushed northwest and encountered several French detachments at the village of Olfino, about two miles from Borghetto. When General Verdier went to Olfino to personally assess the situation, he realized he'd been cut off from the main French army in the south and cancelled his offensive. Verdier recalled the Italian division under General Giuseppe Palombini to Peschiera and ordered General Philibert Fressinet's division to face south and guard against possible Austrian drives from Borghetto.

In the meantime, more and more Austrian troops poured into the west bank of the river. The final brigade of Radivojevich, three squadrons of uhlans, and two brigades of Pflacher's division crossed the Mincio between 9 and 10 am. The Austrian reserve division under General Merville arrived at Pozzolo and halted to await further instructions. But while the situation for the French appeared bleak in the center, their southern offensive proved far more successful. There were about 20,000 men being used for this double-pronged attack and there would be two main assaulting points: the fortress of Mantua, from which Grenier would begin, and the village of Goito, a bit further upstream from Mantua and where Eugène was commanding. The vanguard of Eugène's assault was led by General Bonnemains, who controlled the 31st Chasseurs à Cheval, two light infantry battalions, and four guns. General Mayer's outposts were easily overrun, over 500 became prisoners, and Grenier and Eugène finally linked up at the village of Roverbella. In danger of being outflanked, General Mayer retreated three-and-a-half mile north-eastwards to the village of Mozzecane. The French kept pursuing to the north and thought they would meet the main Austrian force around Villafranca, only to be bitterly disappointed. Around 10 am, Eugène heard gunfire on the western bank of the river and was astonished to see much of the Austrian army at a place where he completely did not expect them.

At this point in the battle, the position of the two armies looked rather odd, since many of the troops on both sides occupied the riverbanks where their opponent had begun the fight. Eugène now made the critical and correct decision to keep pressing the attack and hope that his onrushing columns would scare the main Austrian army across the Mincio once more. He detached the Italian Royal Guard back to Goito in order to secure the bridge, reinforced his eastern flank against Mayer, and, with 13,000 men and 30 guns, advanced north to the village of Valeggio, hoping to cut his enemy's line of retreat. Bellegarde's earlier decision to leave his reserve now paid dividends; Merville's dragoons routed General Perreymond's 1st Hussars and captured the brigade's six guns, only to be counter-attacked, driven back, and see the French reclaim five of those guns. Merville had deployed his men into three lines around Pozzolo: the first two were composed of 2,000 elite grenadiers under General Josef von Stutterheim and the third by the dragoons brigade. They awaited an attack by Eugène, who recalled the Royal Guard from Goito to bolster the two infantry divisions under generals François Jean Baptiste Quesnel and Marie François Rouyer. Eugène finally began a combined arms attack and only heroic resistance by Stutterheim's masses, who lost over 700 men, prevented a breakthrough. Realizing the danger of being outflanked, Merville fell back a mile north of Pozzolo. Eugène's men attacked Merville's division in its new position, but at this time sufficient reinforcements from Bellegarde permitted Merville to stem the French tide and ground the battle to a virtual halt. Renewed French drives took them to the hamlet of Foroni, but nightfall prevented the capture of the crucial Borghetto bridge. Meanwhile, Verdier's men to the north had been barely hanging on, but once the sounds of Eugène's guns were manifest, they became emboldened and managed to defeat the Austrian charges.

Bellegarde presumed Eugène would continue his attack in the morning, so he ordered a retreat across the river. But, once again, Bellegarde misjudged, since Eugène wanted to establish contact with his northern wing and quickly pulled his forces back to where they'd come from: Goito and Mantua.

Aftermath

Eugène claimed a victory when writing to his wife after the battle, but in reality it had been a sloppy and inconclusive affair. Casualties were not particularly heavy, 3,500 for the French and 4,000 for the Austrians. Nevertheless, Eugène once again proved that he was a determined and competent commander, and he would do so many more times throughout this campaign; he kept fighting all the way until Napoleon's abdication in April.

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