Marshal André MassénaTalented army commander during the French Revolution who became a Marshal of France
Born: May 6, 1758
Place of Birth: Nice, Alpes-Maritimes, France
Died: April 4, 1817
Cause of Death: Illness
Place of Death: Paris, France
Arc de Triomphe: MASSENA on the south pillar
Born in Nice to a shopkeeper, André Masséna experienced a rough childhood. His father died when he was six, and at age thirteen he ran away to escape to sea as a cabin boy. He spent the next four years sailing on the Mediterranean Sea and Atlantic Ocean before returning to Nice. Once back in Piedmont, he enlisted in the Royal Italian Regiment in the service of France and two years later he was promoted to sergeant. Twelve years later in 1789 Masséna left the army when he realized he could no longer advance his career there due to his low birth. He retired to Antibes where he married the daughter of a surgeon, Mademoiselle Lamarre, and opened a grocery store that allegedly concealed a smuggling operation.
As the French Revolution began to gain momentum, Masséna joined the National Guard of Antibes. In 1791 he joined the 2nd Battalion of Volunteers of Var and the next year he was elected lieutenant colonel of the battalion. Masséna's unit was assigned to the Army of the Var and in September of 1792 he helped to repress the rebels at Levens before fighting at Sospel. Next he and his men were designated for the Army of Italy, and he later commanded the camps of Baolet and then Fougasse.
In August of 1793 Masséna was promoted to chef de brigade and then ordered to arrest and escort General Dortoman to Nice. Following that, he was promoted to général de brigade and then assigned to the left wing of the Army of Italy, where he won at Castelgineste in November. Next Masséna was sent with a corps of troops to help support the Siege of Toulon . Once he had arrived, he took part in the assault and took the forts Lartigue and Sainte-Catherine. For his contributions, the representatives of the people on site promoted him to général de division.
Army of Italy
Masséna returned to the Army of Italy in January of 1794 where he took command of the right wing. As the French army went on the offensive, he took part in the expedition to Oneglia and Saorgio by seizing Ormeo and Garessio and then fighting at Saorgio. That May he occupied the pass of Tende, but the offensive was halted during the summer. In September the French resumed the offensive and Masséna fought at Cairo and occupied Dego. However, in December he fell ill and had no choice but to hand over his command until he could recover sufficiently. General Masséna resumed an active command in April of 1795 when he took command of the 1st Division of the right wing of the Army of Italy. That June he fought the Austrians but was repulsed at Melogno, and then in November he won at Loano .
When General Schérer resigned his command of the Army of Italy, Masséna hoped to be the next commander, but it was not to be. The next year the ambitious, young General Bonaparte arrived to take command of the Army of Italy. Masséna's men formed the advance guard of the army and he led them into action at Montenotte and Dego before taking Cherasco. Continuing to take part in the campaign, Masséna was one of the officers to charge across the bridge at Lodi , and he then went on to take Milan and Verona. That August he won at Lonato and fought at Castiglione and then in September he fought at Bassano , Due Castelli, and Saint-Georges. In November Masséna served on the Brenta and at Caldiero before fighting at Arcola . Two months later in January of 1797 he won at San-Michele and then contributed significantly to the victories over the Austrians at Rivoli and La Favorite. Napoleon proclaimed Masséna "the dear child of victory" in recognition of his outstanding talents and contributions, though some sources state that the wording was actually, "the spoiled child of victory".
When negotiations with the Austrians broke down, Masséna resumed command of a division in the Army of Italy in March of 1797. He immediately went on the offensive, seizing the forts of Chiusa and Tarvis and then winning at Neumarkt and Unzmarkt. As Napoleon finished negotiating the Peace of Leoben, Masséna was sent to Paris to take the preliminary treaty to the Directory.
By this time Masséna had gained quite the reputation for looting and womanizing, but no one doubted his military abilities which were entirely instinctive due to his dislike of reading. In early 1798 he was given command of the troops ordered to occupy the Papal States. While in Rome, Masséna was accused of looting and treating the soldiers poorly and his troops became openly hostile to him. He turned over his command and left Rome, retiring to Antibes for a period of time.
