The Genoese fortress of Aleria, a.k.a. "Fort Matra"
The French spring campaign opened with a fantastic success at the Battle of the Balagna, in which French regulars swept away the Corsican militia and sent the largest army the rebels had ever fielded running for the hills. The consequences of this defeat were extensive. Most of the province fell to the French immediately thereafter, or at least was no longer available for royalist exploitation, and Isola Rossa was abandoned without a fight, closing the rebels' most active smuggling port. More than a thousand rebel soldiers were killed, wounded, or absent, many having deserted the fleeing army. In the Balagna, where support for the rebellion was always lower than the interior, many residents proclaimed their loyalty to France (and, somewhat less enthusiastically, to Genoa). Lieutenant-General Louis de Frétat, Marquis de Boissieux
was pleased, for he remained convinced that winning the good will of the Corsican people was essential to the suppression of the rebellion. In this he was opposed to Commissioner-General Giovanni-Battista de Mari
, who demanded the destruction of fields, orchards, and houses of those Balagnese who were suspected of siding with the rebels. While Boissieux probably curbed the worst of Mari's intended retribution, he relied on the Genoese to garrison much of the Balagna and it was difficult to keep Mari's soldiers from quietly enacting revenge under the commissioner's likely orders.
Although for the most part the Genoese had avoided sending Corsican regular battalions to the island, since 1730 the Genoese had relied heavily on Corsican filogenovesi
militiamen to fight the native insurgency. Although not extraordinary troops, they were necessary to support the undermanned and overstretched Genoese Army. Since the Genoese had a harder time finding men than muskets, there was no reason not to hand out arms to loyalist militiamen as long as they could be generally counted on not to defect to the rebels (an increasingly common occurrence after the fall of the Nebbio). The policy of the French, however, was to disarm the Corsicans regardless of their professed loyalty, which was obviously incompatible with raising local auxiliary troops. This reflected a French suspicion of the Corsicans generally, which Boissieux shared; while the Genoese had a long history on Corsica and some ideas as to which communities (and even which families) could be trusted, the French saw only undifferentiated boarskin-shod rustics who could very plausibly vanish into the night with their Genoese-provided musket and join the rebellion. The French government, aware of Corsican martial reputation, apparently liked the idea of recruiting Corsicans into the French army either as part of the Régiment Royal-Italien
or perhaps a régiment étranger
of their own,[A]
but this was something to be executed once the pacification was complete or very nearly so, and there was no intention that such locally-raised forces would be used to fight on Corsica itself.
The enormity of the recent defeat was not lost on King Theodore
, who put on a brave face but confided to his chancellor Sebastiano Costa
that it might be necessary to prepare a ship for Livorno or Naples in case Maréchal de Camp Rousset
moved upon the Nebbio, as once the coast was lost it would be nearly impossible to escape the island or the Genoese executioners. Very soon, however, Boissieux started undermining his own victory. Believing that the Battle of the Balagna had taken the wind out of the sails of the rebels and confident that his reputation among his superiors had been restored, he renewed diplomatic contacts with his foes. There was not much progress to be made on that front; the basic terms, as laid out at Fontainebleau, had not changed. While extending the olive branch, however, he wished to demonstrate good will by sheathing the sword, and instead of pressing on eastwards Rousset's brigade halted and busied itself with disarming the rebels and maintaining the security of the Balagna. There were, of course, logistical preparations to make—the Nebbio could not be reached save through the rough terrain of the Agriate, a place as poor for supply lines as it was ideal for the maquisards—
but with Captain General Simone Fabiani's
force greatly diminished and in disarray the rebels could not have offered much of a fight. His pause gave the royalists precious time to recover from the shock of their recent defeat and to try and organize some resistance.
On the eastern shore, Brigadier Jean-Baptiste François, Marquis de Villemur
was advancing northwards from Porto Vecchio with a force nearly as large as Rousset's, consisting of five infantry battalions and a squadron of hussars under Lieutenant-Colonel Chevalier Zsigmond David
. His achievements thus far were less impressive than Rousset's, but for good reason; he had much more ground to cover, and his opponents were less willing to offer open battle than Fabiani and the Balagnese. His primary antagonists in the south were the two brothers Milanino
and Carlo Lusinchi
, who commanded the militia of Zicavo.
The Zicavesi were fanatical royalists, and like the Niolesi, their northern counterparts, they were far more adept at irregular warfare than the continental style. The Zicavesi had been active in Fiumorbo for some time before the French arrival, and used the coastally-adjacent province as a base from which to harass Villemur's progress. They were not so bold—or suicidal—as to confront him directly, but they were active adversaries nonetheless.
