Academic journal article The Historian

Napoleon in Italy: The Sieges of Mantua, 1796-1799

Academic journal article The Historian

Napoleon in Italy: The Sieges of Mantua, 1796-1799

Article excerpt

Napoleon in Italy: The Sieges of Mantua, 1796-1799. By Phillip R. Cuccia. (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 2014. Pp. 328. $32.95.)

It can truly be said that Napoleon Bonaparte learned his trade as a commander in the campaigns in Italy in 1796 and 1797. The misleading title of this study conjures up an image of Bonaparte holding his first army command and inaugurating a virtual revolution in military affairs. He alone thought and acted at the operational level of war and, at places like Mottenotte, Castiglione, Rovereto and Bassano, Arcole, and Rivoli, defeated opponents through an operational art centered on offensive maneuver warfare. The recipe never varied: Assume a circumspect defense, allow the major adversary to make the first move, then unleash a violent storm of action; seize the initiative and control the central position; then divide the main enemy forces, defeat the first, and crush the second. Although he never won a decisive victory--at Rivoli he came close-Napoleon exceeded the expectations of his masters in Paris and formed sister republics in northern Italy in the aftermath of the Treaty of Campo Formio.

What the Italian campaign demonstrated was the success of a new mode of warfare--conducted at dizzying tempos--over competent Austrian generals fighting according to the rules and pace of the Ancien Regime. Napoleon sought decision, not territory; for him, siegecraft was as dead as the pike square. As he once famously remarked, "ground I may recover; time never." Knowing his opponents' obsession with fixed places, Napoleon never conducted a proper siege of Mantua, instead using the threat of seizing "the key to Italy" as a baited gambit to draw a succession of Habsburg commanders into the open. …

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