Historical and Commemorative Medals
Collection of Benjamin Weiss

PASSAGE OF THE GREAT ST. BERNARD

ANDRIEU, Bertrand: France, 1800, Lead-filled Bronze, 68 mm
Obv: Napoleon on horse with lightning bolts and mountainous backdrop
Exergue:  PASSAGE DU G.D S.T BERNARD LE XXV FLOREAL AN VIII.
Rev: Uniface
Signed:  ANDRIEU. F.
Lead-filled bronze clich, part of boxed set
Floreal is the 8th month of the calendar of the first French republic (April 20 to May 19).
Ref: Bramsen 35; Julius 788; TN 76.7;  Jones, "Art of the Medal", 101/259;  Weiss BW396

The St. Bernard passes [the Great St. Bernard (8,094 ft.) and the Little St. Bernard (7,178 ft.)] are two passes across the main chain of the Alps, separating southern France from northern Italy.  Hannibal was thought to pass this way over the Alps in his attempted conquest of the Romans. These passes also played a decisive role in the campaign of Napoleon's armies over those of Austria led by Baron Michael Melas.
When the French campaign was opened on the Rhine, the army of reserve began its march from Dijon. The government announced it to be at that time 50,000 strong, and receiving reinforcements every day. Napoleon, the chief Consul, arrived at Dijon and reviewed the army. He promised his troops at Dijon, that in two decades he would lead them to Milan. He performed his journey from Paris to Dijon in twenty-five hours, and immediately sent an account of his arrival to the second and third Consuls at Paris. Before the allies even knew of his departure he was in the Valais, at the house of convalescence, belonging to the Monks of St. Bernard. There he made himself acquainted with all the local obstacles that he had to surmount.
From mount St. Bernard the army began to meet with difficulties, which might have been thought insurmountable, but enthusiasm conquered them all. They had to draw their artillery through mountains of snow, along narrow paths, in many places almost perpendicular. A very small force would have arrested their progress, but they met no opposition.
They reached St. Peter near the great mountain St. Bernard, on May 15, 1800, General Berthier acting as Bonaparte's lieutenant. The whole park of artillery was collected there. The mountain they had to pass was wild and barren, a vast extent of snow and ice, mingled with a terrific silence. Over this frightful mountain the mind of Bonaparte conceived the possibility of passing his army with all its artillery and supplies. Almost invincible obstacles presented themselves, but all was foreseen by the genius who conceived the enterprise, and who contrived everything to carry it into execution.
The cannon, caissons, forges, etc. were immediately dismounted piecemeal. A number of trees were hollowed out, like troughs, in which the pieces of cannons might safely slide, and five or six hundred men drew them up these tremendous heights. The wheels were carried on poles, sledges conveyed the axle-trees, and empty caissons and mules were loaded with the ammunition boxes made of fir.
It took five hours to climb as high as the Monastery of the Bernardines. There were still six leagues to go, and the rapidity of the descent made that distance truly terrible, men and horses constantly falling, and often recovering with the greatest difficulty. Bonaparte himself was forced to slide down more than 200 feet and was nearly swallowed up by coming into contact with a collection of thawed snow. The holes into which the soldiers constantly fell made this part of the journey worse than the ascending. The march commenced at midnight and did not finish till about nine o'clock the next evening. For near fourteen leagues the army had scarcely had a meal or any repose.
Before their Consul ascended the mountain, he addressed a letter to his brother Lucien, then minister of the interior, which reached Paris on the 23rd of May. He then stated, that he was at the foot of the great Alps, in the midst of the Valais. The great St. Bernard offered many obstacles, but they are surmounted; the army is descending by forced marches, and in three days all will be over. (Modified from Laskey's Narrative on Battle of St. Bernard).
The passage of Napoleon's troops across the St. Bernard pass into Italy led shortly thereafter to the extraordinary Battle of Marengo on June 14, 1800.

LINK to Napoleon at St. Bernard by Jacques-Louis David (from WebMuseum)

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