The Conca d'Oro, northern Nebbio, with the Bay of San Fiorenzo in the background
Following the Siege of Ajaccio, French and British forces on Corsica would not encounter one another for nearly a year. Although British and French ships occasionally pursued one another in Corsican waters, the two occupations otherwise existed in parallel, and no attempt was made by either party to eject the other from the island. Many factors contributed to this inactivity - the naval stalemate at Toulon, the difficult Corsican terrain which separated the Dila
from the Diqua
, the reluctance of the British to devote scarce ground forces to the Mediterranean theater, the precarious neutrality of the Corsican government, and reluctant British leadership on the ground.
This last factor changed at the beginning of 1759 when Brigadier-General James Wolfe
gained command of British forces in Corsica. He had arrived on the island as a junior colonel, but the death of Colonel John Arabin
in December, Wolfe’s promotion to brigadier, and the reassignment of Major-General Henry Seymour Conway
to the German theater in January propelled him to his first independent command. Unlike the hesitant Conway, Wolfe was eager for action, but eagerness alone did not provide him with the resources he needed. Britain had never considered the Mediterranean theater to be of great importance compared to America, Germany, or the English Channel. Since his arrival in Corsica the British garrison in Ajaccio had actually decreased
because of concerns with Gibraltar’s security, and with most of their naval assets tied up at Toulon the navy devoted only a handful of frigates and sloops to patrolling Corsican waters. This proved insufficient to cut the French occupying forces off from the mainland.
Only in early 1759 did action on Corsica become feasible. This was partially because of Wolfe’s own agitation, as he had friends in the ministry who had secured his promotion and now wished him to succeed (not the least of which was William Pitt
). More importantly, however, it was also because the British were now increasingly certain that a breakout from Toulon was imminent. The French, like the British, put paramount importance on the Atlantic theater; with a sufficient force here they could contest the sea lanes to America, or better yet launch an invasion directly against Britain herself. In 1758 the decision was made to move the bulk of the Mediterranean squadron to link up with naval forces in the Atlantic. The problem was that the squadron was simply not ready.
Despite their victory at Minorca in 1756 the French had not followed this triumph with a forceful naval policy in the Mediterranean. With Minorca and Corsica in French hands, it scarcely seemed necessary, and funds for the navy were desperately needed elsewhere. This neglect and lack of funding not only ceded the initiative to the British but caused the Toulon fleet to fall into a miserable state, with the squadron beset by declining morale and a critical shortage of sailors, guns, and naval stores. This trend could not be reversed with a snap of the fingers, and thus considerable effort had to be devoted to preparing the squadron to sail through the blockade, past Gibraltar, and into the Atlantic. This process would take months, require considerable expense, and - critically - could not be done in secret.
The British observed and noted the intensive preparations beginning at Toulon, but they were not privy to the reasons for them. Certainly an escape to the Atlantic was considered (and thought to be the most dangerous), but closer targets were also available - namely, Gibraltar and Ajaccio. Ajaccio did not have Gibraltar’s arsenals and naval facilities, but it was much closer to Toulon than Gibraltar was, and the British had gone through some effort in the preceding months to turn it into a secondary naval base.
British ground forces in the theater were limited, and if the French landed a few thousand more troops on Corsica they could easily destroy this valuable advance position, driving the British back to Gibraltar.
This newfound concern for Corsica redounded to Wolfe’s benefit, as he finally began to receive the resources he desired. By March he had amassed 2,100 foot and marines at Ajaccio, as well as around 400 Corsican volunteers trained and armed under British auspices. A small detachment of warships and bomb vessels was also allocated to his enterprise. The general objective was to destroy the French occupation forces, which would not only deny the French a foothold on Corsica (making an invasion from Toulon much more difficult) but put the ports of Calvi and San Fiorenzo in British hands for the use of the navy and privateers. In preparation, the blockade of the island was intensified, and in March a party of British marines landed on Capraia and captured the island. The Corsican podesta
in the island issued a formal protest but stood down without firing a shot.
