The Citadel of Corti
The outcome of the siege of Corti was never in doubt. Count Gianpietro Gaffori's
garrison amounted to 73 men and one woman, his wife Faustina Gaffori
Matra). They were heavily outnumbered, and even with severe rationing they had only enough food to hold out for a few weeks. No relief was expected; King Theodore
had departed for the Dila
with his volunteers, and the only other royalist commanders with forces active in the Diqua
, Count Andrea Ceccaldi
and Johann Friedrich von Neuhoff zu Rauschenburg
, were not in a position to break the siege. Ceccaldi had his hands full mounting a desperate defense of the Castagniccia, while Rauschenburg and his shepherd army did not have the strength to challenge the French directly.
Corti’s defenders were, however, armed to the teeth. The men had ample powder and shot for their muskets, as well as hundreds of grenades and bombs. Gaffori had more artillery than he could possibly use, and enough gunpowder and cannonballs to pound a fortress into dust. The defenders feared to use some of the larger pieces, afraid that the shock of firing would damage the medieval fortress, but there were a number of middling and smaller guns that could be pressed into service. Gaffori’s main fear was a magazine explosion, as given the tons of powder in the citadel it would certainly annihilate the garrison and might well level the town, but for the moment there was no fear of bombardment as the French had no artillery of their own. Perched upon a high rocky prominence, the castle proved to be practically invulnerable to conventional assault. Brigadier Anne de Montmorency-Luxembourg, Comte de Montmorency
attempted it early in the siege, but the French found the resistance so daunting that they broke off the attack before even reaching the gate. Shortly after Lieutenant-General Daniel François de Gélas, Vicomte de Lautrec
arrived with reinforcements on the 3rd of May and took command of the siege, he ordered another attack, this time with a larger and better-equipped assault group and focused on the north where the walls were lowest. The French succeeded in storming some of the outlying fortifications, but as soon as they were in the northern courtyard they were mercilessly raked by fire from the citadel's parapet and forced to abandon their foothold. Clearly, until the food ran out, the French artillery arrived, or Gaffori chose to surrender, Corti would hold.
Count Gaffori’s stated reason for defying the French was duty: He had been charged with the defense of the town by his king and would not disobey. Yet Chancellor Sebastiano Costa
tells us that Theodore had explicitly released his officers, including Gaffori, from their oaths, and makes no mention of Gaffori being ordered to defend Corti from the French. Perhaps Gaffori was attempting to cover the king’s escape, as Theodore’s caravan had departed Corti only two days before the arrival of Brigadier Montmorency. Burdened with pack animals carrying arms and ammunition, they were not yet beyond the potential reach of the French. In retrospect, however, Lautrec might have been hard-pressed to manage it. With fewer than three thousand soldiers in the interior, he simply did not have the manpower to fight Ceccaldi in the Castagniccia, besiege Gaffori in Corti, protect his line of supply from Rauschenburg, maintain the occupation of various villages that had only just been pacified and might yet change their minds, and
dispatch a whole battalion or more to chase after the fugitive king.
More than this, however, Lautrec simply didn't care. While the Genoese desired the king’s head above all else and would stoop as low as necessary to get it, Lautrec was not particularly interested in the fate of the “Baron de Neuhoff” so long as he was not an obstacle to the suppression of the rebellion. The French policy towards Theodore was essentially the same as their policy towards the rest of the rebel leaders—they were free to go, just so long as they stayed gone. Most rebel commanders which fell into French hands, even those who had fought for years after Boissieux's first ultimatum, were offered freedom at the cost of exile. As far as is known, not one man turned down that offer, which was understandable given that the alternative was presumably either to be hanged at Bastia or taken back to Genoa to be publicly broken on the wheel. Gaffori, however, wanted a third way. He was determined to remain, and this too may have motivated him to make a stand at Corti.
