Excerpts from Merganser Publishing's "Rebellion!" Series #24: The Corsican Revolution
The Genoese Army
Genoese infantry march along a dusty road, c. 1740s
The army of the Republic of Genoa in the 18th century was intended as a defensive force. Surrounded by larger, more powerful neighbors, the Republic's very reasonable strategy was to employ its limited land forces in the garrisoning and defense of strong fortifications in Liguria that could hold back a superior opponent. The army performed this duty well enough, but when called on to fight a very different kind of war in Corsica its shortcomings quickly became evident.
In 1727, just prior to the rebellion, the Genoese army amounted to about 5,000 men, up from a peacetime low of around 3,800 a few years before because of recent border skirmishes with the Sardinians. Of these, there were approximately 2,000 Ligurians, 1,600 Corsicans, and 1,400 Oltramontani
(Germans and Swiss). All companies were "national," composed entirely of troops of a single national origin. Genoese and Corsican companies usually consisted of 80 to 100 soldiers, while the Oltramontani
companies had 125 men with the exception of the Palace Guard (a German company) and the Swiss company of Friburg, which each had around 200 men.
were considered the Republic's most reliable troops and manned most key garrisons (including Genoa itself), although no major fortress or city garrison was held solely by troops of a single nation. The Corsican forces appear to have been considered the equal of the Oltramontani
in a military sense, but even before the rebellion they were deemed politically unreliable and never given posts in Corsica itself. This remained true even after the rebellion, which is why there were no mass defections from the Genoese army to the rebels in the 1730s; most soldiers of Corsican origin were in Liguria. In wartime, the Republic tended to call up additional forces by hiring more Oltramontani and levying the Corsicans; the former was extremely expensive, and the latter became impossible after the widespread outbreak of rebellion.
In August of 1730, around the time when the uprising first progressed from a violent tax protest into a true island-wide rebellion, the entire garrison of Corsica was only 1,350 men. Owing to the political and familial division of the Corsicans, these forces were soon bolstered by substantial numbers of Corsican irregulars. Some were partisans of Genoa, particularly those from northern regions like Calvi, Cap Corse, and the Nebbio, but many were not so much pro-Genoese as against the particular men who had been chosen as generals of the rebellion. A unit of around 200 Greek militia from Paomia also served the Genoese cause by reinforcing the garrison of Ajaccio.
Despite the availability of such irregular forces, the rebellion was a serious blow to an army which had previously relied heavily on the recruitment of Corsicans. By 1734 the number of Corsican companies in the regular army had dropped from 22 to 12. The losses among these and other companies were made up for by the recruitment of deserters from the then-ongoing War of Polish Succession, but these were men of dubious loyalty who appear to have deserted (again) in large numbers to join the army of Naples, which was at that time just being formed after the Bourbon conquest of the kingdom in 1734. The presence of Spaniards, Frenchmen, and Austrians in ostensibly "Ligurian" companies noted by French and British sources in 1736 suggests that some of these castoffs from the recent war were nevertheless still in circulation in the regular army.
With the renewal of the Corsican rebellion in 1734 and the arrival of Theodore early in 1736, the Republic was desperate for troops but was wary of spending much money on them. The emperor's "help" in the early 1730s was given only on the stipulation that Genoa pay the entire cost of the maintenance of the imperial troops, which at their height may have numbered as many as 10,000 men; the experience badly endangered the Republic's finances and the Senate was looking to cut costs. Captaincies were offered to anyone who could raise enough warm bodies to fill a company, with few considerations for the quality of either the captain or the men. So hard-up was the Republic for troops that following Theodore's arrival it raised the infamous "Compagnia dei Banditi
," a unit formed entirely of outlaws and criminals offered pardon in exchange for enlistment.
In battles against the rebels, the Genoese were again forced to rely increasingly on Corsican "loyalist" irregulars who were no better trained and sometimes even more poorly equipped than the rebel forces; the Genoese frequently had to distribute surplus arms to friendly militiamen who otherwise would have been no help at all. Thus, despite the shortcomings of the rebel militias, they were frequently up against forces of a similar caliber. Only the Swiss companies were up to the standards of continental line infantry, and they did not come cheaply.
The Genoese army had an independent artillery arm, but field artillery was of no use in Corsica, a land of mountains and few roads wider than a mule track. There is no certain evidence of their presence on Corsica, but if they were stationed on the island they must have done little more than man the batteries of the citadels. The Genoese army maintained no mounted companies at all.
