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deorated initial 'A'hlthough soundly beaten in the First War of Italian Unification, the Sardinians under their new king Vittorio Emanuele and chief minister Camillo Cavour were still eager to evict the Austrians from their Italian provinces. They realised, however, that they could not defeat the mighty Austrian Empire on their own and therefore, in 1856, sent troops to fight in the Crimea allied to Britain and France. As a result, and also because of Napoleon III's ambition, Cavour managed to persuade the French Emperor to agree to a Treaty of Defensive Alliance against the Austrians and, with this safely signed, set about provoking the Austrians to war.

This proved easy. Cavour put Piedmont on a war footing and called for volunteers to enlist in a new war of Italian liberation. The Austrians demanded that the Sardinians stand down and, when they refused, declared war on April 26th.

The Austrian plan was to use their superior forces (the Austrian 2nd Army was approximately 140,000 strong facing the 70,000 men of the entire Piedmontese army) to crush the Sardinians before the French could intervene. Unfortunately, the Austrian army had become a parade-ground army: led by men chosen by the Austrian Emperor Franz Josef for their social standing rather than their ability to fight. Under its commander Field Marshall Count von Ferenc Gyulai, and to the surprise of everyone, the 2nd Army advanced into Piedmont at a crawl and, rather than striking swiftly at Turin, took almost ten days to travel the fifty or so miles to be within reach of the Sardinian capital. There, now faced with reports of a combined Sardinian/French army massing to his southern flank, he lost his nerve, and retreated.

Map of Italy with sites relevant to the Wars of Unification. © Robert Avery. Clicking on the image at the left will produce a larger map in a second window.

map of  Italy A skirmish at Montebello (May 20th) convinced Gyulai that the Allies would try to circle around him to the south and cut his lines of communication. He had, however, completely misread the situation. Napoleon III had joined the Allied army in early May, assumed personal command, and decided to circle north, rather than south, of the Austrians: using the railways to accomplish the rather tricky maneuver of shifting his entire army across the front of the enemy and cross the River Ticino near Novarro.

To cover this maneuver, he ordered the Sardinians to feint towards Palestro and there, at the end of May, when the Austrians responded with a reconnaissance in force, the first serious battle of the war was fought. Some 14,000 Austrians supported by 40 guns attacked a combined French/Sardinian force of 10,700 men and 18 guns: but were thrown back with heavy casualties. As a point of interest, Vittorio Emanuele, who had been watching the battle, was unable to restrain himself: and, as probably the last European monarch to do so, charged into battle at the head of his troops!

Gyulai, totally confused, retreated back across the river Ticino and dug in. Napoleon, now ready to complete his northern thrust, left most of his men on the Sardinian side of the river, and took 30,000 troops across the Ticino heading for the village of Magenta where he intended to establish a bridgehead. There, however, he ran into significant numbers of Austrians and, as both sides realised what was happening, a battle developed between Napoleon's vanguard (desperate not to be cut off on the wrong side of the river) and the Austrians: with both sides calling up reinforcements as fast as possible.

Magenta was another victory for the Allies and, on June 6th, the Austrians abandoned Milan and retreated east. Another Allied victory at Melegnano kept them on the run until they arrived back in the Quadrilaterals.

From there, and reinforced from Vienna, the Austrians sortied out from Solferino to attack the Allied Army: assuming that it would be strung out in pursuit. Unfortunately, the Allies had moved quickly, and their whole army was closer than the Austrians thought. The Allies, however, thought that they were fighting only another Austrian rearguard.

The battle rapidly developed into a series of attacks and counter-attacks as the Austrians tried to crush the French right wing and ' roll up' the rest of their army, and the Allies tried to capture Solferino and pierce the Austrian centre. It ranged over an enormous area, some sixty square miles, with the Allies committing their forces to action as soon as they arrived on the field. Eventually, however, Napoleon committed the Imperial Guard, and the Austrians were driven back into the Quadrilaterals.

It had been, however, a bloody day: with the Allies taking 17,000 casualties out of 137,000; and the Austrians taking 21,000 casualties out of 128,000. A young Swiss tourist, Henri Dunant wrote an account of his experiences of Solferino that directly led to the founding of the Red Cross.