After the failure of his assault, Lautrec re-opened negotiations with Gaffori to see what the count wanted for the town’s surrender. Although all knew that Corti's position was ultimately hopeless, Lautrec had no way of knowing the state of Gaffori's food supply or exactly how many men he had. As the French had no interest in Gaffori, only in Corti, there was no reason not to treat with him if it could effect the faster and less costly capitulation of the town. Gaffori obliged him and responded with a list of demands: There would be a 10-day truce, after which he would surrender the castle to the French. He and his garrison would be afforded the honors of war. The foreigners would leave Corsica and receive French guarantees that they would be able to do so, but the natives would not be forced into exile. Finally, Gaffori demanded that Corti only be garrisoned by French troops and that no Genoese forces would be admitted into the town until the final withdrawal of French forces from the island.[A]
This was a rather exorbitant list, particularly from a garrison commander whose chance of ultimate victory was approximately zero. Montmorency opined that it should be rejected if only for the demand of honors of war; rebels did not deserve to be treated like proper combatants. Lautrec, however, was conscious of his orders from Paris, which were to gain as strong a negotiating position as possible vis-a-vis
the Austrians. Lautrec had already sent back orders for artillery to be brought up, but moving heavy French guns from Isola Rossa would take many days, and once they arrived there would be siege-works to dig so that the artillerymen could go to work on the castle while protected from Gaffori’s own guns. The castle was clearly an old construction and did not seem as if it would be exceedingly strong against cannon, but the French had no diagrams or detailed knowledge of the fort and could not be certain as to its vulnerability. The chances that the French would be able to move their guns from the coast to Corti, position them effectively, and sufficiently damage the castle as to force its capitulation within 10 days seemed remote. It may have helped matters that Gaffori seemed likely to be reliable—Lautrec knew by now that he was the son-in-law of Marquis Saviero Matra
, who had been a steady collaborator with the French. The French had recently agreed to let Matra’s son Alerio Francesco
return to Corsica, so allowing his son-in-law to remain had some precedent (and Marquis Matra may have been pressing for it). Lautrec respected Gaffori's appeal to duty and saw no real harm in humoring his demands. On the 7th, he gave Gaffori his assent, and the ten days of truce began.
As promised, on May 17th Gaffori’s company opened the gates and came marching out double-file with their muskets on their shoulders, a fifer and drummer playing, and the Moor's Head flag unfurled. It was the first time such honors had ever been given to Corsican rebels. A French officer recorded that his enlisted comrades were amused by the rough appearance and mismatched civilian clothing of the Corsican “soldiers,” as well as the spectacle of Faustina marching proudly in the lead alongside her husband. After their symbolic procession, the rebels disarmed, and the French took command of the citadel. Lautrec established his own headquarters in the lieutenant’s house, which a few weeks before had been Theodore’s residence. On that same day, the general issued a proclamation to all Corsican leaders who remained in rebellion: They were to come immediately to Corti to make their submission, or abandon all hope of reconciliation with the French.
The rebel commanders had generally ignored such demands in the past owing to the unacceptability of French terms, but now the situation was quite different. Corti had fallen, Gaffori had surrendered, and the king had fled south. There was no longer any hope of organized resistance in the Diqua, and it seemed to most that further fighting would only result in destruction and slaughter. Andrea Ceccaldi, surrounded with no hope of relief, replied with his acceptance of Lautrec’s terms and came to Corti to capitulate. He was shortly followed by Marquis Luigi Giafferi
, Marquis Simone Fabiani
, Count Marc-Antonio Giappiconi
, and most of the other major leaders of the rebellion in the north. True to his word, and despite the raging of the Genoese, Lautrec granted them all clemency – at the cost of exile. The war in the north was effectively over, with one exception: of all the northern leaders, Rauschenburg alone refused the summons, and with his band of Niolesi resistance fighters would continue the struggle for months to come.
Lautrec, and France, had triumphed. In an unfortunate twist of fate, however, the general’s accomplishment at Corti turned out to be partially in vain. On May 9th, a preliminary agreement was made between the Genoese, French, and Austrians as to the disposition of occupying forces in Corsica. Finalized on the 20th by the Second Convention of Turin, these terms stipulated that the Austrians would send up to 5,000 troops to pacify the rebellion and occupy the south of the country, excluding Ajaccio, Cinarca, and Vico (which were to remain in French hands) but including Fiumorbo, Aleria, the Tavignano, and – critically – Corti. While Lautrec’s capture of Corti had enabled him to subdue the Castagniccia without an invasion, itself no small feat, it had come too late to help the French negotiators. Word of the treaty's signature reached Lautrec less than a week after Gaffori's surrender. Theodore’s capital, having just been made Lautrec’s command post three days earlier, would now presumably have to be ceded to an Austrian garrison.
