The battle of Montenotte (11-12 April 1796) was the first of a series of remarkable victories in northern Italy that firmly established Napoleon Bonaparte as one of the most important figures in revolutionary France.
At the start of his Italian campaign Napoleon's army was stretched out along the coast from Nice towards Genoa, with the Apennine Mountains between him and the Austrian and Piedmontese armies. The main Austrian army, under the command of General Beaulieu, was based around Alessandria, north of Genoa, while the Piedmontese army was further west, defending the main passes across the Maritime Alps and the approaches to Turin. Napoleon hoped to take advantage of this separation to force a gap between the Allied armies, defeating each in turn. His plan was to make a feint toward Genoa, which he expected would force Beaulieu to move south from Alessandria, weakening the centre of the Allied line. The French would then march west from Savona through a gap in the mountains to Carcare, from where they could either turn north up the Bormida valley to face the Austrians or west to cross the mountains along the route used by the modern A6 motorway towards the Piedmontese.
Napeleon's first move was to ask the senate of neutral Genoa for permission to move through their terrain. He also moved an advance guard along the coast to Voltri. This convinced Beaulieu that the French intended to advance through Genoa, and he decided to make an attempt to split the thin French line at Savona. Two Austrian columns would be involved. Beaulieu was to lead the eastern column, which would attack the French at Voltri and force them to retreat. General Argenteau was to lead the western column down the Bormida valley to Carcare, and from there to Savona, where if all went well he would trap the French column retreating from Voltri.
In the previous year the Austrians had built a number of redoubts and earthworks on the mountains to the north west of Savona, where they commanded the pass that ran west to Altare, Carcare, Cairo Montenotte and the Bormida valley (the battle takes its name from the tiny community of Montenotte Superiore, on the Austrian line of approach from the north). Napoleon now hoped to trap the Austrian right wing against these fortifications, and then outflank them. With Argenteau beaten, Beaulieu would be forced to retreat to protect his lines of communication with Alessandria, leaving Napoleon free to attack west towards the Piedmontese army.
The battle unfolded almost exactly as Napoleon had planned. On 10 April Beaulieu forced the French to retreat from Voltri. Argenteau had been delayed in the mountains, and so he didn’t reach the French defences until 11 April. Just as Napoleon had hoped the Austrians then attacked the strong position in the mountains, and were held off by Rampon and Fornèsy in the redoubts. On the night of 11-12 April the remaining French divisions were moved into place. Leharpe was pulled back from Voltri to reinforce the troops in the redoubt. Massèna was sent west to Altare, from where he could outflank the Austrians and hit them from the west. Finally Augereau was sent across the San Giacomo Pass, from a starting point south of Savona, with orders to block any Piedmontese army advancing from the west.
On the morning of 12 April the Austrians were attacked from the west and the south east. They were soon forced to retreat, first north to Montenotte Inferoir and then west to Dego in the Bormida valley, with the loss of between 1,000 and 1,500 men.
None of the other Allied troops in the area played any part in the battle. Beaulieu, who by 12 April was on the southern side of the Apennines, advances slowly along the coast, and heard the gunfire at Montenotte. On the next day he discovered that his centre had been defeated, and retreated north back across the mountains. The nearest Piedmontese troops, at Millesimo to the west of Altare, also remained static.
The battle of Montenotte was Napoleon's first victory in command of an army. Although it weakened the centre of the Allied line, the French were still faced by strong Austrian and Piedmontese forces at Dego and Millesimo. Napoleon now began to demonstrate the talents that would bring him so much success. Leaving a small force to face the Austrians he defeated the Piedmontese at Millesimo (14 April) and then turned back to the north-east to compete the defeat of the Austrians at Dego (14-15 April). These victories then left him free to move west to complete the defeat of Piedmont at Ceva (16-17 April) and Mondovi (21 April). Two days after the battle of Mondovi the Piedmontese sued for peace.