Second Italian War of Independence

Key Facts and Summary

  • Following Piedmont-Sardinia’s defeat in the First Italian War of Independence in 1848-49, the Austrian Empire still ruled the northern Italian states of Lombardy and Venetia.
  • The Piedmontese Chief Minister Count Cavour agreed an alliance with Napoleon III of France in January 1859 to strengthen his ambition to drive the Austrians out of Italy.
  • Austria declared war on Piedmont-Sardinia on 26 April 1859 when Piedmont failed to respond to an ultimatum ordering it to demobilise its army. On 3 May, France declared war on Austria in support of its ally.
  • By 7 May, Austrian forces were advancing on the Piedmontese capital Turin.
  • As more French troops flooded into Piedmont, the Austrian advance was halted.
  • 20 May saw the first major clash of the war: the Battle of Montebello. French troops gained a victory despite being heavily outnumbered.
  • At the Battle of Varese on 26 May, Garibaldi and his Hunters of the Alps defeated a force of Austrians. On the following day, they also won the Battle of San Fermo.
  • On 30-31 May there was hard fighting at the Battle of Palestro. Austrian counterattacks were held off by the French, who then pushed back with their North African Zoaves.
  • The Battle of Magenta on 4 June saw French troops led by Napoleon III cross the Ticino river and outflank the Austrians.
  • The loss of Milan and Lombardy led to the resignation on 16 June of the Austrian commander. He was replaced by Emperor Franz Josef.
  • The decisive battle of the war, at Solferino, took place on 24 June. The breakthrough finally came in the evening as French troops pushed through the Austrian centre. The Austrians withdrew to the Quadrilateral fortresses.
  • June 1859 saw revolutions in Parma, the Papal Legations and Modena. Votes were held that showed support for unification with Piedmont.
  • On 11 July 1859, France signed a peace deal with Austria at Villafranca. Piedmont was given Lombardy while France took control of Savoy and Nice.
  • In April-May 1860, there was a revolt against Bourbon rule in Sicily. Nationalist leader Giuseppe Garibaldi led troops from the mainland to assist.
  • By October 1860 the Bourbons had been defeated in Sicily and the Kingdom of Naples. Piedmont-Sardinia took control of those states as well as all those in central Italy, except Rome and Lazio. Venetia, in the north, remained in Austrian hands.
  • On 17 March 1861, the Kingdom of Italy was proclaimed in Turin.

Historical Context

Following the First Italian War of Independence in 1848-49, Italy was still not a unified country but divided into several smaller kingdoms. In the north, Piedmont was ruled by the King of Sardinia, Victor Emmanuel II, while the neighbouring states of Lombardy and Venetia were puppet states of the Austrian Habsburg Empire.

To the west, France was ruled by Emperor Napoleon III, nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte. Despite the failure of the First War of Italian Independence, the Italian Risorgimento movement was still growing in popularity and attracting support from across Europe. Its adherents wanted to expel Austria from the north and bring in a government that offered greater rights and freedoms to Italians. They also wanted Italy to be unified.

In 1852, Count Cavour became the chief minister of Piedmont. He thought that Piedmont-Sardinia would need powerful allies if it was to defeat Austria and take control of Lombardy and Venetia, and so he went about brokering an allegiance with France. This was finalised in secret at Plombières in July 1858. France would support Piedmont in the event of any Austrian aggression, but the Austrians had to be the ones that attacked first. This meant that Cavour needed to find a way to provoke Austria into war if the French support was to materialise. He ordered Piedmont’s army to mobilise and conduct manoeuvres near the border with Lombardy. Austria issued an ultimatum – Piedmont had to stand down its army or they would declare war – but this was exactly what Cavour wanted. The ultimatum was rejected and Austria declared war on Piedmont on 26 April 1859. At this time, Austria was fairly isolated in the international community, and would have to rely on its own armies, but Piedmont could now count on France, which declared war on Austria on 3 May.

