Second Italian War of Independence

The Second Italian War of Independence, also called the Franco-Austrian War, Austro-Sardinian War or Italian War of 1859 (French: Campagne d'Italie),[3] was fought by the French Empire and the Kingdom of Sardinia against the Austrian Empire in 1859 and played a crucial part in the process of Italian unification.

Second Italian War of Independence
Part of the wars of Italian unification

Napoleon III at the Battle of Solferino, by Jean-Louis-Ernest Meissonier Oil on canvas, 1863
Date26 April – 12 July 1859
(2 months, 2 weeks and 2 days)
Result Allied victory
Armistice of Villafranca (12 July 1859)
Sardinia annexed Lombardy from Austria.
Sardinia occupied and later annexed Habsburg-ruled Tuscany and Emilia.
France gains Savoy and Nice from Sardinia.
French Empire
Kingdom of Sardinia
Modena & Reggio
Austrian Empire
Commanders and leaders
Napoleon III
Victor Emmanuel II
Giuseppe Garibaldi
Franz Josef I
Ferenc Gyulay
312 guns
90 guns[1]
824 guns
Casualties and losses
5,498 killed
1,128 missing
17,054 wounded
2,040 disease related deaths
25,720 casualties
1,533 killed
1,268 missing[2]
12,568 killed[2]

The background to the war was the Plombières Agreement between France and Sardinia on 21 July 1858, in which they agreed to carve up Italy between them, and the Franco-Sardinian military alliance signed in January 1859. Sardinia mobilized its army on 9 March 1859, while Austria mobilized on 9 April. On 23 April, Austria delivered an ultimatum to Sardinia, demanding Sardinia's demobilization. Upon Sardinia's refusal, the war began on 26 April. Austria invaded the Kingdom of Sardinia on 29 April and France declared war on Austria on 3 May.

The Austrian invasion was stopped by the arrival of French troops in Piedmont from 25 April onward. The Austrians were defeated at the Battle of Magenta on 4 June and pushed back to Lombardy, where the Franco-Sardinian victory at the Battle of Solferino on 24 June resulted in the end of the war and the signing of the Armistice of Villafranca on 12 July.

Austria ceded Lombardy to France, which in turn gave it to Sardinia. Sardinia exploited the defeat of Austrian power by annexing the United Provinces of Central Italy, consisting of the Grand Duchy of Tuscany, the Duchy of Parma, the Duchy of Modena and Reggio and the Papal Legations, to the Kingdom of Sardinia on 22 March 1860. Sardinia handed Savoy and Nice over to France at the Treaty of Turin on 24 March 1860.


The Piedmontese, following their defeat by Austria in the First Italian War of Independence, recognised their need for allies. This led Camillo Benso, Count of Cavour, the prime minister of the Kingdom of Piedmont-Sardinia, to attempt to establish relations with other European powers, partially through Piedmont's participation in the Crimean War. In the peace conference at Paris following the Crimean War, Cavour attempted to bring attention to efforts for Italian unification. He found Britain and France to be sympathetic, but entirely unwilling to go against Austrian wishes, as any movement towards Italian independence would necessarily threaten Austria's territory of Lombardy–Venetia. Private talks between Napoleon III and Cavour after the conference identified Napoleon as the most likely, albeit still uncommitted, candidate for aiding Italy.

On 14 January 1858, Felice Orsini, an Italian, led an attempt on Napoleon III's life. This assassination attempt brought widespread sympathy for the Italian unification effort, and had a profound effect on Napoleon himself, who now was determined to help Piedmont against Austria in order to defuse the wider revolutionary activities that the governments inside Italy might allow to happen in the future. After a covert meeting at Plombières on 21 July 1858, Napoleon III and Cavour on 28 January 1859 signed a secret treaty of alliance against Austria: France would help Sardinia-Piedmont to fight against Austria if attacked, and Sardinia-Piedmont would then give Nice and Savoy to France in return. This secret alliance served both countries: it helped with the Sardinian (Piedmontese) plan of unification of the Italian peninsula under the House of Savoy, and weakened Austria, a fiery adversary of Napoleon III's French Empire.