Genoa had a notably complex military hierarchy with numerous autonomous organs. This owed less to strategic need than political caution, as the Republic feared the coalescing of military power in the hands of any one man. There was, of course, a War Office, but there were also separate offices for military finance and for ordnance, each of which was equal to and independent of the War Office. There was also a military "Corsican Office" which was independent of the other three. This system was politically useful and workable enough when it was called upon to supply the network of Ligurian fortresses by interior lines, but during the rebellion it meant that any offensive by the regular army in Corsica not only required coordinating separate and independent committees to provide personnel, ordnance, and payment, but required all this to be done in cooperation with the Navy as well.
To complicate matters further, Genoese forces on the island were divided between the four commissari
("commissioners," usually rendered in English texts as "commandants") in Bastia, Calvi, Ajaccio, and Bonifacio. The commandant of Bastia was ex officio
the Governor-General of Corsica and superior to the other commandants, but while he could give orders to the other commandants he could not take direct control of their forces. In practice, owing as much to logistics, terrain, and the inexperience and conservatism of the officers as to the command structure, the commandants rarely coordinated their forces.
The Genoese army in the early phase of the Revolution was unusual in that it was organized solely at the company level with no regiments whatsoever. Company captains enjoyed the same position as colonels in other armies, in the sense that they had near total administrative and financial control over their unit. Attempts to create regiments or permanent battalions in the early 18th century were scuttled by opposition from the captains, who had no desire to lose this autonomy. As such, Genoese field officers—majors, lieutenant-colonels, and colonels—were not actually "regimental officers" but company commanders with superior rank. A proposal for reforming this system had been introduced in the Senate in 1732, but the reforms were not actually begun until 1738.
Before and after the 1738 reforms, the army's tactical units, as opposed to administrative units, were the colonne
("columns"), consisting of several hundred men under a field officer, and the picchetti
("pickets"), which contained around 50 men led by a captain. In size, at least, these were roughly comparable with the battalions and companies of the rebels, respectively.
Service in the Republic's army was not considered prestigious and the officer corps suffered as a result. Officers were drawn from the nobility, but the nobility gained no special privileges or any particular honor by doing so. There was far more status and wealth to be gained through trade or politics. Commissions tended as a consequence to be filled by minor gentry, who as a rule had virtually no military experience or training. In Corsica, which was considered a particularly unappealing posting for an army officer, commandants used their positions primarily for personal enrichment. In effect, the Corsican interior was always treated as "hostile territory" into which the commandants only dispatched men to enforce the periodic collection of taxes, which were unlikely to be paid without the present threat of physical force. Such duties were fobbed off on lieutenants and captains while the commandants themselves rarely left their bases of operations on the coast.
The result was an officer corps which was thoroughly uninspiring throughout the whole of the Corsican Revolution. Genoese commanders lacked initiative and rarely took the offensive, preferring to do what the army had always done in Liguria and put their trust in fixed defenses. In Corsica, however, these defenses were in many cases centuries old and often not designed with landward attack in mind. At times this preference for defense resulted in Genoese forts and towns being "besieged" by a rebel army far smaller and less well equipped than the garrison itself, with the defending commanders making no attempt to sally or counterattack. At one point early in the rebellion, before Theodore's arrival, the 500-man garrison of Bastia was effectively paralyzed by fewer than 170 militiamen in the surrounding hills.
The Genoese did make use of Corsican officers, but they seldom rose above the rank of lieutenant in the peacetime army. In wartime, particularly during moments of crisis, Corsican officers frequently were promoted to high grades, but it was common (and in the case of Corsican colonels, practically inevitable) that when the danger had passed these officers would be "retired," removed from active service and put permanently on half-pay.
The Corsican Revolutionaries
Modern Corsicans wearing the costume of revolutionary militiamen in a heritage parade. Note the conch shell, commonly used as a signal by the revolutionaries.
The Corsicans had long been recognized as a "warlike" people of Europe, and the island had been a fertile recruiting ground for European states for centuries. The best known unit was the Corsican Guard of Rome, which served the Pope until it was forcibly disbanded under French pressure in 1662, but Corsicans had also served meritoriously in the armies of France, Venice, and various other Italian states. Relatively poor treatment of Corsican soldiers (and especially officers) in Genoese service encouraged many to find employment in other states. At the time of Theodore's arrival on the island, an estimated 4,000 Corsicans served abroad, less than half of those in the Genoese army. If these expatriate soldiers are counted, Corsica on the eve of the rebellion was on par with Prussia in terms of its ratio of soldiers to civilians.