The new French commander on Corsica, Maréchal du Camp Charles Armand, Marquis de Monti
, commanded a superior force but held a vastly inferior position. By late 1758 the French force had stabilized at six battalions, amounting to nearly 3,000 regulars, but they were not all in one place. One battalion held Calvi, while the remainder occupied the Bastia lieutenancy, which included the Bastia and San Fiorenzo garrisons as well as detached companies holding strategic villages between those two towns. Monti was quite aware that an invasion might be coming, but his orders prevented him from abandoning Bastia and it was necessary to hold the interior Nebbio in order to preserve his lines of communication. His only local auxiliaries of value, the Greek cavalrymen of the Busacci squadron, were too few to relieve the French from occupation duties in the interior.
Although the macchiari
and other Corsican “subversives” were not a serious threat to French control, they had a great deal of information on the local terrain and the disposition of French troops. Don Pasquale Paoli
, who had previously been out of favor with both his own government and the British on account of his overly ambitious predictions, now came back into the picture as an operative for Wolfe, relaying information between partisans in the Nebbio and the British command. The devoti
also operated in Bastia, where the key figure smuggling messages out of the city was Sister Cristina Rivarola
, an Ursuline nun and the daughter of the late Don Domenico Rivarola, who took advantage of the fact that the French soldiers never suspected that a nun would be at the center of a spy ring. General Wolfe had a low opinion of the Corsicans as soldiers, but admitted in his despatches that the “Machiars
” were his invaluable eyes in the north.
Based in part on this intelligence, Wolfe chose San Fiorenzo as his target. Bastia may have been the island’s largest city, but San Fiorenzo was more strategically important - it was the Bay of San Fiorenzo, not Bastia’s small harbor, through which supplies and reinforcements reached the French in the northeast. The main problem was gaining access to the bay, for the Genoese towers around the bay’s perimeter were significantly tougher than they looked. A probing expedition by two British warships in late 1758 had been ably fended off by the Torre di Mortella at the bay’s entrance. But Wolfe’s Corsican contacts had made him aware that this tower was vulnerable to landward attack; it had a pair of 18-pounder guns facing the sea, but only a single 6-pounder falcone
which pointed inland.
On the night of May 8th, two thousand British infantrymen and marines made landfall at Saleccia beach, an attractive landing site three miles to the west of Mortella Tower.[A]
The landing went off without a hitch, but Wolfe’s hope of a lightning victory was dashed by the difficulty of moving even his lightest guns up the ridge overlooking the bay. The Marquis de Monti was slow to react, apparently convinced that Bastia was the real target and the landing at Saleccia might just be a distraction, but when a Greek scout reported the size of the fleet offshore he rushed to reinforce San Fiorenzo. He was too late to save Mortella, which surrendered on the morning of the 10th after a short bombardment, but British ships could still not safely operate in the bay as long as the battery of Fornali to the south was still operational. Fornali had more guns than Mortella, and Monti had by now strongly reinforced the garrison there. But the real key to its defense was that the ridge above was even more formidable than the terrain above Mortella. Monti’s chief engineer had confidently declared that emplacing guns there was impossible.
It was thus all the more shocking when, on the morning of the 15th, Monti and his officers observed that the British had managed to haul two pieces of artillery atop a rocky outcrop on the ridge. It was a phenomenal feat, made possible by the sweat and expertise of disembarked sailors who labored day and night with ropes, tackles, and hand tools. From this high position the guns could launch a plunging fire of shot and shell into the French defenses, while the French guns at Fornali, mounted on battery carriages, could not elevate sufficiently to return fire. By the 17th the outcrop battery had increased to five guns, and the fire was unrelenting. Monti concluded that the position was untenable, and ordered a withdrawal just hours before a planned British assault. Fornali’s loss made San Fiorenzo untenable, as British ships of the line would soon be sailing into the bay. The French withdrew from San Fiorenzo, burning the harbor and the village behind them.
