Military Wiki
Second Italian War of Independence
Part of the wars of Italian Unification
Napoléon III à la bataille de Solférino..jpg
Napoleon III at the Battle of Solferino, by Jean-Louis-Ernest Meissonier Oil on canvas, 1863
DateApril 29, 1859 - July 11, 1859
Result Franco-Sardinian victory
Armistice of Villafranca (July 12, 1859)
Sardinia annexed Lombardy from Austria
France gains Savoy and Nice from Sardinia
France France
Piedmont-Sardinia Sardinia
Austrian Empire Austria
Commanders and leaders
France Napoleon III
Piedmont-Sardinia Victor Emmanuel II
Austrian Empire Ferenc Gyulay
Austrian Empire Franz Josef I
170,000 infantry
2,000 cavalry
312 guns
70,000 infantry
4,000 cavalry
90 guns
220,000 infantry
22,000 cavalry
824 guns

The Second Italian War of Independence, also called the Austro-Sardinian War or Austro-Piedmontese War, was fought by the Second French Empire and the Kingdom of Sardinia against the Austrian Empire in 1859 and was a key event in the process of Italian unification.


The Piedmontese, following their defeat to Austria in the First Italian War of Independence, found that they could not defeat a great power such as Austria without allies. This led Camillo Benso, conte di Cavour to attempt to establish relations with other European powers, partially through Piedmont's participation in the Crimean War. In the peace conference at Paris for 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 in Lombardy and Venetia. Individual talks between Napoleon III and Cavour after the conference identified Napoleon as the most likely, albeit still uncommitted, candidate for aiding Italy.

On January 14, 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 end the revolutionary activities that the governments inside Italy might allow to happen in the future. Emperor Napoleon III and Camillo Benso, Conte di Cavour, the prime minister of the Kingdom of Piedmont-Sardinia, signed a secret treaty of alliance against Austria: France would help Sardinia to fight against Austria if attacked, and Sardinia 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 manoeuvers close to the border. Austria issued an ultimatum on April 23, 1859, asking for the complete demobilization of the Sardinian army, and when it was not heeded Austria started a war with Sardinia (April 29), thus drawing France into the conflict.


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, led by Patrice MacMahon, the III, led by François Certain Canrobert, the IV, led by Adolphe Niel, and the V, 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 Casterlbrugo, Manfredo Fanti, Giovanni Durando, Enrico Cialdini, and Domenico Cucchiari. Two volunteers 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 by 220,000 soldiers, 824 guns and 22,000 horsemen. It was led by Field Marshal Ferenc Graf Gyulay.

Major places of the Austro-Sardinian war 1859

The operations[]

Giuseppe Garibaldi leads the troops in the Battle of Varese

At the declaration of war, there were no French troops in Italy, so Marshal François Certain Canrobert moved into Piedmont in the first massive 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, marching around the Ticino River in no specific direction for a while until eventually crossing it to begin the offensive. Unfortunately for him, very heavy rains began to fall as soon as he did this, 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 eventually arrived in Vercelli, menacing Turin, but the Franco-Sardinian move to strengthen Alessandria and Po River bridges around Casale Monferrato forced them to fall back. On May 14, Napoleon III arrived in Alessandria, taking the command of the operations. The initial 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 center 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.

Giuseppe Garibaldi occupying Varese...

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.[1]

The peace[]

French Médaille commémorative de la campagne d'Italie 1859

Fear of involvement by the German states led Napoleon to seek a way out of the war, so he signed an armistice with Austria in Villafranca. 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.

This deal, made by Napoleon behind the backs of his Sardinian allies, led to great outrage in Sardinia — 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.

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 Legations — were annexed by the Kingdom of Sardinia, and France would take its deferred reward, Savoy and Nice. This latter 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.

Timeline 1859[]


  1. Luigi Tomaz, In Adriatico nel secondo millennio, Presentazione di Arnaldo Mauri, Think ADV, Conselve, 2010, p. 411.

See also[]

This page uses Creative Commons Licensed content from Wikipedia (view authors).