Cavour, being unable to get the French help unless the Austrians attacked first, provoked Vienna with a series of military maneuvers close to the border. Sardinia mobilized its army on 9 March 1859. Austria mobilized on 9 April 1859 and issued an ultimatum on 23 April, demanding the complete demobilization of the Sardinian army, and when it was not heeded, Austria started a war with Sardinia on 26 April. The first French troops entered Piedmont on 25 April and France declared war on Austria on 3 May.[4]


The French army for the Italian campaign had 170,000 soldiers, 2,000 horsemen and 312 guns, half of the whole French army. The army was under the command of Napoleon III, divided into five corps: the I Corps, led by Achille Baraguey d'Hilliers, the II Corps, led by Patrice MacMahon, the III Corps, led by François Certain de Canrobert, the IV Corps, led by Adolphe Niel, and the V Corps, led by prince Napoleon. The Imperial Guard was commanded by Auguste Regnaud de Saint-Jean d'Angély.

The Sardinian army had about 70,000 soldiers, 4,000 horsemen and 90 guns. It was divided into five divisions, led by Castelbrugo, Manfredo Fanti, Giovanni Durando, Enrico Cialdini, and Domenico Cucchiari. Two volunteer formations, the Cacciatori delle Alpi and the Cacciatori degli Appennini, were also present. The commander in chief was Victor Emmanuel II of Savoy, supported by Alfonso Ferrero la Marmora.

The Austrian army fielded more men: it was composed of 220,000 soldiers, 824 guns and 22,000 horsemen and was led by Field Marshal Ferenc Graf Gyulay.


The French Army under Marshal François Certain Canrobert moved into Piedmont in the first massive military use of railways. The Austrian forces counted on a swift victory over the weaker Sardinian army before French forces could arrive in Piedmont. However, Count Gyulai, the commander of the Austrian troops in Lombardy, was very cautious and marched around the Ticino River in no specific direction until eventually, he crossed it to begin the offensive. Unfortunately for him, very heavy rains began to fall, allowing the Piedmontese to flood the rice fields in front of his advance, slowing his army's march to a crawl.

The Austrians, under Gyulai, captured Novara on 30 April and Vercelli on 2 May, and advanced on Turin from 7 May onward. The Franco-Sardinian move to strengthen the Alessandria and Po River bridges around Casale Monferrato forced the Austrians to halt their advance on 9 May and fall back on 10 May. Napoleon III left Paris on 10 May, landed at Genoa on 12 May and arrived in Alessandria on 14 May, taking the command of the operations. The first major clash of the war was at Montebello on 20 May, a battle between an Austrian Corps under Stadion and a single division of the French I Corps under Forey. The Austrian contingent was three times as large, but the French were victorious, making Gyulai still more cautious. In early June, Gyulai had advanced to the rail centre of Magenta, leaving his army spread out. Napoleon III attacked the Ticino head on with part of his force while sending another large group of troops to the north to flank the Austrians. The plan worked, causing Gyulai to retreat east to the quadrilateral fortresses in Lombardy, where he was relieved of his post as commander.

Replacing Gyulai was Emperor Franz Josef I himself. He planned to defend the well-fortified Austrian territory behind the Mincio River. The Piedmontese-French army had taken Milan and slowly marched further east to finish off Austria in this war before Prussia could get involved. The Austrians found out that the French had halted at Brescia, and decided that they should counterattack along the river Chiese. The two armies met accidentally around Solferino, precipitating a confused series of battles. A French corps held off three Austrian corps all day at Medole, keeping them from joining the larger battle around Solferino, where, after a day-long battle, the French broke through. Ludwig von Benedek with the Austrian VIII Corps was separated from the main force, defended Pozzolengo against the Piedmontese part of the opposing army. This they did successfully, but the entire Austrian army retreated after the breakthrough at Solferino, withdrawing back into the Quadrilateral.[5]

At the same time, in the northern part of Lombardy, the Italian volunteers of Giuseppe Garibaldi's Hunters of the Alps defeated the Austrians at Varese and Como and the Piedmontese-French navy landed 3,000 soldiers and conquered the islands of Losinj (Lussino) and Cres (Cherso) in Dalmatia.[6]


Napoleon III signed the Villafranca Armistice with Austria in Villafranca for a combination of the following reasons: Napoleon III was not the conqueror his uncle was, and he could not stomach the sight of war; the Austrians had retreated to The Quadrilateral that would be very costly to overrun; Napoleon III’s absence in France made them vulnerable to attack; Napoleon III’s actions in Italy were being criticized in France; Napoleon III did not want Cavour and Piedmont to gain too much power at the expense of mostly Napoleon III’s men; and his fear of involvement by the German states . Most of Lombardy, with its capital Milan (excepting only the Austrian fortresses of Mantua and Legnago and the surrounding territory), was transferred from Austria to France, which would immediately cede these territories to Sardinia. The rulers of Central Italy, who had been expelled by revolution shortly after the beginning of the war, were to be restored.

