Friday, May 8, 2015

May 9, 1769 – Corsicans Drive out the French

After the collapse of the Roman Empire, in whose hands Corsica had rested for centuries, the island was conquered by Vandals. It traded hands through the Byzantines, Lombards, Tuscans, Pisans, Aragonese, and Genoans across the years. The eighteenth century was especially tumultuous when a peasant refused to pay his tax in 1729. The single act ignited a revolution against Genoa that lasted a generation until the Republic of Corsica was proclaimed in 1755 under President Pasquale Paoli. Even though it wasn’t recognized, Corsicans held onto their freedom, outlined in the first written constitution of the Enlightenment.

At the Treaty of Versailles of 1768, Genoa relinquished its claim to the island to France in exchange for forgiveness on its massive war-debts. France had already come into Corsican affairs with occupations of key harbors and forts during the Seven Years War, and in September they landed with more than one hundred thousand troops keen on establishing a new colony for the kingdom. Outgunned and outnumbered seven-to-one, the Corsican Republic vanished into the mountains, carrying on guerilla warfare. With only a few organized soldiers, the Corsicans fought viciously as irregulars, including the female company under lady-captain Serpentini. That October, Paoli led the Corsicans to victory at Borgo, reminding his troops, “Europe is watching you!”

The true turning point of the invasion was at the Battle of Ponte Novu. The French made landfall at Bastia and marched toward the heart of Paoli’s strength in Corte. The Corsicans’ Thermopylae was the bridge over the Golo River, built originally as part of the Genoan defenses. Paoli, who had been attempting recruitment, rushed to command the battle. Rather than holding the whole bridge with brave Corsicans at one side and placing hardened Prussian mercenaries at the far end, Paoli determined to hold only the far end of the bridge. Harriers kept French artillery from gaining ground, and French troops who attempted to cross were cut down.

Eventually the French attempted to maneuver around and ford the river, but their army fell into disarray. The Corsicans counterattacked, forcing the disorganized army into retreat all the way to Bastia. News of the Corsican victory flew across Europe. King Louis XV of France, who was already discouraged about the expedition after defeat at Borgo, announced its end despite the objections of the disgraced mastermind Duc de Choiseul.

Later that same year, a third son was born to the wealthy Buonaparte family and named Napoleone. The energetic boy was taught discipline by his mother, while his father engaged the young Napoleone in matters of state through his work as Paoli’s secretary. While studying in the new university at Corte, Napoleone received word that his father’s long illness with stomach cancer had finally brought his death. Napoleone compressed his final years of study into one, graduating with highest honors at age sixteen.About the same time, the French Revolutionary Wars began spilling out of the country, into the Lowlands and Italy.

Napoleone had found employment in Paoli’s government, but with the battles sweeping back and forth over northern Italy, he vowed to liberate other Italian communities on the mainland. He wrote to Paoli, "As the nation was besieged, I was born. Thirty thousand Frenchmen were vomited on to our shores, threatening the throne of liberty with waves of blood. Such was the odious sight which was the first to strike me." With Paoli’s endorsement, Napoleone soon became a mercenary officer in Austria’s army. There he rose quickly through the ranks, proving to be a very adaptable leader hailed as a hero by locals. His defense in Mantua raised eyebrows across Europe, as did his daring crossing of the Alps to reinforce Archduke Charles’s lines at the Rhine.

Meanwhile, France changed governments one after the other. Eventually the Republic was worn down and the Royalists restored the king, although it would continue to struggle with periodic revolutions across the nineteenth century. With the wars over, Napoleone found himself struggling in clerk jobs offered to him by the Austrian court. He finally quit, returning to Corsica across Austrian-dominated Italy. There he found his new calling, which was his first when he left Paoli’s employ: to liberate Italy.

For the next twenty years of his life, Napoleone fought in Italy. He was seen alternately as a folk hero and a brigand, the latter especially by Austria as he drove them out of Lombardy. His ideals of republicanism merged with views of constitutional monarchy, which brought together the rival bourgeoisie with his most ardent followers, the religious, royalist lower class. He oversaw the intertwining of the royal lines of the Kingdom of Sardinia and the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, although his efforts toward unification stopped at confederation, giving no region the chance to rule over another. The Italian Confederation is infamous for its short-lived civil wars and haphazard economy, although it has an unquestionable military force for defense. Through the twentieth century, its foreign affairs have been colonial ambitions in Africa while neutrally avoiding the conflicts of the brutal First and Second World Wars.


In reality, the Battle of Ponte Novu was a thorough French victory when Prussian mercenaries fired at the charging French through retreating Corsicans. Paoli, who was not at the battle, left for Britain, where he showed the holes in his coat made by French musket balls and tried to raise funds to liberate the island. During the many years of the Wars of the Coalitions, Britain did dispatch troops, but not until long after young Napoleon Bonaparte left for military school in Paris. Today Corsica remains a region of France.

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