Fiumorbo is unique in that it is the only district on the eastern coast between Porto Vecchio and Bastia without a coastal plain. The region's mountains march right up to the sea. This compelled Villemur to take narrow tracks through the mountains and divide his troops into multiple columns, lest his army turn into a miles-long line filing down a single mule track. The Lusinchi brothers contested every village with his battalions; local militia took shots at his advance guard and then retired, or waited until a column had nearly passed them and then surprised the rearguard. Zsigmond David's hussars were invaluable troops for fending off such attacks, but his single squadron of around a hundred cavalrymen could not be everywhere. Soon the Corsicans began choosing particularly steep and well-wooded hillsides to stage their attacks, compelling the hussars to dismount or break off their pursuit.
There was particularly hard fighting at the village of Conca. The Corsicans could not prevent the French from occupying the village, but as soon as Villemur continued northwards the Zicavesi stormed back in and meted out justice to any "traitors to the nation" who were alleged to have provided the French with food or information. Fear of reprisals made the local population reluctant to cooperate with Villemur's men. Villemur could be threatening too—he was not so hesitant to destroy property as Boissieux, and ordered that the houses of suspected rebels be razed—but since the active fighters he was contending with were mostly Zicavesi, they had no houses in Fiumorbo to destroy and could not be coerced in that manner. Villemur found his attempts to disarm and pacify the thinly-populated region accomplished little except to slowly attrit his battalions by incessant skirmishes, and was conscious of his larger goal to reach Bastia and conquer the eastern coast along the way.
His columns converged at the coastal village of Solenzara on the 27th, at the southern end of the eastern coastal plain. After a day of rest there, he resumed the march northwards. It was nearly 60 miles to Bastia as the crow flies, and clearly there was no chance of keeping a supply line through Fiumorbo open without heavy French occupation. That did not bother Villemur much; he determined that he could receive sufficient supplies by sea from the Franco-Genoese naval forces, and any deficit could be met by forage. The army encamped at Ghisonaccia on the coastal plain on the 29th and reached Aleria on the 31st.
The fortress of Aleria, situated on a low hill overlooking the lagoons, had been one of the first targets of the Corsican rebellion. In 1729, revolting Corsicans had stormed the fort, massacred the Genoese garrison, and seized the contents of the armory. It had remained vacant until the arrival of Theodore in 1736, who gave it to the powerful Matra clan. Their patriarch Saviero Matra
had been the first to host the new king, and for his support he was granted the rank of marquis, the position of hofmarschall
, and the governorship of the pieve
of Serra as his reward. Matra, however, did not offer resistance to Villemur; he capitulated immediately, handing over the fortress without a fight and offering Villemur his full cooperation. In his defense, the fortress of Aleria had but a few dozen men as its garrison, for up to now it had not been a strategically important post. Furthermore, Matra had no military experience or rank,
and Serra's militia numbered fewer than 150 men. It should also be remembered that Matra's son, Alerio Francesco Matra
, was one of the Corsican hostages who had volunteered to go into French custody and was presently imprisoned in the Chateau d'If; the marquis probably did not want to put him in further danger. With Matra's acquiescence, Villemur disarmed the small garrison and took possession of the fortress.
Aleria was a useful position to hold, as it overlooked the Tavignano estuary and the Alerian lagoons, favored spots for smugglers to load and unload small craft. It also held potential as a staging point for campaigns into the Castagniccia, the inland heart of the rebellion, and its position on a low hill overlooking the broad coastal plain made it difficult for the rebels to approach. Yet there was a reason that the nearby countryside was so thinly populated: the lagoons and marshes which surrounded the fortress were plagued by malaria during the summer and the month of June had just arrived.
Villemur encamped at Aleria for four nights, during which time he sent two "flying columns" consisting of an infantry battalion and a company of hussars to reconnoiter the area and confiscate weapons in Serra pieve
. Matra's cooperation meant that there was little resistance, and the small provincial militia was disbanded. One of these columns had ranged as far north as Linguizzetta, which was only five miles from Theodore's original capital of Cervione and his coronation site at Alesani, and found no evidence of rebel activity there. On the 4th of June, Villemur ordered his brigade to strike camp and proceed northwards.
Theodore and his commanders had been made aware of Villemur's progress north by the Lusinchi brothers. Summoning his war council (of which Fabiani was vice-president), Theodore cast about for a strategy. Fabiani opined that facing Villemur on the coastal plain would probably end no better than the engagement with Rousset in the Balagna. All agreed, however, that if Rousset resumed his offensive eastwards while Villemur approached Bastia, the Nebbio would be as good as lost and the rebellion put in serious danger of collapse. If the French were to be defeated, it would have to be piecemeal, which meant confronting Villemur before he could move far enough north to coordinate his attack with Rousset. Lieutenant-General Count Andrea Ceccaldi
volunteered to lead a force against him.
