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First Italian War of Independence

The First Italian War of Independence (Italian: Prima guerra d'indipendenza italiana) was part of the Risorgimento. It was fought by the Kingdom of Sardinia (Piedmont) and Italian volunteers against the Austrian Empire and other conservative states from 23 March 1848 to 22 August 1849 in the Italian peninsula.

First Italian War of Independence
Part of the Wars of Italian Unification
Novara Villa Mon Repos 1849 Prina1863.jpg
The Battle of Novara (1849)
Date23 March 1848 – 24 March 1849
LocationLombardy-Venetia and Piedmont
Result Austrian victory
Flag of Italy (1861–1946).svg Kingdom of Sardinia
Italy cockade.svg Italian Volunteer Army
Supported by:
Flag of Italy with inscription «Italia libera Dio lo vuole».svg Provisional Government of Milan
Flag of the Republic of Venice 1848-49.gif Republic of San Marco
Bandiera dello Stato della Sicilia (28.04.1848 - 15.05.1849).PNG Kingdom of Sicily
Flag of the Grand Duchy of Tuscany (1848).gif Grand Duchy of Tuscany
Flag of Italy.svg Duchy of Modena and Reggio
Flag of Italy.svg Duchy of Parma and Piacenza
Flag of the Roman Republic (19th century).svg Roman Republic
Austrian Empire Austrian Empire
France French Republic
Commanders and leaders
Flag of Italy (1861–1946).svg King Charles Albert Austrian Empire Josef Radetzky
Flag of Italy (1861–1946).svg 115,000 men
Italy cockade.svg 22,000 men
Austrian Empire 100,000 men
France 40,000 men[1]
Casualties and losses
1848: Unknown
1849: 17,400+
2,400 killed
5,000 wounded
10,000 captured
unknown disease deaths[2]
1848: 9,139
4,872 killed/missing
3,348 wounded
919 captured
1849: 6,441
1,145 killed/missing
2,944 wounded
352 captured
2,000+ disease deaths
Total: 15,580+[3]

The conflict was preceded by the outbreak of the Sicilian revolution of 1848 against the House of Bourbon-Two Sicilies. It was precipitated by riots in the cities of Milan (Five Days) and Venice, which rebelled from Austria and established their own governments.

The part of the conflict which was fought by King Charles Albert against Austria in northern Italy was a Royal war and consisted of two campaigns. In both campaigns, the Kingdom of Sardinia attacked the Austrian Empire and was defeated, losing the war as a result. The decisive events of the first and second campaigns were the battles at Custoza and Novara, respectively.

At the beginning of the royal war, the Kingdom of Sardinia was supported by the Papal States and the Kingdom of Two Sicilies, which then withdrew, having barely participated in the fighting at all. However, volunteers from the Papal and Neapolitan armies joined the other Italian volunteers and fought against Austria.

Alongside the royal war, revolutionary movements took place in various Italian states (Papal States, Tuscany, etc), part of the Revolutions of 1848 in the Italian states, which could not be reconciled with the Liberal ideals of Piedmont. Historiography treats these revolutions, as well as the Sicilian revolution of 23 March 1848, as a popular war, which also failed, ending in the restoration of traditional institutions and many rebels forced into exile.[4][5]

In the popular war with the internal revolutionaries, the Kingdom of Two Sicilies and the Papal States found themselves on the opposite side to the one they were on in the royal war, in which they initially supported Piedmont.

The popular war first gave prominence to the military commander, Giuseppe Garibaldi, but he was defeated, as was King Charles Albert, who abdicated at the end of the war in favour of his eldest son, Victor Emmanuel.


The revolutions of 1848Edit

In 1848 revolutionary riots broke out in many parts of Europe, including numerous places in the Apennines and other parts of Italy. Ferdinand II of the Two Sicilies was forced to grant a constitution on 23 January and his example was followed by Leopold II of Tuscany on 17 February, Charles Albert of Piedmont (Sardinia) on 17 February (the Albertine Statue), and Pius IX on 14 March (The Fundamental Statute (it). Charles II, Duke of Parma was ousted. Sicily, excepting Messina, revolted against the Bourbon Kingdom of the Two Sicilies.

On 23 February, the French Revolution of 1848 broke out against Louis Philippe. In March, the revolts also spread into the Austrian Empire, where Milan (Five Days of Milan) and Venice (Republic of San Marco) rebelled from the House of Habsburg.

The battles were particularly heated in Milan, where the commander of the army of Lombardy-Venetia, Marshal Josef Radetzky, was forced to abandon the city. As a result of this, other revolts broke out in Lombardy-Venetia, such as that at Como (it). With Vienna itself in revolt, the Austrian Empire was tottering.

On 23 March, one day after the end of the Five Days of Milan, King Charles Albert of Sardinia declared war on Austria. He was probably spurred to this by the desire to avoid a revolution in his own country, which was itself a liberal monarchy, and by the hope that he could use the rebellions in Lombardy-Venetia as an opportunity to expand his own kingdom.[6][7] Thus began the first Italian war of independence.

Summary of strategic situation and forcesEdit

King Charles Albert of Sardinia, who declared war on Austria on 23 March 1848.

As a result of the revolts of Milan and Venice, from 23 March 1848, the Austrians had to retreat into the Quadrilateral fortresses (Peschiera, Verona, Mantua, and Legnago) which formed the defensive nucleus of the Habsburg army in Lombardy-Venetia. To the east, west, and south of the Quadrilateral, forces of volunteers from the Italian states began to gather in order to fight against the Austrians. The Austrian forces only able to maintain links to the motherland via a corridor to the north, running along the east coast of Lake Garda.[8]

The Piedmontese armyEdit

The army of the Kingdom of Sardinia was mobilised on 1 March 1848, at the beginning of the revolt in Milan, and was at 4/5 strength, with about 65,000 men.[9]

The Piedmontese army was headed by Charles Albert, Minister for War General Antonio Franzini (it),[10] and General Eusebio Bava. The latter directly commanded the 1st armed corps, consisting of two divisions under Generals Federico Millet d'Arvillars (it) and Vittorio Garretti di Ferrere. The 2nd armed corps was directed by Ettore De Sonnaz (it), with Giovanni Battista Federici and Mario Broglia (it) commanding its two divisions. The 5th division, containing the reserves, was under the command of Charles Albert's heir Victor Emmanuel, Duke of Savoy.[11] Finally, command of the artillery fell to Ferdinand of Savoy, Duke of Genoa.[12]

Before crossing the Ticino river, which marked the border between the Kingdom of Sardinia and Lombardy-Venetia, Charles Albert decided that the war flag would be the Italian tricolor with the Savoyard arms at the centre.[13]

Other Italian armies and VolunteersEdit

Italy at the time of the First War of Independence.

