Battle of Solferino Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The combined armies of the Kingdom of Piedmont-Sardinia and France overwhelmed an Austrian force in a muddled and bloody battle, which eliminated Austria’s ability to retain control of northern Italy, set the stage for Italian unification, and established Piedmont as the controlling force in Italian politics.

Summary of Event

During the Napoleonic Wars, Napoleon I forcibly unified several regions of Europe that had previously been fragmented into smaller political units. Following those wars, the people of those regions sought to establish their own unified nations built upon historical or ethnic roots. In 1814, the Italian peninsula was divided into seven different states, two of which—Lombardy and Venetia—were satellites of Austria. During the first half of the nineteenth century, Italian patriots repeatedly sought independence through revolts against Austria, but each failed. In 1848, the Kingdom of Piedmont-Sardinia (usually referred to as Piedmont) joined the revolt against the Austrians and waged a short and abortive war. The Piedmontese defeat forced the king to abdicate and resulted in a peace treaty dictated by Austria. Victor Emmanuel II became Piedmont’s new king and soon selected Count Cavour as his prime minister. Solferino, Battle of (1859) Italian unification movement;and Battle of Solferino[Solferino] Victor Emmanuel II [p]Victor Emmanuel II[Victor Emmanuel 02];and Battle of Solferino[Battle of Solferino] Francis Joseph I [p]Francis Joseph I[Francis Joseph 01];and Battle of Solferino[Battle of Solferino] Napoleon III [p]Napoleon III[Napoleon 03];and Battle of Solferino[Battle of Solferino] Cavour, Count [p]Cavour, Count;and Battle of Solferino[Battle of Solferino] Austria;and Italy[Italy] Italy;and Austria[Austria] [kw]Battle of Solferino (June 24, 1859) [kw]Solferino, Battle of (June 24, 1859) Solferino, Battle of (1859) Italian unification movement;and Battle of Solferino[Solferino] Victor Emmanuel II [p]Victor Emmanuel II[Victor Emmanuel 02];and Battle of Solferino[Battle of Solferino] Francis Joseph I [p]Francis Joseph I[Francis Joseph 01];and Battle of Solferino[Battle of Solferino] Napoleon III [p]Napoleon III[Napoleon 03];and Battle of Solferino[Battle of Solferino] Cavour, Count [p]Cavour, Count;and Battle of Solferino[Battle of Solferino] Austria;and Italy[Italy] Italy;and Austria[Austria] [g]Italy;June 24, 1859: Battle of Solferino[3290] [g]France;June 24, 1859: Battle of Solferino[3290] [c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;June 24, 1859: Battle ofSolferino[3290] Benedek, Ludwig August von

Napoleon III at the Battle of Solferino.

(The Co-Operative Publishing Company)

Under Cavour, Piedmont assumed leadership of the efforts to unify Italy. Located in northwestern Italy, Piedmont’s strength rested on fertile valleys and the cities of Turin and Genoa. The neighboring provinces of Lombardy and Venetia were both rich and under Austrian control and occupation. To offset Austrian strength, Cavour Cavour, Count [p]Cavour, Count;and Crimean War[Crimean War] sought an alliance with France. In the Crimean War (1853-1856) Crimean War (1853-1856);and Piedmont[Piedmont] , Cavour committed Piedmont to an alliance with France and Great Britain against Russia. Although the issues of this war were not significant to Piedmont, Piedmontese participation gained the small state a greater diplomatic presence and significance. Moreover, the courage and skill of Piedmontese troops during the war earned the small country international respect.

