The Battle of Rutali
Excerpts from Merganser Publishing's "Rebellion!" Series #24: The Corsican Revolution
The Bevinco River near Bigorno's Mill
A lack of good intelligence was to prove critical for Colonel Marchelli
, the commander of a nearly 3,000 strong Genoese force at San Fiorenzo. Although reasonably well-informed on the lay of the surrounding territory by way of the filogenovesi
militia of the Nebbio, he possessed very little information as to the number and disposition of the rebel forces. To protect his supply lines from San Fiorenzo and secure the valuable province of the Nebbio, he first concentrated on liberating that district from the rebels, who possessed no more than a few hundred militia in the area under colonels Felice Cervoni
and Giovan Natali
. At the same time, he sent his second-in-command, Major Morati
, to secure the village of Patrimonio which commanded the western approach to the Bocca di Teghime, the shortest path to Bastia.
Cervoni and Natali were attacked at Oletta on the 18th of June by a force of filogenovesi
militia. Marchelli dispatched these men first so as to preserve his regulars, but after a first attack was beaten back he deemed it necessary to dispatch two Ligurian companies as a stiffening element to eject the rebels from the village. Cervoni withdrew to the village of Murato, where he was joined by Captain Mari Antonio Bigorno
and 150 men from Costera. Natali, meanwhile, bickered with Cervoni over strategy and decided to go his own way, continuing his tactics of resistance in the Nebbio.
Major Morati, commanding around 500 men including a Swiss company, had easily taken Patrimonio, but the mountains were occupied by a detachment of Castinetta's men under Captain Giovan Luca Poggi
, a recent arrival who had left the Neapolitan army to fight for his native country. With allegedly no more than 150 men Poggi harassed Morati's force, which in order to even gain a foothold on the mountainside had to climb up wooded and brush-covered slopes on paths only wide enough for two men to walk abreast. Unable to come to grips with the enemy, uncertain of Poggi's numbers, and constantly in danger of being enfiladed by skirmishers while on the mountain trails, Morati decided to cease his attempts to push past Patrimonio and reported to Marchelli that the rebels at Bastia must be holding the pass with their full forces. That convinced Marchelli to take a more southerly route through the Bocca di San Stefano, a gorge carved through the mountains from west to east by the Bevinco River.
Meanwhile, the Genoese captain Domenico de Franceschi
and his compagnia dei banditi
fought several skirmishes with the rebels in the southern Nebbio. They did well enough at chasing out Natali, who in an encounter near Rapale lost many of his men and barely escaped with his life. Franceschi, however, proved incapable of controlling his jailbird regiment, which was accused of swarming across the Nebbio and plundering without much regard to whether their victims were rebels or loyalists. Still, they were more numerous than the rebels in the vicinity, and once the banditi
occupied Murato virtually the entire Nebbio had been overrun.
The turning point was the arrival shortly thereafter of Count Andrea Ceccaldi
. Ceccaldi (b. 1690 or '92, also spelled "Ciaccaldi"), a nobleman from Vescovato in the Castagniccia, was already considered one of the rebels' foremost commanders. He had been elected as one of the first three "generals of the nation" in 1730 alongside his brother-in-law Marquis Luigi Giafferi
, and in 1732 Ceccaldi achieved the greatest victory the rebels had attained prior to Theodore's arrival by crushingly defeating the imperial general Karl Franz von Wachtendonck
and the Genoese commandant Camillo Doria
at the First Battle of Calenzana. Ceccaldi had traveled to Spain in 1735 bringing the rebels' offer of the Corsican crown to King Philip V
, and retained his pro-Spanish views at the consulta
of Alesani where he opined that the rebels should consider reaching out to Spain again rather than crowning Theodore. Nevertheless, Ceccaldi was on good terms with the new king; as one of the "Prisoners of Savona," Ceccaldi credited Theodore with helping to save him from being broken on the wheel in Genoa, and some days after the coronation Ceccaldi had hosted him at his house in Vescovato.
Ceccaldi had crossed the mountains from the Castagniccia through the Pass of Bigorno together with around 500 men of Casinca and Rostino on the afternoon of the 21nd. With Cervoni, he counter-attacked Murato and drove out the unsuspecting banditi
, killing or capturing at least 50 men. The arrival of this famous leader and his forces gave a boost to the flagging confidence of the rebels, who had practically given up on the Nebbio as lost. Although Ceccaldi's battalion was still much inferior to Marchelli's army, he was set upon making as much of a nuisance of himself as possible so as to delay Marchelli from making a transit of the Bocca di San Stefano.