All the other monarchies of the peninsula that had been forced to join the war against Austria due to public sentiment in their respective countries brought military contingents to Lombardy-Venetia, but without conviction.

The first to arrive was the Papal Army (it), with a contingent of 17-18,000 men (including roughly 900 cavalry soldiers and 22 cannons). It consisted of a regular division (10-11,000 men including 3-4,000 volunteers) under the command of the Piedmontese Giovanni Durando and a second division (around 7,000 men) made up of the Mobile Civic Guard and of volunteers under the republican Andrea Ferrari (it). The armed corps entered Lombardy-Venetia from the Apostolic legation of Ferrara.[14] A group of around 130 volunteers, called the Bersaglieri del Po (it) also came from Ferrara.

The Quadrilateral fortresses, the defensive core of the Austrian army in Lombardy-Venetia.

The Grand Duchy of Tuscany entered the war on 21 March and sent a corps of around 6,400 men to Mantua, partially regular troops and partially volunteers. The contingent was commanded initially by Ulisse d'Arco Ferrari (it) and subsequently by Cesare de Laugier (it). These troops had little technical training but were highly enthusiastic, especially the so-called "Battalion of Students", led by Astronomy professor Ottaviano-Fabrizio Mossotti.[15]

In Parma and Modena, the respective dukes, Charles II and Francis V, had abandoned the throne in the face of popular riots, allowing the formation of provisional governments. A few hundred volunteers set out for Lombardy-Veneto.[16]

The major contribution to the war was to be made by Ferdinand II of Two Sicilies, who promised to send a corps of 25,000 men. This contingent did not leave on time and when it was sent in March it contained around 11,000 men. King Ferdinand II was politically very far from the Piedmontese liberal ideology and his highest priority was the reconquest of Sicily, which had revolted on 26 March 1848 under the leadership of Ruggero Settimo.[17][18] Commanded by Guglielmo Pepe, the Neapolitan troops arrived in the theatre of war only in mid-May, when, as they were crossing the Po from the south, they received the order to return home. Only a few units loyal to Guglielmo Pepe entered Veneto and participated in the fighting.[19]

However, the anti-Austrian coalition could rely on other forces. There were Lombard volunteers (4,500 men), Neapolitan volunteers (1,600 men), and Venetian volunteers from the Republic of San Marco. The last group consisted of around 9,000 men, organised as regular units by Daniele Manin and directed principally against the enemy forces which had crossed the Soča from the east in order to reinforce the Habsburg troops in Lombardy-Venetia. They were commanded by generals Carlo Zucchi and Alberto della Marmora.[20]

All these armies were completely uncoordinated with one another and were motivated by very different political ideals, ranging from those who sought to unite with the Kingdom of Sardinia, to those who desired an Italian republic.

The Austrian armyEdit

General Josef Radetzky, commander of the Austrian army in Lombardy-Venetia, portrait by Georg Decker (1818-1894)

The Austrian army in Lombardy-Venetia was commanded by the 81-year-old General Josef Radetzky, a man whose past experience had earned him exceptional autonomy from the Viennese bureaucracy. He had organised the army in Italy according to his own ideas, including the idea that army training was necessary even in times of peace - a theory that few followed in this period. The result was that when the war broke out his soldiers were ready and, in particular, were familiar with the territory in which they would need to fight.[21]

Before the insurrections at Milan and Venice, Radetzky had 70,000 men in two armies: the 1st in Lombardy and the 2nd in Venetia, containing a total of 61 battalions of infantry. After the revolt, as a result of casualties, surrenders, and desertions, this was reduced to 41 effective battalions. There were also 35 squadrons of cavalry and 100 pieces of artillery. Given that the average force of the Austrian battalions was around 1,000 men, Radetzky had a total of around 50,000 men at the start of the war.[22] He further ordered that a reserve force of 20,000 soldiers be gathered in a hurry under the command of Laval Nugent von Westmeath from the Austrian side of the Soča and from Carinthia.

The initial phase of the first campaign (March–May 1848)Edit

King Charles Albert of Sardinia with his bicorne hat in his hand, at left, greets the Piedmontese troops after they have crossed the Ticino. Painting by Stanislao Grimaldi (1825-1903).

Piedmontese advance towards the Quadrilateral (23 March - 7 April 1848)Edit

On 23 March, the Kingdom of Sardinia declared war on the Austrian Empire. On 25 and 26 March, two advance guards crossed the river Ticino, entering enemy territory. The body of the army crossed on 29 March.[9] That same day, the first three divisions entered Pavia, where they were acclaimed by the people. At Lodi, where some divisions arrived on the same day, they learnt that enemy forces had gathered at Montichiari, 20 km southeast of Brescia, on the river Chiese. Charles Albert decided to ignore these and advance towards Cremona on the Po. From there they advanced to Marcaria and crossed the Oglio on 7 April, some twenty kilometres from Mantua, the southernmost fortress of the Quadrilateral.[23]

Only one of the advance guards was sent to Bresica - this consisted of a brigade of infantry, a regiment of cavalry, and a battery of cannons and was commanded by general Michele Giuseppe Bes (1794-1853), who had already crossed the Ticino at Boffalora and entered Milan. Bes' troops reached Brescia on 31 March. That same day, Radetzky retreated to Peschiera and two days after that to Verona. On 8 April, the majority of his troops (the 1st Army), was stationed in the Quadrilateral at Villafranca. The Piedmontese army, on the other hand, was arrayed along the west bank of the Mincio.[23][24]

The slow advance of the Piedmontese army across Lombardy gave the Austrian army plenty of time to withdraw, a factor which attracted criticism both at the time and subsequently.