Napoleon, too, had been badly affected by Solferino's butcher's bill. He signed an armistice with the Austrians without consulting his Sardinian allies: knowing that they could not continue the war on their own. Although furious with the French, Cavour had to agree but, by clever political maneuvering, managed to ensure that Sardinia absorbed Lombardy and the Duchies of Parma and Magenta (as the war continued, both had declared that they wished to join with Sardinia: with their Austrian-backed rulers fleeing in the face of bloodless, popular uprisings). The Unification of Italy had finally begun!

Postscript: Garibaldi led a force of 3-4000 volunteers (the Cacciatori delle Alpi) against the Austrians throughout the war. He led the Sardinians into Lombardy and then, when the French arrived, regularly defeated Austrian forces on the far north of the main Allied army, so tying up large numbers of Austrian troops and protecting the Allied flank.

Garibaldi's Unification of Italy (1860)

At the end of the Second War of Italian Unification, Piedmont/Sardinia now controlled all of northern Italy except the region of Veneto, and its capital Venice, which were still controlled by the Austrians. See figure 2. This left only the Papal States in the centre and the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies (ie Sicily and the Neapolitan mainland) to the South. Cavour and King Vittorio Emanuele were fully occupied in sorting out the aftermath of the war, but Garibaldi was still fanatically dedicated to the idea of fighting for a wholly unified Italy.

Over the preceding years, there had been various rebellions on the island of Sicily, but all had been put down by Neapolitan troops. The leaders of the rebel faction, knowing that Garibaldi was their only real hope, invited him to Sicily and, after some soul-searching as to what this would man to his relationship with the King, he agreed to lead an invasion.

Accordingly, on May 11th 1860, Garibaldi and his "Thousand Men" (actually 1049) landed at Marsala, and began marching inland towards the capital, Palermo. They defeated a force of some 2000 Neapolitan troops at Calatafirmi and, with numbers now swollen to over 3000 by Sicilian volunteers, arrived at Palermo on 26th May. Garibaldi attacked immediately: narrowly defeating the garrison of 15,000 Neapolitan troops largely due to the inactivity, indecisiveness and lack of willpower of the Neapolitan governor, Lanza. So narrow was the victory, in fact, that had Lanza delayed his request for a ceasefire by even one day, Garibaldi would probably have been forced to retreat from Palermo.

Garibaldi spent the next two months consolidating his hold on the island, winning a significant victory over the Neapolitans at Milazzo — a victory that finally broke the rest of the Sicilian-based Neapolitan army's resolve — and preparing for an invasion of the mainland. This began on the night of August 18th/19th with an attack on the heavily defended town of Reggio Calabria, which fell despite stiff opposition from the Neapolitans. From there, Garaibaldi marched on Naples, which fell on 7th September after the King of Naples, Francis II, fled to the region surrounding Capua with his army of 50,000 men.

The Garibaldini followed and, after a heavy defeat at Caiazzo on 19th September without Garibaldi present, fought a great defensive battle at the river Volturno on 1st October with him there. This battle was Garibaldi at his absolute best: with him leading his 20,000 men to victory over the 30,000 Neapolitans facing them.

Meanwhile, Cavour and Vittorio Emanuele, determined not to lose their central role in the Unification, had invaded the Papal States from the north on 11th September. Two Sardinian columns, numbering in total about 33,000 men, struck at the forts of Ancona, Castelfidardo and Loreto: and heavily defeated an army of Papal volunteers (a mixed bag of Swiss and Austrians, with aristocratic French commanders) at Castelfidardo. From there, the Sardinians marched south into the Kingdom of Naples (fighting a small action against the Neapolitans at Macerone on October 20th): with the King and Garibaldi finally meeting on 26th October near Teano. Garibaldi turned over Sicily and Naples to the King, and his army of "Red Shirts" was either disbanded or absorbed into the main Sardinian force.

The Sardinians then fought a series of small engagements against the remaining Neapolitan troops: eventually bottling them up in the fortress of Gaeta. There, on February 13th 1861, they surrendered, leaving all of Italy, save Veneto and the area immediately surrounding Rome (known as the Patrimony of St Peter), united under Vittorio Emanuele.

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Last modified 18 November 2004