Second War of Italian Independence, 1859-61

The Franco-Austrian War of 1859
Plans and First Moves
The Allied Offensive
Garibaldi’s Alpine Campaign, 1859
Sicily and Naples
Papal States

The Second War of Italian Independence (1859-61) was the most significant of the four wars, and resulted in the establishment of a Kingdom of Italy that contained all of Italy apart from the Venetia and the area around Rome.


Marshal Joachim Murat
Marshal Joachim Murat

By the nineteenth century Italy had been divided into a number of competing states for over a thousand years. The French, Austrians and Spanish had all dominated at different periods, and at the start of the French Revolutionary Wars the Austrians controlled Lombardy and Tuscany, while branches of the Bourbon family ruled in Parma, Modena and Naples. Much of central Italy was ruled by the Pope, forming the Papal States. Finally the north-west of Italy and Sardinia were ruled by the House of Savoy as the Kingdom of Piedmont-Sardinia. This mix was swept away during the Napoleonic Wars, and from 1806 until the end of the wars Italy was split into two. In the north was the Kingdom of Italy, with Napoleon as king while in the south Marshal Murat ruled in Naples.

After the final defeat of Napoleon the pre-war status quo was almost restored. The Bourbons returned to Naples, the House of Savoy to Piedmont-Sardinia and the Habsburgs to Lombardy. The Papal States were restored. Venetian independence, which had been ended by Napoleon, wasn't restored and the Venetia became part of Habsburg Lombardy. New Habsburg rulers took over in Tuscany, Parma and Modena.

Italy didn't settle down under the restored status-quo. A series of revolutions broke out across the country, normally with one of two aims – either to impose a constitutional government or to expel foreign rulers. The two aims eventually merged and by the middle of the nineteenth century most Italian revolutionaries were Liberals, who wanted a united Italian state with no foreign rulers and constitutional rule.

There was thus a series of revolts across Italy in the years between the end of the Napoleonic Wars and the Second War of Independence. Naples rose in 1820; Piedmont in 1821; Parma, Modena and the Papal States in 1830. Each of these revolts was put down with the help of Austrian troops. In 1848 revolutions broke out across large parts of Europe, including Italy. This time the revolutionaries had the support of one of the major Italian rules, King Charles Albert I of Piedmont-Sardinia. He declared war on Austria, but the resulting First War of Italian Independence (1848-49) was a total disaster. Charles Albert was defeated in campaigns in 1848 and 1849 and abdicated. He was succeeded by his son Victor Emmanuel II. Revolts in Venice and Rome were also put down.

One of the few successful revolts in 1848 was in France, where the restored Bourbons were overthrown and Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte became President of the Second French Republic. Louis-Napoleon had actually fought in Italy during the revolts of the 1830s and considered himself to be pro-Italian. The new republic was short-lived and was overthrown by its own president in 1851. In 1852 he was crowned as Napoleon III. The new Emperor would be a valuable ally to Piedmont-Sardinia. A second significant figure came onto the scene in 1852 – Camillo Benso, Count of Cavour became prime minister of Piedmont-Sardinia. Cavour's diplomacy would mean that next time the Italians attempted to expel the Austrians they wouldn't fight alone.

Austria was more isolated in 1859 that her leaders realised. The Russians had helped restore Austrian authority after the rebellions of 1849, but the Austrians had failed to support Russian during the Crimean War (1854-56). The Russians thus weren't interested in helping Austria again in 1859. Austria was still an important power in Germany, but they had alienated the Prussians. The German Confederation didn't become a factor in the war until after Solferino, when the threat of Prussian intervention was one of the factors that helped convince Napoleon III to end the war.

Cavour knew that the key to any successful campaign would be the attitude of Napoleon III and France. In January 1858 Cavour's hopes looked to have been crushed when Felice Orsini, a follower of the republic revolutionary Giuseppe Mazzini attempted to assassinate Napoleon III. Instead Orsini's attack and his claim that Napoleon had betrayed the Italians shocked Napoleon into action. Napoleon and Cavour conducted several months of secret negotiations, before meeting at Plombières on 21 July 1858.

The Plombières agreement laid the basis for the upcoming war. Cavour and Napoleon agreed to a defensive alliance - if Cavour could trick the Austrians into attacking Piedmont then Napoleon would come to her aid, and not stop until the Austrians had been expelled from Lombardy and Venetia. In return Piedmont would give France the Duchy of Savoy and the County of Nice. Although these areas were the original home of the House of Savoy, they were largely French speaking. Piedmont would also get the Duchies of Modena and Parma. The Kingdom of Naples would remain untouched. In the centre of Italy Napoleon proposed the formation of a new kingdom of central Italy which would include Tuscany, the Romagna and the Papal Legations. The Pope would be left with Umbria, the Marche and the area around Rome. Preparations continued early in 1859, under the cover of a marriage between Prince Jérôme Napoleon and Clothilde, daughter of Victor Emmanuel II. At the same time French officers visited Piedmont and the two states began to plan for war.