Estimating the number of rebel forces at any point in the rebellion is notoriously difficult. This is not only because of the decentralized nature of the rebel forces but the fact that virtually all soldiers were part-timers, farmers and herders who were motivated to fight by patriotism, the promise of a musket and pay, obligation to a family patriarch or caporale
, or sometimes just to gain revenge for the ill-treatment of their village or a family member at Genoese hands. Desertion was common, but seldom permanent; a militiaman might serve for a few weeks, return home for the harvest or to take care of some family business, and come back to the unit. There was essentially no penalty for desertion, or at least none which was enforced, and thus rebel units were constantly fluctuating in size as men left and returned by their own volition. Historians have estimated the "maximum" number of rebel forces active at any one time in 1736 at anywhere from 2,000 to 10,000 men.
Only two "regular" units existed in Theodore's army in 1736. The first was the "royal guard," led personally by Count Anton-Francesco Giappiconi, who was also Theodore's minister of war. This was an all-Corsican unit which counted a substantial number of young men of status in its ranks, including Lieutenant Giuseppe Costa (the son of the chancellor Sebastiano Costa). The other was the "foreign company" led by Captain Silvestre Colombani. This unit was initially formed from the several dozen foreign adventurers and mercenaries who had followed Theodore to Corsica and probably numbered no more than 50 men at its inception, but it was soon reinforced by deserters from Genoese service (mostly Germans) and freed galley slaves of non-Corsican origin.
The Royal Army did possess an artillery arm, which owing to the impracticality of field artillery was really a siege train, initially under the command of the mysterious Lieutenant-Colonel Antoine Dufour, a French military engineer. The quality of Corsican gunnery was generally poor, as one might expect from hastily-trained shepherds, but the Corsicans proved remarkably adept at artillery logistics, regularly pulling dozens of heavy guns over mountain ranges on muleback using shepherds' paths only wide enough for two men to walk abreast and doing so with with impressive speed.
The rebels possessed no cavalry company as such, although because of the 100 or so mounted militia of Balagna under Fabiani's command the rebels could factually boast that they possessed more cavalry than the Genoese. There is no evidence, however, that these men ever fought
Owing to its geography of isolated mountain valleys, the Corsicans of the highlands had long been divided into small, autonomous clusters of villages, with their own customs and their own caporali
, as well as longstanding rivalries with other communities and their leaders. The organization of the militia under Theodore was more political than it was military, which is to say it was designed not so much to achieve a military end as to build support for the new regime. It was necessary for every pieve
, and sometimes individual parishes within a pieve
, to have its own unit with its own leader, as the chiefs and caporali
of one community would chafe at being denied a command which the chief on the other side of the mountain enjoyed.
In Corsica's clan-based society, in which the prestige and strength of a family was judged chiefly by its numbers of kinsmen, militia bands sometimes resembled armed family reunions. This may have made for unit cohesion to a certain extent, but it also meant that most units had intense loyalty to their captains or colonels but very little to the rebel cause or its primary leaders. An officer who was offended would frequently abandon the army and take his entire company with him. Sometimes these units switched sides entirely, deciding that they had been wronged by either the Genoese or one of the rebel "generals" and turning their guns on their former compatriots. Frequently they did not see this as betrayal, as the demands of honor and the best interests of the clan had a superior claim on a man's duty than serving one particular faction.
Theodore could not remake society overnight, but he did make an attempt at implementing a formal militia structure. Shortly after his coronation he appointed 24 company captains who were charged with raising 35 men each from their own villages (and thus 840 total soldiers). The number of captains expanded regularly thereafter. All companies within a pieve
would be grouped into a battalion under the command of a colonel of that pieve
. In theory the militiamen would be called in rotation, with men serving four-month terms before being deactivated such that one third of the militia was active at any one time. It was a sensible mode of organization, but Theodore possessed no method of enforcement, and there is little evidence that the system was strenuously observed. The rebel army continued to rely on ad hoc formations of militiamen, who joined the army for a particular purpose or to response to a particular threat, alongside its "semi-regular" companies.
