Battles Of Magenta And Solferino
Author: Orsi, Pietro

Battles Of Magenta And Solferino

1859

During the Crimean War (1853-1856) Austria remained neutral, while the
Italian Kingdom of Sardinia joined Great Britain, France, and Turkey against
Russia. The power of Austria still kept despotic sway over the States of
Italy, and it was the aim of Victor Emmanuel, King of Sardinia, to throw off
this hinderance to Italian liberty and union. It was the opinion of Count
Cavour, Victor Emmanuel's minister, that, by acting with the allies against
Russia, Sardinia would increase her prestige with the European Powers, and
thereby promote the movement for independence. The success of the allies in
the Crimean War confirmed the prescience of Cavour.

Napoleon III wished to secure for France supremacy in southern Europe. In
1855 he inquired of the Sardinian minister, "What can I do for Italy?" The
Crimean War ended with the Treaty of Paris in 1856. At the congress which
concluded that peace Cavour presented the case of Italy against Austria. Not
long after this it became evident that Napoleon was prepared to espouse the
Italian cause. In 1858 it was agreed that he should do this.

Sardinia now prepared for war. Austria sent an ultimatum demanding a
reduction of the Sardinian army to a peace footing. This demand was refused.
In January, 1859, Austria mobilized fresh troops on the Italian frontier, and
Cavour requested Garibaldi to organize a volunteer corps to be called
Cacciatori delle Alpi ("Hunters of the Alps"). Still Cavour disclaimed a
warlike policy, denying that the hostile initiative was taken by Sardinia,
although in this position he was opposed by some members of his own
Parliament. Nevertheless Cavour declared: "I believe I am justified in
proclaiming aloud, in the presence of Parliament, of the nation, and of
Europe, that if there has been provocation it was offered by Austria." As
shown by Orsi, the Italian historian, the great minister maintained this
attitude as long as it was possible to hold back from the actual conflict.

Cavour insisted that Austria must be the aggressive party, for in the
treaty with Napoleon III it had been stipulated that France would come to the
help of Sardinia only in case of the latter being attacked by Austria. Hence
Cavour was obliged to seek every means of putting his country into the
attitude of the provoked party. How many disappointments, uncertainties, and
anxieties crowded those days, from February to the end of April, 1859! In
order to understand the enormous difficulties overcome by Cavour it would be
necessary to follow literally, day by day, the history of that period. In
March he repaired to Paris to ascertain Napoleon's action: it was too evident,
however, that French public opinion was unfavorable to war, and the Emperor
was wavering. Russia and England suggested that the question should be solved
by a congress, to which proposal Napoleon III acceded: Cavour now believed all
was lost, since Sardinia could not refuse without putting herself in the
wrong. Fortunately, the difficulty was solved by Austria boldly insisting
that Sardinia should disarm before being represented at the congress, and on
April 23d this demand was enforced by an ultimatum, to be answered within
three days.

Now ensued a genuine declaration of hostilities, and most joyfully did
Victor Emmanuel make the following announcement to his troops: "Soldiers!
Austria, who masses her armies on our frontiers and threatens to invade our
country because liberty and order rule there; because concord and affection
between sovereign and people - and not force - sway the State; because there
the anguished cry of oppressed Italy is listened to - Austria dares to tell
us, who are armed only in our own defence, to lay down those arms and put
ourselves in her power. Such an outrageous suggestion surely merits a condign
response, and I have indignantly refused her request. I announce this to you
in the certainty that you will make the wrong done to your King and to your
nation your own. Hence mine is a proclamation of war; arm yourselves
therefore in readiness for it!

"You will be confronted by an ancient enemy who is both valiant and
disciplined, but against whom you need not fear to measure your strength, for
you may remember with pride Goito, Pastrengo, Santa Lucia, Sommacampagna, and,
above all, Custozza, where four brigades fought for three days against the
enemy's five corps d'armee. I will be your leader. Your prowess in action
has already been tested in the past, and when fighting under my magnanimous
father I myself proudly recognized your valor. I am convinced that on the
field of honor and glory you will know how to justify, as well as to augment,
your military renown.

