Italy’s Pre-Unification, a Peninsula in Conflict



BY: Tom Frascella                                                                                                                                    February 2015



In 1858 the peninsula of Italy consisted, as it had for most of the preceding 1500 years, of a number of fractured regional States each with varying degrees of autonomy. Each region traditionally saw itself as distinct with its own cultural history and dialect. Frequently the States were at odds with each other and conflicts arose. Historically the inherent disunity of Italian politics often led to parts of the Italian peninsula falling under foreign, external control.

 The richest, most independent regional State in Italy in 1858 was the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies in the south.  In 1858 the Kingdom of the Two Scilies had a well trained and equipped army of over 100,000 and a formidable coastal navy. It maintained an active export trade which centered on sulfur and manufactured goods and a contemporary educational system. On the negative side it had the most autocratic monarchy in Europe and a top down economy where the lowest economic strata was feudal in nature. The common man had little opportunity to own land or to better his social status.

 As previous articles have discussed following the restructure of European national politics after the 1848 Carbonari revolts a new power began to emerge in northern Italy, Piedmont-Sardinia. In the first half of the 1850’s the Piedmont monarchy solidified its internal authority against the dissidents within its territories. The Piedmont regime was quite astute as it saw great opportunity to further its goals of expansion in the developing political stresses of the emerging “new” Europe and the internal conflicts of the Italian peninsula.  Piedmont expertly crafted alliances both secret and public with England and France to advance its political agenda. It was the only political power on the Italian peninsula prepared to risk considerable troop engagement in foreign adventure as well as major capital assets to achieve its goals.

 Following the conclusion of the Crimean War in which Piedmont-Sardinia was allied with Great Britain and France, a war far beyond its orbit of national interest, a secret agreement was negotiated between Piedmont and France. Essentially, France agreed to support Piedmont in its attempt to rest political control of most of northern Italy from Austrian dominance in exchange for Piedmont’s territorial concessions to border land with France.

 The formal mutual defense alliance between France and Piedmont is dated at 1858 however, it is clear that Piedmont’s plans were developing at least as early as 1856. The so called Plombieres agreement between Piedmont and France essentially provided that in the event that either was attacked the other would provide military support, although Piedmont had also agreed to finance any military campaign that resulted. Once the agreement was formalized in secret it then fell to Piedmont to create sufficient provocation to get Austria to act aggressively triggering war and bringing France into the conflict. Again, the willingness of the Piedmont regime to risk both traditional territory and capital was very bold for such a small country.

 The problem for Piedmont was how to start a border conflict with Austria without appearing to be the aggressor. The solution to the problem appeared to the Piedmont regime to be the traditional foe of both Piedmont and Austria, the Carbonari ever present threat of an uprising. After all, various parts of Italy had witnessed Carbonari uprising periodically for the preceding seventy years. The last major Carbonari uprising had in fact taken on the aspect of an international movement in 1848.

 The Austrian monarchy had survived the Carbonari revolts of a decade earlier but were very wary of renewed activity. This was understandable in that periodic Carbonari revolts had been occurring about every ten years. It is clear that the Piedmont regime saw the perceived threat of a new Carbonari revolt as an opportunity to induce Austria to commit military aggression in the form of political/military suppression in the border territories in Italy which it controlled. But the problem was how to get Austria to threaten action beyond its borders.

 Toward this end Piedmont as early as 1854 had begun to cultivate two critical individuals as allies who would make their plan to induce an Austrian response more credible and successful. Those critical individuals were Giuseppe Garibaldi and Francesco Crispi. By the mid-1850’s the Piedmont regime had given both well-known Carbonari revolutionaries sanctuary in Piedmont –Sardinia as well as political support. As we have seen both of these men had long histories of revolutionary activity on the Italian peninsula although Crispi’s activities were more focused in Sicily. Both were long-time associates of Carbonari leader Mazzini. Under Mazzini’s leadership both Garibaldi and Crispi had spread their revolutionary “republican” ideals in venues throughout Italy and beyond. As an interesting side issue both Crispi and Garibaldi had Albanese heritage which linked them to the Albanese ethnic minority in Italy, a fact that played a role in later events.