Crossing the Mincio River (8-27 April 1848)Edit

Course of the first phase of the first campaign (up to 25 May 1848).
Alessandro La Marmora, founder of the bersaglieri, was seriously wounded at the Battle of Goito Bridge.

Since all the bridges over the Mincio were still held by the Austrian rear-guard, on 8 April, general Bava ordered the divisions of general d'Arvillars to seize the Bridge at Goito. After sharp clashes, during which the Austrian engineers managed to partially demolish the bridge, regiments of the Bersaglieri and the navy (it) managed to breakthrough to the other bank. Around 4pm the work of the Piedmontese engineers, enabled the passage of another 3 battalions, while the Austrians withdrew to Villafranca. In this first clash of the war, colonel Alessandro La Marmora, founder of the bersaglieri, was seriously wounded.[25]

On 9 April, the Piedmontese took control of the bridge at Monzambano to the north. On 11 April, the Austrians finally abandoned the east bank of the Mincio and withdrew to Verona. The Piedmontese occupied Valeggio.[26]

Further east, on 17 April, the new Austrian army under Nugent crossed the Isonzo with two goals: to reinforce Radetzky and to reoccupy Veneto. On 23 April, Nugent entered Udine. Meanwhile, on 26 April, half the Piedmontese army crossed the Mincio. Two days later, another two divisions crossed and the whole army was deployed in an arc to blockade Pescheria,[27] which the Piedmontese began to besiege on 27 April, and to simultaneously threaten Verona. The disposition also threatened the Austrian army, arrayed along the Adige and the main road from Verona to Trento and Austria.[28]

Piedmontese advance towards the Adige (30 April 1848)Edit

The charge of the carabinieri at Pastrengo. Painting by Sebastiano De Albertis.

In the face of the Piedmontese threat, Radetzky had occupied an advance position at Pastrengo on the west bank of the Adige. On 30 April, the 2nd Army under De Sonnaz advanced to eliminate the enemy bridgehead (14,000 Piedmontese against 8,000 Austrians). For three hours, from 11 am until 2 pm, the advance was slow and difficult. Charles Albert, growing impatient, pushed forward with three squadrons of mounted carabinieri, between the "Cuneo" brigade and the "Piemonte" brigade. At that moment, the Piedmontese advance revived and some carabinieri came under Austrian fire. After a moment of confusion, Major Alessandro Negri di Sanfront (it) spurred on the three squadrons of carabinieri against the enemy, with the king and his bodyguard joining the charge. The Austrian line was broken; the Piedmontese infantry forced the enemy to retreat.[29]

Having reached the Adige, the Piedmontese were stopped by Radetzky, who had responded to the enemy advance with an attack on the centre of the Piedmontese formation. The attack was easily parried, but succeeded in diverting Charles Albert from attempting to cross the Adige. The Battle of Pastrengo thus ended in a Piedmontese victory which raised the morale of the Savoyard troops, but their success in eliminating the Austrian bridgehead was incomplete since the east bank of the Adige remained firmly under Radetzky's control.[30]

Withdrawal of the Papal StatesEdit

In this situation, Pope Pius IX gave the address Non semel ("Not once") to the Papal consistory on 29 April 1848, in which he disavowed his army's invasion of the Veneto. The change of position resulted from the impossibility of fighting a major Catholic power like Austria. Pius feared the possibility of a schism with the Austrian catholics, declaring, "We have learnt also that some enemies of the Catholic religion have taken this opportunity to inflame the minds of the Germans against the unity of this Holy See."[31]

The Papal troops and their commander, Giovanni Durando, ignored the wishes of the Pope and continued the campaign, but the impact of Pius' action was considerable. Report of the speech reached the Piedmontese general staff on 2 May, producing great concern. Charles Albert was most effected of all by it, writing to minister Ottavio Thaon di Revel (it), "The Pope's speech is an act which could have immense consequences. Certainly, it will do damage to the cause of Italian independence."[32]

Battle of Santa Lucia (6 May 1848)Edit

The Austrian Kingdom of Lombardy-Venetia, theatre of operations for the first campaign of the war.
The Battle of Santa Lucia. The Piedmontese grenadiers attack and are opposed by effectively stationed Austrian forces.

As a result of Pastrengo, Charles Albert had brought his left wing up to the Adige. Now he sought to push the Austrians back to Verona with a spectacular battle, so that he could announce a brilliant success in time for the start of the new session of the Chamber of Deputies. The army he faced was divided into three parts: the first on the east bank of the Adige up to Pastrengo to the north, the second in the villages west of Verona, and the third part inside the walls of Verona itself.[33]

It seemed to the Piedmontese that they could pretty easily defeat the Austrian forces in front of Verona, ignoring or underestimating the fact that the villages had been skillfully and systematically fortified by the Austrians. At Charles Albert's request, General Bava prepared a plan, which was then modified by Franzini, for an "armed reconnaissance" in the direction of Verona in order to provoke a battle in the open. The 1st Army, the reserve division and the 3rd division of the 2nd Army (i.e. 4/5 of the whole Piedmontese army) were to take part in the attack, whose principle target was the village of San Massimo.[34] On 6 May 1848, the Piedmontese army began its advance. The movement of the various units was not synchronised. At the village of San Massimo, where the main attack was to be concentrated, the Royal Brigade from the 1st division of the 1st Army came under heavy enemy fire. The other brigade in its division, the Aosta Brigade, also encountered heavy fire in front of the village of Santa Lucia, which became the focus of the Piedmontese assault as a result the breakdown of the plan of attack.[35]

