The Great Events by Famous Historians, Vol 17

Author: Pietro Orsi  | Date: A.D. 1859

Battles of Magenta and Solferino

A.D. 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 theprovoked 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’armêe. 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 intention 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 theMincio 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 melancholyinterview, 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 Jrome 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 Plombières 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."


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Chicago: Pietro Orsi, "Battles of Magenta and Solferino," The Great Events by Famous Historians, Vol 17 in The Great Events by Famous Historians. Lincoln Memorial University Edition, ed. Rossiter Johnson (Harrogate, TN: The National Alunmi, 1926), 319–326. Original Sources, accessed December 6, 2021,

MLA: Orsi, Pietro. "Battles of Magenta and Solferino." The Great Events by Famous Historians, Vol 17, in The Great Events by Famous Historians. Lincoln Memorial University Edition, edited by Rossiter Johnson, Harrogate, TN, The National Alunmi, 1926, pp. 319–326. Original Sources. 6 Dec. 2021.

Harvard: Orsi, P, 'Battles of Magenta and Solferino' in The Great Events by Famous Historians, Vol 17. cited in 1926, The Great Events by Famous Historians. Lincoln Memorial University Edition, ed. , The National Alunmi, Harrogate, TN, pp.319–326. Original Sources, retrieved 6 December 2021, from