Switzerland and Italy
Masséna was recalled to service in August of 1798 when he was named commander of a division of the Army of Mainz. Four months later he was named commander of the Army of Switzerland but put under the overall strategic command of General Jourdan. Masséna launched an offensive in March of 1799 by invading Grisons and seizing Coire, but he was unable to take Feldkirch. Due to losses suffered by the other French armies, the Directory named Masséna commander-in-chief of the Army of the Danube and the Army of Switzerland and placed him in charge of defending the entire eastern frontier of France. Masséna was up to the challenge and reorganized his troops, successfully fighting off the Austrian attacks. That August the Russians under Field Marshal Suvorov aimed to join up with the Austrians, but in September Masséna attacked the Austrians first, winning a brilliant victory at Zürich . He then turned to cut off Suvorov's Russians, inflicting severe casualties on them and almost cutting off their retreat. Masséna next went on to win at Andelfingen in October.
Back in Paris, Napoleon seized power in a coup d'état and established the Consulate. One of his many acts as First Consul was to name Masséna the commander-in-chief of the Army of Italy. Masséna left the Army of Switzerland at the end of November, returned to Paris to meet with Napoleon, and then left for Italy at the end of December. After establishing his command at Nice, he then moved his headquarters up to Genoa.
The Austrians launched an offensive in Italy in April of 1800, and before long the outnumbered French were separated and falling back. Masséna and his men became trapped in Genoa, but when he was asked to surrender, he replied that he'd rather be buried under the towers of Genoa.1 Meanwhile, a British fleet under Admiral Keith blockaded the city from the sea, preventing any hope of resupply. Each time the Austrians tried to storm the city, the French responded with successful counterattacks, but they could only fight disease and hunger for so long.
On May 2nd, Reille successfully broke through the blockade by boat to deliver to Masséna money to pay the troops and Napoleon's orders to hold the city at all costs as he was crossing the Alps with the Army of the Reserve. Masséna fully comprehended the strategic situation and held out until June 4th when he finally surrendered due to the starvation of his troops. However, his holding of the city had given Napoleon time to cross the Alps unopposed and strike at the Austrians with the Army of the Reserve. Masséna's troops marched out of Genoa with all their equipment, surrendering the city and the city alone.
Masséna was next named commander of the combined forces of the Army of Italy and the Army of the Reserve at the end of June. However, two months later he was relieved of command for many of the same reasons as in 1798 when he had left Rome, namely looting and treating the troops poorly. Masséna retired to Rueil on full pay and rested there with his wife and three children for the next few years.
Marshal of the Empire
In 1804 Masséna was created a Marshal of the Empire and in 1805 he received the Grand Eagle of the Legion of Honor. For the campaigns of 1805 Masséna was recalled to active service and given command of the Army of Italy. While the Grande Armée maneuvered across Germany and Austria, Masséna took the offensive and seized Verona before fighting an indecisive battle against Archduke Charles at Caldiero . While he did not win any major battles, he did prevent the Archduke Charles from joining with the other Austrian and Russian armies, which in turn helped Napoleon's overall strategy for the successful campaign.
Next Marshal Masséna was named commander of the Army of Naples and sent to invade Naples which had declared war on France. He seized Capua in February of 1806 and then entered Naples with Joseph Bonaparte who became King of Naples shortly thereafter. Masséna laid siege to Gaeta and fought insurgents in Calabria later that year, but he requested to rejoin the Grande Armée and leave Italy. His request was granted in early 1807 and he received command of V Corps. After the campaign that summer concluded with the Treaty of Tilsit, Masséna again retired to Rueil. The next year he was created the Duke of Rivoli in honor of his accomplishments at the battle in 1797. In September of 1808 Masséna took part in a hunting party at Fontainebleau where Napoleon accidentally shot him in the left eye causing him to lose sight in that eye, while Berthier took the blame for the bad shot.