Since Charles Albert was in an exposed forward position, General Bava contravened the plan which required him to wait for the other units and attacked Santa Lucia at 10 am with the Aosta Brigade, exposing it to intense Austrian fire. Only at 11 am, did the Guard Brigade from the reserve division arrive to assist. With this he was able to flank the village. Parts of the Royal Brigade and the 2nd division of the 1st Army began to arrive between 12 and 1:30 pm, at which point Bava launched an assault, which was focused on the cemetery of Santa Lucia, doggedly defended by the Austrians. However, the latter were overcome by the enemy and eventually had to abandon their positions and withdraw to Verona.[36]

The Piedmontese stalled rather than taking advantage of the situation. At 2pm they received notice that the 3rd division of the 2nd Piedmontese Army's attack on the hamlets of Croce Bianca and Chievo had failed. The news led Charles Albert to order a retreat. Simultaneously, an energetic Austrian counter-offensive was launched, in which Radetzky's men made it to Santa Lucia, which they found abandoned by the Piedmontese. At 6 pm the battle was over. The Austrians had rebuffed the enemy attack, suffering 72 dead, 190 wounded, and 87 captured. The Piedmontese had lost 110 men and suffered 776 wounded.[37] The failure marked the loss of Piedmontese initiative, which now passed to the Austrians.

Arrival of Austrian reinforcementsEdit

The Crossing of the Soča (17-29 April 1848)Edit

The Austrian general Laval Nugent, who led the Austrian reinforcements from the Soča to the Piave.

While Charles Albert was fighting in the Quadrilateral, another conflict took place in parallel in Veneto, which remained completely separate from the Piedmontese campaign. The government of the Republic of San Marco barely managed to keep the various local committees co-ordinated. Searching for a commander to organise their troops, they obtained the Piedmontese general Alberto La Marmora.[38]

On the other side, the Austrian general Laval Nugent, concentrated his forces at Gorizia and crossed the Soča into Veneto on 17 April 1848 with 12-13,000 men. He substantially outnumbered the forces opposing his passage. That same day, Nugent locked down Palmanova, moving on to Udine which surrendered on 22 April after an artillery bombardment. On 23 April, the Austrians occupied the city. Nugent then moved on towards Tagliamento.[39]

La Marmora had just 1,300 men at the river against the Austrian force, which had grown to 16-17,000 men. After destroying a bridge, he decided to withdraw west to the Piave. Meanwhile, Giovanni Durando crossed over the Po and arrived at Ostiglia on 23 April with the 10-11,000 Papal regulars, while Andrea Ferrari was also on the way with volunteers and the Papal national guard (7,000 men).[40] Durando and his men proceeded to Treviso on 29 April, while La Marmora was ordered to defend eastern Venetia. Pius IX's order to withdraw was made the same day, but Durando and the troops chose to ignore it.

Battle of Cornuda (8 May 1848)Edit

General Giovanni Durando, commander of the ex-Papal regulars.

In the north, the Austrians entered Belluno on 5 May and on 6 May a brigade crossed the Piave at Feltre. Meanwhile, the first divisions of Ferrari's force arrived at Treviso. Convinced that the Austrians were advancing on Bassano del Grappa from the north, Durando stationed his troops there and arranged for Ferrari and his forces to be stationed near Montebelluna.[41]

On the afternoon of 8 May, however, Nugent's vanguard of 1,000 men made contact with an advance force of Ferrari, 300 men stationed at Onigo, which was 10 km northwest of Montebelluna. Ferrari pulled back a little bit to Cornuda hill, the last natural obstacle between the enemy and the plain. On the morning of 9 May, the battle began anew: 2,000 Austrians with 6 cannons attacked the Papal troops, who had not yet received any reinforcements from Ferrari or Durando. The latter hesitated for some time before sending a note at 12:30pm, saying "Vengo correndo" (I'm coming in a hurry).[42]

While Nugent further reinforced his soldiers, Ferrari sent a battalion to his men from Montebelluna and ordered 50 dragoons to charge the Austrians in order to buy some time. They were nearly all killed, but they managed to stall the Austrian advance. Subsequently, the Austrians received further reinforcements and began to turn about from Feltre towards Cornuda. There were now 6,000 Austrian troops facing 2,000 very tired Papal soldiers, who were in danger of being surrounded. At 5pm, after the battle had been going on for 12 hours without any reinforcements from Durando, Ferrari decided to order the troops to withdraw. The retreat was disordered and continued all the way to Treviso.[43]

Austrian advance to Verona (9-25 May 1848)Edit

Commemorative plaque for the troops who fought at Vicenza in 1848.

After the Battle of Cornuda, the situation in Veneto was very grave for the Italians. However, Josef Radetzky insisted that Nugent immediately bring his forces to Verona in order to join up with his army. But on 17 May, the aggravation of an old wound forced Nugent to hand command of his forces over to General Georg Thurn Valsassina.[44] On 18 May, with no more than 4,000 men in the field, Durando returned to Treviso with a few units to defend it from the Austrians. Thurn took advantage of the withdrawl of Durando's troops from Piazzola in order to cross the river Brenta and attack Vicenza, which repelled the attack. There were 5,000 men defending the city, mostly Papal forces. They were reinforced by forces from various parts of Veneto, forces from Durando, and the battalion of General Giacomo Antonini (it), a member of Young Italy who had recruited a diverse group of volunteers in France.[45]

On 22 May, Radetzky changed his mind about the urgency of linking up the forces in light of the changed situation after the Battle of Santa Lucia and ordered Thurn to attack Vicenza, which now contained 11,000 men in addition to the National Guard and the citizens. The battle took place between the night of 23 May and the morning of 24 May. The Austrians attacked the city from the west, but were blocked by flooding caused by the defenders who resisted and counter-attacked tenaciously. An Austrian force sent via the Berici Hills and no better luck. At 9 am Thurn ordered a retreat to Verona. Thurn's forces finally met up with Radetzky's on 25 May 1848.[46]

The second phase of the first campaign (May–August 1848)Edit

Ferdinand leaves the warEdit

Ferdinand II abandoned the campaign against Austria in order to settle the revolution in Sicily.