The rebels never possessed a formal logistical structure, but do not seem to have suffered much for it. The militia lived largely on what the men of Niolo called pane di legnu e vinu di petra
– wooden bread (chestnuts) and stone wine (water) - and had plenty of both. Ammunition sometimes had difficulty circulating, but a French officer later complained that "nature itself conspires to arm them," noting that the rebels used pieces of rock crystal from the mountains for replacement gun flints and gathered a local stringy moss which could be used as wadding.
Each 35-man company was to have two lieutenants and two ensigns. The small size of the companies and battalions meant that the number of officers among the royal forces was quite high; in theory, nearly 15% of all rebel soldiers were officers of commissioned rank. Whether this was militarily useful was besides the point, as the surfeit of captains, lieutenants, and ensigns allowed every rebel of prominence (and his sons and nephews) to have a military rank, for which they had the king to thank.
What is most surprising about the Corsican rebels under Theodore was the comparatively large pool of experienced officers they possessed. The prejudice which the Genoese held against Corsican officers and their tendency to "retire" those who advanced beyond lieutenant created a substantial class of company-grade officers who naturally saw foreign service as preferable to poor career prospects and a future of unending half-pay at home. Many of them, having served in the Venetian, Neapolitan, Tuscan, or Spanish armies, came back to Corsica during the rebellion to serve the patriotic cause. Compared to the aristocratic officers of the Genoese army, most of whom lacked the barest modicum of military or command experience, these returning mercenary officers represented a distinct rebel advantage. Although Theodore saw the need to make politically motivated appointments, he was also a convinced meritocrat, and we find a shepherd (Linguacitutto) and a peasant (Cipriani) among the list of rebel captains in 1736.
A Dutch/Liege musket c. 1706
The muskets used by the Republic of Genoa came principally from France and Spain. While France had introduced a standardized musket in the form of the 1717 "Charleville" musket (updated in 1728), Spain would not adopt a similarly standardized model until 1752. Although there is little information about the specific weapons used by the Genoese army during the Corsican Revolution, it seems safe to assume that a variety of patterns were in use.
Initially, the muskets used by the rebels came entirely from the Genoese themselves, as the Republic held a legal monopoly on arms sales on the island. At the start of the rebellion, however, the rebel arsenal was seriously out of date. The anti-banditry laws of 1715 failed to disarm the Corsicans but did end above-board arms sales to the islanders, and even those guns purchased before 1715 are unlikely to have been top of the line models. The older snaphance musket, which most countries had abandoned in the 17th century, was still in common use in the Corsican interior; it worked in a similar fashion to the "true" flintlock, but was generally less reliable and more difficult to repair. The rebels’ supply of guns was expanded and updated somewhat by the capture, throughout the rebellion, of weapons from defeated Genoese troops and captured Genoese arsenals, but the story of Costa smuggling 150 muskets to the rebels in 1734 demonstrates that even then the rebels lacked modern weapons in sufficient number.
From the time of Theodore’s first arrival with 700 Amsterdam-made muskets in 1736, the flow of small arms to the rebels from the outside world was increasingly comprised of Dutch weapons. Amsterdam was a major weapons supplier, and Ripperda's consignment which traveled to Corsica with Theodore aboard the Richard
was said to be of “modern” Dutch muskets, presumably of the type produced between roughly 1700 and 1730: pinned-barrel flintlocks with walnut stocks and iron fittings (or later, brass). The British Army purchased tens of thousands of such muskets in the early 18th century and clearly took inspiration from them in the design of the "Brown Bess" Long Land Pattern musket in the 1720s. Later Dutch shipments to the rebels were not always cutting-edge and drew more on older surplus, but even these were "modern" by the standards of the rebels and were highly prized. The only serious deficiency some of these older models possessed was a stock extending to the end of the muzzle which precluded the use of a ring/socket bayonet, but bayonets seem to have been infrequently used by the Corsicans, who notoriously preferred “[American] Indian” tactics of fighting in loose order behind cover and withdrawing in the face of an assault.
There was little standardization in artillery at this time, and many accounts of rebel artillery describe them in only vague terms, like the six "heavy" and four "light" guns which Theodore brought with him to Corsica on the Richard
. Later arrivals are sometimes more precisely described, and are usually 12 or 24 pounders. The Genoese also possessed artillery, but this was limited to the coastal citadels and the decks of their ships and was of no use in the interior. Although the rebels attempted to re-purpose these guns when they got the chance, they were often hampered by a lack of proper field/siege carriages for them.