Napoleon Bonaparte, after passing the Po in Placentia [Piacenza], went up the right bank of the Adda, one of its tributaries in the north, in search of the flaw in the opposing device that will allow him to cross this new course of water and pursue the enemy. The Austrian general-general Johann Pierre de Beaulieu-Marconnay, taken aback by a passage that took place 80 kilometers downstream of its forecasts, had just evacuated Milan to retreat on Cremona [Cremona].
After giving up crossing the Adda to Pizzighettone , which was too well defended, and after testing the forces of the Austrian rearguard around Zorlesco , Bonaparte and Louis-Alexandre Berthier managed to find, in Lodi , 31 kilometers south-east of Milan, the weak point they were looking for. A bridge , intact, was connecting the city to the left bank of the Adda.
The bridge, twelve meters wide and nearly two hundred yards long, had just been used to cross the river by the last Austrian detachments who was still on the right bank of the Adda. It was defended by the Austrian rearguard, commanded by General Karl Philipp Sebottendorf, and if the latter had not yet been given the order to destroy it, it was because the Austrians were far from expecting to undergo so quickly a serious attack from the French. But Bonaparte, quite the contrary, believing Beaulieu was present with all his forces behind Lodi, wanted to pass at all costs to prevent him from running away.
When arriving in front of the bridge, accompanied only by the cavalry of General Marc Antoine Bonnin of Bonninière de Beaumont and a vanguard of grenadiers commanded by General Claude Dallemagne (the divisions of André Masséna and Charles Augereau were coming but had not yet joined), Bonaparte installed his artillery on the heights which bordered the right bank of the river so that he could bombard the Austrians for several hours and thus prevent them from approaching the bridge and blowing it up. Sebottendorf pulled his troops out of reach from French fire and organized them in two lines.
The first comprised three battalions, equipped with twenty guns ; the second, was formed of five other battalions, and was standing further behind, supported by the cavalry. In total, General Sebottendorf had 9,500 men under his watch. French forces were almost twice as small. Anticipating the difficulty of the passage, Bonaparte, after examining the enemy position from the top of the campanile of Santa Chiara, sent his cavalry and the light artillery to seek a ford towards the north , on the side of Montanasso. He was hoping to see them come out a few hours later on the right side of the Austrian apparatus. He would then command his infantry to attack the bridge.
Toward the end of the afternoon, while Beaumont still did not show up, the 6,000 men of the Masséna division presented themselves on the battlefield after having walked since six in the morning. Bonaparte decided to play his all-out and to attempt the assault without waiting further. A short rest got granted to the troops newly arrived, around nineteen hours, the second regiment of Carabineers, composed of Savoyards, received the order to cross the bridge first. The grenadiers, who had organized themselves in a tight column behind the ramparts of the city, were commanded to follow. At the scream of "Long live the Republic", the Savoyards advanced under the orders of their battalion commander Pierre Louis Dupas and a hailstorm of shot welcomed them. The carnage was such that their impulse broke for a moment. The attackers paused.
Immediately, generals Masséna, Berthier, Dallemagne and Cervoni rushed in person to the attack. Their example galvanized the troop that started crossing the bridge at the cost of 400 victims, the last arrived spanning the pile of bodies of those fallen in front of them. Simultaneously, some skirmishers managed to swim across the river, diverting some of the defenders' attention. A furious bayonet fight began. The Austrians were pushed back behind their own artillery. The rest of the Masséna division followed and extended on each side. The Augereau division, meanwhile, passed in turn and took position on the left bank.
Sebottendorf then ordered the retreat. Beaumont, long delayed by the poor quality of the ford he was crossing, finally appeared on the battlefield, but too late to intervene effectively in the pursuit. As a result, the Austrians managed to stay in the village of Fontana until nightfall. They then retreated on Crema , not vigorously pursued by the exhausted Frenchmen, who stopped at Tormo to establish their camp, the cavalry occupying the environs of Crespiatica . On the night of the battle, Napoleon Bonaparte set up his headquarters at Palazzo Modignani in Lodi.
The fight caused the death of around 2,000 soldiers and 14 to 20 guns on the Austrian side. The French lost only about a thousand men.
The Battle of Lodi Bridge is the victorious conclusion of the second act of the Italian Campaign. The withdrawal of the Austrians beyond the Mincio, with the abandonment of strongholds such as Cremona and Pavia, gave the French control of Lombardy. A few days later, on May 15, they entered peacefully in Milan, empty of enemies. However, Bonaparte had to let escape both the rearguard and the bulk of the Austrian forces. The brilliance of the act of arms was going to help conceal the absence of the expected strategic results.
« Until then, there was no other example of a bridge, that well defended, being taken »
P. G[ayant], Tableau des guerres de la Révolution de 1792 à 1815, Paris, Paulin, 1838, p. 120.
This battle gave, as early as 1798, its name to the rue du Pont-de-Lodi in the 6th arrondissement of Paris.