The Memoirs of General Baron De Marbot

Author: Jean Baptiste Antoine Marcellin de Marbot

Chap. 13.

The courage and tenacity with which Masséna had defended Genoa would have very important results. Major Franceschi, sent by Masséna to contact the First Consul, had managed to slip through the enemy fleet at night, both in going and coming. On arriving back in Genoa he said that he had left Bonaparte descending the St. Bernard at the head of the army of reserve. Field-marshal Mélas was so convinced of the impossibility of bringing an army across the Alps, that while part of his force, under General Ott was blockading us, he had gone with the remainder fifty leagues away, to attack General Suchet on the Var. This gave the First Consul the opportunity to enter Italy without resistance, so that the army of reserve had reached Milan before the Austrians had ceased to regard its existence as imaginary. The First Consul, once in Italy, would have liked to go straight away to the aid of the town’s brave garrison, but to do that it was necessary for him to unite all the elements of his force, such as the artillery and military supplies, whose passage across the Alps had proved extremely difficult. This delay gave Marshal Mélas the time to hurry with his main force from Nice in order to oppose Bonaparte, who was then unable to continue his march towards Genoa without defeating the Austrian army.

While Bonaparte and Mélas were engaged in marches and countermarches in preparation for a battle which would decide the destiny of France and Italy, the garrison of Genoa found itself reduced to its last extremity. The typhus epidemic was raging. The hospitals had become ghastly charnel houses; starvation was at its worst. Nearly all the horses had been eaten, and though for a long time the soldiers had had no more than half a pound of rotten food daily, the distribution for the following day was not assured. There was absolutely nothing left when, on the 15th Prairial Masséna gathered all his generals and colonels together and announced that he had decided to attempt a breakout with those remaining men who were fit for duty, to try to reach Livorno; but his officers declared unanimously that the troops were no longer in a state to engage in combat, or even a simple march, unless they were given sufficient food to restore their strength, and the stores were completely empty! General Masséna then considered that, having carried out the orders of the First Consul and facilitated his entry into Italy, that it was his duty to save the remains of a garrison which had fought so valiantly, and which it was in the country’s interest to preserve. He therefore resolved to treat for the evacuation of the place, for he would not allow the word capitulation to be uttered. The English admiral and General Ott had, for more than a month, been making proposals for a parley, which Masséna had always turned down; but now, compelled by circumstance, he told them that he would accept. The conference took place in the little chapel which is situated in the middle of the bridge of Conegliano, and which is, as a result, between the sea and the French and Austrian lines. The French, English, and Austrian staffs occupied each end of the bridge. I was present at this most interesting event.

The foreign generals treated Masséna with much respect and consideration, and although he demanded favourable conditions, Admiral Kieth said more than once that the defense had been so heroic that they did not wish to refuse them. It was then agreed that the garrison would not be made prisoners, that they could retain their weapons and could go to Nice, and that having reached there they would be free to engage in further hostilities.

Masséna, who realised how important it was that the First Consul should not be led into making any false move because of his anxiety to go to the aid of Genoa, asked that the negotiations should permit the safe passage of two officers through the Austrian lines, whom he proposed to send to Bonaparte to inform him of the evacuation of the town by the French. General Ott opposed this because he intended to leave with some twenty-five thousand men of the blockading force to go and join Field-marshal Mélas, and he did not want these French officers to warn General Bonaparte of his movements. But Admiral Kieth overruled this objection. The treaty was about to be signed when, from far away, in the midst of the mountains, came the distant sound of gunfire. Masséna held up his pen, saying, "That is the First Consul, who has arrived with his army." The foreign commanders were much taken aback, but after a long pause it was realised that the sound was that of thunder, and Masséna appended his signature.

It is to be regretted that the garrison and its commander were deprived of the fame which would have been theirs if they had been able to hold Genoa until the arrival of Bonaparte; and furthermore, Masséna would have liked to hold out for a few more days, to delay the departure of General Ott’s men to join in the battle, which was inevitable, between the First Consul and Field-marshal Mélas. In the event, General Ott was unable to join the main Austrian army until the day after the battle of Marengo, the result of which might have been very different if the Austrians, whom we had great difficulty in overcoming, had had twenty-five thousand more men with which to oppose us. The Austrians took possession of Genoa on the 16th Prairial(May) after a siege which had lasted two whole months.

Masséna, as has been said, considered it so important that the First Consul was informed immediately about the situation that he had demanded a safe conduct for two aides-de-camp, so that if any thing untoward befell one of them, the other could carry his despatch. As it would be useful if an officer going on such a mission spoke Italian, Masséna chose a Major Graziani, an Italian who was in the French service, but being a most suspicious man, Masséna feared that a foreigner might be corrupted by the Austrians and delay his journey, so he sent me to make sure that he made all possible haste. This precaution was unnecessary as Major Graziani was a man of probity who knew the urgency of his mission.

On the 16th Prairial we departed from Genoa where I left Colindo, whom I expected to collect in a few days time, as we knew that the First Consul’s army was not very far away. Major Graziani and I reached it the next day at Milan.

General Bonaparte spoke to me with sympathy about the loss which I had suffered, and promised that he would be a father to me if I behaved myself well, a promise which he kept. He asked us endless questions about the events which had occurred in Genoa, and about the strength and movements of the Austrian forces we had come through to reach Milan; he kept us by him, and had horses provided for us from his stable, since we had travelled on post mules.

