On June 8th Victor Emmanuel and Napoleon III made their triumphal entry into Milan — now freed from the Austrian yoke.
Continuing The Second War of Italian Independence,
our selection from Modern Italy 1748-1898 by Pietro Orsi. The selection is presented in three easy 5 minute installments. For works benefiting from the latest research see the “More information” section at the bottom of these pages
Previously in The Second War of Italian Independence.
Place: Northern Italy
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 center 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 ad vantage 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 the Mincio 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 marvelous talents to realizing the ideal of national redemption and had believed his ends so nearly attained, hastened to his Prince, and, in a melancholy interview, 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.
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