In 1799, the three men who were chosen by a nearly unanimous vote of the people to rule France were Napoleon and two of his political supporters, Sieyes and Roget.
Upon assuming office, the First Consul declared, “We have finished the romance of the Revolution. We must now begin its history, only seeking what is real and practicable in the application of its principles, and not what is speculative and hypothetical.” (Holmberg, 1).
Thus began the period of the Consulate, during which Napoleon attempted to, in the words of Tom Holmberg, “consolidate the gains of the Revolution.” However, before he could begin any true reformist activity, it was essential that he eliminate the external threats to his country’s welfare.
The brilliant Russian commander, General Alexander Suvorov, died in the spring of 1800 and Russia, having lost its most able commander and simultaneously quarreled with Austria, had withdrawn from the war. British efforts in Egypt were checked by the French garrisons there, which managed to defeat the enemy during the Second Battle of Alexandria (1801), when a French bullet claimed the life of General Ralph Abercrombie.
Thus, Austria remained the only able foe of France during this period. Napoleon marched his forces through the Saint-Bernard pass into Northern Italy in order to reclaim the territory that had been allotted France as a result of the Campoformio treaty. The Austrian commander, General Otto Melas, was caught off-balance by Napoleon’s audacious act, which equaled that of Suvorov one year earlier. Thus, his numerically superior force was, for a time, irresponsive to the French liberation of Piedmont.
However, as Napoleon pressed further south, the Austrian resistance intensified. Half of the French force under Desaix remained behind to secure the new foothold while the First Consul, with the remaining 15,000 soldiers, encountered 60,000 Austrian troops near Marengo on June 14, 1800.
At first the enemy grenadiers were impregnable, holding their ground while the stationary Austrian cannon bombarded French positions. Several assaults, including one by the veteran Republican Guard, were repelled with heavy casualties. Melas became so confident of his triumph that he departed for Vienna to report it to the Emperor Francis I.
Fortunately, General Desaix arrived with much-needed reinforcements and conducted an all-out infantry charge that collapsed the Austrian ranks while Kellerman’s dragoons devastated the enemy’s flanks and rear. Yet Desaix himself was shot dead toward the end of his triumphant assault. Napoleon spent the remainder of the battle weeping over the corpse of his comrade. Thus he returned to his subordinates the same compassion and value that they had given him.