The Fort of Aleria, 19th century illustration
The Aleria expedition was entrusted to Brigadier Count Gio-Giacomo Ambrosi di Castinetta
, who had been given the colonelcy of the reorganized (and significantly reduced) guard regiment after the death of Lieutenant-Colonel Giovan Luca Poggi
at Ponte Novu. The career of Poggi, a former Neapolitan officer, had been as glorious as it was brief, and he was destined for a prominent spot in the pantheon of revolutionary heroes. Poggi had boldly defended the Col de Teghime from the Genoese in 1736 with only 150 men, a splendid action which had made possible the decisive defeat of the Genoese at Rutali; he had led the capture of Vecchiaja, helping to seal the fate of Genoese San Fiorenzo, and then led an audacious raid with a captured Genoese galley to destroy vital supply ships under the very nose of the Genoese; his forces had relieved San Antonino at a pivotal moment and repulsed French attacks, which had helped preserve the Corsican army from likely destruction in the Balagna; he had led the Guard at San Pellegrino, where the French met their first defeat in open battle; and he had fought his final action at Ponte Novu, leading from the thickest part of the fighting and exhorting the guard to stand its ground until a French musket-ball claimed him. In some modern, less hagiographic assessments, Poggi does receive some mild criticism: his bravery and audacity are better documented than any true tactical skill, and as he tended to be the only Corsican commander on the field leading regular forces it was perhaps inevitable that he would outshine his comrades and their militia battalions. His earliest victories in the Nebbio, however, were accomplished with militia; and even without military genius, bravery and audacity count for quite a lot in warfare.
Castinetta's record was rather less lustrous, although in his defense Poggi was an exceptionally tough act to follow. The count had fought bravely at Furiani and led the victorious siege of Bastia in Theodore's absence, although the thirsty and demoralized garrison had not put up much of a fight. As governor of occupied Bastia he had played little role in the Nebbio campaign and held back most of his soldiers, but he was
responsible for dispatching Poggi and his company to the Col de Teghime in the aforementioned action and thus deserves at least some of the credit. As governor, his tenure had been effective if heavy-handed. He had supported the delaying action which kept Montmorency crawling down Capo Corso for months, although he had not let it personally. After Bastia, Castinetta had seen no major combat actions until Ponte Novu, where he had been given command of the rebel forces on the other side of the river. He had done his duty competently and intervened at a choice moment, and criticisms that he failed to trap the French or pursue them as doggedly as he could have can be dismissed given the paucity of his resources. Even Poggi would have been hard pressed to cut off and destroy a professional army more than three times as numerous with a force composed entirely of militia.
The march to the coastal plain along the Tavignano was executed swiftly. The army encamped on the edge of the plain near Casaperta two days after leaving Corte. In the meantime, Castinetta had dispatched some men to nearby villages to rally local militia forces. They did not meet with much success—the mountainous lands around the Tavignano, scattered with little hilltop villages, did not make for a swift mustering of local manpower. The local population was also not particularly enthusiastic about taking up arms and attacking the Genoese. The region had been largely quiet since Brigadier Jean-Baptiste François, Marquis de Villemur's
advance, and the people had generally followed the example of Marquis Saviero Matra
(whose hometown was only a few miles to the north) by submitting to Genoese rule once more. Although his lieutenant in the guard Lieutenant-Colonel Antonio Buttafuoco
urged an immediate attack, Castinetta wanted to remain at Casaperta for a few days to gain what strength they could. After another three days, however, fewer than two hundred militiamen had gathered, and the army's supply of food was running low. The soldiers had been issued eight days worth of bread at Corte, and Castinetta had restricted foraging as he feared his foraging parties would tip off the Genoese or leave his force vulnerable to an attack. In fact the Genoese had already learned of his presence during his encampment at Casaperta, presumably informed by a spy or just an unsympathetic local.
