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André Masséna, Marshal of France
|Nickname(s)||l'Enfant chéri de la Victoire|
5 June 1758|
Nice, Kingdom of Sardinia
|Died||4 April 1817
|Buried at||Père Lachaise Cemetery, Paris, France|
|Rank||Marshal of France|
|Battles/wars||French Revolutionary Wars, Napoleonic Wars|
|Awards||First Duc de Rivoli, First Prince d'Essling|
Many of Napoleon's generals were trained at the finest French and European military academies, but Masséna was among those who achieved greatness without benefit of formal education. This, however, does not imply that he was poorly educated in the art of war or lacked administrative abilities. While those of noble rank acquired their education and promotions as a matter of privilege, Masséna rose from humble origins to such prominence that Napoleon referred to him as "the greatest name of my military Empire." Yet, Masséna's military career was equaled by few commanders in European history. In addition to his remarkable battlefield successes, he touched the careers of many who served under his command. Indeed, at one time or another, a majority of French marshals served under his command and saw "the great Masséna at work."
André Masséna was born in Nice, then part of the Kingdom of Sardinia, the son of a shopkeeper Jules Masséna (Giulio Massena) and wife Marguerite Fabre, married on August 1, 1754. His father died in 1764, and after his mother remarried he was sent to live with relatives.
At the age of thirteen, Masséna became a cabin boy aboard a merchant ship; he sailed with it around the Mediterranean and on two extended voyages to French Guiana. In 1775, after four years at sea, he returned to Nice and enlisted in the French Army as a private in the Royal Italian regiment. He had risen to the rank of warrant officer (the top rank for a non-nobleman) when he left in 1789. In the same year he married on August 10, Anne Marie Rosalie Lamare (Antibes, September 4, 1765 – Paris, January 3, 1829), daughter of a surgeon in Antibes, and they remained living at her birthplace. After a brief stint as a smuggler in Northern Italy (his knowledge of the road networks would later prove useful), he rejoined the army in 1791 and was made an officer, rising to the rank of colonel by 1792.
When the Revolutionary Wars broke out in April 1792, Masséna and his battalion were deployed along the border to Piedmont. Masséna continued training his battalion and prepared it for battle, hoping that it would be incorporated into the regular army. A month after the occupation of Nice, in October 1792, the battalion was one of four volunteer battalions that became part of the French Armée d'Italie.
Masséna distinguished himself in the war, and was quickly promoted, attaining the rank of general of brigade in August 1793, followed by general of division that December. He was prominent in all the campaigns on the Italian Riviera over the next two years, participating in the attack on Saorgio (1794) and the battle of Loano (1795), and was commanding the two divisions of the army's advance guard when Napoleon Bonaparte took command of it in March 1796.
Masséna remained one of Bonaparte's most important subordinates throughout the extraordinary 1796-7 campaign in Italy. He played a significant part in engagements at Montenotte and Dego in the spring. He took a leading role at the battles of Lonato, Castiglione, Bassano, Caldiero and Arcola in the summer and fall, and the Battle of Rivoli and the fall of Mantua that winter.
In another major effort to wrest Lombardy from the French, a fourth Austrian relief army was sent to relieve Mantua in January 1797. In a three-pronged attack, the main Austrian army overran French forces near Rivoli while other enemy columns advanced on Verona and Mantua. Once Bonaparte determined the location of the main enemy force, he began juggling his forces. At 5:00 P.M. on 13 January, Masséna was ordered to march from Verona to Rivoli, fifteen miles away. Following a forced night march across the snow-covered roads, the first of his troops reached the battlefield at 6:00 A.M. Bonaparte deployed them on the left flank when the battle began. They were shifted to strengthen the sagging center and then deployed to crush an Austrian flanking maneuver. It proved to be a brilliant victory in which Masséna's troops played the decisive role! However, the next day, with very little rest, Masséna and his troops marched thirty-nine miles in 24 hours to intercept a second Austrian army advancing to relieve Mantua. At La Favorita he closed the pincer on the Austrian army, forcing their surrender. As a result, within five days, Masséna's division had played the major role in Bonaparte's operation that cost the Austrians at least 35,000 casualties or prisoners; two weeks later the 30,000 man garrison at Mantua capitulated. With his final victory complete, Napoleon showered praise on Masséna calling him "l'enfant chéri de la victoire." The president of the Directory in Paris, Jean Rewbell, responded in the same vein: "The Executive Directory congratulates you, citizen general, for the new success that you have obtained against the enemies of the Republic. The brave division that you command has covered itself with glory in the three consecutive days that forced Mantua to capitulate, and the Directory is obliged to regard you among the most capable and useful generals of the Republic."
In 1799 Masséna was granted an important command in Switzerland replacing Charles Edward Jennings de Kilmaine. As Russian reinforcements marched to support the Austrian armies in Italy and Switzerland, the Directory decided to consolidate the remnants of the French armies under Masséna's command. With a force totaling approximately 90,000 men, Masséna was ordered to defend the entire frontier. He repulsed Archduke Charles's advance on Zurich in June, but retired from the city and took up positions in the surrounding mountains. He triumphed over the Russians under Alexander Korsakov at the Second Battle of Zurich in September. Masséna, aware of Suvorov's advance toward St. Gotthard, quickly shifted his troops southward. General Claude-Jacques Lecourbe's division had already performed heroics in delaying the Russians at St. Gotthard Pass, and later at the spectacular crossing over the Reuss at Devil's Bridge. When Suvorov finally forced the Reuss, he was met by units of Soult's division blocking the route at Altdorf. Unable to break through the French lines and aware of Korsakov's disastrous defeat, the Russian general turned east through the high and difficult Pragel Pass to Glarus where he was dismayed to find other French troops awaiting him on 4 October. In waist-deep snow, his troops attempted six times to break through the French lines along the Linth but each attack was beaten back. Suvorov had no alternative but to make his escape across the treacherous Panixer Pass (which is a difficult mountain trail to this day), abandoning his baggage and artillery, and losing as many as 5,000 men. This, and other events led Russia to withdraw from the Second Coalition.