"You will have as comrades those intrepid French troops - the conquerors
in so many distinguished campaigns - with whom you fought side by side at
Tchernaya, whom Napoleon III, always prompt to further the defence of a
righteous cause and the victory of civilization, generously sends in great
numbers to our aid. March then, confident of success, and wreathe with fresh
laurels that standard which, rallying from all quarters the flower of Italian
youth to its threefold colors, points out your task of accomplishing that
righteous and sacred enterprise - the independence of Italy, wherein we find
our war-cry."

The Austrian army to the number of one hundred seventy thousand men -
besides those remaining in the Lombardo-Venetian fortresses - was commanded by
General Gyulai, the successor of Radetzky, who had died the year before, at
the age of ninety-one. Gyulai meant to attack and rout the Sardinian army
before it could join its French allies. On April 29th he crossed the Ticino;
then spreading out his forces along the Sesia, he reconnoitred as far as
Chivasso. These districts abound in cultivated rice-fields and are
intersected by many canals: it was therefore easy, by flooding the ground, to
hinder the march of the Austrian troops on Turin.

Meanwhile, the Sardinian army, composed of sixty thousand men, awaited
the arrival of the French forces on the right bank of the Po. On May 12th
Napoleon III, already preceded into Italy by one hundred twenty thousand of
his men, debarked at Genoa, and on the 14th was at Alessandria, where, near
the mouth of the Tanaro, the allied armies met. The Austrian troops covered a
long tract, from Novara to Vercelli, then extended down the line of the Sesia
as far as the Po, and thence reached the mouth of the Tanaro. Gyulai, seeing
the enemy concentrated on the right bank of the Po, believed that Napoleon III
intended crossing that river in the direction of Piacenza - as Napoleon I had
crossed in 1796 - and so massed his troops to the south. At this juncture a
portion of his army encountered the French and Sardinians at Montebello, where
the extreme right wing of the allies was posted. The Austrian General met
with such a determined resistance that he imagined this must be the centre of
the enemy, and felt convinced that he had guessed the latter's intention; he
therefore caused his army to pursue its march southward. By this movement
Vercelli was abandoned by the Austrians and it was immediately reoccupied by
the Sardinians.

Napoleon now prepared a bold flank movement, by leaving the Po for the
Ticino, and to mask this manoeuvre ordered the Sardinians to make an advance.
Thus, while Victor Emmanuel, at the head of his men, flung himself from
Vercelli on Palestro - meriting, by the skill of his military tactics, the
acclamations of a regiment of zouaves whom he headed as corporal - the French,
taking advantage of the Alessandria, Casale, and Novara Railway, made for the
bridge of Buffalora over the Ticino. Only then did Gyulai perceive this
clever stratagem which threw Lombardy open to the allies, and he was
consequently obliged to cross the Ticino to block the enemy's way to Milan.

On June 4th, at Magenta, nearly the whole of the Austrian army engaged
the French forces; the battle, which was most desperate, lasted all day, and
was remarkable for the prodigies of valor performed. The Austrians, driven
back into Magenta itself, maintained, even in that village, such a stout
resistance that they had to be dislodged by house-to-house fighting.

On June 8th Victor Emmanuel and Napoleon III made their triumphal entry
into Milan - now freed from the Austrian yoke. On the same day a French corps
repulsed the Austrians at Melegnano, while Garibaldi entered Bergamo from the
other side. Garibaldi, who had been the last to leave Lombardy in 1848, was
now the first to set foot in its territory in 1859. Since May 23d he had led
his own Cacciatori to the Lombard shores of Lake Maggiore, had defeated the
Austrians at Varese, entered Como, routed the enemy afresh at San Fermo, and
was now proceeding to Bergamo and Brescia, with the intentioen of reaching the
Trentine Alps, to cut off the enemy's retreat.

