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The “Hunters of the Alps” Engage the Austrians at Casale: May 8, 1859

This text comes from our book, Light to the Nations, Part 2.

Winning this war seemed simple to the Austrians, for their army far outnumbered the Piedmontese when the war began in May 1859. The Austrians’ plan was to defeat the Piedmontese before the French arrived and then contend with Napoleon. The plan failed, however, because the Austrian commander, Field Marshal Ferencz Gyulai, was very cautious. He moved so slowly into Piedmont that the French army, over 130,000 men led by Napoleon III himself, was able to join the Piedmontese forces before the Austrians could engage them.

Giuseppe Garibaldi
Giuseppe Garibaldi

The first battles of the war did not involve the main forces of either army. On May 8, 1859, an irregular army called “Hunters of the Alps” engaged the Austrians at Casale, west of Milan. Led by Giuseppe Garibaldi (who had returned to Italy in 1854), the Hunters defeated the Austrians and then moved northeastward into the Alps, toward the Austrian Tyrol.

The first major battle involving the French occurred at Montebello in Piedmont on May 20, 1859. It was a French victory. A few days later, Garibaldi led his Hunters in another victory over the Austrians at Varese, in the Alps northwest of Milan, and continued his march toward the Austrian frontier. Meanwhile, Gyulai and the bulk of the Austrian army were at Magenta on the Ticino River, in Lombardy. In early June, Napoleon III led the combined French and Piedmontese army across the Ticino, outflanking the Austrians. On June 4, battles raged around Magenta, and by late afternoon it appeared the Austrians would prevail. But in the evening, the tide turned against the Austrians, and Gyulai ordered a retreat. Abandoning western Lombardy, Gyulai moved his army to the fortified Quadrilateral, where Emperor Franz Josef himself took command of the army.

On June 23, Franz Josef ordered an advance against the enemy. The next day, the Austrians met the French and Piedmontese under Napoleon III near Solferino in Lombardy. More than 200,000 soldiers fought for over nine hours until, at last, the Austrians were forced to retreat. On both sides the number of killed, wounded, missing, and captured was very high. The French and Piedmontese had triumphed, but at a very great cost.

Emperor Napoleon III
Emperor Napoleon III

While these battles were being waged in the north, revolutions in central Italy drove the Austrian-protected rulers of Modena, Parma, and Tuscany from their realms. The war with France and Piedmont, too, had forced Austria to pull her troops out of Bologna in the Papal States. Revolutionaries proclaimed the independence of the Romagna and asked to be annexed to Piedmont-Sardinia. Encouraging these revolutions were Piedmontese agents, sent by Count Cavour himself.

When he learned that Cavour was encouraging revolutions in Central Italy, Napoleon III grew nervous. He had agreed that Piedmont could annex Modena and Parma, but not Tuscany and certainly not any territory belonging to the pope. What would the Catholic party in France say if the pope lost anything in the war? And would not Piedmont-Sardinia perhaps grow too powerful if she began gobbling up too much of Italy? Napoleon too discovered that he did not like war. Unlike his famous uncle, Napoleon III was a lover of peace, and the sight of battlefield carnage sickened him. Then Napoleon learned that Prussia was unhappy with the war and might even decide to enter it—on the side of Austria. All these considerations convinced Napoleon that he should break his promise to Cavour and make peace with Austria.

Italy at the beginning of the War of 1859
Italy at the beginning of the War of 1859

The result was an armistice signed with Austria at Villafranca in Venezia in July 1859. By the terms of peace, Austria abandoned Milan and all of Lombardy to Piedmont-Sardinia; Venezia, however, was to remain an Austrian domain. The armistice, too, restored Modena, Parma, and Tuscany to their rulers and called for the formation of a federation of Italian states under the presidency of Pope Pius IX. Seeing he could not withstand Austrian power without France, King Vittorio Emanuele reluctantly signed the armistice. Count Cavour was livid. Napoleon had betrayed him! After angry words with King Vittorio Emanuele, Cavour resigned as prime minister.

No one was pleased with the armistice. Both Italian patriots and French Liberals denounced it and cursed Napoleon III. Pope Pius IX refused to lead an Italian federation; he did not want an honorary title, he wanted the Romagna restored to the Papal States. Nor were the rulers of central Italy happy, for they were unable to return to their duchies. Revolutionary forces kept control of these states and called loudly for annexation to Piedmont-Sardinia.

Different Hunter, Different Prey

In 1859, the year of Napoleon III’s cavorting with the Piedmontese in Italy, in Paris the composer, Charles Gounod, premiered his opera, Faust. The opera is a retelling of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s poetic rendering (also called Faust) of the Faust legend. In the excerpt we offer here, the maiden Marguerite has discovered a coffer of jewels that the demon, Mephistopheles, has left for her. Taken by her own beauty, he hopes she will all the more easily succumb to Faust’s seduction. The aria, sung here by the soprano Anna Gheorghiu, is the famous Air des Bijoux, the “Jewel Song,” beloved to Tintin enthusiasts as Bianca Castafiore’s pièce de résistance—with which she shatters glass.

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