Simultaneously, in Naples, Ferdinand II decided, as a result of riots in the capital on 15 May, to withdraw from the war - before his troops had even encountered the enemy. This decision arose from political considerations (such as the failure to form an Italian League),[47] the departure of Pope Pius IX from the war, and the need to reconquer Sicily, which had declared itself an independent state, the Kingdom of Sicily (it).

On 21 May 1848, a few hours after the departure of the first brigade of the Neapolitan expedition from Bologna to Ferrara, the commander of the troops, Guglielmo Pepe, received the order to return immediately to the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies.[48]

Despite the resistance of General Pepe, the withdrawal was inevitable. Only a single body of the Bourbon expedition remained, the 10th Regiment "Abruzzo", which had already linked up with the Piedmontese troops.[49] This regiment withdrew to Naples after the Battle of Goito.[50]

In Romagna, the decision was not easy for the various Bourbon officials. The case of colonel Carlo Francesco Lahalle was particularly dramatic - split between his duty to his king and his ideals, he committed suicide. In this context, a small portion of the Neapolitan forces under the leadership of Pepe and a group of young officers including Luigi Mezzacapo (it), Carlo Mezzacapo (it), Enrico Cosenz, Cesare Rosaroll (it), Girolamo Calà Ulloa (it), and others, arrived in Venice, where they contributed to the Republic of San Marco's war effort until the end of the conflict.[49]

Battle of Curtatone & Montanara (29 May 1848)Edit

The battle of Curtatone and Montanara, during which the Tuscan and Neapolitan volunteers bravely defended the Italian formation. Painting by Pietro Senna.

On 25 May 1848 at Verona, Thurn's forces reached Radetzky's forces and the reunited army left the city two days later. The plan was to outflank the Piedmontese army from the south, raise the siege of Pescheria, and obtain a decisive victory. Charles Albert's army was marshalled against him, along both banks of the River Mincio, from Pescheria to Mantua. Radetzky decided to begin the manouevre as soon as he was out of Mantua, near Curtatone and Montanara - the weak point in the Piedmontese lines.[51] At this location, there were 5,400 troops, including Tuscan and Neapolitans, made up of volunteers and members of the 2nd battalion of the 10th Abruzzo regiment, who had not yet received the news of Ferdinand's withdrawal from the war.[52][53]

The Austrian army left Verona on the morning of 27 May with a contingent of 45,000 men in three columns, commanded by Eugen Wratislaw von Mitrowitz (1st corps), Konstantin d'Aspre (it) (2nd corps) and Gustav Wocher (reserve). The army reached Mantua the next day. Alarmed, the Piedmontese general staff arranged for a concentration of forces at Goito. On 29 May at 1pm, the Austrians crossed the Mincio in a number of columns. One of these headed for Governolo (15 km southeast of Mantua on the Mincio) to face the Parmans and Modenese. Another two columns attacked the nearby settlements of Curtatone and Montanara, and a fourth column attacked the nearby village of San Silvestro in order to outflank the Tuscans and Neapoltians from the south.[54]

The three columns converging on Curtatone, Montanara and San Silvestro contained some 20,000 soldiers in all and 52 cannons. Curtatone was defended by 2,500 men under the Piedmontese colonel Campia, Montanara by 2,300 under the Luccan colonel Giuseppe Giovannetti (it). The rest of the men were in reserve positions. The attack was launched by the Austrians at Curtatone around 10:30. Initially rebuffed, the attack was renewed with artillery fire, and then rebuffed again. At Montanara, there was fierce fighting and the front line of the defenders was not broken until around 2pm. After 2pm, the attack was renewed at Curtatone too; the defenders remained firm in the centre but collapsed at the sides and after 4pm, general Cesare De Laugier de Bellecour (it), commander of the Tuscan division, ordered a retreat, which marked the end of the battle.[55]

The Tuscans and Neapolitans had suffered 166 dead, 518 wounded, and 1,178 captured. The Austrians had suffered 95 dead, 516 wounded and 178 deserters.[56] Despite being defeated, the battle had given the Piedmontese command time to bring in reinforcements to the south and to prepare for the planned Austrian attack on Goito, a few kilometres away.[57]

The insurrection in CadoreEdit

In Cadore, from 29 April 1848 for over a month, a small armed rebellion of around 4,000 poorly armed men clashed with hostile forces sent from Austria to Belluno, where they were meant to link up with the forces of Nugent. Pietro Fortunato Calvi (it) was sent to the rebels by the Republic of San Marco to lead the men, but in May they were attacked from the south by General Karl Freiherr von Culoz and other forces which far outnumbered the rebels, until the rebellion was finally suppressed around 6–9 June and Calvi had to retreat to Venice.a.[58]

The Battle of Goito and the fall of PeschieraEdit

The moment of the Piedmontese counterattack at the Battle of Goito, seen from the rear. Painted by Felice Cerruti Bauduc (1817-1896).

After the victories at Curtatone and Montanara, Radetzky split his forces into two columns: Wratislaw's 1st corps and a reserve force under Wocher (a total of 26,000 men) were sent north towards Goito; D'Aspre's 2nd corps (14,000 men) were sent northwest through Rodigo and Ceresara, towards Guidizzolo and Medole.[59] This was intended to out-flank the Piedmontese army on the Mincio, which was spread out between Valeggio, Volta, and Goito.

