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Napoleon's Defeat at La Maddalena


I came across an interesting item in the book, Rambles in the Islands of Corsica and Sardiniawith Notices of their History, Antiquities, and Present Condition, by Thomas Forester (pub. Longman, Brown, Longmans, and Roberts. London. 1858.) It details an early episode in the career of Napoleon Bonaparte involving the small island of La Maddalena of the northeast coast of Sardinia, just a stone's throw from the island of Corsica to the north.
Further interest attaches to La Madelena [sic] from its having repulsed the attack of Napoleon, and driven him to a precipitate retreat from his first field of arms. The young soldier, after being for some months in garrison at Bonifacio, was attached, by order of Paschal [Pasquale] Paoli, to the expedition which sailed from thence in February, 1793, to reduce La Madelena. He acted as second in command of the artillery, the whole force being under the command of General Colonna-Cesari. A body of troops having effected a lodgment on the island of Santo Stefano by night, and a battery having been thrown up and armed, a heavy fire was opened by Bonaparte on the town and its defences. They were held by a garrison of 500 men, and the fire was returned by the islanders with equal fury. The opposite shore of Gallura was lined by its brave mountaineers, who, on the French frigate being dismasted and bearing up for the Gulf of Arsachena, embarked from Parao, and attacked Santo Stefano. Their assault was so vigorous that Bonaparte found himself compelled to make a precipitate retreat from the island with a few of his followers, leaving 200 prisoners, with all the matériel, baggage, and artillery. In passing between the other islands, the fugitives were also attacked by some Gallurese, who, concealing themselves near Capo della Caprera, by the precision of their firing committed great havoc on the flying enemy.

Mr. Tyndale states that many of the Corsicans and Ilvese who witnessed this action, being still living when he visited La Madelena, and relating various circumstances relative to it, he heard the following story from an old veteran, who was an eyewitness of the fact:—

“Bonaparte was superintending the firing from the battery, and watching the effect of it with his telescope, when observing the people at Madelena going to mass, he exclaimed, ‘Voglio tirare alla chiesa, per far fuggire le donne!’ (‘I should like to fire at the church, just to frighten the women!’) While in garrison at Bonifacio, as lieutenant [? captain] [previous bracket in original text] of artillery, he had mortar and gun practice every morning, and had on all occasions shown the greatest precision in firing. In this instance he was no less successful, for the shell entered the church window, and fell at the foot of the image of N.S. di Madelena. It failed to burst in this presence, and this miraculous instance of religious respect had its due weight with the pious islanders, by whom it was taken up, and for a long time preserved among the sacred curiosities of the town. A natural cause was, however, soon discovered for the harmlessness of the projectile. Napoleon continued his firing; but finding that the shells took no effect, though they fell on the very spot he intended, he examined some of them, and found that they were filled with sand. ‘Amici,’ he exclaimed, burning with indignation; ‘eccole il tradimento;’ and the troops, who had been suffering much by the fire from Madelena, imagining that the treason was on the part of General Cesari, would have put him alla lanterna, had he not made his escape on board the frigate.”

It has, indeed, been said that Paoli, reluctantly obeying the orders of the French Convention to undertake the expedition against Sardinia, entrusted the command to Colonna-Cesari, his intimate friend, with instructions to secure its failure, considering Sardinia as the natural ally of their own island. However this may be, the affair terminated by the retreat of the general with the rest of his force, having thrown from Santo Stefano 500 shells and 5000 round shot into Madelena, without much effect.

Historical background:
Napoleon was born in 1769 on Corsica. At the time, Corsica was an independent republic, having expelled the Genoese some years earlier. One year after Napoleon's birth, however, his home island was incorporated into France. At the age of 17 he graduated from a military school and was commissioned a second lieutenant in a French artillery regiment. The French Revolution broke out in 1789 and Napoleon spent the early years of that Revolution on Corsica in the midst of a complex three-way struggle for the island among (1) French Royalists, (2) supporters of the Revolution, and (3) supporters of Corsican independence. He was as a young man a fervent believer in an independent Corsica; however, he did support, as is well known, the Jacobin Revolution to overthrow the French monarchy.

On Corsica, he came into contact with Pasquale Paoli (still as famous as Napoleon, at least on Corsica!) the great leader of the Corsican independence movement who had liberated the island from the Republic of Genoa in 1755 and then headed the independent Corsican Republic from 1755 to 1769, when the island was taken by France. Paoli went into exile in England, where he was favorably received. Paoli returned to Corsica and was subsequently on the side of the French Revolution but split from Republican France over the question of the execution of king Louis XVI. Paoli then became somewhat of secret Royalist again. That, plus his sympathies for the English, put him in a good position to cause the failure of the French plan to take the island of Sardinia in 1793. In short, he was told by Republican France to invade Sardinia, and he did, but he conspired to make it fail. That fact was not lost on Napoleon, by then a colonel and second in command of the invading force. Napoleon barely excaped from the failed invasion with his life, and he knew that he had been set up. Though an early admirer and supporter of Paoli, Napoleon now denounced Poli as a traitor. With the help of the British, Paoli then led the short-lived "Anglo-Corsican Protectorate," which, with the rise of Napoleon to true power, collapsed. Paoli fled to Britain, where he died in 1807, just as things were getting interesting for Napoleon.

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