There were now two generals. Napoleon used to say that one bad commander was better than two good ones, so essential is it to success in all military operations to secure that promptness, and confidence, and decision which can only exist where action is directed by one single mind. Sempronius and Scipio disagreed as to the proper course to be pursued. Sempronius wished to attack Hannibal immediately. Scipio was in favor of delay. Sempronius attributed Scipio’s reluctance to give battle to the dejection of mind and discouragement produced by his wound, or to a feeling of envy lest he, Sempronius, should have the honor of conquering the Carthaginians, while he himself was helpless in his tent. On the other hand, Scipio thought Semprcnius inconsiderate and reckless, and disposed to rush heedlessly into a contest with a foe whose powers and resources he did not understand.
In the mean time, while the two commanders were thus divided in opinion, some skirmishes and small engagements took place between detachments from the two armies, in which Sempronius thought that the Romans had the advantage. This excited his enthusiasm more and more, and he became extremely desirous to bring on a general battle. He began to be quite out of patience with Scipio’s caution and delay. The soldiers, he said, were full of strength and courage, all eager for the combat, and it was absurd to hold them back on account of the feebleness of one sick man. “Besides,” said he, “of what use can it be to delay any longer? We are as ready to meets the Carthaginians now as we shall ever be. There is no third consul to come and help us; and what a disgrace it is for us Romans, who in the former war led our troops to the very gates of Carthage, to allow Hannibal to bear sway over all the north of Italy, while we retreat gradually before trim, afraid to en counter now a force that we have always conquered before.”
Hannibal was not long in learning, through his spies, that there was this difference of opinion between the Roman generals, and that Sempronius was full of a presumptuous sort of ardor and he began to think that he could contrive some plan to draw the latter out into battle under circumstances in which he would have to act at a great disadvantage. He did contrive such a plan. It succeeded admirably; and the case was one of those numerous instances which occurred in the history of Hannibal, of successful stratagem, which led the Romans to say that his leading traits of character were treachery and cunning.
Hannibal’s plan was, in a word, an attempt to draw the Roman army out of its encampment on a dark, cold, and stormy night in December, and get them into the river. This river was the Trebia. It flowed north into the Po, between the Roman and Carthaginian camps. His scheme, in detail, was to send a part of his army over the river to attack the Romans in the night or very early in the morning. He hoped that by this means Sempronius would be induced to come out of his camp to attack the Carthaginians. The Carthaginians were then to fly and re-cross the river, and Hannibal hoped that Sempronius would follow, excited by the ardor of pursuit. Hannibal was then to have a strong reserve of the army that had remained all the time in warmth and safety, to come out and attack the Romans with unimpaired strength and vigor, while the Romans themselves would be benumbed by the cold and wet, and disorganized by the confusion produced in crossing the stream.
A part of Hannibal’s reserve were to be placed in an ambuscade. There were some meadows near the water, which were covered in many places with tall grass and bushes. Hannibal went to examine the spot, and found that this shrubbery was high enough for even horsemen to be concealed in it. He determined to place a thousand foot soldiers and a thousand horsemen here, the most efficient and courageous in the army. He selected them in the following manner:
He called one of his lieutenant generals to the spot, explained somewhat of his design to him, and then asked him to go and choose from the cavalry and the infantry, a hundred each, the best soldiers he could find. This two hundred were then assembled, and Hannibal, after surveying them with looks of approbation and pleasure, said, “Yes, you are the men I want, only, instead of two hundred, I need two thousand. Go back to the army, and select and bring to me, each of you, nine men like yourselves.” It is easy to be imagined that the soldiers were pleased with this commission; and that they executed it faithfully. The whole force thus chosen was soon assembled, and stationed in the thickets above described, where they lay in ambush ready to attack the Romans after they should pass the river.
Hannibal also made arrangements for leaving a large part of his army in his own camp, ready for battle, with orders that they should partake of food and refreshments and keep themselves warm by the fires until they should be called upon. All things being thus ready, he detached a body of horsemen to cross the river, and see if they could provoke the Romans to come out of their camp and pursue them.
” Go,” said Hannibal, to the commander of this detachment, “pass the stream, advance to the Roman camp, assail the guards, and when the army forms and comes out to attack you, retreat slowly before them back across the river.”
The detachment did as it was ordered to do. When they arrived at the camp, which was soon after break of day,-for it was a part of Hannibal’s plan to bring the Romans out before they should have had time to breakfast, Sempronius, at the first alarm, called all the soldiers to arms, supposing that the whole Carthaginian force was attacking them. It was a cold and stormy morning, and the atmosphere being filled with rain and snow, but little could be seen. Column after column of horsemen and of infantry marched out of the camp. The Carthaginians retreated. Sempronius was greatly excited at the idea of so easily driving back the assailants, and, as they retreated, he pressed on in pursuit of them. As Hannibal had anticipated, he became so excited in the pursuit that he did not stop at the banks of the river. The Carthaginian horsemen plunged into the stream in their retreat, and the Romans, foot soldiers and horsemen, together, followed on. The stream was usually small, but it was now swelled by the rain which had been falling all the night. The water was, of course, intensely cold. The horsemen got through tolerably well, but the foot soldiers were all thoroughly drenched and benumbed; and as they had not taken any food that morning, and had come forth on a very sudden call, and without any sufficient preparation, they felt the effects of the exposure in the strongest degree. Still they pressed on. They ascended the bank after crossing the river, and when they had formed again there, and were moving forward in pursuit of their still flying enemy, suddenly the whole force of Hannibal’s reserves, strong and vigorous, just from their tents and their fires, burst upon them. They had scarcely recovered from the astonishment and the shock of this unexpected onset, when the two thousand concealed in the ambuscade came sallying forth in the storm, and assailed the Romans in the rear with frightful shouts and outcries.