The Siege of San Fiorenzo
"The discredit of the officers of the Republic and their troops is here [in Turin] great and is aggravated by the last affair of the Nebbio, as I had the opportunity to learn it. The condition of the Genoese troops is deplorable, and their morale is also at their lowest."
- Letter of Jacques de Campredon, French Minister to Genoa, to the Comte de Maurepas, November 1736
San Fiorenzo viewed from the Cima del Buttogio to the southwest
The strategy of the Genoese government up to this point had been primarily one of isolation, both political and economic; if the islanders could be prevented from receiving arms or money from the outside world, surely they would be forced to capitulate. Although this led incidentally to famine on account of the inability of those Corsicans outside Genoese-controlled areas to trade for food, famine was not then a purposeful aim of the Republic. By the autumn of 1736, however, it had become evident that this strategy was not working. Although the Genoese blockade did cause difficulties for the Corsicans, it did not accomplish complete isolation, and smugglers continued to slip through to Bastia, Isola Rossa, San Pellegrino, and various isolated coves and rivers up and down the eastern coast. A new strategy was called for, and the one which the Genoese adopted was one of scorched earth. If the rebels could not be cut off from arms, it was reasoned, then it was necessary that they should be starving and destitute; and so the commandants were ordered to do all in their power to undermine the food security of the islanders. This would be done by chopping down olive, almond, and chestnut trees, and stealing or killing sheep, goats, cattle, and pigs.
Such a policy of "small war," requiring only raids rather than confrontations, appealed to the Republic which still stung from the defeat of Colonel Marchelli
at Rutali. Yet the Corsicans, too, could raid, and the "campaigns" in late summer and autumn of 1736 often look more like local feuds than actual war, with a group of Genoese soldiers stealing a few dozen goats and a band of rebels replying a few days later by burning fields near a Genoese fortress. Marchelli, who had somewhat mitigated his earlier failure at the Battle of Conca d'Oro but had no particular desire to risk his career further, exemplified the new strategy and took every opportunity to devastate the Nebbio. The royalist Colonel Giovan Natali
, a Nebbian native, responded by stepping up reprisals against filogenovesi
in the region, while Colonel Castinetta
—the rebel military governor of Bastia—led his troops north into the generally pro-Genoese Capo Corso and razed acre after acre of vineyards.
With several thousand men under his command, Marchelli could do quite a bit of damage in the Nebbio, but as a fighting force his detachment was weaker than it looked. He complained that his soldiers did not have enough food and lacked adequate clothing. Sickness was rife; the Germans and Swiss, his best soldiers, seem to have been particularly vulnerable to the local malarial fever ("the air of these countries does not suit them"), and Marchelli informed the Commissioner-General that many of his soldiers were so afflicted with scabies that they were unable to grasp their muskets. Hundreds of men had to be returned to Genoa for health and hygienic issues. His regular companies, whose strength on paper ranged between 80 and 100 men each, by September had on average 50 to 60 combat-effective troops. Problems with recruiting made it difficult to reinforce them from the mainland. A decree by the Archbishop Nicolò Maria de' Franchi
which permitted those who signed up for military service to eat meat during Lent failed to move the needle much, and stories of the hardship of the troops in Corsica and the ferocity of the Corsicans led to a phenomenon in which prospective new recruits for the regular army started demanding written contracts from the War Office promising that they would not be posted in Corsica. The Ligurian peasantry plainly had no interest in their government's desperate war to retain the last vestige of their colonial empire, and the French minister to Genoa Jacques de Campredon
reported that some Genoese were alleged to be trading with the rebels themselves.
All this made Marchelli (as well as Genoese commandants elsewhere in Corsica) increasingly dependent on Corsican auxiliaries, but the Genoese command was suspicious of these soldiers and was downsizing their regular Corsican companies at the same time that Marchelli was desperately trying to raise more Corsicans locally. Genoese plundering and razing in Corsica further alienated Corsicans who might otherwise have been sympathetic to the Republic, and Marchelli's shortages of supplies caused further problems, as the filogenovesi
irregulars were the last to receive scanty supplies and payment and correspondingly the first to desert.