 Disillusioned with the repeated failures of the Carbonari revolts both Crispi and Garibaldi had come to reject Mazzini’s dream of a united, democratic-republic of Italy. While the dream of a united Italy remained in the forefront both men had come to believe it was not possible to achieve this dream in a true “republican” form. In past uprisings both the regional divisions of the peninsula and major foreign interference had doomed each uprising. Frequently the foreign intervention had come from countries whose monarchies had close ties to certain regimes on the peninsula. In the 1856-1858 period both men were recruited by the Piedmont regime to embrace the cause of a united Italy under one monarchy the House of Savoy. Once Garibaldi and Crispi had been brought into the fold Piedmont was ready to initiate its expansionist plans. The early and critical phase of the plan initially seemed to look to expand Piedmont’s control only in the north but actually Crispi involvement demonstrates it was always much more than that.

 The initial phase of the Piedmont/French plan seems to have depended on encouraging Italian Carbonari/Unionists in the northern States controlled by Austria to reject service in Austria’s military and instead seek asylum in Piedmont. As these military aged defectors began to grow in number they took on the character of a growing force of revolutionaries aimed at Austria’s Italian States. Their numbers quickly reached 20,000 in a matter of months. As planned Austria’s attention was drawn to the new “Carbonari” threat developing on its border. To make that threat even more alarming to Austria, Victor Emmanuel II appeared to placed Garibaldi in charge of organizing the defectors into a military unit. Garibaldi had demonstrated in the past, on several continents, an ability to quickly form a group of disorganized recruits into an effective fighting force. At the time Garibaldi’s training of an effective revolutionary force was probably perceived by Austria as a greater threat than Piedmont’s army.  Piedmont had an army of approximately 35,000. In fact the rapid expansion of volunteers also concerned Piedmont which began to discourage the defections so as not to create too strong a force within their own territory. 

 Austria had approximately 45,000 troops stationed in Lombardy-Venetia at the end of 1858. A foreign invasion by the Piedmont army would have no support among the Lombardy-Venetia population however a Garibaldi lead uprising of local militia might cause another popular revolt against Austrian rule and was therefore of much greater concern.

 Despite this concern Austria determined to use measured restraint in its response to the threat. As the Garibaldi threat did not draw the desired over reaction from Austria at least not prior to January 1859 Piedmont realized it needed to heighten the tensions on the border.  In February Piedmont shifted its 35,000 man standing army to its eastern border and mobilized its reserves. France in further support of the provocation plan began massing 120,000 troops on its southern border which alerted the Austrians to the fact that France had allied with Piedmont. In response Austria sent three additional corps to defend and discourage invasion of its Italian territories. By the third week in April Piedmont could count on 77,000 men under arms, France had 120,000 massed on its southern border with Piedmont and Austria’s forces had reached about 170,000.

 At this point in late late-January 1859 with all three countries on the brink of war Great Britain stepped in offering the possibility of a diplomatic solution or at least a European conference to discuss the situation. An international conference was agreed to by the French, Austrians, Russians and Prussians governments. However, the Austrian Emperor had believed that regardless of the conference outcome that the German federation and Russia would support Austria.

 He was aware that his troop count far outnumbered and were better trained than that of the Piedmont forces. In direct confrontation he opined that the Piedmont and volunteer forces could not win in organized combat against his superior forces. The Austrian Emperor also calculated that the French although massed on France’s southern border shared with Piedmont, could not deploy fast enough to be a factor in any conflict which might rapidly develop. He became confident that the Piedmont forces deployed against him would be crushed in a matter of days or a few weeks at worst.

 It is with that political and military analysis that the Austrian Emperor formed a basis of a plan in which he choose not to proceed with the conference. Rather he choose to deliver an ultimatum to Victor Emmanuel II on April 23 1859. The ultimatum insisted that Victor Emmanuel II remove his troops from the border and demobilize in three days or Austria would declare war on Piedmont. This was all the provocation Piedmont and the French needed. By April 26, 1859 the date hostilities commenced France had already transported 10,000 of its troops into Piedmont territory in support of Victor Emmanuel’s forces. What has become known as the Second War of Italian Unification had begun. It should be remembered that the Second War of Italian Unification is given the dates 1859-1861, a span of two years. As you will read the war between Piedmont and Austria lasted only from April 26, 1859 – July 11, 1859 only about three and a half months. That is because the Second War of Italian Unification ultimately was fought in three distinct campaigns and regions of Italy. The direct conflict with Austria was only the first of the three campaigns. This article concerns itself with only the first phase of the war.