The Genoese only had around 300 regulars at Aleria and were in no position to attack a force of around a thousand Corsicans. They could, however, send word to the French forces encamped near Cervione 16 miles to the north. Had the French swiftly descended on the royalists, the result might have been disastrous, but the French commander, Colonel Charles Cléron, Comte d'Haussonville
, appears to have given the Genoese reports little weight and waited until the next day before even bothering to pass the word on to Brigadier Villemur. Faced with rebels in the Alesani valley much closer to home, he may have thought it a distraction, or simply the overactive imaginations of the Genoese. In the meantime, on March 14th, Castinetta finally decided to make his attack.
To his surprise, Castinetta found the Genoese force ready and arrayed for battle. While outnumbered more than three to one, the Genoese had a strong position at Fort Aleria, a three-story blockhouse with soldiers posted in every window and gun-loop. The fort sat on a low rise above the plain, which was marshy and criss-crossed by tributaries of the Tavignano. After an initial attack across this terrain failed, Castinetta decided to withdraw, correctly assuming that if the Genoese were aware of him then they must have notified the French. It made no sense, in his estimation, to throw men away on such a strong position only to have to immediately vacate it once the French arrived, or even worse to be caught by the French and defeated.
Despite light casualties, the morale of the army quickly plunged. The second most senior officer in the brigade, Colonel Paolo Francesco Giannoni
, was a friend of Castinetta and a fellow native of Rostino and had supported his deicision. Buttafuoco, however, openly derided Castinetta for his incompetence and timidity, and found many sympathetic ears among the company officers, many of whom already disliked Castinetta. Theodore was in the habit of promoting "worthy" men to officer positions regardless of their background, but Count Castinetta was a dyed-in-the-wool elitist who could hardly conceal his scorn for commoners made into captains. Divisions soon spread among the rank-and-file, too, and a rumor circulated in the brigade that Castinetta was in the pay of the Genoese. In camp, the soldiers nearly started a battle with each other when a sergeant in Giannoni's company replied to an insult from a guardsman by pulling his knife and stabbing him. Castinetta, fearing a mutiny or assassination attempt, had his tent guarded by a picked group of Rostino soldiers. The army that returned to Corte was not very bloodied, but it had ceased to be an effective fighting force.
In the field, the two colonels from Rostino had clearly been dominant, but this changed once they arrived at Corti. Buttafuoco was well connected; he was the son-in-law of Count Andrea Ceccaldi
(as well as a fellow native of Vescovato) and a friend of Count Gianpietro Gaffori
, two of the most powerful men in the war council. When the army arrived at Corti, Buttafuoco and his men immediately informed Gaffori of their interpretation of events. According to Castinetta's supporters, the brigadier had taken only prudent decisions: he had waited to gather local militia to bolster his strength, and upon seeing that surprise had been lost he decided not to press an attack which would have been very costly if it succeeded at all. Buttafuoco and the malcontents, however, gave a very different account. They claimed that Castinetta had dithered at Casaperta either out of cowardice or because he purposefully intended the attack to fail, and in the actual attack on the fort had only devoted a part of his strength and retreated without making a genuine attempt.
Gaffori immediately took Buttafuoco's side, all the more effectively as Marquis Simone Fabiani
, who had played the largest role in selecting the new officers, was at Ponte Leccia at the moment. The count informed King Theodore
that there were rumors of cowardice or even treason surrounding Castinetta, and while he personally had no reason to believe them to be true he was convinced that the brigadier could not lead the guard under such a cloud. Although upset by Castinetta's failure, the king was reluctant to remove him—Castinetta was a powerful man in Rostino, a key royalist pieve
whose militia had been essential to the victory at Ponte Novu. To dismiss him would be dangerous, and even more so under the suspicion of treason, however baseless, as removing him would appear to give credence to the rumor. Theodore decided to give him a "lateral promotion" instead. Summoning Castinetta to a royal audience, the king informed that he thought nothing of the expedition, and that such setbacks were merely the nature of war. Theodore thanked him for his loyalty, praised his wisdom in keeping order both as governor of Bastia and in command of the army, and informed him that he was being made militia commander of Rostino in order to bring some order and discipline to the militiamen there, whose service was vital to the national cause. Castinetta was not a fool; it was obvious that Buttafuoco and Gaffori had gotten their hooks into Theodore and had engineered his removal. Put on the spot by the king, however, he could only swallow his pride and accept the "honor." Nevertheless, it was a personal humiliation that the count would not soon forget.