The low-level skirmishing and devastation which had characterized the war since mid-August was succeeded suddenly by a royalist assault on Oletta in the wake of the Morosaglia consulta
. This attack found the Genoese quite off-balance. The Oletta garrison, under Captain Trinchieri
, offered respectable resistance but was overwhelmed by superior numbers and withdrew. Why Marchelli allowed this key town to fall without coming to its rescue as he had done at Conca d'Oro is an open question; certainly Theodore possessed a larger army in September than Ceccaldi had been leading in August, but his failure to show up may have also been an indication of the deteriorating quality of his troops, who were enduring a wave of malaria, and the miserable status of Trinchieri's garrison, which was constantly menaced by Natali's guerrillas.
The fall of Oletta collapsed Marchelli's defensive triangle. By the 30th of September, the rebels captured Patrimonio; the Genoese did not try hard to defend it, as it was now caught in a pincer between the main rebel force to the south and the Bastian detachment under Captain Giovan Lucca Poggi
. Marchelli now fell back on San Fiorenzo itself, which was protected by an arc of steep hills and cliffs. The town's own defenses, however, were lacking, consisting only of a formidable-looking but wholly obsolete 15th century citadel at the harbor and a few coastal defense towers on either side of the bay.
These towers were the first targets of the rebels, as Theodore had resolved to starve the Genoese out of San Fiorenzo. By this time the rebels had been joined by a company of Balagnese under Captain Paolo-Maria Paoli
, as well as a battalion of rough-looking maquisards
from Canale and Caccia under Colonel Carlo Felice Giuseppe
and some 200 mountaineers of Niolo, who enjoyed a reputation among the Genoese as the fiercest and most formidable of the Corsican rebels. These troops were assigned to invest San Fiorenzo from the west, and captured the tower of Mortella on the western coast of the gulf's entrance. The Genoese defenders fled, leaving the rebels in possession of its artillery, two seaward-pointing heavy guns and a light landward-facing gun.[A]
The Torre Mortella, at the entrance to the Bay of San Fiorenzo
With the loss of the interior Nebbio, Marchelli had to rely entirely on naval shipping for his supplies. The guns at Mortella being in rebel hands complicated that, but the bay's entrance was wide enough that Mortella alone could not close the noose. Theodore instructed Major Antone Nobile Battisti
, the former engineer in the Venetian army who now commanded the artillery in the north, to construct a battery at Fornali that could bombard the harbor of San Fiorenzo itself. Marchelli did not strongly oppose the rebels taking this position, but he was at least careful to remove all guns and military stores from Fornali before withdrawing. By the 10th, Battisti had moved his guns into position. Two batteries were constructed, one at Fornali proper and one at Ochinese half a mile to the south. Around 2,000 and 1,600 yards from the harbor, respectively, these guns were at extreme range; the Fornali battery was probably unable to reach the harbor at all, while the Ochinese battery could only do so well past the distance at which its gunners could reliably hit anything. Both batteries, however, could fire at ships coming down the channel, and even the incredibly inaccurate bombardment from Ochinese made operations at the port at least seem
To complete the investment, Poggi's men captured the Tower of Vecchiaja on the east shore opposite Mortella, and two light guns were eventually moved to that position. This position seemed an afterthought but soon proved its importance. A Genoese relief convoy—which had already been delayed for a week by rough seas—attempted to make the passage down the bay on October 12th, braving the continuing poor weather to bear much-needed supplies to Marchelli. In their attempt to give the western shore a wide berth, however, they ventured too far east, and when the wind picked up a galley and a felucca were driven aground and captured by Poggi's men. Several other feluccas and tartanes
foundered, and the remainder of the fleet turned around rather than continue on to San Fiorenzo. The rebels captured munitions, clothing, and flour, and freed dozens of galley slaves in accordance with Theodore's will.