Although Fabiani was the highest-ranking general in the kingdom, Ceccaldi was by 1739 arguably its most successful. Alongside Marquis Luigi Giafferi
, now Theodore's prime minister, Ceccaldi had led the rebels at the First Battle of Calenzana, an engagement in 1732 in which the Corsican rebels had surprised and crushingly defeated a battalion of the imperial army. More recently, he had been the victor of the Battle of Rutali in which the Genoese expeditionary force under Colonel Marchelli had been routed, and was the highest ranking officer (under Theodore himself) at the Siege of San Fiorenzo. To fight, however, he needed an army, and that did not presently exist. Theodore would not assign him his regulars, who he believed were needed to guard against Rousset's expected advance, nor could the local militia be spared. On very short notice, Ceccaldi raised around 300 men from the pieves
of Casinca and Casaconi, his home turf, but as Villemur had nearly ten times as many this was not terrifically inspiring. Nevertheless, it was with these few hundred men that Ceccaldi began his march south, determined to at least delay the French.
Ceccaldi, however, was not alone, for Matra was not quite as much of a turncoat as it seemed. Although he willingly collaborated with the French and did nothing to directly undermine them, he discreetly sent a message to his son-in-law, Count Gianpetro Gaffori
, then at Corti, explaining the situation.[B]
Gaffori, up to this point, had not been much of a military man. Theodore had made him his secretary of state and subsequently the president of the mint; in the latter capacity he had overseen the striking of Theodore's crude issue of barely-silver coinage in 1736. He was a colonel of the Corti militia, but this position was owed mainly to the fact that his father Filippo Antonio Gaffori
was the podesta
of the town, and thus far his duties as colonel seem to have been more administrative than operational. Nevertheless, upon receiving his father-in-law's letter Gaffori decided on his own initiative to gather local forces and lead them against the French. He mustered around 400 men in Talcini and Vallerustie and marched on Alesani.
Meanwhile, Ceccaldi had made a detour inland into Rostino to find more troops. Several hundred were mustered, in large parts through the efforts of the young Captain Clemente Paoli
, who joined the campaign personally. Ceccaldi remained in the valley for several days trying to raise as large a force as he could. On the 5th of June, however, he received word that Gaffori was at Alesani with more men, and decided to join him there. On the 7th, the rebel forces rendezvoused at the very chapel in which Theodore had been crowned with a laurel wreath. That same day, Villemur led two battalions and the hussars to Cervioni, just four miles from the royalist encampment.
Positions on Corsica around the start of June 1739
Green: Royalist controlled
Red: Genoese controlled
Blue: French or Franco-Genoese occupation
White: Neutral or unknown
 The Lusinchi brothers were hardly just backwoods rabblerousers. Their family was a prominent military dynasty in the mercenary service of Venice, and both Carlo and Milanino had served as officers in the Venetian army (as Captain and Major, respectively). It is possible that as soldiers or junior officers they saw battle against the Turks in the Second Morean War. Their father had also been a Venetian officer, and served as a lieutenant-general of the rebel movement until he was assassinated by men in the pay of Genoa in 1731. Their commanding officer in the Venetian army and fellow Corsican, Anton-Frencesco Giappiconi, had been Theodore's minister of war and was also slain by the bullet of a Genoese assassin. Theodore had little reason to doubt their loyalty to the nationalist cause.
 While hofmarschall
("Court Marshal") sounds military enough, it was an administrative post. In Germany, a hofmarschall
oversaw the provisioning and maintenance of the royal court and household, but since Matra remained in Serra through most of Theodore's reign it was clearly an honorary position.
[A] IOTL, this was actually realized. After Maillebois (Boissieux's replacement) completed the conquest of the island, there were many Corsicans interested in French service. Most of these were former rebels who were likely to be severely punished or even executed under a restored Genoese administration; the family names of Costa, d'Ornano, and Orticoni are among those which appear on the initial list of recruits. The result was the Régiment Royal-Corse
, which fought in the War of Austrian Succession and the Seven Years' War. In that latter conflict, the unit was briefly dissolved and turned into a subsidiary battalion of the Régiment Royal-Italien
, but it was reconstituted as its own regiment two years later. When France invaded Corsica in 1768, the regiment successfully petitioned the king to be excused from having to fight their own countrymen. The regiment was reorganized after the conquest and finally disbanded in 1788, with its troops moved chiefly into new light infantry formations.
[B] IOTL, Gaffori is best known as the leader of the Corsican rebellion until his assassination in 1753, but his wife Faustina Matra is a local heroine in her own right. According to legend, when Corti came under attack while her husband was away, the militia defending it wanted to surrender. They were dissuaded from doing so by Faustina, who held a lit match over a barrel of gunpowder and promised to kill herself and take all of them with her if they gave up. The defenders held out until relief came.