The French withdraw eastwards towards Bastia. The Marquis de Monti knew that Bastia was a poor defensive position and feared being caught between Wolfe and the British Navy; certainly if the British could emplace guns over Fornali, they could drag them over the mountain and emplace them over Bastia. But despite his misgivings, Monti did not have better options. Some of his officers suggested withdrawing westward
, marching overland to Calvi, a far better position. But there were no roads over the Agriate, making it a difficult march, and particularly perilous given that the British commanded the sea. It was entirely possible that Wolfe might re-embark and land to the west while his column was trudging through the macchia
, thus cutting him off from Calvi. Monti decided instead to retreat eastwards over the Pass of Teghime, where he would station a strong rearguard to confound the British and hopefully force them to cross further south, where the terrain was more in Monti’s favor if he chose to engage them in the field. As so often happens in war, however, Monti’s plans were interrupted by events which nobody expected.
Despite various indignities suffered by the townspeople, Bastia had not been a hotbed of subversion against the French. Certainly there was a great deal of anger on the part of the city’s fishermen, traders, and boat-builders, who suffered from the interruption of trade and the French seizure of vessels for their own use. But a substantial garrison kept the dissenters in line, and the burden of war fell unevenly. There were many who had done rather well from the French occupation, as an occupying army and its officer corps created a demand for goods and services of their own. One such prospering entrepreneur was the beautiful and witty Maria Domenica Varese
, Bastia’s most famous courtesan, who ran a fashionable establishment where French officers relaxed in the closest thing Corsica had to a cultured Parisian salon.[B]
Wolfe’s landing, however, caused widespread anxiety. Many residents remembered the last time Bastia had been contested between hostile armies fifteen years before, which had resulted in the city being shelled by the British fleet and then looted and burned by royalist irregulars. The imminent prospect of another siege, presumably by the British, was enough to put everyone on edge. But what turned this apprehension into feverish dread was the destruction of San Fiorenzo by the retreating French. If that was to be the fate of towns the French were unable to keep, then Bastia was doomed; either the French would hold
the city and the Bastiesi would cower beneath a rain of British shells, or the French would abandon
the city and leave it a smoldering cinder in their wake.
As it happened, the 20th of May was Rogation Sunday, the beginning of Rogation Days, a period of fasting and prayer in the Catholic faith preceding the Feast of the Ascension. This was traditionally a time to beseech God for the deliverance of the people from calamity, which at this moment seemed especially poignant. Rogation Days in Bastia were traditionally observed with a mass procession, a solemn affair in which men and women alike walked barefoot and some brave penitents dragged iron chains or struck their backs with sharp implements in a show of penance. Such was the feeling of disquiet that the local religious authorities decided that the procession on Monday the 21st would be led by a priest bearing Bastia’s own Black Christ (U Christu Negru
), a large crucifix of dark oak said to have been miraculously found floating in the sea by two Bastiese fishermen in 1428.
A modern procession with the Black Christ (U Christu Negru) of Bastia
The French garrison commander at that moment, Lieutenant-Colonel François-Auguste, Chevalier de la Ferronays
, was quite aware of the mood in the city. On the 20th, when the news of the burning of San Fiorenzo had reached the city, a restive crowd had gathered outside the citadel and the city elders had petitioned him for assurances that he would not fire the town. Ferronays handled the matter with tact: The crowd was peaceably dispersed, and he reassured the councillors that his troops would do no such thing. To burn a little fishing village was one thing; to raze the island’s largest city was quite unthinkable. Far from seeing the next day’s procession as a threat, the chevalier appears to have seen it as a means to relieve
the tension, presumably by channeling popular anxiety into harmless religious expression.
Nevertheless, several factors combined to make the situation dangerous. Monday’s procession was planned to begin at the Cathedral of Santa Maria, which was situated within
the walls of the citadel. The plaza in front of the cathedral was not particularly large and the procession was unusually well-attended. Although the marchers would leave the citadel once the procession got started, thousands of Bastiesi would still be gathering within the citadel that morning, packing into the small plaza and overflowing into the streets and alleys of the terranova
. By concentrating all available forces in the Nebbio to oppose the British, Monti had left Ferronays with only half a battalion to hold Bastia. But even this was a deceptively high estimation of his strength, as many of the men who Monti had left behind at Bastia were invalids - injured, sick, and recovering soldiers who ranged from “light duty only” to “completely bedridden” - and not all his able-bodied soldiers would be within the citadel that morning, as sentries were needed elsewhere in the city and at the Tower of Furiani to the south. His real strength is uncertain but it is generally believed that on the 21st he held the citadel with fewer than a hundred able-bodied men.