Marchelli was not totally inactive. A raid was made against Battisti's batteries in the west that succeeded in overrunning the Ochinese battery and killing several dozen rebels, but it was soon recaptured by Colonel Giuseppe's battalion and the men of Niolo. While the Genoese succeeded in liberating some powder and supplies and spiking or otherwise damaging some of the guns, the artillery was brought back into action within a few days. Thereafter the siege of San Fiorenzo settled into a series of small and inconclusive skirmishes and raids. Theodore, fearing that his largely irregular army would suffer heavily against the Genoese defensive position, hesistated to attack, while the deteriorating health and morale of his troops convinced Marchelli not to attempt a major breakout.
Despite the rebel batteries and the earlier disaster off Torre Vecchiaja, supplies continued to trickle into San Fiorenzo. As the harbor's approach was under Battisti's guns, Marchelli had directed supply ships to instead anchor of the beach of Tettola just north of the town. This complicated the unloading process, as there were no harbor facilities here and supplies had to be conveyed to the beach in rowboats, but it was well away from rebel interference.
Captain Poggi, observing these transits from his post at Torre Vecchiaja, determined to demonstrate that this security was an illusion. On the 22nd, after observing a group of four ships (presumably feluccas or tartanes) sailing towards Tettola, Poggi left a small watch at Vecchaija and with the rest of his men manned the Genoese galley which he had captured earlier that month which had been pulled onto the beach at Farinole. As the Genoese flotilla was unloading off the beach, the galley bore down on them; they seem to have been caught unaware at first, as Poggi approached under the banner of St. George, the Genoese flag which had been captured along with the galley. Poggi captured one vessel, and the defenseless crews of the other three ran their ships aground on the beach so they could flee. Anchoring within musket-shot of the shore, Poggi's men cleared the beach with cannon and musketry, and under cover of this fire a longboat full of men went ashore and managed to set two of the beached ships aflame before a large Genoese force arrived on the scene. Costa claims Poggi and his men withdrew having suffered not a single casualty.
This audacious stunt boosted morale in the rebel camp, but Theodore was now concerned about a lack of powder—Battisti's batteries were running through his limited supply very quickly. Costa informs us that the desertion of some filogenovesi
militiamen inspired Theodore to his own creative approach. The handful of irregulars, dissatisfied with the poor conditions and prospects of the Genoese camp, had been captured by the rebels while attempting to sneak through the besiegers' cordon
and return to their homes. Some of the rebels urged that they be hanged as an example. There was also, however, a group of local women who demanded to see the king: they had husbands, sons, and brothers either in Theodore's custody or in the Genoese army, and they wished to petition for their amnesty. The king, Costa says, proposed a trade to the women; for each "measure of gunpowder" they gave him, he would grant one man full amnesty. The women, who were apparently able to move with some freedom between within the camps, spread his message among the enemy militia. Very soon, Costa marvelled, there were deserters coming into the rebel camp every night with muskets and casks of powder in their hands, much of which had been stolen from the Genoese regulars or the citadel's arsenal. At no cost, the king was simultaneously bleeding the enemy of both troops and munitions, and they could spare neither.[B]
Theodore the magician was not yet out of tricks up his sleeve.
 A tartane
, like the felucca
a vessel and term of Arabic derivation, was a small lateen-rigged ship used for fishing and transport. It is differentiated from the felucca that it is solely a sailing ship, possessing no oars, but otherwise the categories overlapped considerably.
[A] This, incidentally, is the "famous" Mortella tower that was widely copied (and mis-spelled) by the British in the form of the Martello towers
, built for coastal defense all over the empire in the 19th century. It had impressed the British in 1794 after its 33 men and three guns held off a ship of the line and a frigate and forced the British to take it by a determined land assault. One result of this TL regarding military architecture is presumably that the Martello towers inspired by the 1794 incident are never built and British coastal fortification in the 19th century follows other examples.
[B] If this sounds outrageously stupid, all I can say is that Theodore IOTL allegedly did a very similar trick at the siege of Calvi, bargaining with local women whose husbands/brothers were in Theodore's custody to go get him powder from the Genoese-held citadel if they wanted them back. Somehow it worked; he got his powder, although the siege was overall a failure. On occasion, Corsican clan society actually works for
Theodore—family, after all, is more important than loyalty to a government even for the filogenovesi
, and there's nothing too wrong with sabotaging your masters for the sake of your kin.