On the other side, the Piedmontese scouts did not report a rapid advance of the enemy and Bava, who was in command of the 1st corps, which was the most exposed to an attack from the south, decided to concentrate his forces near Goito. At 3pm on 30 May he had stationed 21 battalions of infantry, 23 squadrons of cavalry, and 56 Piedmontese cannons, as well as a battalion of the Neapolitan 10th Regiment "Abruzzo" and a thousand Tuscans, in the area.[60]

Half an hour later, the 1st Austrian corps began its attack on the 1st Piedmontese corps. The right wing of the Austrians, next to the River Mincio, advanced very quickly and was targeted by the Italian artillery. The centre overwhelmed the Piedmontese front line, but was not able to overcome the sustained counterattack of the Piedmontese second line and also came under artillery fire. Fresh Austrian forces were sent in support, but were insufficient. Then Radetzky, who had lost contact with his 2nd corps, ordered his troops to withdraw. Two Piedmontese cavalry charges helped make the Austrian withdrawal more like a retreat. The battle was over by 7pm. The Italians had suffered 43 dead and 253 wounded, the Austrians 68 dead, 331 wounded, and 223 fled.[61]

Radetzky's grand strategic manoeuvre had failed. He had only managed to bring 14 battalions into contact with the enemy, keeping the cavalry inactive. Further, at the moment of the final Piedmontese counterattack, Charles Albert had received news that the fortress of Peschiera had been taken, and a little after this, the Austrian retreat at Goito was announced. The news of the double victory was greeted by those who were present with cheers of "Long live the King of Italy!".[62]

Austrian conquest of VicenzaEdit

The Austrians occupy the Villa Capra "La Rotonda" during the Battle of Monte Berico.

After the battle of Goito and the surrender of Peschiera, Radetzky did not retreat to Verona. Instead, on 5 June 1848 he moved on Vicenza. The forces employed for the attack were the 1st and 2nd corps and two brigades of the 3rd corps (the former reserve corps). Radetzky advanced from the south, intending to occupy the Berici Hills which dominate the southern approach of the city. Vicenza was defended by a total of 11,000 men, consisting of ex-Papal troops under general Durando and volunteers.[63]

An Austrian army of 30,000 men and 124 cannons advanced on Vicenza in a crescent formation stretching from the south to the east. The distant commanders of the Pidemontese army did not take any action, confident that the city would be able to resist for several days.[64]

Radetzky attacked the attack with the 1st corps, intending to occupy the hilly area to the south of the city. At dawn on 10 June, the Austrian vanguard encountered the advance forces of the Italians. To the east of the city, the 2nd Austrian corps met strong resistance, but the crux of the battle turned out to be the south, near the Villa Capra "La Rotonda", where the Austrian 1st corps managed to defeat the Roman volunteers. Around 2pm, the defenders launched a counter-attack that failed, in which colonel Enrico Cialdini was seriously wounded. Around 5pm, the outer defenses of Vicenza withdrew to the basilica, with two Austrian brigades on their heels and colonel Massimo d'Azeglio was wounded.[65]

After sending the reserves into the battle, with almost no success, Durando decided that the battle was lost and made a proclamation at 7pm, declaring that it was necessary to surrender, despite the opposition of many of the citizens. The Austrians started negotiations, allowing the ex-Papal troops to withdraw south of the Po, so long as they stayed out of the fighting for three months. The next day, 11 June, around 9,000 defenders departed from Vicenza. The Italian casualties amounted to 293 dead and 1,665 wounded, while on the Austrian side 141 were dead, 541 wounded, and 140 had deserted.[66]

Extension of the FrontEdit

The Battle of Governolo, seen from the Piedmontese side. Contemporary French lithograph.
Eusebio Bava, commander of the Piedmontese 1st armed corps.

The conquest of Vicenza removed the troops of general Durando from the Veneto and led to the fall of Padua and Treviso on 13 June, and then Palmanova on 24 June.[67][68]

On learning of the Austrian attack on Vicenza on 8 June, Charles Albert held a council of war. Franzini wanted to take advantage of the situation to make an immediate assault on Verona, but the council decided instead to attack Peschiera from the northeast and to occupy Rivoli Veronese. The memory of the Battle of Santa Lucia was still very fresh.[69]

Thus, on 10 June, while the majority of the Austrian army was concentrated at Vicenza, the Piedmontese 2nd corps advanced on the plain of Rivoli, site of Napoleon's 1797 victory over the Austrians. Radetzky's men withdrew, allowing the Piedmontese to reach their objective. The occupation of Rivoli strengthened the left wing of the Piedmontese formation, but was a bad move for the war effort as a whole, since it left them over-extended.[70]

After Rivoli and various failed attempts to regain the initiative, there was another month of inactivity on the Piedmontese side, during which the bloccade of Mantua was begun. Meanwhile, Charles Albert considered an attack across the Adige and relocated from Valeggio sul Mincio to Roverbella. On 4 July he met with Giuseppe Garibaldi, who had returned from South America where he had been in exile after being condemned to death for his part in the uprising of 1834 (it). The king greeted him icily and referred him to Franzini, writing that it would have been dishonorable to give the rank of general to such a man.[71]

Meanwhile, at the front, after an attempt to reinforce and resupply the garrison at Ferrara, an Austrian brigade occupied Governolo (southeast of Mantua, at the confluence of the Mincio and the Po) on 16 July, leaving five companies there and then withdrawing to the Quadrilateral. Eusebio Bava, who had been left with a brigade to counter any further Austrian raids, decided to attack Governolo. On 18 July, he initiated a lively fire of fusiliers and artillery from the Mincio, when a company of sharpshooters traveled up the river, attacked the Austrians on the left bank, and managed to lower the drawbridge. The Piedmontese cavalry immediately crossed over, followed by the artillery, prompting the Austrians to retreat - 400 were captured.[72]

The Battle of Governolo was a brilliant victory for the Savoyard forces, but they were now stretched out over 70 km, from Rivoli to Governolo. This line was very weak as a line of resistance and weak at every point.[73]

Battle of Custoza (22-27 July 1848)Edit

Thesharpshooters facethe Austrian attack at Rivoli, 22 July 1848

The armies facing each other along the long front line on 20 July 1848 were nearly equal in size: 75,000 men on the Italian side, 76,000 on the Austrian side. The front line of the Piedmontese army was divided into two groups: one near Mantua and one near the Adige, facing Verona, where the Austrian forces were concentrated.[74][75]

Beginning of the Austrian offensiveEdit

At dawn on 22 July 1848, the Austrian 3rd corps of Thurn attacked from the north of Rivoli, at the extreme left of the Piedmontese formation. They were met by the forces of De Sonnaz from the south, which stood firm and then counterattacked.[76]

