The Battle of San Pellegrino
The River Fiumalto today, near the site of the Battle of San Pellegrino
In the early morning of June 12th, Brigadier Jean-Baptiste François, Marquis de Villemur
ordered his army to begin the last leg of the march to San Pellegrino. He seems to have doubted that the rebels would make a stand there—they had avoided every opportunity to face him so far. If they did hold the fortress, however, it would present a problem, as he had no artillery and the warships he had demanded were not yet in sight. Nevertheless, it was possible that the fortification could be taken by storm—Villemur did not know the exact details of San Pellegrino, but was aware that many of the island's towers were 16th century edifices meant to serve as watchtowers against Barbary pirates, not actual fortresses—and even if it could not, he could at least begin its investment, and hope that naval aid would arrive soon.[A]
Villemur's plan was to make his advance as early and quickly as practicable. Of course, a swift advance could not be managed with his growing numbers of sick and wounded; they would need to remain behind temporarily. The better part of the Regiment d'Aunis under Lieutenant-Colonel René de Poilly, Sieigneur de Maresville
, remained encamped near San Nicolao with those who could not make the quick pace. He would follow the rest of the brigade once Villemur secured San Pellegrino or at least completed its investment. This vastly improved the mobility and flexibility of Villemur's force, but it also further diminished its numbers. With all the casualties and incapacitated men thus sustained in the campaign, plus the absence of most of Poilly's battalion, the force which remained to Villemur was only around 1,500 men, just over half of what he had started with in Porto Vecchio.
Villemur's opponent, Lieutenant-General Count Andrea Ceccaldi
, could not even boast that many. By the morning of the 12th, he had no more than a thousand men, a mix of Talcinesi and Castagniccian militia and several hundred local militia and volunteers from Tavagna and Casinca. Between the coastal tower of San Pellegrino and the mountains was a two-mile gap crossed from west to east by the river. The Fiumalto was of some value as an obstruction, but in June it was no longer swollen with melt-water from the mountains and fordable on foot along most of its lower course. Practically, however, the gap was narrowed in the east by thick marshlands around the river's mouth (to say nothing of the guns of San Pellegrino, if occupied), and in the west by woods descending from the mountainside, leaving a span of little more than a mile through which an infantry formation could feasibly maneuver.
That morning, Ceccaldi dispatched several hundred men south of the Fiumalto to waylay his enemy. The path that Villemur would have to take was squeezed between the coast and heavy woodlands, providing the Corsicans with an opportunity to flank and harass their column. Villemur, however, managed to surprise his opponents with the speed of his advance. The Corsicans were not ready for him, and their attempted "ambush" devolved into mere skirmishing. Villemur dispatched a detachment which soon drove them off. Another skirmish erupted at the bridge over the river d'Olme, only a mile south of the Fiumalto, but the French crashed through the small force of militia there and captured the bridge. Villemur's small force of dragoons, scouting ahead, came under fire from the Fiumalto and reported this to Villemur, but the tall shrubs and marsh grasses on the river's banks concealed the size and disposition of the enemy.
Corsican shooting from the rushes by the river's edge and the woods on the French left succeeded only in inconveniencing the French army. Colonel Armand de Bourbon, Comte de Malauze
commander of the Agenois Regiment on the French left, detached several companies to hold off the skirmishers in the woods, and the main body of the French army pushed to the river. The Corsicans there soon fled, abandoning their position, and the French made their crossing. As they reorganized their line on the north side of the river, they continued to take scattered fire from the retreating Corsicans, but to little effect.
It was only after forming up on the opposite bank that Villemur realized he was up against a different sort of force than he had thought. King Theodore
had also gotten an early start that day, intending to rendezvous with Ceccaldi at the Fiumalto and present a united force to the French. He had failed at that—the royal army was still about a mile north of the river—but as the gunsmoke began to clear around the river's banks, the Corsican column was made obvious. The "royal army" did actually seem vaguely like a real army; Villemur noted Theodore's "Moor's head" flag, the sound of drums and trumpets, and even a few hundred men wearing uniforms. Villemur felt he had no choice but to face them, and it seemed like a good enough opportunity to do it; the ground between the armies was largely open terrain, if marshy in places, which seemed to offer an advantage to the French.
For perhaps the first time in the war, the Corsicans sought a line battle and advanced in ranks against the enemy. Theodore's force outnumbered the French only slightly, with some 1,700 troops on the field compared to Villemur's 1,500 (though slightly degraded from this by the morning's skirmishing), including his "regulars" in the Guardia Corsica
and the Reggimento Straniero
, led by Adjutant-General Edward Sarsfield, Viscount Kilmallock
and Lieutenant-Colonels Giovan Luca Poggi
and Sir John Powers
. Soon the battle was joined.