Manfredo Fanti, who led the Sardinian troops in the Battle of Palestro
Patrice de Mac-Mahon, whose participation in the war was decisive for the victory

This deal, made by Napoleon behind the backs of his Sardinian allies, led to great outrage in Sardinia-Piedmont, and Cavour himself resigned in protest. However, the terms of Villafranca were never to come into effect. Although they were reaffirmed by the final Treaty of Zürich in November, by then the agreement had become a dead letter. The central Italian states were occupied by the Piedmontese, who showed no willingness to restore the previous rulers, and the French showed no willingness to force them to abide by the terms of the treaty. The Austrians were left to look on in frustration at the French failure to carry out the terms of the treaty. While Austria had emerged triumphant after the suppression of liberal movements in 1849, its status as a great power on the European scene was now seriously challenged, and its influence in Italy severely weakened.

The next year, in 1860, with French and British approval, the central Italian states (Duchy of Parma, Duchy of Modena, Grand Duchy of Tuscany and the Papal States) were annexed by the Kingdom of Sardinia, and France would take its deferred reward, Savoy and Nice. The last move was vehemently opposed by Italian national hero Garibaldi, a native of Nice, and directly led to Garibaldi's expedition to Sicily, which would complete the preliminary Unification of Italy.[7]

During the war, Prussia also mobilised 132,000 men in 1859 but never joined the fighting. The weaknesses laid bare during the mobilisation caused the Prussian army to initiate military reforms,[8] which were the base for its superiority and rapid victories against Austria 1866 and France 1870/1 leading to a united Germany under Prussian dominance.[9]



  1. Micheal Clodfelter. "Warfare and Armed Conflicts: A Statistical Reference to Casualty and Other Figures, 1500–2000", 4th Edition. 2017. Page 181.
  2. Clodfelter, p. 181
  3. Arnold Blumberg, A Carefully Planned Accident: The Italian War of 1859 (Cranbury, NJ: Associated University Presses, 1990); Arnold Blumberg, "Russian Policy and the Franco-Austrian War of 1859", The Journal of Modern History, 26, 2 (1954): 137–53; Arnold Blumberg, The Diplomacy of the Austro-Sardinian War of 1859, Ph.D. diss. (Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Pennsylvania, 1952).
  4. "Second War of Italian Independence, 1859–61". Retrieved 30 March 2018.
  5. Administrator. "La Seconda guerra d'indipendenza". Retrieved 30 March 2018.
  6. Luigi Tomaz, In Adriatico nel secondo millennio, Presentazione di Arnaldo Mauri, Think ADV, Conselve, 2010, p. 411.
  7. "La seconda Guerra d'Indipendenza e la spedizione dei Mille –". Retrieved 30 March 2018.
  8. Engels, Friedrich; Preußische Militärfrage und die Deutsche Arbeiterpartei; Hamburg 1865 (Meißner); reprint Berlin 1974 (Dietz).
  9. Lohner, Henry; Wie wird man schnell reich?; Norderstedt 2011; S. 78; ISBN 978-3-8423-7334-1

Further reading

  • Blumberg, Arnold. A Carefully Planned Accident: The Italian War of 1859 (Susquehanna University Press. 1990). Pp. 238.
  • Bossoli, Carlo . The War in Italy: the Second Italian War of Independence, 1859 (1860), illustrated; online free
  • Carter, Nick. "Hudson, Malmesbury and Cavour: British Diplomacy and the Italian Question, February 1858 to June 1859." Historical Journal 40#2 (1997): 389–413. in JSTOR
  • Coppa, Frank J. The origins of the Italian wars of independence (1992).
  • Schneid, Frederick C. The Second War of Italian Unification 1859–61 (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2012).
  • Thayer, William Roscoe (1911). The Life and Times of Cavour vol 1. old interpretations but useful on details; vol 1 goes to 1859; volume 2 online covers 1859–62
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