The War

During the first couple of weeks of the war, Austria had the opportunity to defeat Piedmont-Sardinia before its French allies could arrive. However, the Austrian commander, Field Marshal Ferenc Gyulay, did not move quickly enough to accomplish this. The Sardinians hindered the enemy advance towards their capital, Turin, by flooding the rice fields en route. On 9 May 1859, the Sardinians and some French units managed to stop the Austrians gaining control of the Po river crossings around Casale Monferrato. The Italian defensive moves had been successful – Austria had failed to strike an early blow against them, and on 12 May the French emperor Napoleon III arrived at the port of Genoa to take command of the tens of thousands of his troops that were by then in Piedmont.

On 20 May, thousands of troops fought at Montebello in the first battle of the war. Despite being outnumbered, the French and Sardinian troops managed to drive the Austrians out of the village of Montebello and force them to retreat.

Meanwhile, Italian nationalist Giuseppe Garibaldi had been allowed to form his own army corps and was using it to assist the Sardinians in liberating northern Italy. His troops were mostly men who had escaped Austrian-held Lombardy to fight for the cause, and they were dubbed the ‘Hunters of the Alps’. On 26 May Garibaldi led his Hunters to their first victory at the Battle of Varese, followed on the next day by another triumph at San Fermo. As he forced the Austrians in the area to retreat eastwards, Garibaldi was able to capture the city of Como unopposed.

To the south, the Franco-Sardinian army was also on the move, attempting to cross from Piedmont into Austrian Lombardy. At the Battle of Palestro on 30-31 May 1859, the allies captured several border towns and forced the Austrians back. After observing some of the battle from a bell tower, King Victor Emmanuel of Sardinia personally led Italian reinforcements to support the French.

By 4 June, the French and Sardinian allies were well into Lombardy and advancing on Milan. They met the Austrians at Magenta in the first pivotal battle of the war. In a struggle for bridges over the Ticino river, the Austrians appeared at first to be gaining the upper hand until a brigade of French reinforcements arrived to tip the situation in the allies’ favour. Again the Austrians were forced to retreat, a move that essentially handed Milan and the state of Lombardy itself to the Franco-Sardinians. The defeat led to the resignation of the Austrian commander, Gyulay, and his replacement by the Austrian emperor himself, Franz Josef I.

Franz Josef reorganised his armies and withdrew them to the Mincio river, the border between Lombardy and Venetia. However, he did not plan to keep them there but instead launched a counterattack to try and retake Lombardy. The Austrian armies met the French and Italians at Solferino on 24 June 1859, in what would prove to be the war’s decisive clash. The Austrians held their positions all day, but faced difficulties as they were split into three forces, the centre being at Solferino while two other units fought to the north and south, at San Martino and Medole respectively. The Sardinian troops at San Martino fought all day despite being outnumbered, and prevented their Austrian opponents from being able to support their comrades at Solferino. The Austrian positions were finally captured at around 8pm. Only a couple of hours earlier, French reserve troops had finally broken through in the centre of the battlefield at Solferino itself. The Austrians in the south at Medole had also been forced to retreat after a day’s hard fighting. Franz Josef’s armies withdrew to their Quadrilateral fortresses at Verona, Peschiera, Legnago and Mantua.

The French and Sardinian allies had claimed victory over the Austrians in Lombardy, but losses had been heavy on both sides. The fate of wounded soldiers left behind on the battlefield was so shocking to observers that it led a few years later to the formation of the international Red Cross organisation and the signing of the Geneva Convention, to make sure that injured service personnel were treated humanely.