Things started to go wrong even before the ceremonies started. Allegedly, as the crowd was gathering at the plaza a French soldier was heard to crack a joke about the “barefoot Corsicans,” which was heard by some Corsican men who took offense and began taunting the soldiers, calling King Louis a “godless whoremonger.” Rumors of French retreats or an advancing British fleet swirled through the milling crowd. The bishop’s opening sermon might have calmed the crowd, but it turned out that virtually nobody could actually hear the bishop on a temporary platform in front of the cathedral, as the crowd was vast and the bishop was apparently struggling with a cold. It was a particularly hot and stifling 20th of May, and the press of people trying to get close enough to hear the bishop’s hoarse mumbling probably did not improve matters.
The Cathedral of Santa Maria and its square today
The Chevalier de Ferronays was in attendance, as was Don Federico, Principe di Capraia
along with his wife Elisabeth d’Harcourt
and their children Maria Anna
and Teodoro Francesco
(ages 7 and 4, respectively). Ferronays had encouraged the visiting prince to attend, presumably as a means of showing Franco-Corsican amity and dispelling rumors about ill-treatment of the princess at French hands. They had a small escort of French troops with them, but Ferronays had not wanted to distract or alarm the populace with a show of force.
Then Princess Elisabeth abruptly left the plaza, followed swiftly by her husband and children along with a few French soldiers. Elisabeth, who was pregnant again, was not feeling well and worried that she was going to faint in the heat. But the crowd was not privy to this information, and all they could see was the prince and his family being hurriedly removed from the plaza by French soldiers. This, or some other unknown trigger, led to an altercation and shouting which quickly spread. Suddenly part of the restless crowd was surging after Don Federico and his escort. Ferronays tried to hold back the crowd, but he had only a handful of men with him. Someone got too close to a bayonet and blood was spilled, whereupon the furious mob overpowered the soldiers. Ferronays was struck in the head with a rock and blacked out. The soldiers who had left the plaza with Elisabeth were cornered by angry, barefoot Corsicans brandishing whips and chains, who wrested away their weapons and “liberated” the prince and his family.
Don Federico did not particularly want to be liberated, but he did not have much of a choice. Although some later claimed that the prince was a secret devote
who was trying to whip up the mob, it seems clear that the prince was mainly interested in getting his family to safety in a situation that was swiftly turning ugly. To this end he informed the Corsicans that if they were going to “escort” him anywhere, as they insisted, it should be to the palace, as his wife was feeling ill. What filtered back through the crowd, however, was merely the exhortation to march on the palace, and suddenly the prince was “leading” a mob through the streets. The bishop, who had long since lost control of the situation, could only watch with bewilderment as his “procession” suddenly started marching off without him.
With the prince at its head the mob proceeded to the Pavilion of the Dodici in front of the Governor’s Palace, where they were met by a small detachment of French soldiers. A standoff ensued, and the mob started hurling abuse (and objects) at the soldiers. The prince walked up to a young French sergeant and briefly conversed with him, presumably trying to find some resolution, but this was cut short when the guard detail inside the palace apparently lost its nerve and raised the drawbridge. This not only cut off the retreat of the soldiers in the pavilion but was immediately perceived by the mob as an affront. As the crowd began pelting the soldiers with increasing number of rocks, the prince’s bodyguard, Sir David Murray
, urged Don Federico to leave the pavilion for his own safety. Heavily outnumbered, apparently abandoned by his own officers, and in danger of being stoned to death where he stood, the French sergeant stood down and his men were disarmed by the mob.
