Joseph Antoine Marie Michel Mainoni was born in Lugano (but according to some sources the place of his birth was rather Porlezza), in 1754 in the Canton Ticino in Switzerland and died in Italy in 1807. He became a General in the Napoleon French army. Unfortunately, his name is synonymous of war crimes, committed in Nidwalden and Stans (Central Switzerland), against the civil population during the French occupation in 1799.
Mainoni came from a wealthy family from Lombardy. He was a son of Bernardo Giuseppe Mainoni (1727-1786) and Francesca Grossi. His wife, Francesca Clara Schweitzer (1755-1791), was the daughter of an Italian businessman and banker Franz Maria Schweitzer (1722-1812). According to Wikipedia the family Schweitzer was also close related to the lineage Brentano, which we discussed on the article about Konrad Adenauer.
Little is known about his childhood and school years in Lugano. But, in 1770, Joseph Antoine Mainoni began working in the family business, created by his grandfather Giuseppe Antonio Mainoni (1704-1776) in Strasbourg. He moved then to Frankfurt in order to run the new family shop in the city, while his father staying in Strasbourg to manage a second store. In Frankfurt, he married, in 1777, Francesca Clara Schweitzer with whom he had six children.
After the death of his father in 1786, he took over the family business in Strasbourg, being forced to liquidate the Frankfurt store in 1788. He entered military service on October 18, 1790, as a soldier in the National Cavalry of Bas-Rhin, going successfully through the ranks, becoming rapidly a captain on August 6, 1792.
In October, he was promoted to a commander of 6th battalion of volunteers in Bas-Rhin. On 11 April 1793, while being at the headquarters at Mainz as a brigade commander, he was wounded in the leg during a raid. From August to November 1793, Mainoni was appointed as a National Officer for the District of Strasbourg.
He became then the President of the Revolutionary Court of Strasbourg and held the position until January 1794. On 30 July of the same year, he took the lead of 92nd brigade. In July 1795, he was arrested and imprisoned in Strasbourg for having committed abuses as the President of the Revolutionary Tribunal, but charges were dropped, and he was acquitted on 12 September. He was appointed later as a brigade commander on 17 February 1796, in 44th demi-brigade. He served with distinction diverse armies of the Vosges, the Centre, and the Rhine.
Mainoni distinguished himself at the Battle of Biberach (Baden-Württemberg) on 2 October 1796; between 1796-1797, he was active in Rhine, and under command of Napoleon during the Italian campaign. In June 1798, Mainoni entered with his troops the city of Basel, in Switzerland. The return to his motherland would become for him a real tour-de-force; after Basel, he moved his troops to Kloten, Olten, Solothurn and Langenthal. Halted briefly in Bern, he continued moving towards to Thun, Meiringen and the Brünig Pass. His troops amounted to approximately 8’000 soldiers. The main battle in Nidwalden was held in Kerns, between Sarnen and Alpnach, on 9 September 1798.
The battle lasted fours days, resulting in a complete defeat of the Swiss Nidwalden troops. Mainoni’s horde retaliated heavily, killing and raping the local population. In the German language, there is an expression for these acts: Schreckenstage von Nidwalden which means literally “Horror days of Nidwalden”. Mainoni’s presence in Nidwalden lasted till the end of October 1798, with widespread negative consequences for the locals. According to the Swiss sources, around 100 villages had been burned, many civilians tortured and raped: 435 deaths among which 118 women and 25 children.
Mainoni continued his tour-de-force to the South, meantime, being promoted to the rank of brigadier General on 19 November 1798. Having crossed the Gotthard Pass in Airolo, Mainoni arrived in Lugano, his native town, leaving behind him a trail of blood and war crimes. Here again, his troops persisted in crimes, committing violence and abuses everywhere in the Southern Ticino: Arbedo, Malvaglia, Lumino, Lugano, Mendrisio and Chiasso.
Mainoni was then asked to leave Ticino, heading for the Canton Grisons. He was captured, in March 1799, by the Austrians, but his captivity didn’t last long. After four months of imprisonment in the Graz Fortress, he was exchanged in August 1799 for the Austrian General Franz Xaver von Auffenberg (1744-1815).
On 16 August 1799, he returned to France and was engaged within the Danube army on 9 September. On 25 September, he fought the passage of Linth, commanding the right wing of the division under Marshal General Jean-de-Dieu Soult (1769-1851), his action was decisive for the French victory at the Second Battle of Zurich. He was then transferred to the command of 110th demi-brigade in Bern. In December, he moved to the command of the troops stationed in the Canton Valais, Switzerland, under General Louis Antoine Choin de Montgay (1747 – 1814).
On 18 March 1800, he was assigned to the reserve army, and, on 10 May, commanded the vanguard of the infantry division of General Jean Lannes (1769-1809) in Italy. Most likely, Mainoni played a role at the Battle of Montebello. Montebello was a lead-up to the battle of Marengo. At Marengo, he remained in the defence of the right bank of the River Po in Italy. Being a commander of three battalions of the division under General Francois Watrin (1772-1802), he placed his troop along the river, leaning on the dikes and the marshes behind San Cipriano. He was then engaged in a long and vigorous resistance, which gave valuable time to General Jean Lannes. On 14 June 1800, Mainoni was seriously wounded at nightfall in the chest by the gun fire.
On 1 July 1801, he was redeployed to the Cisalpine Army and was appointed Major General on 27 August 1803. He took command of the troops of Mantua Square on 3 October. He was received to the Legion of Honour on 1 December 1803 and became the Commander of the order on 14 June 1804. He died on 12 December 1807 in Mantua, as a result of his wounds that he had received in Marengo. He was buried in the chapel of Castello di San Giorgio in Mantua.
Mainoni belongs to five Swiss Generals whose names have been engraved on the Arc de Triomphe (column 26 for M.) in Paris. The other Generals, by alphabetic order, are: Girard dit Vieux (Geneva 1750 – Arras 1811), Gressot (Delémont 1770 – Saint-Germain-en-Laye 1848), Laharpe(Rolle 1754 – Codogno 1796), and Reynier (Lausanne 1771 – Paris 1814).
Francesco Bertoliatti, Fu il luganese generale Mainoni veramente “il boia di Stans”?,Rivista militare della Svizzera italiana, 23 (1951), first and secondt part, p.62-67 (Link)
- Arc de Triomphe Paris, Joseph Antoine Marie Michel Mainoni, Column 26
- To be verified if Mainoni is still buried in the Chapel of Castello San Giorgi Mantua, Italy
- Monument Allweg in 6372 Ennetmoos
- The “Museo della Battaglia di Marengo” is located in Via della Barbotta, in Spinetta Marengo, Alessandria. This is exactly the place where most of the fights between the French and Austrian armies took place.