Meanwhile, his wife stayed at Antibes, where she had his children, the first of whom died in childhood: Marie Anne Elisabeth (July 8, 1790 – March 18, 1794), Jacques Prosper, 2nd Prince d'Essling July 3, 1818 (June 25, 1793-May 13, 1821), unmarried and without issue, Victoire Thècle (September 28, 1794 – March 28, 1857), married on September 12, 1814 Charles, Comte Reille (Antibes, September 1, 1775 – March 4, 1860), and François Victor, 2nd Duc de Rivoli, 3rd Prince d'Essling (April 2, 1799 – April 16, 1863), married on April 19, 1823 Anne Debelle (1802-January 28, 1887), and had issue.
Nevertheless, Bonaparte marched with the Army of the Reserve, not to the relief of Genoa, but to Milan where he spent six days. By the end of May, plague had spread throughout Genoa and the civilian population was in revolt. Negotiations were begun for the exchange of prisoners early in June, but the citizens and some of the garrison clamored for capitulation. Unknown to Masséna, the Austrian general, Peter Ott, had been ordered to raise the siege because Bonaparte had crossed Great St. Bernard Pass and was now threatening the main Austrian army. Describing the situation at Genoa, Ott requested and received permission to continue the siege. On 4 June, with one day's rations remaining, Masséna's negotiator finally agreed to evacuate the French army from Genoa. However, "if the word capitulation was mentioned or written," Masséna threatened to end all negotiations. Two days later, a few of the French left the city by sea, but the bulk of Masséna's starving and exhausted troops marched out of the city with all their equipment and followed the road along the coast toward France, ending one of the most remarkable sieges in modern military history. The siege was an astonishing demonstration of tenacity, ingenuity, courage, and daring that garnered additional laurels for Masséna and placed him in the category previously reserved for Bonaparte alone.
The grueling siege of some sixty days had ended but it played an important role in Bonaparte's strategy. By forcing the Austrians to deploy vast forces against him at Genoa, Masséna made it possible for Bonaparte to cross Great St. Bernard Pass, surprise the Austrians, and ultimately defeat General Michael Melas's army at Marengo before sufficient reinforcements could be transferred from the siege site. Less than three weeks after the evacuation, Bonaparte wrote to Masséna, "I am not able to give you a greater mark of the confidence I have in you than by giving you command of the first army of the Republic [Army of Italy]." The Austrians also recognized the significance of Masséna's defense; the Austrian chief of staff declared firmly, "You won the battle, not in front of Alessandria but in front of Genoa." Masséna was then made commander of the French forces in Italy, but was later dismissed by Napoleon.
Not until 1804 did Masséna regain the trust of Napoleon. That year he was promoted to the rank of Marshal of France in May. He led an independent army that captured Verona and fought the Austrians at Caldiero on October 30, 1805. Masséna was given control of operations against the Kingdom of Naples. He commanded the right wing of the Grand Army in Poland in 1807. He was granted a (first) ducal victory title in chief of Rivoli on August 24, 1808.
Masséna did not serve again until 1809, against the forces of the Fifth Coalition. At the beginning of the campaign, he led the IV Corps at the battles of Eckmuhl and Ebersberg. Later in the war, when Napoleon tried to cross to the north bank of the Danube, at the Battle of Aspern-Essling, Masséna's troops hung onto the village of Aspern in two days of savage fighting. He was rewarded on January 31, 1810 with a second, now princely victory title, Prince d'Essling, for his efforts there and in the Battle of Wagram.
During the Peninsular War, Napoleon appointed Masséna an army commander in the invasion of Portugal in 1810. He started out by capturing Ciudad Rodrigo and Almeida after successful sieges. He suffered a setback at the hands of Wellington's Anglo-Portuguese army at Buçaco on September 27. Pressing on, he forced the allies to retreat into the Lines of Torres Vedras where a stalemate ensued for several months. Finally forced to retreat due to lack of food and supplies, Masséna withdrew to the Spanish frontier, allegedly prompting the comment "So, Prince of Essling, you are no longer Massena." from Napoleon. After defeats at the battles of Sabugal and Fuentes de Oñoro, he was replaced by Marshal Auguste Marmont and did not serve again, being made a local commander at Marseilles.
Masséna retained his command after the restoration of Louis XVIII. When Napoleon returned from exile the following year, Masséna refused to commit to either side and kept his area quiet. He was disinclined to prove his royalist loyalties after the defeat of Napoleon. For example, he was a member of the court-martial that refused to try Marshal Michel Ney. He died in Paris in 1817 and was buried at Père Lachaise Cemetery, in a tomb he shares with his son-in-law Reille.
The village of Massena in the state of New York, USA, is named in Masséna's honor. It was settled by French lumbermen in the early 19th century. Massena, Iowa, also in the USA, and which in turn was named for the community in New York, honours Masséna with a portrait of him in its Centennial Park. Place Massena in his birthplace, Nice, is named in his honour.
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- Masséna to Ott, 2 June 1800, Gachot, Le Siège de Gênes, 241.
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