All Cavour needed now was a way to provoke the Austrians. His original plan was to encourage revolts in Austrian or allied territory that would provoke a harsh Austrian response. He soon abandoned this plan, and instead encouraged Italians in the Austrian north-east to flee across the border to avoid military service. Some of these men joined a new military unit under the command of the famous revolutionary Giuseppe Garibaldi, who had fallen out with his more extreme colleagues and was now willing to work with the Piedmontese monarchy.

At the same time the Piedmontese army was moved to the eastern border (January), leave was cancelled (February) and mobilization ordered (March). By the end of April the Piedmontese had 77,348 men under arms. At the same time the French were moving troops south, and Napoleon had 120,000 men in the south ready to move to Italy by the middle of April. Plans were in place to move this army to Italy, some by steam ship, others largely by rail.

They were still outnumbered by the Austrians. At the start of the year the Austrian Second Army only had 44,837 men, but three new corps were moved across the Alps, and by the start of the war the field army was 110,235 strong, while half as many men were in garrisons in Lombardy and Venetia. 

The looming crisis was obvious, and the European powers reacted in different ways. Tsar Alexander II came to a secret agreement with Napoleon not to interfere. The British government tried to arrange an international congress. If this had gone ahead then Cavour's plans would probably have failed. Napoleon had to agree to attend, as his role as an innocent party forced into a defensive war would otherwise have been rather unconvincing.

During April the French, Austrians, Russians and Prussians all agreed to attend the British international congress, but Emperor Franz Josef didn't take it seriously. He believed that the German Confederation would support him, and would thus prevent the French from intervening. On 23 April the Austrians issued an ultimatum to Piedmont, giving her three days to demobilize her army and withdraw the normal peacetime army from the border with Lombardy.

This was all Cavour needed. The ultimatum was telegraphed to Paris, arriving at evening. Napoleon III was able to activate his defensive alliance, and that night the French army was ordered to begin the move to Piedmont. While the Austrians waited, the French were on the move. By the time Victor Emmanuel officially rejected the ultimatum on 26 April the first 10,000 troops had arrived at Genoa.

The Franco-Austrian War of 1859

The fighting in the Franco-Austrian period of the war fell into two phases. In the first phase, which lasted from the start of the war on 26 April to 12 May, the Austrians had the advantage in numbers. The Piedmontese were thus forced to act on the defensive while they waited for the French to arrive, while the Austrians had a chance to go onto the offensive and defeat one ally before the other could arrive.

The second phase of the fighting began once the French had arrived in force and lasted from 12 May until the Armistice of Villafranca came into force on 11 July. This period saw the allies go onto the offensive, and contained the main battles of the war.

Plans and First Moves

The Austrian army in Italy was commanded by Feldzeugmeister Franz Count Gyulai. He and his staff realised that their best hope of victory was a rapid advance towards Turin. They could win either by defeating the isolated Piedmontese army or by threatening Turin, a move that might force Victor Emmanuel to seek peace terms rather than risk the loss of his capital.

On the Allied side the Piedmontese decided to abandon their eastern frontier on the Ticino and instead defend a line that ran north from Novi on the edge of the Appenines, to the railhead at Alesandria and on north to Casale. Four infantry divisions were posted in this area, where they could both threaten any Austrian advance towards Turin and guard the rail link to Genoa, the port that most of the French troops were to use. One infantry and one cavalry division were posted on the Dora Baltea, nearer to Turin, to hold up any Austrian attack.

The French planned to take advantage of the rail network in France and Piedmont and steamships on the Mediterranean to move their entire army into place in only ten days. The Imperial Guard and two corps were to move from Paris and Lyon respectively to Marseille and Toulon. They would then steam to Genoa and use the Piedmontese rail network to move to Alessandria (only three hours to the north) or to Turin (six hours more). Two more corps were to use the French railways to reach Savoy, march across the Alps and then use the Piedmontese railways to reach Turin.

For unclear reasons the Austrians failed to take advantage of their chance of an early victory and they didn't cross the Ticino and invade Piedmont until 29 April, three days after the rejection of the ultimatum. By this date 30,000 French troops had already landed at Genoa, and more were approaching over the Alps.

In early May the Austrians finally began a slow advance. Benedek's VIII Korps advanced to the south of the Po, where it could have threatened the vital railway from Genoa, but it was withdrawn without doing any damage. II, III, V and VII Korps advanced towards the Allied centre around Valenza and Casale, but didn't apply any pressure on the Piedmontese line. One brigade from VII Korps did threaten the Allied left at Vercelli.

At the end of the first week in May the Austrian right wing finally began to move north-west to threaten Turin. Victor Emmanuel wanted to use Marshal Canrobert's IV Corps to reinforce the line of the Dora Baltea and directly defend Turin, but Canrobert convinced the king that the most effective way to defend the capital would be to concentrate further to the south-east, at Alessandria. The presence of a French army on his left flank was too much for Gyulai, and on 9-10 May he cancelled the advance and ordered his men to pull back to the east.