We followed the First Consul to Montebello and then to the battlefield of Marengo, where we were employed to carry his orders. I shall not go into any details about this battle, where I ran into no danger; one knows that we were on the brink of defeat, and might have fallen if General Ott’s men had arrived in time to take part in the action. The First Consul, who feared that he might see them appear at any moment, was very anxious, and did not relax until our cavalry and the infantry of General Desaix, of whose death he was still unaware, had ensured victory by overwhelming the Grenadiers of General Zach. Seeing that the horse which I was riding was slightly wounded on a leg, he took me by the ear, and said, laughing, "I lend you my horses, and look what happens to them!" Major Graziani having died in 1812, I am the only French officer who was present at the siege of Genoa and the battle of Marengo.

After this memorable affair, I went back to Genoa, which the Austrians had left as a result of our victory at Marengo. There I rejoined Colindo and Major R***. I visited my father’s grave, then we embarked on a French brig, which in twenty-four hours carried us to Nice. Some days later, a ship from Leghorn brought Colindo’s mother, who had come in search of her son. This fine young man and I had come through some very rough times together, which had strengthened the friendship between us, but our paths were divergent and we had to part, albeit with much regret.

I have said earlier, that about the middle of the siege, Franceschi, carrying despatches from General Masséna to the First Consul, had reached France by passing through the enemy fleet at night. He took with him the news of my father’s death. My mother had thereupon nominated a council of guardians, who sent to the aged Spire, who was at Nice with the coach and my father’s baggage, an order to sell everything and return to Paris, which he then did. There was now nothing to detain me on the banks of the Var, and I was in a hurry to rejoin my dear mother; but this was not so easy; public coaches were, at the time, very scarce; the one that ran from Nice to Lyon went only every second day and was booked up for several weeks by sick or wounded officers, coming, like me, from Genoa.

To overcome this difficulty, Major R***, two colonels, a dozen officers and I decided to form a group to go to Grenoble on foot, crossing the foothills of the Alps by way of Grasse, Sisteron, Digne and Gap. Mules would carry our small amount of baggage, which would allow us to cover eight to ten leagues every day. Bastide was with me and was a great help to me, for I was not accustomed to making such long journeys on foot, and it was very hot. After eight days of very difficult walking, we reached Grenoble, from where we were able to take coaches to Lyon. It was with sorrow that I saw once more the town and the hotel where I had stayed with my father in happier times. I longed for and yet dreaded the reunion with my mother and my brothers. I fancied that they would ask me to account for what I had done with her husband and their father! I was returning alone, and had left him in his grave in a foreign land! I was very unhappy and had need of a friend who would understand and share my grief, while Major R***, happy, after so much privation, to enjoy once more, abundance and good living, was madly jolly, which I found most wounding; so I decided to leave for Paris without him; but he claimed, now that I had no need of him, that it was his duty to deliver me to the arms of my mother, and I was forced to put up with his company as far as Paris, to where we went by mail coach.

There are scenes which are perhaps better left to the imagination, so I shall not attempt to describe my first heartbreaking meeting with my widowed mother and my brothers. You can picture it for yourselves.

My mother had a rather pretty country house at Carrière, near the forest of Saint-Germain. I spent two months there with her, my uncle Canrobert, who had returned from emigration, and an old knight of Malta, M. d’Estresse, a friend of my late father. Adolphe was not in Paris, he was in Rennes with Bernadotte, the commander-in-chief of the army of the west, but my younger brothers and M. Gault came to see us from time to time. In spite of the kindness and shows of affection which were lavished on me, I fell into a state of sombre melancholy, and my health deteriorated. I had suffered so much, physically and mentally! I became incapable of doing any work. Reading which I had always loved became insupportable. I spent the greater part of the day alone in the forest, where I lay in the shade absorbed in my sorrowful reflections. In the evenings, I accompanied my mother, my uncle, and the old knight on their usual walk along the bank of the Seine; but I took very little part in the conversation, and hid from them my sad thoughts, which revolved always about my poor father, dying for want of proper care. Although my condition alarmed my mother, Canrobert, and M. d’Estresse, they had the good sense not to make matters worse by any remarks which would have only irritated a sick mind, but they sought gradually to chase away the unhappy memories which were so affecting me by bringing forward the holidays of my two younger brothers, who came to live with us in the country. The presence of these two children, whom I dearly loved, eased my mind of its sorrows, by the care I took to make their stay at Carrière a happy one. I took them to Versailles, to Maisons and to Marly, and their childish happiness slowly brought back to life my spirits which had been so cruelly crushed by misfortune. Who could have thought that these two children, so lovely and full of life would soon be no more?


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Chicago: Jean Baptiste Antoine Marcellin de Marbot, "Chap. 13.," The Memoirs of General Baron De Marbot, ed. Iles, George, 1852-1942 and trans. Colt, Oliver C. in The Memoirs of General Baron De Marbot (New York: Doubleday, Page, 1909), Original Sources, accessed June 4, 2023,

MLA: de Marbot, Jean Baptiste Antoine Marcellin. "Chap. 13." The Memoirs of General Baron De Marbot, edited by Iles, George, 1852-1942, and translated by Colt, Oliver C., in The Memoirs of General Baron De Marbot, Vol. 36, New York, Doubleday, Page, 1909, Original Sources. 4 Jun. 2023.

Harvard: de Marbot, J, 'Chap. 13.' in The Memoirs of General Baron De Marbot, ed. and trans. . cited in 1909, The Memoirs of General Baron De Marbot, Doubleday, Page, New York. Original Sources, retrieved 4 June 2023, from