After their departure from Corti, Theodore’s party had moved south through the villages of Venaco and Vivario. Their greatest challenge was the Pass of Sorba, with an elevation of some 4,500 feet. Leading animals laden with weapons and supplies over this nearly trackless ridge was excruciatingly slow and difficult, and Theodore’s officers were continually afraid of an attack. The French forces they dreaded, however, never arrived, and on the 4th of May the king arrived in the village of Ghisoni. They were met there by the Zicavesi commander Carlo Lusinchi
and a corps of militia from Fiumorbo and Zicavo. Theodore was gratified to hear that Carlo and his brother Milanino remained loyal, and they were not alone – Colonel Antonio Colonna-Bozzi
and Lieutenant-Generals Michele Durazzo
, Luca d’Ornano
, and Theodore’s “nephew” Matthias von Drost
still proclaimed loyalty to the crown. Between them, the royalists still controlled (optimistically) a few thousand militiamen in the south. Whether those commanders could really be trusted, however, was yet to be determined.
As there was no sign of pursuit, Theodore decided to allow the men and animals of the column to rest at Ghisoni for two days. Lusinchi had assured the king that his position was, at least for the moment, secure; the valley could only be entered from the Diqua
by the Pass of Sorba, which had already proven its difficulty, or the Defile of Inzecca, an extremely narrow canyon of the Fiumorbo which was nearly ideal terrain for a small force to hold back a larger one. Thereafter the column went at a more leisurely pace. The king's men crested the Pass of Verdi, on the great mountainous spine of Corsica between north and south, whereupon he gave a heartfelt address to his soldiers admitting the dire situation the nation now found itself in but assuring them that the struggle was not yet over and that he was prepared to give his all for the liberty of the people. Having been informed of the name of the pass, he pronounced it appropriate given the beauty of the green forests in the valleys to either side, and promised that he would remember those stalwart men who were at his side atop the Bocca di Verdi
On the 12th of May, Theodore arrived at Zicavo. The mountainside town has often been compared to a Greek amphitheater, being a series of terraces looming above the fruitful Taravo valley. Theodore was immediately mobbed by the adoring locals upon his arrival. For various reasons, including the zeal of Zicavo’s curate in claiming that Theodore was sent by God to free the people from slavery and lead a holy war against the Genoese devils,[B]
the king was much-beloved in Zicavo despite having never set foot in the upper Taravo valley in his entire four-year reign. The crowd sang hymns, the women offered him and his men flowers and sweets, and the men shot off muskets in celebration. After this impromptu procession, Theodore was fêted by the local notables, including Milanino Lusinchi
, a former Venetian major, and Lieutenant-General Francesco Peretti
, the commander of the pieve
. Over a meal of trout, eels, fruit, and wine, the king, his hosts, and Chancellor Costa spoke of the war, politics, and strategy. Costa noted that the Zicavesi were confident in the impregnability of their valley, but that few of them had actually faced the French. Theodore, eager to make use of his southern lieutenants and cement their loyalty, handed out a few noble titles, disseminated guns and munitions among the Zicavesi militiamen, and made Milanino the new colonel of his “guard” (that is, the 300-strong volunteer force that comprised what remained of his regular forces). Although there were political motivations to this act, it was a wise choice from a military perspective – the Lusinchi brothers had been very successful in the south despite limited resources, and both had continental military and command experience as a consequence of rising to field officer rank in the Venetian army. Within a week of Theodore’s arrival, he was joined by Drost and Colonna-Bozzi, brothers-in-law since Drost’s marriage to Maria Rosa Colonna-Bozzi
that winter. Also welcome were the militia they brought with them, around 250 men, as an attack by the French was still anticipated.
Despite making preparations for a "last stand" in the Taravo valley and his promises to his ministers and the Zicavesi that he would fight to the last, it seems likely that Theodore was already planning his exit strategy. The king was no coward – that much had been proved in battle several times over – but he was clearly less enamored of “martyrdom” than the curate of Zicavo. Theodore was a survivor, and he intended to survive this war as well. Getting out, however, was going to be tricky. Although it seems likely that Lautrec would have offered Theodore the same exile as any other rebel leader, Theodore could not know this with perfect certainty. He understandably feared putting his fate entirely in the hands of the French, regardless of Lautrec’s past assurances; he was, after all, arguably responsible for the deaths of thousands of Frenchmen. For all he knew, Lautrec or his superiors might go back on their word once they had the man who had humiliated them at Ponte Novu in their clutches. If they should decide to take vengeance, or simply bow to Genoese diplomatic pressure and had him over, no power on earth could save him from a grisly execution. To escape Corsica without
placing himself into French custody, however, required a private craft, and since the nationals controlled no ports that in turn required getting a message out to a trustworthy captain willing to meet him at some lonely stretch of Corsican coastline. Although cheered by friends and loyal followers in his picturesque mountain retreat, the seemingly insurmountable difficulty of such an exit must have weighed heavily upon the king.