Sitting on the wooded northern slope of the summit of Taffoni, the small village of Rutali to the east of Murato possessed a commanding view of the Bocca di San Stefano only a mile and a half away. Ceccaldi decided to dispatch Cervoni to occupy it, without realizing that he had been preempted by Marchelli, who had sent about a hundred local militia backed by a company of Ligurian infantry under Captain Franchi
, a Corsican-born officer, to hold the position. Cervoni and Franchi ran into each other quite unexpectedly in the outskirts of town, resulting in a chaotic meeting engagement in the woods. Franchi, not knowing what he was up against, withdrew into the village proper.
Aside from some skirmishing around Rutali, there was little combat of note the rest of the day. As evening fell, however, the main Genoese force—then encamped at Oletta—witnessed bonfires beginning to appear on the hills around Rutali and heard the braying of conch trumpets. The little skirmish between Franchi and Cervoni had kicked up a hornet's nest of rebels. Irregulars from Bigorno, Mariana, Rostino, and Casinca came streaming over the mountain by the light of the full moon, and skirmishing continued well after midnight. As dawn followed a sleepless night, Franchi discovered that he was entirely surrounded. Franchi was unable to send for help, but his distress was apparent to Marchelli (who was less than four miles away). The colonel decided to stage a rescue, and just after dawn marched with his full column southwards. By the time he arrived at the plateau above Pruneta, Franchi had with difficulty already fended off two assaults on Rutali. The swell of rebel irregulars had no real command structure and coordinated their attacks poorly, but they greatly outnumbered Franchi and could come at him from any direction.
Although Marchelli undoubtedly knew that Murato was occupied by the rebels, he assumed the major force was at Rutali. Out of caution, he deployed a picket to the pasture above Pruneta to guard his flank against Murato, and then advanced southwards. When his vanguard descended into the ravine of the Bevinco river they were met by Cervoni's company at a stone bridge over the river. Although Cervoni had enemies on either side of him, being directly between Marchelli and Franchi, Franchi was pinned down in the village by the irregulars and could make no move to flank Cervoni's force.
The opening phase of the engagement was at the stone bridge, where the Genoese infantry was bloodily repulsed by the concentrated musket-fire of rebels drawn up on the opposite side. As the river was shallow, this impasse was broken by the advance of a Swiss company under Captain Schmitter
, who crossed on the Genoese left to outflank the rebels. A fierce firefight now concentrated on a water-mill near the crossing, which the rebels turned into an impromptu redoubt. The mill was held by the Costera militia and was later called "Bigorno's Mill," as their captain died in its defense after being shot three times, although not before exacting a heavy price from Schmitter's company. After Bigorno's death, the men of Costera fled. With their flank turned, Cervoni's battalion retreated upriver. The way was now clear for Marchelli to rescue Franchi, although throughout the entire operation they were under fire from rebels "sniping" at them from behind rocks and trees. Once Franchi's company was extricated, the combined Genoese army now turned back northwards.
Ceccaldi, who thus far had done little but hold Murato, had been joined by Cervoni and the remnants of his company and decided to join the fight. Around noon, his battalion advanced down the plateau towards Pruneta where he encountered Marchelli's picket. This small force of militia held only briefly against a well-disciplined rebel advance before fleeing down into the ravine.
Marchelli had rescued Franchi from encirclement only to bring it upon himself. Returning back down the hill towards the river, he now had rebels on the heights on either side. His own attempts to organize lines of battle were disrupted by the terrain, the narrow paths, and his own men. As Marchelli's Swiss were trying to form up by the stone bridge, they were swamped by the panicked Pruneta picket fleeing towards them and pressed from behind by Franchi's men and their rescuers who were pulling back from the harassment of the rebel irregulars. The result was a swirl of confusion in the ravine which prevented the Genoese from bringing much of their firepower to bear on the enemy.