A cry then went out to storm the adjacent Bastion of San Giovanni Battista, which protected the gate and also had secondary access to the palace. Evidently the door between the bastion and the courtyard was simply unlocked. The soldiers stationed here were caught entirely by surprise, but they did not give up their position as easily as the detail in the courtyard and opened fire on the Corsicans. This only further enraged the rioters, who along with stones and chains were now also armed with muskets seized from the French. The soldiers of the bastion were totally unprepared to repulse the attack. Five French soldiers and seven Corsicans were killed before resistance collapsed, and several more soldiers were beaten or simply murdered by the furious mob thereafter. A number of the soldiers barricaded themselves in a storeroom and emerged later, after receiving the prince’s word that no harm would come to them.
The extent to which the uprising which became known as La revolta scalza
(“the Barefoot Revolt”) was truly spontaneous is still debated today. Certainly it was not a planned event, but it is clear that there were devoti
sympathizers in the city who hoped to take advantage of Ferronays’ anemic garrison and were in the crowd during the Rogation festivities. In particular, the attack on the San Giovanni Battista bastion seems to have been spearheaded (or at least hijacked) by a militant minority. Their objective was undoubtedly the bastion armory and powder magazine, and having seized it they armed themselves and began passing out muskets and sabres to the crowd.
It is not difficult to see why the French response to this uprising was so dismal. Many soldiers did not initially respond to the uproar in the streets as they had been expecting
a loud religious procession with plenty of shouting and wailing. Even occasional gunfire may not have caused any alarm, as the Corsican custom of celebratory gunfire - even at religious events - was well-known. The garrison’s commander had been incapacitated at the very beginning of the revolt, and the French detachments scattered around the citadel in various bastions and barracks were unable to communicate with one another or establish a new command. These isolated groups quickly fell one after the other, in some cases without a shot being fired. The palace fell quickly after rebels in the bastion of San Giovanni gained access via the parapet, as the palace itself was “garrisoned” largely by invalids. Only at the bastion of Santa Maria did a French contingent successfully hold its ground, dispersing rioters outside with gunfire. The senior officer at this bastion, a lieutenant, led a sortie towards San Giovanni in an attempt to recapture the magazine, but he was wounded and forced to retreat in the face of the newly-armed mob. This bastion surrendered only when the “rebels” wheeled a cannon into the cathedral square and threatened to start blasting away.
Adrenaline eventually began to ebb, giving way to uncertainty. It became clear that nobody, not even the devoti
partisans, actually had a plan beyond “drive out the French.” Some now came to the realization that shedding the blood of French soldiers might actually have consequences, particularly given that a substantial French army lay just over the mountains and was marching in their direction. The citizens turned to the Prince of Capraia and begged him to take command of the city’s defenses.
Don Federico was understandably reluctant to do this, as he had no desire to take responsibility for the day’s bloodletting and must have known that the Bastiesi stood no chance against a French army thousands strong. The prince, however, could see no other option, for despite being offered “command” it was clear that the Corsicans would not countenance simply returning the citadel to the French. In an attempt to maintain some semblance of neutrality, Don Federico ordered all able-bodied French captives to be taken outside of the city and released with their arms; as Corsica and France were not at war, he explained to the apprehensive Bastiesi, he could not reasonably keep prisoners of war. He wrote a message informing the Marquis de Monti that, although the day’s violence had not been intended, he could not re-admit French soldiers to Bastia based on the king’s earlier declaration that the French were to return to their treaty-mandated posts. Another message was sent to a British ship cruising off the coast, the 32-gun frigate Juno
, informing them of the situation and requesting that they refrain from violating the neutrality of Bastia.
The “Barefoot Revolt” resulted in only a handful of French casualties, but it was a disastrous setback for the Marquis de Monti. The ill-prepared rabble in Bastia would ordinarily be no obstacle to the French, and it remained possible that the French might simply burn the rest of the city in retaliation. But the prince’s rabble did
control the citadel, and Monti had neither guns nor time to besiege the fortress, certainly not with the British army nipping at his heels. Although he seethed with fury at the “betrayal” of the Corsicans when he received word of the revolt on the morning of the 22nd, Monti’s first priority was to extricate his army. Reversing course, he ordered his men to march back down into the Nebbio and turn south towards Oletta. Wolfe, observing Monti from the southwest, now moved to cut him off and formed his lines along the road running southeast from San Fiorenzo to Oletta.