By 12 May one brigade was still at Vercelli. VIII Korps was on the Po while the rest of the army was concentrated around Mortara. The two main armies were now facing each other on a line that from the north-west around Vercelli to the south-east east of Alessandria. 12 May also saw Napoleon III arrived at Genoa on his flagship, the Reine Hortense, to take personal command of the army. The danger of a rapid Austrian victory was over.

The Allied Offensive

Napoleon III wasn't much quicker to act than the Austrians. A week passed after his arrival before the Allies finally went onto the offensive, and even then their first movement was on a fairly small scale. This delay allowed the Austrians to reorganise their forces. VII Korps at Vercelli made up their right. II and III Korps were next in line at Mortara, with V Korps half way to Pavia and VIII Korps at Pavia. Urban's IX Korps also arrived on the scene, and was posted at Piacenza, at the far left of the line. The Austrian army was now lined up from west to east, ready to guard against any Allied movement south of the Po.

The first significant clash of the campaign was south of the Po. The Allies moved Marshal Baraguey d'Hilliers's I Corps east from Alessandria, first to Tortona and then on to Vohera. General Forey's division, supported by three Piedmontese cavalry regiments, was pushed a little first east, towards Montebello.

Forey ran into parts of two Austrian corps. Gyulai had decided to carry out a reconnaissance in force south of the Po, using elements of Stadion's V Korps from the north and Urban's IX Korps from the east. The Austrians split their force into three columns and a reserve. Two brigades from Urban's Korps made the left hand columns, and it would be this force that ran into Forey on 20 May (battle of Montebello, 20 May 1859). After some hard fighting the French forced the Austrians out of Montebello. Convinced that the rest of I Corps must be close behind Forey the Austrians retreated, giving the French and Piedmontese their first victory.

In the aftermath of this battle Gyulai moved his troops further to the south. VII Korps was kept on the right, watching the Sesia and the approaches to Mortara. VIII Korps moved to the confluence of the Po and the Sesia. II and III Korps were moved south of Mortara. V Korps was posted at Pavia on the Po, with IX Korps at Piacenza, further east on the same river.

While the Austrians were preparing for an attack in the south, the Allies were preparing for a daring move to the north. Napoleon III wanted to manoeuvre the Austrians out of their positions in Piedmont if possible, and a dramatic move to their weaker right flank offered the best hope of doing that.

The main movement took place on 27-29 May. Niel's IV Corps moved first, followed in order by Canrobert's III Corps, MacMachon's II Corps and Baraguey d'Hilliers' I Corps. The Austrians could hear the noise of steam engines behind the lines, but believed it to be a ruse. By 29 May most of the French troops were around Casala, while the Piedmontese army was at Vercelli. The Austrians only reacted after the Piedmontese crossed the Sesia and defeated them over two days of fighting at Palestro (30-31 May 1859).

Gyulai now realised that he could no longer stay in his current positions. At first he planned to concentrate his army at Mortara and attack north towards Novara. A similar move had led to Austrian victory in 1849, but Gyulai wasn't as skilled as leader as Marshal Radetzky, and he missed the change. By 2 June he had decided to retreat from Piedmont and attempt to defend Milan at the line of the Ticino River. The retreat began on 2 June, and was largely completed on 3 June, despite the Austrians having wasted a great deal of time deciding which side of the river to defend. On the same day the French captured two river crossings, at Turbigo and San Martino. MacMahon's II Corps crossed the river to the north-west of Magenta and defeated a small Austrian force that tried to stop them (battle of Turbigo, 3 June 1859).

The following day brought the first decisive battle of the war - the battle of Magenta (4 June 1859). Neither side was expected to fight a major battle on 4 June, but the advancing French ran into an unexpectedly strong Austrian force around Magenta and a major battle developed. Both the French and Austrian high command lost control of the situation, and troops were fed into the fight as they arrived. Eventually the Austrians were forced to retreat south-east, after suffering heavier losses than the Allies. The Austrian army retreated to the Chiese River, east of Milan and then across the Mincio into the heavily defended area of the Quadrilateral. One rearguard action was fought, at Melegnano on 8 June, but after that the two armies separated.

On 16 June Gyulai resigned. Emperor Franz Josef decided to take personal command of the Austrian army in Italy. Gyulai's single 2nd Army was split into two, both of four corps. The 1st Army was commanded by Feldzeugmeister Count Wimpffen while General der Kavallerie Count Schlick commanded the 2nd Army.

