Battle of Tolentino
The Battle of Tolentino, fought on 2 and 3 May 1815, was the decisive battle of the Neapolitan War.
After their defeat to the Austrians at Occhiobello on 9 April 1815, Murat’s Neapolitan army had been forced to retreat towards their headquarters at Ancona. In a letter to Wellington, on 25 April 1815, Lord Stewart outlines the Austrian strategy for decisively ending the Neapolitan campaign:
“General Frimont’s further plan, as far as I can learn, is to have Murat followed on his retreat to Ancona by General Neipperg, whose advanced corps consists of not more than 10,000 men, while a corps of 60,000 is to march under Bianchi to Foligno, thus placing a considerable force between Murat and Naples, and giving the chance of annihilating the Neapolitan corps retiring from Florence by being before it.”
[MS 61 Wellington Papers 1/456/2]
However, the Austrian corps under Bianchi and Neipperg became separated on either side of the Apennine Mountains. In an attempt to take advantage of the situation, Murat planned to use the main part of his force to defeat Bianchi at the town of Tolentino, while dispatching a smaller force to delay Neipperg. Unfortunately for Murat, Bianchi successfully routed the Neapolitan garrison at Tolentino on 29 April. Establishing a defensive position in the town, Bianchi aimed to delay Murat for as long as possible. With time running out, Murat was finally forced to march on Tolentino on 2 May.
The first day of the battle ended favourably for the Neapolitans. As fighting recommenced on 3 May they pressed forward. Anticipating a cavalry counterattack, Murat ordered two of his infantry divisions to advance in squares. However, no cavalry emerged and his troops were instead devastated by heavy musket fire. The situation was made worse when Murat was informed that Neipperg’s corps, having defeated the Neapolitan force sent to delay it, was now on the approach. On receiving further information that a Sicilian army had landed in the south of Italy, Murat sounded the retreat.
With their defeat at Tolentino, the Neapolitan army was no longer able to resist the Austrian advance through Italy and Murat was ultimately forced to flee to Corsica. In the postscript of a letter to the Earl of Uxbridge, on 19 May, Wellington mentions the possibility of Murat now commanding the French cavalry:
“I have a most formidable account of the French cavalry. They have now 16,000 grosse cavalerie, of which 6000 are cuirassiers. They are getting horses to mount 42,000 cavalry, heavy and light.
It is reported that Murat has fled from Italy by sea; and by other reports it appears that he has arrived at Paris. He will probably command them.”
[MS 61 Wellington Papers 1/465/35]
However, Napoleon, enraged by Murat’s premature actions and defeat, refused to receive him, and his offer to command the French cavalry was rejected. Not only did Murat’s actions and defeat at Tolentino mean that Austrian troops were now available for operations against France, it also meant that Napoleon would be robbed of his best cavalry commander at the battle of Waterloo.