Fraser's Highlanders c. 1759
On the afternoon of the 22nd, the Battle of Concador began with the French grenadiers leading a mass infantry attack against the British line.
Monti did not have his full force, as some companies were still trailing behind from having to march back down the mountains, but he believed it was critical to engage the British as they were still forming up and before they had an opportunity to bring up artillery from San Fiorenzo. Owing to the oblique order of the British line arrayed on the road, however, as well as skirmishing in Oletta on the French left between French pickets and Wolfe’s Corsicans, the two lines did not meet evenly. The French right engaged the enemy first, receiving the concentrated fire of several British battalions as they opened up at close range with double-shotted muskets. Meanwhile, the French left stopped short and engaged in a rather indecisive and long-distance firefight with their British counterparts. The French right was shattered in this engagement, suffering heavy casualties, and Monti was forced to pull back and regroup. The marquis reordered his line and led a second attack, first on horseback and then on foot after his horse was shot out from under him. By this time, however, the British had brought several guns into action. The French fought tenaciously, but when Monti fell mortally wounded and the British guns began raking the tattered French lines, the advance stalled out. A counter-charge by Fraser’s Highlanders on the British right started a general French retreat.
Pursuit was prevented by the loss of daylight, but the French had nowhere to go. Monti died that night at the village of Patrimonio, and at noon on the 23rd at the Church of St. Martin his officers surrendered to General Wolfe.
 Ajaccio’s principal use was for careening. Ship hulls (particularly wooden
hulls) are inevitably “fouled” by sea life growing on them, which increases drag and thus decreases their speed. This was a particular problem for a blockading squadron, as their ships would become heavily fouled while the blockaded fleet in port would have the advantage of being able to put to sea with “clean” hulls, making their chances of escaping the blockade much better. To address this, a blockading squadron would have to rotate ships out regularly to be “careened,” the process of beaching a ship and turning it on its side to have the sea life scraped off its hull. Having a nearby port to perform this task was highly beneficial, allowing the fleet to clean its ships frequently (and thus keep them at peak performance) without sacrificing the strength of the blockade by having ships constantly absent on long voyages. Aside from performing such maintenance, the navy also procured some provisions and naval stores at Ajaccio, but the city could only supplement the supplies of Gibraltar and the victualling fleets, not replace them.
 Britain still controlled Tabarka, but the value of this island as a military installation was questionable. The port was not suitable for large warships, the Genoese-built fortifications were old and needed work, and the collapse of the Regency into civil war meant that procuring supplies from the Tunisian hinterland was difficult.
 He may not have been able to do so anyway. Upon landing the British took an inventory of the fortress, and found that what little gunpowder there was in the magazine was fouled and probably useless.
 “Concador” was not the name of a nearby village, but rather an Anglicization of Conca d’Oro
, “valley of gold.” The French, possibly borrowing from the English, named the battle “Conquedor
.” In Corsica the engagement is more usually known as the Battle of Oletta.
 The attack of Fraser’s Highlanders made a profound impression on the Corsicans present, who - observing from the British right - perceived this charge “with pipes and broadswords” as the decisive action of the battle. Initially this view of Concador was popular in Britain too, particularly in Scotland. It was seized upon by prominent Scottish loyalists seeking to redeem their country’s honor in the wake of the Jacobite rebellion, and immortalized in art by the celebrated painting “The Highlanders at Concador.” Modern scholarship has placed more emphasis on the unsung efforts of the units on the British left, who were heavily engaged early in the battle and suffered a much higher casualty rate than the Highlanders. It is for the most part generally agreed now that the left wing battalions did the heavy lifting that day, and the principal contribution of the Scots at Concador was to break an already demoralized and wavering enemy.
[A] You can see a landing on Saleccia Beach on film. It was used to represent Omaha Beach in the 1962 D-Day epic The Longest Day
starring John Wayne and Henry Fonda.
[B] Called the “Corsican Cleopatra,” Madame Varese (1714-1775) really did run such a salon and was an intimate of several successive French commanders stationed in Bastia.