On 8 June 1859 Victor Emmanuel II and Napoleon III entered Milan in triumph. The Allied successes in northern Italy encouraged revolts elsewhere in the peninsula. Tuscany, Parma, Modena and some of the Papal States overthrew their existing rulers. In order to prevent more radical elements taking control of these revolts the Allies landed the French V Corps at Livorno on 23-25 May. This corps reached Florence just before Magenta, and in the aftermath of that victory also sent troops to Parma and Modena. All of these areas would soon be absorbed by Piedmont, and then become part of the new Kingdom of Italy, although that all depended on the rest of the campaign.

By 22 June the two armies were on different river lines. The French and Piedmontese were on the Chiese, while the Austrians were on the Mincio. Despite their earlier defeats the Austrians did not believe they had been beaten, and Franz Josef decided to move his armies west in an attempt to seek battle and win a victory that would restore his control over Lombardy. At the same time the Allies prepared to move east. The Allied advance began on 22 June, while the Austrians moved on 23 June. The result was yet another unexpected encounter battle. The battle of Solferino (24 June 1859) was the largest battle involving the European powers since the end of the Napoleonic Wars, with around a quarter of a million men engaged. Just as at Magenta the quality of the French soldiers, this time aided by some excellent corps commanders, led to an Allied victory, while neither Napoleon III nor Franz Josef had much impact on the battle. The Austrians were saved from a more serious defeat by their rearguard, and were able to retreat into their fortresses.

The battle of Solferino wasn't a decisive victory. If the political will had existed the fighting could have gone on for some time. The Allies prepared to besiege Mantua, while the Austrians had performed well enough to suggest that an attack on the Quadrilateral fortresses at Mantua, Peschiera, Verona and Lagnago would be very costly. The fighting ended partly because Napoleon III realised that any attempt to conquer Venetia would prolong the war to the point where other powers, and in particular the Germans, might intervene and partly because he was horrified by the heavy loss of life at Solferino. Franz Josef was also willing to consider an end to the war, aware that his position as the active commander in chief of the army meant that his own prestige was at stake.

The first tentative suggestions of peace were made in the first days of July, and on 6 July Napoelon's aide de camp General Fleury travelled to Verona where he met Franz Josef and passed on a request for an armistice. A ceasefire was agreed on 8 July and on 11 July Franz Josef and Napoleon III met at Villafranca. The two men came to a general agreement in which Lombardy was ceded to France, who could then pass it on to Piedmont. The Austrians also accepted the loss of Parma, but wanted the ruling houses of Modena and Tuscany restored. The Austrians would keep Venetia, despite Napoleon III's earlier agreement not to end the war until that area was in Piedmontese hands.

The Piedmontese leaders reacted rather differently to the armistice of Villafranca. Victor Emmanuel II realised that the wider European situation was beginning to turn against the allies, and the terms on offer were better than nothing. Cavour was more emotional, claiming that it was a betrayal. He resigned as Prime Minister, although remained important behind the scenes and was soon back in power.

Over the next few months the peace terms became gradually more acceptable to Piedmont. By the time the French and Austrians met again in Zurich in September it was clear that Tuscany, Modena, the Romagna and the Papal Legations could not be kept from uniting with Piedmont. The Peace of Zurich of November 1859 effectively acknowledged this, and the first phase of the war ended with Piedmont greatly strengthened. In March 1860 plebiscites were held in Parma, Tuscany, Modena, the Romagna and the Papal Legations and all five areas voted to be annexed to Piedmont.

At the start of 1860 Franz Josef saw the Peace of Zurich as a temporary pause in the conflict. He hoped to form an alliance with the Kingdom of Naples and the Pope and restore the pre-war situation. The events of 1860 would shatter those plans, as Garibaldi's remarkable expedition to the south toppled the Kingdom of Naples and gave Cavour a chance to intervene in the Papal States. Although the major battles ended with Solferino, in many ways the most dramatic part of the war was yet to come.

Garibaldi’s Alpine Campaign, 1859

Although his main successes came in 1860 Garibaldi was also involved in the campaign of 1859. Late in 1858 he met with Cavour and was offered command of a force of volunteers. Cavour hoped to use this force to help trigger the war, at first by using it to trigger a revolution, but by early in 1859 his plans had evolved. Large numbers of volunteers had crossed into Piedmont from Austrian Lombardy, and Garibaldi was given command of 3,000 of these volunteers. Their presence in the Piedmont army offended the Austrians, and helped raise tension.

The main weakness in Cavour’s plans was that at the start of the war Piedmont would have to stand alone against the Austrians until the French army arrived. As a result Garibaldi’s men spent the first three weeks of the war serving with the main army on the Po, guarding against a possible Austrian attack. Once the French had arrived in force Garibaldi was sent north. His task was to advance along the Alps, threatening the Austrian right flank.

Garibaldi’s first task was to cross the Ticino River, which marked the boundary between Piedmont and Austrian Lombardy. He achieved this on 22-23 May, using barges to cross the river after convincing the Austrians that he intended to march north. Garibaldi’s men reached Varese late on 23 May and prepared to defend that city against the Austrian army of General Karl von Urban.