To ward off the Corsican sharpshooters in the woods on the French left, Villemur had dispatched Lieutenant-Colonel Zsigmond David
and his hussars, as well as two companies of the Agenois Regiment. Above the French left, however, hidden by the hills and woods, was not a few bands of skirmishers but an entire battalion-sized corps of militia under General Ceccaldi, who had devoted only a few hundred of his men to defending the river. It is unclear if this was a deliberate flanking strategy or an escape attempt; with the French hot on his heels and Theodore still at least a mile away, Ceccaldi may have reasoned that his best move was to withdraw up the Fiumalto valley into the mountains, where he was at an advantage, rather than retreating over the open ground of the plain. Theodore's arrival, however, created a situation where the French army was now fully engaged with a foe to its north while Ceccaldi was largely unengaged—and undiscovered—to their west. Realizing his position and the weak forces arrayed against him, Ceccaldi ordered a full assault. David's screening force now found itself facing not merely a few Corsicans sniping from the trees, but at least 600 militiamen charging downhill at them through the woods. David's force of two infantry companies and a severely under-strength hussar battalion, under a hundred men in total, was swiftly overwhelmed.
Up to this point, the French were holding admirably. Although somewhat outnumbered by the Corsican line, the superior drill and discipline of the French infantry was a considerable asset. But the Corsicans, too, were holding, and if their fire was more sluggish and ragged than their opponents they were nevertheless giving no ground. Kilmallock, not a stranger to combat, later called the engagement “the hottest fire I have ever witnessed.” The collapse of Lt. Col. David’s screening force, however, left Ceccaldi free to fall upon the Agenois regiment holding the French left. Ceccaldi’s militia did not merely flank
Malauze’s regiment, but fully enveloped it, actually advancing from behind and to the left of the French line.
It was difficult in the best of times for close-ranked line infantry to shift their facing, let alone when under heavy fire from multiple directions. Malauze’s second-in-command, Lieutenant Colonel Chevalier de Ligny
, was shot and killed trying to maneuver the companies on the far left to face the new enemy. Villemur, realizing that his position was compromised, attempted to lead a fighting withdrawal, but this intended retreat began to turn into a rout as the panicking soldiers thought of nothing but avoiding encirclement. As soon as the French line began to pull back, the royalist trumpets sounded a charge and the Corsicans surged after the enemy. The French line collapsed.
They were saved from annihilation by the fact that the Corsicans had no cavalry, and by the exceeding bravery of the French grenadiers, who made a stand at the single bridge over the Fiumalto while their comrades fled. They managed to hold back the tide for a brief but critical period, at the cost of being encircled and shredded by fire. Major de la Riviere
of the Bassigny Regiment, who led this desperate holding action, was captured, but he had been shot four times and died of his wounds on the following day. Even with his heroics, however, it was a crushing defeat for the French army. Villemur’s force suffered nearly 600 casualties, more than a third of his attacking force, including 280 men taken prisoner. The prisoners included the Comte de Malauze himself, one major (other than de la Riviere), and six captains. Hundreds of muskets, bayonets, and swords were captured, to say nothing of boots, which Malauze recalled being eagerly stripped from the dead and dying by the militiamen. Malauze's regiment nearly ceased to exist; the Corsicans had captured or killed all their field officers and taken their standards, and at the end of the day Villemur counted only 68 men of the regiment who were present and able to bear arms, about two companies. The Corsicans, meanwhile, suffered just over 300 casualties, a little over half of the French count.[B]
Villemur was defeated, but not destroyed. After returning to San Nicolao, he estimated his total combat-ready force to be around 1,200 men. That was still a considerable amount, but clearly insufficient to turn about and face the Corsicans at San Pellegrino. Villemur decided he had no choice but to withdraw towards Cervioni. Theodore did not pursue him, instead entrusting the task of harassing the retreating French to Ceccaldi and his militia. Theodore's plan did not allow him to remain away from the Nebbio any longer than necessary, but he was also wary of causing too
much injury to the French, on the basis that a truly catastrophic defeat, or indeed the loss of a whole brigade, would create an insult to French honor so great that Versailles would have no choice but to avenge it with thousands more men.
 The Counts of Bourbon-Malauze, as their name implies, were indeed cadets of the House of Bourbon, but they were not Princes of the Blood. Their line, also known as the House of Bourbon-Lavedan, issued from a bastard son of a 15th century Duke of Bourbon, before the Bourbons gained the French throne.
[A] I have no pictures of San Pellegrino to offer you. Many Genoese towers, or at least their ruins, are still around today, but the tower of San Pellegrino was blown up by the Genoese in 1762 to prevent it from falling into the hands of Paoli's revolutionaries. Nothing remains today except remnants of its foundation. All we really know is that it was square, unlike most Genoese towers on Corsica which were round.
[B] I didn't feel up to making another set of battle-maps, so please accept this Wikibox as a small consolation prize, because that's apparently a thing. It's like the same information already in the update, but less detailed and in a box