However, at 7:30 on 23 July, Radetzky launched a massive attack on the Mincio between Sona and Sommacampagna. The 1st and 2nd corps led the advance and encountered a tenacious but doomed resistance. By noon, the Austrians had gained the strongpoints that the Italians had been holding for the last three months or so.[77] Thus, in the afternoon of 23 July, the 2nd armed corps of De Sonnaz was all in retreat. In the evening almost all of them gathered at Cavalcaselle, a littleeast of Peschiera.[78]

At 4pm on 23 July, the Austrians cautiously crossed the Mincio at Salionze (between Peschiera and Monzambano). The next morning they defeated the troops of De Sonnaz, which were very tired from the march, once more.[79]

In the afternoon of 24 July, the Austrians occupied the crossings over the Mincio at Salionze, Monzambano, and Veleggio. Simultaneously, at 4:30pm, Piedmontese forces under Bava returned to the left bank of the Mincio from Mantua and attacked the left flank of the Austrian advance force. The battle took place at Staffalo, between Sommacampagna and Custoza,[80] whose high points were all occupied by the Piedmontese. In his efforts to cross the Mincio quickly, Radetzky thus came under threat on both banks, but as soon as he noticed the situation, he recalled the columns that had already crossed the river.[81]

Failure of the Piedmontese counterattackEdit

Konstantin d'Aspre, commander of the Austrian 2nd corps.
Ettore De Sonnaz, commander of the Piedmontese 2nd corps.

The Piedmontese command organised an offensive by the 1st corps towards Mincio on 25 July, in order to make contact with the 2nd corps on the right bank and cut the supply line to the Austrians from the Quadrilateral.[82]

However, Radetzky foresaw the Piedmontese action, turned around at Valeggio and attacked the Piedmontese for the northwest at Custoza and Sommacampagna.[81] The 20,000 Italians on the spot were met by 40,000 Austrians.[83] Radetzky was therefore able to split the forces of Charles Albert and defeat De Sonnaz before moving on to defeat Bava.

On 25 July, at Valeggio, at 11am, the Piedmontese offensive began and was soon stalled by an energetic counter-offensive. On the right bank of the Mincio, there was no sign of the 2nd corps of De Sonnaz, which had not arrived at the ordained time.[84]

East of the Mincio (on the left bank), Bava's forces were now split on the Valeggio-Sommacapagna line (southwest-northeast). Between 11am and 12:30pm, the Duke of Genoa at Sommacampagna (the right wing) rebuffed three Austrian assaults, but at 1:30pm, after another attack by the 2nd Austrian corps, he had to retreat to Staffalo and Custoza.[85]

Charles Albert then ordered De Sonnaz, who had been asked not to intervene until 6pm, to come from Goito with part of his force, leaving the rest at Volta Mantovana with orders not to abandon their station except in extreme emergency situations. But De Sonnaz, discouraged by the events of the previous day, abandoned Volta too at midnight, without a fight.[86]

At 4pm, near Valeggio (the Piedmontese left wing) further assaults of the Austrian 1st corps took place. The battle revived in the centre as well andon the Piedmontese right wing, the Duke of Genoa was in danger of being outflanked, so at 5:30 pm, he ordered a retreat to Villafranca.[87]

With the left and right wings of the Piedmontese formation in retreat, the centre came under renewed attack at 6:30 pm and was forced to withdraw to Custoza. At 7:30 pm, after a final Austrian assault, it withdrew towards the Po river. Thus ended the Battle of Custoza on 25 July 1848, with 212 dead, 657 wounded, and 270 captured on the Italian side and 175 dead, 723 wounded, and 422 captured or deserted on the Austrian side.[88]

Volta MantovanaEdit

The charge of the Genova cavalry regiment at Volta Mantovana on 27 July 1848. Painting by Felice Cerruti Bauduc, 1858.

Having been beaten at Custoza, at 10pm on 25 July 1848, Charles Albert sent orders to Bava for a general retreat to Goito. An hour and a half later, he sent an order to De Sonnaz to hold firm at Volta and hold the enemy at the Mincio. De Sonnaz had probably already decided to abandon Volta at this point and only received the order when he arrived at Goito at 5am on 26 July. At noon Charles Albert ordered him to return to Volta with the 3rd division. At 6pm, the Austrian advance guard, which had occupied Volta in the meanwhile, came under attack from De Sonnaz and resisted tenaciously. After 11pm, the combat ended and at 2am De Sonnaz ordered the troops to withdraw until reinforcements arrived.[89]

Meanwhile, Charles Albert abandoned the blockade of Mantua and sent a brigade to Volta, which led the Piedmontese assault on 27 July, which failed in the face of a massive Austrian counterattack. The pressure was so great that De Sonnaz already ordered them to retreat at 6am.[90] They had withdrawn a couple of kilometres when the Austrian cavalry attempted to disrupt their retreat. In response, the Piedmontese cavalry made a number of charges which effectively rebuffed the Austrians. At 10 am, De Sonnaz's troops arrived in Goito.[91]

Austrian victoryEdit

The defeat of the Piedmontese at Custoza was followed up by the capture of Milan on August 6, 1848. While not a total Austrian victory, the spirit of King Charles Albert and of his generals was all but broken.

An armistice was signed on August 9, 1848 between Austria and Sardinia at Vigevano. The Piedmontese Army retreated within the borders of the Kingdom of Sardinia. This armistice, however, lasted less than seven months, before Charles Albert denounced the truce on March 12, 1849. The Austrian army took the military initiative in Lombardy and heavily defeated the Piedmontese at Novara on March 23, 1849. After this victory the Piedmontese were driven back to Borgomanero at the foot of the Alps, and the Austrian forces occupied Novara, Vercelli, Trino and Brescia after the revolt of the people of the last city, with the road to the Piedmontese capital, Turin, lying open to them. The attempt to renew the war was a disaster. It resulted in another victory for Radetzky and the effective end of the First Italian War of Independence; all the rebellious provinces returned to Austrian rule.