Now Ceccaldi attacked. He had no coordination or communication with the irregulars on the opposite slope, but they were already engaged and smelling blood. Holding the higher ground on the south, Ceccaldi's men advanced within 150 yards of the river and opened fire on the Genoese as Ceccaldi struggled to organize his forces. Fighting continued for more than an hour, during which an attempt by two Swiss companies to break out by advancing up the hill with fixed bayonets was turned back by the volleys of Ceccaldi's men and the death of Captain Schmitter, who was shot in the head. Between 1:00 and 2:00, under pressure from ahead and behind, the Genoese army collapsed; the flight of some filogenovesi
militia turned into a general rout down the river. A complete disaster was averted only by the bravery of the Swiss, who fought a creditable rearguard action at Bigorno's Mill, as well as the failure of the rebel irregulars to cut off or chase the enemy, for once they saw the Genoese fleeing they were more inclined to celebration than dogged pursuit.
In Genoa, where any news about Corsica was strictly censored and any word contrary to the official line was suppressed, the Battle of Rutali was spun as a victory. In the most dryly technical sense, perhaps it was—Marchelli had indeed rescued Franchi's company from probable annihilation. Yet nobody else saw it that way. Jacques de Campredon
, the French minister to Genoa, quipped that the Genoese had saved a hundred men at the cost of a thousand. The British consul John Bagshaw
reported similar figures, informing his government that the Genoese had suffered "at least a thousand" dead, wounded, or captured, while the rebels had suffered less than 200 casualties. While these figures might be somewhat exaggerated, if one includes desertions (particularly from the loyalist militia) they must certainly fall near the mark. Hundreds of muskets were taken by the rebels. Several dozen Swiss were among those captured, most of whom had fought in the rearguard, and a few subsequently ended up in Theodore's foreign company. Captain Schmitter was dead, and a Genoese captain, Graziani
, was captured. This information was widely reported abroad, and within a few weeks even the Genoese had stopped trying to claim it as a victory.
Marchelli's army, though diminished, was still considerable, and the rebels did not make any immediate attempt to follow up on their victory. Nevertheless, Rutali was the high-water mark of the Genoese summer campaign in the Nebbio. Henceforward, Marchelli concentrated only on maintaining his control of the province and made no further attempts to recapture Bastia. King Theodore duly rewarded the victors, making Count Ceccaldi a Lieutenant-General and ennobling Colonel Cervoni as a cavaliere
. Nevertheless, the victory was not without controversy. Cervoni complained that Ceccaldi had been dilatory and blamed him for the high casualties of his men and the death of Captain Bigorno. Ceccaldi, he claimed, would not have joined the battle at all had he, Cervoni, not joined up with his command after the retreat from the stone bridge and personally urged Ceccaldi to come to the aid of the irregulars.
Three modern interpretations exist: 1) that Ceccaldi deliberately waited for the right moment to cut off Marchelli's withdrawal; 2) that Ceccaldi intended only to make a demonstration against the Genoese to take pressure off the rebels at Rutali, which then turned into a major engagement after the flight of the picket at Pruneta left Marchelli vulnerable; or 3) that Ceccaldi intended to do nothing save defend Murato, believing his forces insufficient for an attack, until Cervoni cajoled him into marching. The first was the most popular at the time, and together with the First Battle of Calenzana cemented Ceccaldi's reputation as one of the finest of Theodore's generals, although Cervoni and his supporters tenaciously supported the third. The second is a more recent innovation, something of an attempt to split the difference by military scholars, but sound evidence for any one interpretation is lacking.
If the quality of Ceccaldi's victory is still debated, the cause of Marchelli's defeat is generally not. Although his forces, aside from the Swiss, did not give an inspiring performance, it was ultimately Marchelli's failure to gather accurate information that lost him the battle. He was clearly operating on the assumption that the rebel attack on Rutali represented the main body of the opposing forces, an impression which had been given by the bonfires and conch trumpets of Cervoni and his forces summoning more men to the fight. It is possible that the largest rebel force was
at Rutali; even the Corsicans were not quite sure how many irregulars, who were completely out of Ceccaldi's command, were present at the battle, and many went over the mountain and back home as soon as the day was won. Still, Marchelli plainly did not realize that Ceccaldi and around 600 militiamen, representing the best of the rebel infantry on the field, were still at Murato, and as a result failed to divert enough forces to the picket on his flank to prevent his own encirclement. The picket at Pruneta, which appears to have numbered little more than a hundred filogenovesi
militia, did not even succeed at delaying Ceccaldi's advance and contributed only to the disarray of Marchelli's regulars as they fled into the ravine where the Swiss and Ligurians were attempting to organize.