Urban attacked on 26 May (battle of Varese). Part of his slightly larger army failed to reach the battlefield, and an initial Austrian attack was repulsed. Garibaldi then launched a counterattack and forced the Austrians into a retreat. Urban retired to Como, and reported that he had been defeated by 7,000 men. Reinforcements were rushed to him by rail, and by the early afternoon of 27 May he had over 6,000 infantry at Como.

On the same day Garibaldi marched east from Varese towards Como. He convinced the Austrians that he was planning to attack around the southern flank of the mountains west of Como, but instead turned north and captured a lightly defended pass (battle of San Fermo, 27 May 1859). The Austrians were unable to dislodge Garibaldi, and instead of defending Como they decided to retreat. Garibaldi occupied the town, where he captured a large amount of supplies.

He then turned back west and attempted to capture the Austrian stronghold at Laveno on Lake Maggiore (combat of Laveno, 30 May 1859). This attack failed, and at the same time Urban recaptured Varese. Garibaldi was in real danger of being trapped against the high mountains, but he was saved by events elsewhere. On 30 May the Austrians were defeated at Palestro, and Urban was ordered to move closer to the main army. On 1 June Garibaldi had moved back to Como, where the news reached him of the French victory at Magenta on 4 June 1859.

It was soon clear that the Austrians were retreating east towards the Quadrilateral, their stronghold in the north-east of Italy. Garibaldi decided to use his position on Lake Como to pressure the Austrian right flank. He sailed around the lake to Lecco, and advanced east to Bergamo and Brescia, always somewhat ahead of the main Franco-Piedmontese army. This placed him in a potentially dangerous position just to the north of the main Austrian army, but he managed to avoid danger, reaching Brescia after a night march on 12-13 June.

At Brescia Garibaldi came back under the control of the Italian high command. On the night of 14-15 June he was ordered to advance towards Lonato. During this advance Garibaldi’s rearguard was attacked (battle of Tre Pont, 15 June 1859). Both sides had some successes during this battle, but it ended as something of a draw.

After this battle the Austrians continued to retreat east. Garibaldi advanced to Lake Garda, but on 20 June he was ordered to move to the Valtelline (at the northern tip of Lake Como), to deal with a possible Austrian threat. He was thus no longer in the main theatre of the war when the Allies won the decisive victory at Solferino (24 June 1859). Although this Alpine Campaign had little impact on the outcome of the war, it did demonstrate that Garibaldi was capable of beating high quality Austrian troops.

Sicily and Naples

The end of the war in the north of Italy left Garibaldi and his supporters temporarily unemployed. Amongst many plans put forward to use his talents, one of the most popular was that he should lead an expedition to Sicily, and liberate that island from the Bourbon dynasty at Naples. This idea had been suggested to Garibaldi in 1854 and 1859, and on both occasions he had refused to go to Sicily unless a revolt was already under way. Early in 1860 the idea was suggested yet again, and on 24 January Garibaldi made the same reply.

A small scale revolt finally broke out in Palermo in April 1860. A plumber named Riso, with seventeen supporters, planned to rise on 4 April. Their plot was discovered, and put down after only four hours, but it triggered a low level revolt in the countryside, where the squadre (bands of peasants from the interior of the island) skirmished with Bourbon troops.

News of this revolt reached Turin just in time to stop Garibaldi permanently falling out with Cavour. On 24 March 1860 Cavour signed the treaty that handed Nice and Savoy over to France in return for Napoleon III's approval of the Piedmontese take-over of Tuscany and Emilia. Garibaldi's own home city, for which he was an elected MP, was thus going to be excluded from the new Italy. If he hadn't been distracted by the question of Sicily, Garibaldi might have gone too far in his attempts to prevent the handover and the expedition to Sicily might never have happened (or have lacked the essential covert support from Piedmont).

The news of the revolt was brought to Garibaldi late on 7 April. When it was confirmed by the British Minister at Turin (8 April) Garibaldi agreed to lead an expedition to the island. He had already begun to gather arms (through an organisation rather optimistically called the Million Rifles Fund), and just needed men. The obvious source of recruits was the 3,000 or so men he had led in the Alps. Some were available, and signed up, but others had joined the Piedmontese army, and after some debate King Victor Emmanuel refused to give these men permission to join the expedition. Piedmont would support Garibaldi's expedition, but not publically, at least not until it was well under way.

In mid April Garibaldi moved to Genoa, where he prepared for the expedition. One steam ship, the Piemonte, had already been promised by the Rubattino Company, and at first Garibaldi hoped to sail in this ship, with 200 volunteers and 200 Enfield Rifles from his fund, but the rifles were stuck in Milan. These were eventually replaced by 1,000 obsolete smooth-bore muskets, while a second steamer, the Lombardo, was found. By late April 500 volunteers had arrived, and that rose to 1,089 by the time the expedition left on 5 May.