By April, 1859, Cavour’s earlier machinations in a secret conference with France at Plombières resulted in harsh words from Victor Emmanuel II about Austrian rule in Italy. In return, Austria had issued an ultimatum aimed at curbing Piedmontese power. Austria’s demands made Piedmont seem the victim of unwarranted aggression and legitimized France’s intervention on behalf of its ally. The result was a war pitting Austria against the allied states of Piedmont and France. For Piedmont, the objective was to annex the neighboring Italian province of Lombardy. Napoleon III, Napoleon I’s nephew and the emperor of France, had secretly demanded that Piedmont cede the regions of Nice and Savoy to France as the price of French intervention. Austria’s new emperor, Francis Joseph I, sought to humble and demilitarize Piedmont to stabilize Austrian holdings in Italy.

None of the armies was well prepared for a campaign. Austria and France had both begun to rearm their forces with rifled muskets, but many troops either had not yet received their new arms or received them only as they began to march. Piedmont’s forces contained many untrained volunteers and were noticeably weak in artillery. Throughout the short war, both sides would also be poorly served by their scouts, and the main battles of the war were chance engagements that resulted from poor reconnaissance.

Austrian forces moved first and encountered the French and Piedmontese troops in the Battle of Mantua on June 4, 1859. Each side was surprised by its opponent’s presence, and the commanders proved inept and indecisive. The courage and determination of the troops resulted in heavy losses, until the Austrians conceded defeat and began to withdraw. Francis Joseph relieved the discredited Austrian general and took personal command of his armies. Although retreating, the Austrians stopped near the banks of the Mincio River, near the small village of Solferino. Francis Joseph appears to have planned to regroup there before mounting a riposte against the pursuing French and Piedmontese forces.

Those forces, under the direct command of Napoleon III and Victor Emmanuel II, numbered some 118,600 men and 320 guns. On June 24, 1859, they advanced in a haphazard fashion in the early morning darkness. The village of Solferino was at the foot of a number of peaks occupied by some 120,000 Austrian troops and 451 guns. This position, however, placed all of their units forward with no reserves. Inadequate French reconnaissance led Napoleon III to believe that the Austrians were still retreating, when in fact Austrian units were preparing to attack.

Napoleon III ordered an attack on the supposedly retreating troops. The attack began on the southern end of the Austrian line and continued along the length of the occupied mountain positions. Although French soldiers and their commanders showed great determination, their piecemeal attacks resulted in their taking high casualties in return for little progress. Neither Napoleon III nor Victor Emmanuel attempted to get close enough to oversee and coordinate their troops. Throughout the long day, repeated French attacks in the south and middle pushed the Austrians back, while in the north Piedmontese forces gamely attacked the best deployed Austrian corps but failed to break the Austrian defenses.

Meanwhile, Francis Joseph’s poor reconnaissance had left him unaware that the allied forces were near, so the battle began as a surprise for him. Without a reserve, the Austrians continued to respond to the French attacks with uncoordinated, bloody counterattacks. Many of the allied attacks went forward in the face of heavy fire and succeeded only after determined use of the bayonet. Ultimately the spirited nature of the allied—particularly the French—attacks began to tell, and by late afternoon Francis Joseph ordered a retreat. In the north, General Ludwig August von Benedek’s Benedek, Ludwig August von well-entrenched corps inflicted terrible losses on the Piedmontese. As the rest of the Austrians began a general retreat, Benedek’s troops covered the withdrawal.

The battle had been a bloody affair. The Austrians lost 2,292 killed, 8,638 wounded, and 10,807 missing or taken prisoner. The allies lost 2,313 killed, 12,102 wounded, and 2,776 missing. The Piedmontese casualties were especially severe, afflicting some 5,521 out of a force of 25,000. The allied victory was the result of aggressive corps commanders and the courage and determination of their troops in spite of heavy casualties. In later years, military thinkers would see Solferino as a vindication of the idea that offensive spirit could overcome defensive firepower. That verdict, however, ignored the impact of disorder among the Austrians, their lack of reserves, and the unfamiliarity of many Austrian troops with their new rifled muskets.