Ponte Leccia, near the site of Fabiani's camp
To avoid bad blood between Giannoni and Buttofuoco, who was now the senior officer in the guard, Giannoni's regiment was sent on to Ponte Leccia while the guard was retained at Corti. Upon Giannoni's arrival, Marquis Fabiani learned of what had transpired and was upset that Gaffori had taken it upon himself to meddle in the army's command, something manifestly outside his purview. Gaffori, however, had the belated approval of Count Marc-Antonio Giappiconi
, the minister of war, and in any case Fabiani could not undo the king's act. Of far greater concern to him was the ill-discipline and disunion in the ranks of the regulars. Fabiani had indeed created a "national" army, but an unconsidered consequence of this was the grouping of Corsicans from all over the island together who had previously tended to serve in militia bands consisting of only their neighbors and kinsmen. They held suspicions and grudges against Corsicans from other districts, and tended to show more loyalty to their local "countrymen" than their actual officers. Fabiani demoted the sergeant who was responsible for the earlier knife attack (the stabbing had not been fatal) and announced that disrespect to officers and fighting in camp would be met with harsh punishment.
It was a bad time for the rebels to be quarreling, as the French had finally received their new leader. Lieutenant-General Daniel François de Gélas, Vicomte de Lautrec
, the new commander of the French forces in Corsica, had arrived at Bastia two days before the "battle" of Aleria. What he found did not please him. The idleness of winter quarters and the leadership vacuum had caused discipline to become intolerably lax. The soldiers' camps were rife with drunkenness, for while Corsica was poor in many things wine was not one of them. Meanwhile, the officers at Bastia spent their time gambling and holding balls. Lautrec immediately summoned his brigadiers to Bastia, where he commanded them to crack down on debauchery and idleness and prepare their battalions for deployment. Lautrec was not under the whip as Boissieux had been in the previous autumn, but he was nevertheless expected to make an advance against the rebels.
Cardinal André-Hercule de Fleury
, whose representatives had begun negotiations with the Austrians regarding the possible joint intervention, had informed Lautrec that the current proposal being discussed was based on a division of the island between north and south, with the French occupying the Diqua
and the Austrians in the Dila
. The specifics, however, were still up in the air, and there was no consensus on where exactly the proposed line of control would fall. The French wished to retain control of Ajaccio, despite its position in the south, as it was a key strategic port (and the island's second-largest city) and already occupied by French forces. The Austrians, however, were demanding parity, and wanted parts of the interior and eastern Diqua—
in particular, Corti, Aleria, Fiumorbo, and the Tavignano—particularly if the French were going to retain Ajaccio. If Lautrec could take this territory in the interior, the French negotiating position would be stronger, and with luck the Austrians could be restricted to Porto Vecchio and the rather worthless mountain valleys of the interior Dila
Despite making preparations for their destruction, Lautrec was not averse to treating with the rebels' delegates. Only a week after his arrival, the general was presented with a delegation from King Theodore led by Father Erasmo Orticoni
, the king's foreign minister. He bore a letter from the king himself in Theodore's usual grandiloquent prose, which welcomed Lautrec to "our fair kingdom" and expressed a desire for peace and friendly relations between Corsica and France. Lautrec was not particularly impressed, describing it as a fulsome and pompous letter. He would, however, entertain Orticoni, and refused the immediate demands of the Genoese that this "rebel spy" be handed over for execution. Lautrec was polite but unyielding; his government's position on the rebels and their so-called king had not changed. The terms of Fontainebleau stood: The rebels, if they wished to escape destruction, needed at once to disarm and throw themselves upon the mercy of the King of France, who would fairly consider the “just grievances” of the people. Orticoni responded that no Corsican doubted the justice and mercy of the Most Christian King, and explained that “the representatives of the nation” would consider these terms favorably if Lautrec could guarantee that French troops would be present, in perpetuity, to ensure Genoese observance of the King’s verdict. Lautrec was obviously unable to provide this guarantee, and the parties were once more at an impasse.
