The battle of Lodi (10 May 1796) was a key moment in the career of Napoleon Bonaparte, and a victory that he would later state convinced him that he could achieve great things.
In the first stage of his campaign in Italy Napoleon had knocked Piedmont out of the war. He now faced an Austrian army under General Beaulieu. Beaulieu's task was to prevent Napoleon from crossing the River Po. One of the terms of the armistice with Piedmont was that the French were allowed to cross the Po at Valenza, west of the main Austrian defensive position at Pavia. Beaulieu's deployments were made with that idea in mind, although he did have detachments spread out along the Po.
Napoleon decided to turn the Austrian left flank by crossing the Po at Piacenza. On 6 May he began his advance along the southern bank of the river, and by 9 May the French had successfully advanced onto the north bank. Only the lack of a proper pontoon train had slowed them down, but this delay gave Beaulieu a chance to escape from the trap. By 10 May the main Austrian army had escaped across the River Adda, leaving Milan undefended.
The town of Lodi was located on the right (west) bank of the River Adda. The town was fortified, with four bastions protected by ditches, but the Austrians made no attempt to defend the town. As the French skirmishers entered the town, the last Austrian troops in Lodi retreated across the bridge to the east bank of the river. The Austrian rearguard, 12,000 strong, under the command of General Karl Sebottendorf, took up a strong defensive position at the eastern end of the bridge and prepared to defend the line of the Adda.
The road to Milan was now open to Napoleon, but as always Napoleon was more concerned with the defeat of his opponent's army. Napoleon realised that he had to force the Austrians away from the east bank of the Adda before Beaulieu could reinforce his position.
The battle that followed became famous for the advance of the French infantry across the bridge in the face of heavy Austrian fire and without any support, but that was not Napoleon's original plan. He arrived in Lodi at about midday, and decided to use his cavalry to outflank the Austrian position. General Beaumont with the cavalry was sent upstream to Mozanica, with orders to attack the Austrian right. Napoleon then waited for the cavalry to arrive, but Beaumont had to travel much further northern than expected to find a river crossing. Eventually, at about six in the evening Napoleon decided to send his infantry across the bridge.
The first wave of French attackers was largely made up of Savoyards, led by the giant Dupas. Napoleon whipped them up into a patriotic frenzy, and then sent then out across the bridge. The advancing French infantry got about half way across the bridge before they came under such heavy Austrian fire that they were forced back. Masséna and Berthier led a second wave of infantry onto the bridge, and this time they managed to reach the opposite bank, with some of the French infantry jumping off the bridge to wade the last few feet to shore. The Austrians responded with a cavalry attack that came close to dislodging the French, but at long last Beuamont's cavalry reached Lodi.
The arrival of the French cavalry forced the Austrians to retreat. Under attack from both sides they suffered heavy casualties, losing 2,000 men and 15 guns. Despite the slaughter on the bridge the French only lost 1,000 men. In the aftermath of the battle the Austrians retreated to Fontana, and then on to Cremona, closely pressed by the French. Napoleon then sent Masséna to Milan, which he reached on 14 May. On the following day Napoleon made his own triumphal entrance into the city.
The battle of Lodi was a relatively minor engagement, fought with little skill on Napoleon's part, but it played an important part in convincing him of his potential for greatness. He had successfully convinced his men to make a series of costly attacks on a strongly held Austrian position, and had proved that he could inspire his men.
Ironically the victory at Lodi was followed almost immediately by terrible news from Paris. With Piedmont out of the war General Kellermann's Army of the Alps was free to enter Italy, and the Directory decided to give him command of the war against Austria. Napoleon was to turn south to deal with the Papal States. Napoleon sent two letters back to Paris, in which he argued strongly against a divided command. Although neither letter actually contained a threat to resign, it was clear that that was what Napoleon had in mind, and the Directory relented. Napoleon kept the command, and was free to turn his attention to the capture of Mantua.