 At the beginning of the conflict Austria did have a temporary two to one advantage in troops on the ground. Initially as the Austrian Emperor had thought, victories fell to Austria with Piedmont adopting a defensive posture.  As a result this part of the war is often described as having two phases. The first phase extends from April 26, 1859 thru May 12, 1859. During this phase outnumbered the Piedmontese waged a primarily defensive campaign awaiting French support. The second phase went from May 12, 1859 thru to the armistice of Villafranca which was entered July 12, 1859. Most of the major battles and all of Piedmont/France’s victories occurred in the second phase.

 As the second phase began in May after the arrival of the main body of French troops a Piedmont/French offensive started. This offensive began to register a number of victories against the Austrians. These victories and the distraction of the major powers encouraged other northern and some central regional States to revolt on their own Initiative against their local authorities. Around the time that the Piedmont forces were taking Milan successful local revolts occurred in Tuscany, Florence, Parma, Modena and other areas as well.

 It is at this juncture in the war that Italian “unification” takes an interesting turn. The independent revolts were not viewed by Piedmont or the French as producing potential allies in either the liberation of the peninsula or against the Austrians. The revolting forces were viewed by Piedmont as potential rivals for eventual control of Italy. As a result once the Austrians were in retreat the Piedmont regime directed the French V Corps to land at Livorno in late May 1859. From there the French army seized control of the revolting cities in order to quell the revolutionary independent forces with an eye toward absorbing the territories into the expanding Piedmont Kingdom. So initially it was French forces that suppressed “liberation forces” in the revolting States.

 It is also interesting to focus on how the vast number of defectors from the Austrian controlled north of Italy were handled by the Piedmontese. First, as of January 1859 almost twenty thousand had come over to the cause of revolt against Austrian rule. The Piedmontese were actually alarmed at the numbers and the potential to overwhelm their control of the military forces, so they stopped the flow.

 The majority of those who had crossed into Piedmont from Austrian controlled territory were then absorbed into regular Piedmont army ranks not left as an independent force. Garibaldi was placed in charge of only about 3,000 of these “volunteers”. It should also be noted that before even these 3,000 were placed under Garibaldi’s command a special meeting was set up between Garibaldi and King Victor Emmanuel II. In that meeting Garibaldi had to again swear loyalty to the King and Piedmont’s cause. The Piedmont regime did everything in its power to control the military and civilian populations from what might run contrary to its designs.

 Because Garibaldi’s command and volunteer force have attained mythic proportion in modern Italian tradition and history it is worth spending some time in discussing it.



                                                                                             Photograph of Giuseppe Garibaldi



 Garibaldi was a charismatic leader whose military leadership was always from the front of his troops. His field courage is undeniable and was an inspiration to his men. Sometimes reckless in his aggressiveness he was nevertheless a formidable tactician. As he was usually outnumbered and outgunned he frequently and brilliantly used geography, feints and misdirection to his advantage in battle.

 During the conflict with Austria Garibaldi and his volunteer force preformed heroically. In the opening defensive phase of the conflict Garibaldi’s troops served alongside the main body of the Piedmont army dug in along the Po River. Once the French arrived in force Garibaldi and his three thousand man brigade were sent north to advance along the Alps on Austria’s right flank.

 For the next three weeks Garibaldi’s forces acted independently as a flanking movement to the Austrian right. The separation from the main body of Piedmont – French forces, isolation in Lombardy’s highlands and the wall of the Alps to his north created a great deal of danger to Garibaldi’s forces. If he had been unable to move about or resupply his mission could have ended in complete failure. Austrian General Karl von Urban was dispatched with about 4,000 troops to deal with Garibaldi and bent on creating just such a result.

 The two forces met at the Battle of Varese on May 26, 1859. The Austrian’s with the slightly larger force attacked Garibaldi’s position and were repulsed. Garibaldi immediately went on the offensive putting the Austrians in retreat. This was perhaps Garibaldi’s greatest victory against the Austrians. The Austrian general reported that he had been engaged by a force of 7,000 troops more than twice the number actually there. The Austrian command was forced to reinforce Urban with an additional two thousand soldiers. In this action Garibaldi once again demonstrated that as a field commander and irregular troop tactician he could more than hold his own against conventional soldiers.   After that battle Garibaldi’s forces engaged in a number of small battles with some success and was able to maintain his flanking position and pose a threat to Austria’s right flank through mid-June. At that point with the advance of the Piedmont-French main body Garibaldi again came under the direct orders of the Piedmont command. On June 20th he was ordered to move his troops to Valtelline at the northern edge of Lake Como to secure against possible Austrian movement. Thus he was out of the main theater of action when the main body of the Austrian forces meet the combined main body of the French-Piedmont army at the battle of Solferino and neither he nor his men participated directly in that engagement.