Despite this failure, there was a breakthrough on the matter of prisoners held by each side. Although most of the rank-and-file French soldiers captured by the Corsicans over the course of the intervention had been released in the previous year because of a lack of food, Theodore had retained custody of their officers, including Colonel Armand de Bourbon-Malauze, Marquis de Malauze
, as well as around 60 soldiers and officers captured at Ponte Novu in November. The presence of a marquis in the custody of “bandits” was a continuing embarrassment to the French. What the Corsicans wanted, in turn, were the “worthy hostages” who had been traded to Boissieux in the summer of 1738. When serious hostilities between the French and Corsicans began in October of that year, they had been moved to the Chateau d’If, a notorious island prison. General Boissieux, who had taken the “Corsican Vespers” as a personal betrayal, had always refused to release the hostages, but Lautrec considered them strategically worthless—they had been taken to guarantee the good behavior of the Corsicans, something they had obviously failed to do. Lautrec would not return the hostages to Corsica, as that would simply be supplying leaders to the rebellion, but he offered to free the hostages under condition of perpetual exile. They would be given their liberty, but would have to swear not to return to Corsica and would be turned over to the Genoese for execution if they did. Several other “royalists” currently in French custody captured since then, who had not yet been rendered to the Genoese, would be given the same offer.
Orticoni returned with this offer to Theodore, who enthusiastically gave his assent. Numerically, it was far from an even trade—the Corsicans were returning more than 80 Frenchmen in exchange for fewer than twenty of their own, who would not even be permitted to return to Corsica. Realistically, however, there was not much else that Theodore could buy with his French prisoners, and he was grateful to be rid of men who required scarce resources to feed and guard. In addition, he felt an obligation to the families which had agreed to send men into captivity, including his High Chancellor and good friend Sebastiano Costa
whose son Filippo Maria
was one of the prisoners. Lautrec kept his end of the bargain, and two weeks later the hostages were set free in Marseilles. Fearing Genoese assassins, however, they did not stay long, and boarded a Spanish ship bound for Naples. Even there they were not out of danger, but the exiles were offered protection by Joseph Valembergh
, the Dutch consul. The nature of Valembergh's interest is not precisely clear, but there is circumstantial evidence that links him to the syndicate, including alleged correspondence between Valembergh and Lucas Boon
, one of the syndicate's founding partners. Frustrated, the Genoese turned to the Neapolitan government. Their efforts to seek extradition, however, were stonewalled by the king's secretary of state, José Joaquín di Montealegre, Duca di Salas
. The Genoese do not seem to have been aware that Montealegre was married to the sister of Theodore's late wife.[A]
 One of the hostages of the Chateau d’If, Alerio Francesco Matra, the son of Marquis Saviero Matra, had already been granted this liberty months before on account of his father’s collaboration with the French.
[A] Theodore's "network" was impressive. His career would not have been possible had he not benefited from having friends, relatives, friends-of-relatives, old war buddies, and so on in seemingly every country in western Europe. One could almost believe he was protected by some vast international conspiracy—and given his contacts in the world of Freemasonry, maybe he was
. The OTL events surrounding Theodore in Naples were much stranger and more fantastical than anything in ITTL. IOTL, two Dutch captains paid by the syndicate were abducted off the streets and imprisoned by their own consul
for not delivering the arms in their ships to Corsica. Later, Theodore was arrested in Naples, imprisoned at Gaeta, and then released in secret and placed on a ship to Teraccina, all of which appears to have been a ploy—possibly masterminded by Montealegre—to help him escape Genoese assassins. That it was not a "real" imprisonment could also be intuited by the fact that, while he was under custody at Gaeta, the King of Naples ordered an engraving to be made of Theodore. Not everybody gets a royally commissioned portrait while in prison.