After the Battle of Magenta, Gyulai had been dismissed from the command,
and his post was assumed by the Emperor Francis Joseph himself, assisted by
the aged Marshal Hess. On the night of June 23d the retreating Austrians
crossed the Mincio, but a few hours after retraced their steps and took up
their position on the hills to the south of the Lake of Garda. On the morning
of the 24th the Franco-Sardinian army began their march at dawn, and shortly
afterward, to their great amazement, encountered the Austrians, who they
imagined had crossed the Mincio the night before. The struggle was terrible;
in fact, the line covered by the fighting extended a distance of five leagues.

A series of hills, dominated by Solferino and San Martino, formed the
positions the Franco-Sardinian army had to assail. The French contested
Solferino with the Austrians, and, after a hotly disputed battle of more than
twelve hours, succeeded in occupying it. The Sardinians, led by Victor
Emmanuel, made a violent assault on San Martino; four times in succession did
they take it, only to lose it again, but the fifth time they made themselves
masters of it for good and all. By six o'clock in the evening the strength of
the Austrian army was everywhere broken. Just then a frightful hurricane,
heralded by clouds of dust and accompanied by torrents of rain, burst over the
two armies and thus favored the flight of the Austrian battalions. Napoleon
III now fixed his headquarters at Cavriana, in the same house that Francis
Joseph had tenanted during the action. On that vast battlefield the
combatants had numbered three hundred thousand men - one hundred sixty
thousand Austrians and one hundred forty thousand French and Sardinians - of
all these, after that sanguinary struggle, twenty-five thousand were left dead
or wounded.

After a few days' rest the Franco-Sardinian army crossed the Mincio and
besieged Peschiera. Now there seemed a chance of the Italians fulfilling the
hope they had so long cherished, of expelling the foreigners. They
confidently awaited news of fresh feats of arms in the Quadrilateral and of
the success of the fleet sent by France and Sardinia into Adriatic waters, but
instead came the most unexpected tidings imaginable.

On July 8th Napoleon III had met Francis Joseph, and three days later the
preliminaries of peace were signed at Villafranca. By this treaty Austria was
to cede Lombardy to Napoleon, who was to relegate it to Sardinia; the Italian
States were to be amalgamated into a confederation, under the Presidency of
the Pope, but Venice, though forming part of this same confederation, was to
remain under Austrian rule. Great indeed was the mortification of all Italy
on hearing such terms of peace announced. Cavour, who had devoted all his
marvellous talents to realizing the ideal of national redemption and had
believed his ends so nearly attained, hastened to his Prince, and, in a
melancholy interview, advised him not to accept such conditions. But Victor
Emmanuel, although it caused his very heart to bleed, signed the treaty,
adding these words: "I approve as far as I myself am concerned," whereupon
Cavour sent in his resignation.

What was the motive that had induced Napoleon to break his lately made
promise of freeing Italy from the Alps to the Adriatic? There were many
reasons which influenced him: the sight of that immense battlefield, strewn
with the bodies of the slain, the determined resistance of the Austrian
soldiers, the difficulties which would have to be faced in the Quadrilateral,
the hostile attitude of Prussia, were all motives which combined to sway the
French Emperor's mind. But there was also another reason which counted for
much. Napoleon had been drawn into this campaign without really knowing the
state of Italian public opinion; he wished Italy to be free "from the Alps to
the Adriatic," but did not want Italian unity; rather did he desire the
formation of a confederacy wherein France could always make her own
predominance felt in the peninsula. Scarcely had he arrived in Italy when he
was forced to see that Italian ideals were very different from what he had
imagined them to be. Trials had but ripened the virtues of prudence and
wisdom in men's minds: in 1859 the people were little likely to repeat the
blunders of 1848 or 1849, and there were now no longer discussions over forms
of government, but everywhere a unanimous resolve to rally round the liberal
monarchy of Savoy.