The events of late May changed everything. The news of Corti’s fall, while expected, was nevertheless a hard blow for Theodore and his followers. Just as predictable, but far more demoralizing, was the surrender of most of Theodore’s key generals and lieutenants in the north. Theodore had released them from their oaths and encouraged them to capitulate if left with no options, but the king’s men must have at least hoped that Ceccaldi would carry on the fight for a while longer, and perhaps even defy the impossible odds against him given his high martial reputation. Rauschenburg’s continued struggle in the high mountains was a rather poor consolation for such news. Soon after, however, Theodore received a third bit of news – the signing of the Second Convention of Milan and the announcement of the impending landing of Austrian forces.
Costa and the rebel commanders at Zicavo initially saw this as merely compounding their present disaster. After the collapse of the resistance in the north, it was difficult enough to imagine victory against the French. How could the nationals possibly fight the emperor as well? Only Theodore was pleased – indeed, he was positively delighted, and to the bewilderment of his Zicavesi hosts the king raised his glass in a toast to Emperor Karl VI
as soon as he received the news. A rumor circulated among the Corsicans that Theodore had some secret pact with the emperor, and Theodore may have encouraged the rumor. If the king's optimism was not merely feigned, however, it may have been because he saw the Austrians as a party more amenable to negotiations, particularly for his own escape. He had not yet stained the honor of Vienna as he had Paris, and his contacts among the Austrians were arguably better than those with the French. Theodore – who correctly ascertained Vienna’s fear of growing French power – may have believed he was capable of effecting his own flight by playing one antagonist against the other.
The implications of the Austrian intervention – and the resulting division of the island between French and Austrian zones of control – were greater than either Theodore or the Corsicans first realized. As the rebels eventually discovered, there was no “secret pact” between Theodore and the empire, and the Austrian commander Otto Anton, Graf von Walsegg
soon demonstrated that he had every intention of fighting the rebels as Vienna had promised. Yet from the start, the clarity of purpose of Vienna’s intervention would be clouded by the influence of Grand Duke Franz Stefan
with some help from the Austrian commander in Livorno, Karl Franz, Freiherr von Wachtendonk
. The emperor himself had no interest in the rebels, desiring only to reassert Austrian power and satisfy his British allies by denying the French the run of Corsica. His son-in-law, however, still fancied using the rebellion to gain the island for himself – and for the rebellion to be of any use, it had to continue to exist.
Corsica in late May 1740Footnotes
Green: Royalist controlled
Red: Genoese controlled
Blue: Franco-Genoese controlled
White: Unknown or neutral
 Whether an earlier capture of Corti would have changed these terms is unknown. While the French did believe that the town’s capture would improve their position, the consistently maintained negotiating position of the Austrians was that they should hold Corti in exchange for the French occupation of Ajaccio.
being the Corsican word for a pass. In Standard Italian the word for a pass is passo
, while bocca
[A] The Corsicans succeeded in gaining similar terms, at least with regards to the "French-only" occupation of Corti, in 1749. The 10-day truce prior to capitulation is similar to terms granted by Gaffori to the Genose defenders in 1746. Thus, while these are pretty generous terms, they're not historically unprecedented and there's really no reason for the French not to agree to them, particularly as Lautrec's position in the interior is still a bit touchy.
[B] There was, in fact, a notorious curate of Zicavo who was rabidly pro-Theodore; unfortunately, he seems to be only known as “the Curate of Zicavo” and I have not yet found his name. The curate was one of a number of Corsican religious leaders who preached armed struggle with inducements redolent of the promises made to crusaders or mujahideen
: that the mere act of killing a Genoese would absolve a man of his sins, and that death in the struggle was an act of martyrdom that would win a man his place in paradise.