On This Day in Napoleonic History – 26 March 1796

26Napoleon takes command of the Army of Italy

Napoleon arrived at the headquarters of the Army of Italy in Nice, meeting his divisional commanders. They would be a tough group to impress, let alone inspire. As a contemporary had put it, Napoleon ‘had won his reputation in a street riot and his command in a marriage bed,’ and generals such as André Masséna and Pierre Augereau were more experienced and felt that they deserved the command more.

This is how Masséna remembers Napoleon: ‘At first I didn’t think much of him. His small size and puny face didn’t put him in their favour. The portrait of his wife that he held in his hand and had shown to everyone, his extreme youth made them think that this posting was a work of another intrigue but the moment after he donned his general’s cap and seemed to grow by two feet. He questioned us on the position of our divisions, their equipment, their spirit and active number of each corp, gave us the direction that we had to follow, announced that the next day he will inspect all the corps and the day after that they would march on the enemy to give battle.’

The portrait of Napoleon that Masséna had painted was perfectly accurate – Napoleon’s activity, confidence, obsessive demand for information and his love of his wife were all important features of his character. When General Bonaparte arrived in Nice, he found his army in no state to move anywhere, however. Soldiers had no overcoats, no shoes, no draft horses, no meat and bread only occasionally. They hadn’t been paid for months, prompting mutterings of mutiny. In a short period of time Napoleon was to change all of this.

Napoleon thus addressed his troops: ‘Soldiers, you are naked, ill fed! The Government owes you much; it can give you nothing. Your patience, the courage you display in the midst of these rocks, are admirable; but they procure you no glory, no fame is reflected upon you. I seek to lead you into the most fertile plains in the world. Rich provinces, great cities will be in your power. There you will find honour, glory, and riches. Soldiers of Italy, would you be lacking in courage or constancy?’ He was true to his word and his feats during the Italian campaign are among the greatest Napoleonic legends.

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