When Austria again declared war on France in 1809, Marshal Masséna was named commander of IV Corps in Germany. That April he distinguished himself at Landshut and Eckmühl before occupying Straubing. In May he went on to seize the city and bridge of Ebersberg with heavy losses and then Masséna took part in the bloody Battle of Aspern-Essling . While Marshal Lannes held Essling, Masséna held Aspern against the continuous onslaught of Austrian troops. Nevertheless, he successfully extricated his men after Napoleon ordered the retreat back across the Danube. Masséna was later injured in a fall from his horse, and so in July when he commanded the left wing at the Battle of Wagram , he led his men from a carriage pulled by four white horses. During the battle, when a column began to waver in its attack, Masséna's carriage charged forward and he shouted at them, "Scoundrels! You get five sous a day, and I am worth 600,000 francs a year! Yet you make me go ahead of you!"2
Portugal and Spain
Marshal Masséna returned to France in late 1809 and in early 1810 he was created the Prince of Essling in recognition of his service at the Battle of Aspern-Essling. He would not receive much time for rest though, for in April he was named commander of the Army of Portugal despite his protests. Initially he refused the command until Napoleon personally spoke to him and made promises of support to convince him to take the challenge. Masséna took command on May 10th at Valladolid, bringing with him fourteen aide-de-camps, one of whom was Henriette Leberton, his mistress from Paris. Some of the officers who had served with him in Italy and Switzerland, such as Foy and Marbot, remarked that he had lost his resolve and energy.3
Masséna went on the offensive with his army, taking Ciudad-Rodrigo in July and then Almeida in August. That September he encountered British General Wellesley, the future Duke of Wellington, at Bussaco and was repulsed, but Masséna was able to outflank the position and force Wellesley to fall back anyway. However, as the French army advanced, they discovered the fortified Lines of Torres Vedras which Wellesley had been building in secret. Unable to directly challenge the line due to a lack of enough siege equipment, Masséna hoped to draw Wellesley out into battle but was unsuccessful. Finally as the French ran out of supplies and began to starve, he ordered the retreat in March of 1811. Wellesley's army pursued the French and laid siege to Almeida, and in May Masséna marched his army to raise the siege. The two armies met at Fuentes de Oñoro where Masséna was unable to make progress and therefore unable to relieve the French troops at Almeida. By this time Napoleon was disappointed in Masséna's lack of success in Portugal, and he relieved him of command, replacing him with Marshal Marmont.
Masséna returned to Paris in disgrace, but in 1813 he was given command of the 8th military division at Toulon. In 1814 his daughter married General Reille, his former aide-de-camp. After Napoleon's abdication in 1814, Masséna accepted the Bourbon Restoration and remained at Toulon. However, when the Bourbons discovered that he was not a French citizen due to his birth in Nice before that city became part of France, they forced him to become a citizen.4
The next year when Napoleon escaped from Elba, Masséna reluctantly rallied to Napoleon. Napoleon recalled Masséna to Paris and made him a Peer of France but did not employ him. After the Battle of Waterloo Masséna served as commander of the National Guard of Paris for a few weeks. Just before Louis XVIII returned to Paris, Masséna tried to convince the king to take up the tricolor flag as the flag of France, but this suggestion was rejected.5 Later that year Masséna was one of the marshals appointed to the court martial of Marshal Ney, but ultimately this group found themselves incompetent to judge Ney and therefore Ney was judged by the Chamber of Peers, where he was sentenced to die. Masséna died only two years later.
- James R. Arnold, Marengo and Hohenlinden: Napoleon's Rise to Power, (Barnsley: Pen & Sword Military, 1999), 70.
- John R. Elting, Swords Around a Throne: Napoleon's Grande Armée, (USA: Da Capo Press, 1997), 154.
- David G. Chandler, ed., Napoleon's Marshals, (New York: Macmillan Publishing, 1987), 283-284.
- Elting, Swords Around a Throne, 141.
- Ibid., 664.
- Chandler, David G., ed. Napoleon's Marshals. New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1987.
- Horward, Donald D. "André Masséna, Prince d'Essling, in the Age of Revolution". Accessed 2014. http://www.napoleon-series.org/ins/scholarship97/c_massena.html
- Six, Georges. Dictionnaire Biographique des Généraux & Amiraux Français de la Révolution et de l'Empire (1792-1814). 2 vols. Paris: Gaston Saffroy, 2003.
Updated March 2022
© Nathan D. Jensen