The attitude of Piedmont to the expedition was somewhat mixed. Garibaldi had met with Victor Emmanual, who thus knew of the plan and generally approved of it. Cavour also supported the expedition, although by the time it set off he was worried that it would fail. He also saw it as a method of distracting Garibaldi from his plans to interfere in the Papal States, something that might have threatened the alliance with France.

The expedition left Genoa in conditions of entirely fake secrecy. In order to protect the Piedmontese government from accusations that they had supported an expedition against an officially friendly state the two steamers were 'stolen' from Genoa harbour and sailed along the coast. The volunteers would row out to the ships close to Genoa and the supplies would be brought out from Bogliasco. The local authorities set a guard on a different part of the harbour, and just before midnight on 5 May the two steamers were seized and the expedition got under way. The contrived nature of the departure was rather well illustrated by the hours it took to prepare the steamers for departure once they had been seized - a period in which nothing was done to stop them. The over-complicated departure nearly caused disaster when the gunpowder was left behind, but supplies were taken from the fortress at Talamone, the expedition's first stop (as were 100 Enfield rifles and five elderly cannon). A tiny diversionary force was sent into the Papal States and after a two day stop (7-8 May) the expedition continued on its way.

While Garibaldi was at sea Cavour had to deal with the diplomatic response to his expedition. Prussia and Russia both blustered, claiming that if they had any ships in the area then they would have stopped him. Austria protested, but less violently, and provided no assistance for the Bourbons. The British tended to side with Garibaldi, especially after Cavour reassured the British government that France wouldn't be gaining any further territory in Italy. The French protested, and decided not to withdraw their garrison from Rome, but didn't make any other moves. At least in part to guard against the international reaction Cavour ordered the Governor of Cagliari to arrest Garibaldi, but only if he entered a port on Sardinia. Garibaldi didn’t make that mistake, and on 11 May 1860 Garibaldi and the Thousand landed at Marsala at the western tip of Sicily.

Garibaldi faced a daunting task. The Bourbons had 21,000 men on Sicily, split between Siracusa and Messina. This force was raised to 40,000 while Garibaldi was at sea. The Bourbons also had a large navy, and attempted to intercept the expedition before it could land. Garibaldi's original plan had been to sail around the western tip of the island and land at Sciacca, from where he could march north to Palermo. The decision to land at Marsala, at the western tip of the island, was made on the morning of 11 May, and was confirmed when two Neapolitan warships were sighted some way to the south. They turned back towards Marsala and attempted to prevent the expedition from landing.

Two British warships (HMS Argus and HMS Intrepid) were already anchored off Marsala, having arrived earlier on 11 May. They were there to protect a British colony of winemakers, who had been disarmed by the Neapolitans a few days before. Garibaldi's larger ship ran aground outside the harbour, and his men had to be brought ashore on a flotilla of small boats. The first of the Neapolitan warships reached the port while most of Garibaldi's men were still on the Lombardo, but worried by the presence of two British warships her captain missed his chance. He wasted time arranging a meeting with the captains of the British ships, and by the time he finally opened fire most of Garibaldi's men and their equipment had been unloaded. The Neapolitan gunfire caused one minor shoulder injury.

On 12 May Garibaldi began to march towards Palermo. He spent two days at Salemi, before advancing to attack a Neapolitan force at Calatafimi on 15 May. This force, under General Landi, had been sent from Palermo on 6 May but had made slow progress. When it became clear that Garibaldi had already landed, Landi paused at Calatafimi, a key position on the road to Palermo. He outnumbered Garibaldi, and his men were better equipped, but despite all of their advantages the Neapolitans were defeated at the battle of Calatafimi (15 May 1860). Garibaldi's men fought their way slowly up a terraced hillside, relying on their bayonets to push back the Neapolitans.

The victory at Calatafimi cost Garibaldi 30 dead and 100 severely wounded, but it was essential for his success. The victory encouraged the Sicilians to join his cause, and demoralised the Neapolitans, who wouldn't fight as well again, at least not on Sicily.

In Naples the defeat hastened the replacement of Castelcicala as governor of Sicily by the incompetent Ferdinando Lanza. He arrived at Palermo on 16 May, the day before Landi's column returned to the city. Lanza had some 21,000 men at his disposal, but although he prepared to defend Palermo he really wanted to retreat east to Messina. By the time Garibaldi attacked Palermo he had just over 3,000 men at his disposal, so was outnumbered massively.

Garibaldi decided to try and overcome his numerical disadvantage by slipping into the mountains, moving around Palermo and attacking from an unexpected direction. Once he was inside the walls he expected the people of Palermo to join the uprising, increasing the strength of his force. A minor setback at Monreale on 21 May forced Garibaldi to move further east, and eventually he would approach Palermo from the south-east.

On the morning of 27 May Garibaldi's men attacked Palermo, and broke into the city through the Porto Termini. Three days of street fighting followed, with the main effort taking place in the west of the city, where Lanza concentrated his men. By the end of 29 May both sides were in trouble - Garibaldi was running out of ammunition, and Lanza was running out of nerve. Lanza was also worried about the attitude of the Royal Navy, and may have misinterpreted an offer to provide a safe haven for negotiations as a veiled threat that the British might intervene to protect their own citizens.