                                                                                      The Battle of Solferino


 The Battle of Solferino was the major battle of the Austrian-Piedmont/French war. The battle took place on June 24, 1859 in Lombardy. The two sides lined up approximately 300,000 troops in roughly equal proportion. The battle itself represented the largest massed engagement of European troops since the battle of Leipzig in 1813 during the Napoleonic era. The battle is also known as the last battle in European history where all of the forces on the field were under the direct command of their respective Kings. Emperor Franz Joseph was at the battle in command of Austria’s forces, Victor Emmanuel II was present and in command of the Piedmont forces and Napoleon III was present and commanded the French troops.

 The battle was bloody and grueling lasting some nine hours. Both sides suffered heavy casualties. Austria suffered some 22,000 dead, wounded or missing and the Piedmont-French forces suffered some 18,000 dead, wounded or missing. It was widely reported that both sides committed atrocities such as bayoneting wounded men in the field. Both sides were also grossly under-prepared to handle the wounded. At the end of the day the Austrians were forced to retreat to their four heavily defended fortresses known as the Quadrilateral which protect against Piedmont advancement into Venetia.



                                                                                    Drawing depicting the Battle of Solferino


 The European reaction to the horrors of this battle would eventually lead to the convening of the Geneva Conventions which attempted to regulate military conduct during war and the establishment of the International Red Cross for the humane treatment of injured soldiers.

 In the aftermath of the Battle of Solferino and the retreat of the Austrian forces to the Quadrilateral a certain reality set in among the various Monarchies involved. First Napoleon III and Victor Emmanuel II and Franz Joseph realized that to advance against the fortifications of the Quadrilateral would be extremely difficult and enormously costly in terms of casualties on both sides. Combined they had already suffered over 50,000 casualties in just six weeks. The difficulties in attempting to either take or hold the fortresses meant that the conflict could conceivably go on indefinitely. Prolonged conflict ran the possibility of expanding the conflict with other European nations being brought in.

 These facts brought both Emperor Franz Joseph and Emperor Napoleon III to open up peace negotiations in early July. Those discussions lead to the Armistice of Villafranca signed July 12, 1859 in which Austria ceded Lombardy to France but retained control of Venetia.

 In the months that followed the Armistice a number of startling changes occurred in the configuration of Piedmont-Sardinia Kingdom. In essence what came out of the Armistice and the eventual Peace accord was a reshaping of the political map of northern Italy. First, King Victor Emmanuel II negotiated with his ally Napoleon III for the transfer of certain territories. This agreement between the two allies and was incorporated in November in the so-called Peace Accord of Zurich. Essentially Piedmont agreed to exchange Nice and Victor Emmanuel II own ancestral Principality of Savoy to France. In exchange France ceded Lombardy to Piedmont. Austria retained Venetia.  In addition, France and Austria agreed to not stand in the way of Piedmont absorbing Parma, Modena, Emilia-Romagna and the Papal Legations which all parties assumed would occur following the outcome of a “unification” plebiscite in those regions.

 The outcome of the plebiscite “vote” was always a forgone conclusion for several reasons. First, there was a strong Italian unity movement that had developed throughout the peninsula. Second, Parma, Modena, Emilia-Romagna and the Papal Legations had risen up independently but that uprising was supplanted by the arrival of French troops. Essentially the people were not given the choice of independence but rather to be governed by France, Austria or Piedmont-Sardinia. Lastly, the elections were constructed where very few of the people were eligible to vote and Piedmont soldiers controlled the voting sites. This circumstance together with how the rest of the “unification” was accomplished has led some historians and social commentators to argue that the events did not constitute a war of Italian “unification” but rather a war of Piedmont expansion.

 In all while Piedmont had ceded the Principality of Savoy and the city of Nice to its ally France it had absorbed huge northern territories, resources and manpower. Contemporary to the Peace accord Piedmont quickly severed Garibaldi’s “official” association with the command of his 3,000 volunteers and absorbed all but 500 into the Piedmont army. These 500 men and Garibaldi now had no “official” association with the Piedmont regime an illusion that Piedmont wanted to project.

 To the world it was meant to appear that Victor Emmanuel’s regime was standing down and an era of territorial consolidation within his regime was beginning. The war was over and peace was at hand.  What was expertly hidden was Piedmont’s true designs and the instruments of that plan’s deliverance of Sicily and its vast sulfur reserves.


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