On the first proclamation of the war the Grand Duke of Tuscany had been
compelled to fly from his States (April 27th). Napoleon had imagined that in
this Province - the ancient stronghold of Italian municipalism - it would be
easy to form a new kingdom with a Bonaparte to wear its crown. With this aim
in view the fifth French army corps, commanded by Prince Jerome Napoleon, had
debarked at Leghorn, under the pretext of organizing the military forces of
Central Italy and harassing the Austrians on the extreme left. But the
Tuscans soon divined the real intention of the French, and the Provisional
Government in Florence, previously instituted under Bettino Ricasoli, suddenly
avowed its intention of uniting Tuscany to Sardinia, whereupon Prince
Napoleon, seeing the true attitude of the country, found it advisable to
affect to promote the annexation.

The duchies of Parma and Modena had also been deserted by their dukes,
and the papal legates had to quit Romagna, whose inhabitants now suddenly
announced their fusion with Sardinia. Indeed this impulse for annexation now
began to spread, and to the cry of "Victor Emmanuel" the Marches and Umbria
revolted against the Pontiff, but in these regions the movement was
sanguinarily suppressed by the Swiss troops.

Napoleon III was displeased to note how all Italian aspirations tended to
unity, and thus it was that he had signed the Treaty of Villafranca. Peace was
concluded at Zurich in the November following, and there the idea of an
Italian confederation was mooted afresh.

The fugitive princes ought to have returned to their States, but how was
it possible? They certainly could not hope to be recalled by their subjects,
for the latter had expelled them; occupying their kingdoms with troops of
their own was out of the question, because they had none; foreign aid,
moreover, was not to be looked for, since Napoleon III had established the
principle of non-intervention. Then the people of Central Italy showed
themselves capable of a bold political coup: under the leadership of Bettino
Ricasoli, dictator in Tuscany, and Luigi Carlo Farini - who held a similar
office in Emilia and Romagna - they declared, by means of their assembled
Deputies, their earnest desire to be incorporated with Sardinia.

The new Ministry formed at Turin, after Cavour's resignation, had pursued
its way timidly, fearing to rouse the suspicion and displeasure of the
European Powers, but at this momentous and difficult juncture Cavour again
accepted the premiership (January 20, 1860). He immediately gave a bolder
impetus to King Victor Emmanuel's policy by sending a note to all the Powers,
in which he asserted it to be now impossible for Sardinia to offer any
resistance to the inevitable course of events. Cavour imagined that since
Napoleon III had obtained the imperial throne by a plebiscite, he would not
deny the validity of such a claim in Italy, and forthwith submitted this idea
to the Emperor, who was bound to approve of it. But the French nation was
discontented, imagining that the blood it had shed for Italy had profited
nothing, and was, moreover, very averse to the formation of a powerful kingdom
beyond the Alps.

Now it was that Cavour determined on a great sacrifice. In the
convention of Plombieres it had been agreed that, in the event of a kingdom of
eleven million inhabitants being established from the Alps to the Adriatic,
Sardinia would cede Savoy to France. As, however, by the Treaty of
Villafranca, Venetia had remained under the Austrian yoke, no more had been
said about cession of territory, but by the annexation of Central Italy the
number of Victor Emmanuel's subjects was now augmented to eleven millions. In
order to induce Napoleon III to approve of such an annexation Cavour offered
him Savoy, but the Emperor claimed Nice as well, and the Minister was obliged
to accede to his demands. On March 24, 1860, Savoy, the cradle of the
reigning dynasty, and Nice, Garibaldi's native Province, were ceded to France.
Garibaldi, deeply wounded in his tenderest feelings, violently abused Cavour
in Parliament, but the Chamber, although it respected the hero's emotion,
ratified the treaty which was at this crisis a necessary concession.

At the same time Parma, Modena, Romagna, and Tuscany expressed by
universal suffrage their cordial desire for union with Sardinia, and a few
days later the fusion of these provinces with the dominions of the house of
Savoy was an accomplished fact. On April 2, 1860, at the opening of the new
Parliament, Victor Emmanuel could thus sum up the results already obtained by
the nationalist party: "In a very short space of time an invasion repulsed,
Lombardy liberated by valiant feats of arms, Central Italy freed by her
people's wonderful strength, and to-day, assembled around me here, the
representatives of the rights and hopes of the nation."


 

Back to Main menu

A project by History World International

World History Center