On the afternoon on 30 May Garibaldi and two Neapolitan generals met on HMS Hannibal. A 24 hour armistice was agreed. The Neapolitans planned to resume the battle on the 31st, but lost their nerve and the armistice was extended until on 6 June they agreed to surrender. Over the next few weeks the Neapolitan garrison sailed away from Palermo, leaving Garibaldi in control of western Sicily. He also began to receive reinforcements from the north, beginning with 3,500 fresh volunteers with 8,000 rifled carbines and large stocks of ammunition.

As the size of his army increased Garibaldi reorganised and renamed it. The Thousand became the Southern Army, part of the armed forces of Piedmont. The army was split into three divisions - the Hungarian Stefan Türr commanded the 15th Division, Enrico Cosenz commanded the 16th Division and Nino Bixio commanded the 17th Division. By the end of July Garibaldi had 17,000 regular soldiers and a larger but uncertain number of Sicilian volunteers.

While Garibaldi was consolidating his control over most of Sicily, Francis II was reorganised his armies. Marshal Clary was sent to Sicily to command the army, which was withdrawn to garrison Messina and Siracusa. Clary was a more able commander than his predecessors, and he decided to post a garrison at Milazzo, a coastal fortress to the west of Messina and five miles from the main road.

After the fall of Palermo Garibaldi split his army into three columns. Medici was sent along the north coast towards Messina. Cosenz was sent along the inland road towards Catania and Bixio was sent along the south coast towards Siracusa. As Medici advanced towards Messina he had to leave troops to watch Milazzo. Colonol Bosco, the commander at Milazzo, used his 4,500 infantry effectively, raiding Medici's outposts. Garibaldi was forced to move Cosenz north to support Medici. The combined divisions then attacked Bosco, winning the costly battle of Milazzo (20 July 1860). Bosco was forced to retreat into the fortress. By now the threat of the Neapolitan fleet had been reduced, and Garibaldi was able to bring a warship, the Türkory, to Milazzo. When a Piedmontese naval squadron appeared as well Bosco realised that he had been defeated, and on 1 August he surrendered with full honours of war. His men were shipped to Messina, where they joined Clary in the Citadel. This was then besieged by Garibaldi's men, but held out until March 1861.

Garibaldi's next aim was to cross the Straits of the Messina and invade the mainland of Naples. Once again the Neapolitan fleet failed to intercept him and in the third week of August his army crossed to the mainland. He then began a careful advance towards Naples, but Francis II chose not to defend his capital. On 6 September he fled to the fortress city of Gaeta, and on 7 September Garibaldi's men captured Naples. Francis II still had a powerful army. He had strong garrisons at Gaeta, Capua and Messina and a field army 25,000 strong on the Volturno River close to Capua. Garibaldi had 22,000 men, mostly veterans of the fighting on Sicily. Both sided decided to go onto the offensive on 1 October (battle of the Volturno, 1 October 1860). Garibaldi handled his army better than the Neapolitan commanders, and won a narrow victory.

The situation changed dramatically on 2 October, when the Savoia Brigade of the regular Piedmontese army landed north of Capua. Garibaldi was no longer the sole commander against Naples, and he soon decided to hand command of his Second Army to the Piedmontese. More Piedmontese troops arrived across the newly conquered Papal States. Garibaldi's men besieged Capua (before being replaced by the Royal army), while the regular Piedmontese army moved to besiege Gaeta (12 November 1860-14 February 1861). The city finally fell after a French fleet withdrew, exposing the city to a naval bombardment. Francis II went into exile, and his kingdom joined the soon to be formed Kingdom of Italy. 

Papal States

Earlier in the war Victor Emmanuel had convinced Napoleon III to allow Piedmont to annex those parts of the Papal States that bordered the Adriatic - the Romagna in the north and the Legations in the centre. These areas had risen against Papal rule early in the conflict and at the end of 1859 the Austrians were unwilling to risk another war just to restore Papal rule. Pope Pius IV would be allowed to keep the Marche, the southern most part of his Adriatic lands, Umbria in the centre of the Peninsula and a large area around Rome on the western coast. The shrunken Papal States would thus still run from coast to coast and split Piedmont from Naples in the south.

Now, with Garibaldi in the south of Italy and issuing proclamations suggesting he would march on Rome after dealing with Naples, Cavour and Victor Emmanuel were able to convince Napoleon III that the only way to save Rome itself was to allow the Piedmontese to invade and occupy the Marche and Umbria. Piedmont already had an army in the former Papal Legations. This force contained 40,000 men and 78 guns, under the overall command of General Manfredo Fanti. It contained two corps - IV Corps under General Cialdini and V Corps under General Enrico Della Rocca.