The two emperors involved, Franz Josef and Napoleon III, were both concerned about the scale of the losses and how they might affect their popularity and prestige in their home countries. They decided to meet to discuss a peace treaty, controversially failing to include the Sardinians in the talks. It was agreed that Lombardy would be ceded to France, who would then pass it straight on to Sardinia. Venetia would remain in Austrian hands, and Sardinia would give Savoy and Nice to France. It was intended that the pre-war rulers of the other Italian states would be restored, partly to stop Piedmont-Sardinia becoming too powerful by taking control of the smaller states. These terms were all made official in the Peace of Villafranca, signed on 11 July 1859. When the treaty was made public, Chief Minister Cavour of Sardinia resigned in protest over the terms and the lack of Sardinian inclusion.

However, the reality did not play out as the two emperors had hoped. It was not long before they realised that they could not compel the central Italian states to reinstate their rulers or stop them from uniting with Sardinia. In November 1859 this was acknowledged in the Peace of Zurich, and a few months later the states of Parma, Tuscany, Modena, the Romagna and the Papal Legations all voted to be annexed to Sardinia.

This was not enough for Guiseppe Garibaldi. He wanted to eject the Bourbon dynasty from the south, where it ruled Sicily and Naples. Waiting for the opportune moment, on 11 May 1860 he landed on Sicily with 1000 men shortly after the start of an uprising against the Bourbons. His campaign was supported secretly by Piedmont-Sardinia, although it attracted some protests from other nations. However, no other country actively tried to stop him. On 15 May 1860 at the Battle of Calatafimi, Garibaldi’s army, using outdated guns, defeated a larger and better equipped force of troops sent from Naples. The victory inspired many more Sicilians to join Garibaldi’s cause. Over the next few months, Garibaldi managed to advance right across Sicily, crossing to the mainland during the third week of August. His successes continued, and the Bourbon ruler of Naples, Francis II, decided to abandon his city without defending it. Garibaldi entered Naples in triumph on 7 September.

Four days later, Piedmont-Sardinia invaded the Papal States. Neither France nor Austria could do anything to stop them, and the Pope’s territory was reduced to just Rome and the surrounding Lazio region. Piedmont also moved to support Garibaldi against the ruler of Naples, forcing the Bourbon’s final surrender. Piedmont had now united nearly the entire Italian peninsula under its rule, except Venetia and Rome. On 17 March 1861, the Kingdom of Italy was proclaimed in its new capital Turin, with Victor Emmanuel I (II of Sardinia) as its king.


After its victory in the First Italian War of Independence (1848-49), the Austrian Empire still controlled the northern Italian states of Lombardy and Venetia. However, the Kingdom of Sardinia, based in the state of Piedmont in the north-west, had not given up its ambition to defeat the Austrians militarily and win power in northern Italy for itself. In January 1859, Piedmont-Sardinia’s plans received a major boost when its Chief Minister Count Cavour signed an allegiance with the French Emperor Napoleon III. On 26 April 1859, Austria declared war on Piedmont-Sardinia after it failed to stop its troops manoeuvring near the border with Austrian Lombardy. France declared war on Austria on 3 May, and started moving its armies to Piedmont. The Italians held off the Austrians in Piedmont until their French allies arrived. There then began a steady pushing back of Austrian troops eastwards, with important victories for the Franco-Sardinians at the Battle of Magenta (4 June 1859) and Solferino (24 June 1859). The heavy losses suffered by both sides pushed the French and Austrian emperors to meet for peace talks, which were solemnised by the Peace of Villafranca on 11 July 1859. Lombardy was given to Piedmont-Sardinia, and France was given the former Sardinian territories of Savoy and Nice. Following the peace, Piedmont continued to push for unification with the central Italian states. The nationalist leader Giuseppe Garibaldi’s campaign in the south helped bring Sicily and the Kingdom of Naples into the fold. On 17 March 1861, the Kingdom of Italy was pronounced in the Piedmontese capital Turin. Only Rome and Venetia remained separate, the former ruled by the Pope and the latter by Austria.


[1.] Various, The Times Complete History of the World (Times Books, 2004)

[2.] Roberts, J.M., The Penguin History of the World (Penguin, 1992)




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