Wars of Italian Independence


The Battle of Solferino, by Adolphe Yvon


These wars saw the KINGDOM OF SARDINIA , its allies, and formations of volunteers fighting against the forces of the AUSTRIAN EMPIRE . The First War of National Independence broke out during the REVOLUTION of 1848. After Milanese insurgents had forced imperial troops to evacuate Milan and the imperial government in Vienna was on the verge of collapsing as a result of revolution in that city, on March 23, 1848, King CHARLES ALBERT marched his army from Piedmont into Austrian Lombardy. Pledging support for the cause of Italian independence, he pro- claimed the union of Lombardy and Venetia with his kingdom. The Austrian forces under the octagenarian Marshall Radetsky held out, struck back, and forced Charles Albert’s forces back into Piedmont after defeating them at the first battle of Custoza on July 23–25, 1848. The Armistice of Salasco (August 8, 1848) put on end to the fighting, but hostilities broke out again when the Piedmontese denounced the armistice on March 12, 1849. This time the Piedmontese forces were defeated decisively at the battle of Novara fought on March 23, 1849. Charles Albert resigned from the throne in favor of his son, who became King VICTOR EMMANUEL II . Radetsky and the imperial government agreed to a settlement that allowed Piedmont to retain the constitution of 1848. The Piedmontese agreed to withdraw all their troops behind their own borders, demobilize, pay an indemnity, and promise future peace and cooperation between the Kingdom of Sardinia and the Austrian Empire. The decisive defeat of Piedmont-Sardinia in this conflict did not prevent that state from pursuing the cause of Italian independence in the years to come. In fact, the retention of the constitution and the fact that after the war it became a haven for political refugees from other Italian states strengthened Piedmont’s claim to champion the cause of Italian unity.

The Second War of Independence broke out in April 1859. Having secured a promise of military help from France with the secret AGREEMENT OF PLOMBIÈRES , Prime Minister CAVOUR of Piedmont-Sardinia succeeded in provoking Austria into declaring war on Piedmont. On April 29 Austrian forces crossed the border into Piedmont and could conceivably have defeated the outnumbered Piedmontese by moving rapidly before the arrival of the French. But their slow advance allowed the French emperor NAPOLEON III to have a large army in place by June. Also fighting on the French-Piedmontese side were volunteer units commanded by GIUSEPPE GARIBALDI . The French contributed almost 150,000 troops, the Piedmontese 80,000, and Garibaldi’s volunteers numbered about 10,000. The French bore the brunt of the fighting at the bloody battles of Magenta (June 4) and Solferino (June 24). At Solferino the Piedmontese army prevailed in the related engagement of San Martino. Garibaldi, operating independently in the mountains, was able to take his forces deep into enemy territory by outmaneuvering his opponents. The war ended unexpectedly when Napoleon III and Austrian emperor Francis Joseph signed the Armisitice of Villafranca on July 5, 1859. Napoleon’s motivations for this unexpected decision are not entirely clear, but he may have been influenced by the high losses suffered by his army, by a Prussian mobilization on France’s border on the Rhine River, and by concern that the Italian unification movement was gathering too much momentum as a result of the war. Napoleon had agreed that Piedmont should annex the regions of LOMBARDY and VENETIA , but not other territories. In the event, the Piedmontese had to settle for Lombardy. The acquisition of additional territory in the Romagna and central Italy was an indirect result of this war, which was not foreseen when military operations ceased. A chagrined Cavour resigned as prime minister, but returned to power in January 1860 to oversee the decisive push toward Italian unity that occurred that year.

Italy acquired the region of Venetia as a result of the Third War of Independence that was fought in 1866. This time Italy was allied with Prussia against Austria. Military operations began on June 16, with the Austrians forced to divide their forces on two distant fronts. On the Italian front Italian troops heavily outnumbered the Austrians, but a confusing command structure, and poor planning and organization nullified their numerical advantage. The Austrian army prevailed at the second battle of Custoza fought on June 24, 1866. The Austrian navy inflicted severe losses on the Italian fleet at the battle of Lissa fought on July 20, 1866. But Prussia’s decisive victories that same month forced Austria to cede Venetia to Italy. At Austria’s insistence the cession occurred indirectly, since the Austrians refused to hand over Venetia to the Italians, handing it over instead to France, which then turned it over to Italy. That gesture of disdain contributed to keeping animosities between Austria and Italy alive and sustained Italian IRREDENTISM until WORLD WAR I , when Italy went to war against Austria to acquire the Trentino–Alto Adige, Istria, and Trieste. For that reason Italy’s role in the first world conflict was sometimes referred to as the fourth war of independence.

Napoleon III (1808–1873) emperor of the French (1852–1870)

Born Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte, and often referred to as Louis-Napoleon, this nephew of NAPOLEON I spent his life in the shadow of his uncle, whose accomplishments he sought to emulate. Expelled from France after the defeat of his uncle, Louis-Napoleon spent his youth and early adulthood in Germany, Switzerland, and Italy. In the latter, he plotted with liberal conspirators and took part in the REVOLUTIONS in 1830–31. In 1840 he was sentenced to life imprisonment in France for attempting to seize power, but escaped in 1846. He returned to France during the REVOLUTION of 1848. In December 1848 he was elected president of the French Republic on the popular appeal of his name and family background. His sympathy for the cause of Italian independence, which he had supported in his youth, did not prevent him from sending an army to put down the ROMAN REPUBLIC in 1849. In November 1852 he assumed the title of emperor of the French by popular plebiscite, and the numeration of Napoleon III to indicate the continuity of the family dynasty (Napoleon II would have been the son of Napoleon I, who died with- out occupying the throne).

Louis-Napoleon’s interest in Italian affairs was partly due to his youthful association with Italian liberals, a romantic desire to emulate his uncle’s achievements, and to the traditional rivalry between France and Austria for dominance of the Italian peninsula. He was receptive to CAVOUR’s overtures for French support against Austria. In July 1858 they met secretly in the town of PLOMBIÈRES and agreed to a division of the spoils in case of war with Austria. Cavour provoked Austria into declaring war on Piedmont-Sardinia in April 1859, Louis Napoleon intervened in the conflict, and French troops defeated the Austrians at the battles of Magenta and Solferino. Intervention had consequences that Louis-Napoleon had not anticipated. His sudden and unannounced conclusion of an armistice with Austria after his initial victories angered Italian patriots who expected the complete defeat and expulsion of Austria from Italy. However, they took advantage of Austria’s partial defeat to stir uprisings in central and southern Italy, which led to the unification of the country in 1860–61. That was not what Louis-Napoleon had in mind. He favored a kingdom of Italy in the north ruled by his ally and personal friend VICTOR EMMANUEL II , but he did not welcome a large Italian kingdom strong enough to act independently of France. He nevertheless accepted the fait accompli, gaining for France the territories of NICE and SAVOY as compensation.

Relations with the newly formed Kingdom of Italy were often tense because Louis-Napoleon insisted on protecting the pope’s temporal power and political independence, largely to appease Catholic sentiment in France and the rest of Europe. In 1867 he dispatched troops to fight off an attempt to capture Rome led by GIUSEPPE GARIBALDI . While that encounter confirmed Napoleon’s negative image among the most ardent Italian patriots, many Italians were still grateful for his earlier help. King Victor Emmanuel II had to be dissuaded from dragging Italy into war at Louis-Napoleon’s side in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870. A recent proposal to erect a monument in Milan in honor of Napoleon III is a belated acknowledgment of the decisive role played by this often-indecisive ruler in the RISORGIMENTO .

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