The Papal army was around 20,000 strong, and was commanded by General Lamoricière, a former French general. His field army was much smaller, around 13,000 strong, with the rest of the men scattered in garrisons. Lamoricière knew that he couldn't defeat Piedmont without external help, and he was expected to receive aid from France and Austria, the two powers that had helped preserve the Papal States in previous crisis. He was entirely unaware of Napoleon III's decision to allow Piedmont to take the Marche and Umbria. The Austrians had not yet recovered from their defeat in Lombardy in 1859 and were also unwilling to intervene.

The invasion began on 11 September. The garrisons of Pesaro and Citta di Castello put up some resistance, but were quickly overwhelmed, and by 13 September the Piedmontese were already threatening the vital port of Ancona, the only possible base for any Austrian expeditionary force. Lamoricière responded by dashing towards Ancona, but Cialdini's IV Corps had moved too quickly. The two armies clashed at Castelfidardo (18 September 1860), and most of the Papal army was forced to retreat away from Ancona. Lamoricière managed to reach the city with a fragment of his forces, and a short siege began (siege of Ancona, to 29 September 1860). The newly conquered areas were soon integrated into Piedmont, leaving Pope Pius IX with the modern province of Lazio (the area around Rome and a significant area along the coast on either side).

Garibaldi wasn't happy to leave Rome out of the new united Italy. In 1862 he led his First March on Rome. Napoleon III made it clear that he wouldn't accept a Piedmontese annexation of Rome, and Victor Emmanuel was forced to send his army to intercept Garibaldi. The resulting battle of Aspromonte (29 August 1862) saw the Piedmontese open fire on the national hero, who was wounded in the fighting. He was soon pardoned, although Rome remained independent, and the government of Prime Minister Ratazzi fell as a result. Garibaldi made a second March on Rome in 1867, with similar results. This time he was defeated by a combined Franco-Papal Army at Mentana (3 November 1867) and captured for a second time. Once again he was soon released, and only had to wait three years for the final unification of Italy.


By the end of the Second War of Italian Independence all of Italy apart from Rome and Venetia had joined to form a new Kingdom of Italy, under Victor Emmanuel (II of Piedmont and I of Italy). This had not been a smooth process. After the end of the Franco-Austrian phase of the war Piedmont had gained Lombardy. Over the winter of 1859-60 Cavour managed to manipulate events and on 15 April 1860 the people of Parma, Modena, Tuscany, the Romagna and the Papal Legations voted to join Piedmont.

Naples and Sicily wouldn't have joined the new kingdom without Garibaldi's remarkable conquest of Sicily and Naples. This gave Cavour the chance to annex Umbria and the Marche, and to move his armies into Naples. On 26 October 1860 Garibaldi and Victor Emmanuel II shook hands at Teano, east of Caserta (north of Naples). A plebiscite was held in Naples on 7 November, and the Neapolitans voted for the union of northern and southern Italy. Afterwards Garibaldi returned to private life (only to return for his unsuccessful first March of Rome of 1862).

The official founding of the Kingdom of Italy came early in 1861. In February 1861 an emergency government was formed, and an all-Italian parliament met in Turin. On 17 March 1861 this parliament proclaimed the formation of the united Kingdom of Italy, with Victor Emmanuel I as its first king. Cavour did not survive long to enjoy his triumph, dying unexpectedly on 17 March 1861. His guiding hand was thus missing during the efforts to annex Rome and Venetia, although both areas would join Italy within a decade. In both cases the Italians were able to take advantage of wider European conflicts. The Third War of Italian Independence (1866) was part of the Austro-Prussia War. The Austrians defeated their Italian opponents but were defeated by the Prussians and were forced to abandon Venetia. The Fourth War of Italian Independence (1870) was a shorter affair. As Napoleon III's French tumbled to defeat during the Franco-Prussian War, Rome was left without her protector, and the Italians were finally able to take control. After yet another plebiscite Rome was formally annexed by Italy, and became the capital of the Kingdom of Italy.


The Second War of Italian Unification 1859-61, Frederick C. Schneid. Focuses on the three separate conflicts that made up the Second War of Italian Unification (the Franco-Austrian War, Garibaldi's invasion of the kingdom of Naples and the invasion of the Papal State), the conflict that saw the creation of the Kingdom of Italy. [read full review]
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Solferino 1859: The Battle for Italy's Freedom, Richard Brooks. The battle of Solferino was the main event in the Franco-Austrian War of 1859, a key moment in the unification of Italy, and the first battle to be decided at least partly by the extensive use of the railway and steamships and rifled artillery. It also led directly to the foundation of the Red Cross, but despite these claims to fame it has since been overshadowed by the American Civil War and Franco-Prussian War. Brooks' volume is an excellent single-volume account of the entire campaign, and will be of value to anyone with an interest in nineteenth century warfare [see more].
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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (18 February 2013), Second War of Italian Independence, 1859-61 ,

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