Although the allies were too exhausted to pursue the Austrians, Solferino broke the Austrian army. Its carnage also sickened Napoleon III, who almost immediately began negotiating with Francis Joseph to end the war. This unilateral approach angered Cavour and forced Piedmont to accede to peace before it had attained all of its objectives. Napoleon’s treaty, the Treaty of Villafranca, sanctioned Piedmont’s control of Lombardy and the transfer of Nice and Savoy to France, but it allowed Austria to maintain its hold over Venetia. In spite of Venetia remaining an Austrian satellite, however, Solferino crystallized Piedmontese predominance in Italian affairs. When Italy was finally unified, it was Piedmont’s king, Victor Emmanuel II, who became the king of Italy.

Napoleon III was not the only witness to the battle who was dismayed at its cost. Henri Dunant, a Swiss businessman visiting the area, became involved in providing medical care for the many wounded found after the battle. As a result of his horrific experiences, he began to call for the creation of a nonpartisan organization to aid those wounded in future battles. The result of his efforts was the creation in 1863 of the International Committee of the Red Cross Red Cross , which was at first established as a nonpolitical humanitarian aid organization tasked with helping wounded soldiers. Eventually, the Red Cross involved itself in other kinds of disasters and crises, but its roots were martial.

Significance

Although Napoleon’s diplomacy prematurely ended the war, Solferino generated many significant consequences. Since Austria’s military strength had put down earlier Italian attempts at independence, battlefield success was an indispensable prerequisite for independence and eventual unification. The courage and determination of the Piedmontese gave them dominance within what would become the nation of Italy. Austria’s defeat resulted in the loss both of its Italian holdings and of its reputation as a great power—a reputation that would be further eroded in 1866 during the Seven Weeks’ War. The carnage of the battle also resulted in the founding of the Red Cross and prefigured Napoleon’s ineptitude and inability to face high casualties during the Franco-Prussian War. Finally, military thinkers in Europe and America saw the bayonet attacks of Solferino as vindication for a cult of vigorous offensives that would not be put to rest until the slaughter of long-range rifle fire in the Boer War and the machine guns of World War I.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Beales, Derek and Biagini, Eugenio. The Risorgimento and the Unification of Italy. Harrow, Greater London, England: Longman, 2002. Sets the context of the Battle of Solferino and Cavour’s efforts to control the various Italian patriotic organizations.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Blumberg, Arnold. A Carefully Planned Accident: The Italian War of 1859. Cranbury, N.J.: Associated University Presses, 1990. Looks at the war in terms of international affairs and the concerns of France, as well as such “invisible” diplomatic players as Great Britain and Prussia.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Pavlovic, Darko. The Austrian Army, 1836-1866. London: Osprey, 1999. Provides an in-depth look at the organization and weapons of the Austrian forces.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Turnbull, Patrick. Solferino: The Birth of a Nation. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1985. The most accessible treatment of the Battle of Solferino and its aftermath. Argues that the battle marked the rise of Italy as a nation.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wylly, H. C. The Campaign of Magenta and Solferino. Reprint. Minneapolis: Absinthe Press, 1996. The most detailed study of the ebb and flow of combat during the Battle of Solferino. Its details are indispensable for understanding the course of the battle.

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Italy Is Proclaimed a Kingdom

International Red Cross Is Launched

Austria and Prussia’s Seven Weeks’ War

Franco-Prussian War

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Count Cavour; Francis Joseph I; Napoleon I; Napoleon III. Solferino, Battle of (1859) Italian unification movement;and Battle of Solferino[Solferino] Victor Emmanuel II [p]Victor Emmanuel II[Victor Emmanuel 02];and Battle of Solferino[Battle of Solferino] Francis Joseph I [p]Francis Joseph I[Francis Joseph 01];and Battle of Solferino[Battle of Solferino] Napoleon III [p]Napoleon III[Napoleon 03];and Battle of Solferino[Battle of Solferino] Cavour, Count [p]Cavour, Count;and Battle of Solferino[Battle of Solferino] Austria;and Italy[Italy] Italy;and Austria[Austria]

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