Charles Albert abdicated in favor of his son Victor Emmanuel, and a peace treaty was signed on August 6, 1849 and Piedmont-Sardinia was forced to pay an indemnity of 65 million francs to Austria.[92]

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ Theodore Dwight, The Roman Republic of 1849: With Accounts of the Inquisition, and the Siege of Rome, And Biographical Sketches (1895) pp 18.
  2. ^ Micheal Clodfelter. "Warfare and Armed Conflicts: A Statistical Reference to Casualty and Other Figures, 1500-2000", 4th Edition. 2017. Page 178.
  3. ^ Micheal Clodfelter. "Warfare and Armed Conflicts: A Statistical Reference to Casualty and Other Figures, 1500-2000", 4th Edition. 2017. Page 178.
  4. ^ William K. Langer, Political and Social Upheaval, 1832-1852 (1969) pp 371-86.
  5. ^ Priscilla Robertson, Revolutions of 1848: a social history (1952). pp 309-401.
  6. ^ Scardigli & pp. 101-102
  7. ^ Avery, Robert. The First Italian War of Independence (1848-49) - A Military History The Victorian Web.
  8. ^ Scardigli, p. 126
  9. ^ a b Pieri, p. 198
  10. ^ Pieri, pp. 207–208
  11. ^ Scardigli & p. 117
  12. ^ Giglio, pp. 165–166
  13. ^ Scardigli & p. 101
  14. ^ Pieri, pp. 374–375
  15. ^ Giglio, p. 157
  16. ^ Giglio, pp. 157–158
  17. ^ Pieri, p. 453
  18. ^ Giglio, p. 158
  19. ^ Scardigli
  20. ^ Giglio, pp. 159, 175–176
  21. ^ Scardigli, p. 139
  22. ^ Pieri, p. 196
  23. ^ a b Giglio, p. 166
  24. ^ Pieri, pp. 199–200, 202
  25. ^ Pieri, pp. 202–203
  26. ^ Pieri, p. 203
  27. ^ The line of the arc was: Valeggio-Custoza-Sommacampagna-Sona-Sandrà-Colà. See Giglio, p. 170
  28. ^ Pieri, pp. 204, 209
  29. ^ Pieri, pp. 210–211
  30. ^ Pieri, p. 211
  31. ^ Lucio Villari, Il Risorgimento, vol. 4, Bari, 2007.
  32. ^ Giglio, p. 179
  33. ^ Pieri, pp. 211–212
  34. ^ Pieri, pp. 212–213
  35. ^ Pieri, pp. 214–215
  36. ^ Pieri, pp. 215–216
  37. ^ Pieri, pp. 217–218
  38. ^ Pieri, pp. 369–370
  39. ^ Pieri, pp. 371–373
  40. ^ Pieri, p. 374
  41. ^ Pieri, pp. 376–378
  42. ^ Pieri, pp. 379–380
  43. ^ Pieri, p. 380
  44. ^ Pieri & pp. 382-383
  45. ^ Pieri, pp. 378, 383–384
  46. ^ Pieri, pp. 384–385
  47. ^ Pieri, p. 451
  48. ^ Pieri, p. 454
  49. ^ a b Giglio, p. 181
  50. ^ Fabris-I, pp. 73–74
  51. ^ Scardigli, pp. 119–120
  52. ^ Pieri, p. 220
  53. ^ Fabris-II, p. 29
  54. ^ Giglio, pp. 182–183
  55. ^ Pieri, pp. 220–221
  56. ^ Pieri, p. 221
  57. ^ Scardigli, p. 120
  58. ^ Pieri, pp. 390–397
  59. ^ Giglio, p. 184
  60. ^ Pieri, pp. 222–223
  61. ^ Pieri, p. 223
  62. ^ Pieri, p. 224
  63. ^ Pieri, pp. 385–387
  64. ^ Pieri, p. 387
  65. ^ Pieri, pp. 387–388
  66. ^ Pieri, pp. 388–389
  67. ^ Pieri, p. 226
  68. ^ Giglio, p. 193
  69. ^ Pieri, p. 227
  70. ^ Pieri & p. 228
  71. ^ Pieri, pp. 228–229, 233
  72. ^ Pieri, p. 234.
  73. ^ Pieri, pp. 233–234
  74. ^ Pieri, p. 235
  75. ^ Giglio, p. 197
  76. ^ Pieri, pp. 235–236
  77. ^ Pieri, p. 236
  78. ^ Pieri, pp. 236–237
  79. ^ Pieri, pp. 239–241
  80. ^ Pieri, pp. 241–242
  81. ^ a b Giglio, p. 201
  82. ^ Pieri, p. 243
  83. ^ Giglio, p. 202
  84. ^ Pieri, p. 244
  85. ^ Pieri, p. 245
  86. ^ Pieri, pp. 244–246
  87. ^ Pieri, p. 246
  88. ^ Pieri, pp. 246–247
  89. ^ Pieri, pp. 248–249
  90. ^ Pieri, p. 249
  91. ^ Pieri, pp. 249–250
  92. ^ M. Clark (2013). The Italian Risorgimento. Routledge. p. 55. 


  • Vittorio Giglio, Il Risorgimento nelle sue fasi di guerra, I, Milano, Vallardi, 1948.
  • Piero Pieri, Storia militare del Risorgimento, Torino, Einaudi, 1962.
  • Marco Scardigli, Le grandi battaglie del Risorgimento, Milano, Rizzoli, 2011, ISBN 978-88-17-04611-4.

Further readingEdit

  • Berkeley, G. F.-H. Italy in the Making January 1st 1848 to November 16th 1848 (3 vol. 1940), highly detailed scholarly narrative; 542pp excerpt vol 3
  • Coppa, Frank J. The origins of the Italian wars of independence (1992).
  • Langer, William K. Political and Social Upheaval, 1832-1852 (1969) pp 371–86.
  • Robertson, Priscilla. Revolutions of 1848: a social history (1952). pp 309–401.
  • Smith, Denis Mack, Modern Italy: A Political History (University of Michigan Press: Ann Arbor, 1997).
  • Trevelyan, George Macaulay. Garibaldi's Defence of the Roman Republic (1907) online free
  • "Charles Albert" 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica

External linksEdit