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Americans in the Boer War
Marching to Timbuktu
Charge of the Polish Light Horse at Somosierra
The War between Norway and Sweden 1808
Gonzales: Crucible of Texas Revolution
Sheridan's Southern Plains Campaign
Milvern Harrell: Dawson Massacre
Mexican American War
Giuseppe Garibaldi
Solferino: Slaughter and Rebirth
Battle of Lundy's Lane
Battle of Paris
Stephen Douglas and Popular Sovereignty
Napoleon's Campaign Of 1809
Capture of USS President
The Fenian Raids
Military History of War of 1812
Austerlitz: Napoleon Makes His Own Luck
The Failures at Spion Kop
Combatants in Black Hawk War
Tunisian Army in Crimean War
Giuseppe Garibaldi
The Mitrailleuse
The Grande Armee of 1812 in Russia
The French Campaign of 1859
The French Intervention in Mexico
The Master's Misstep
Trafalgar Remembered
Rorke's Drift

Eric Niderost Articles
Kasserine Pass
China Marines
Solferino: Slaughter and Rebirth
Siege of Osaka
Battle of Paris

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Napoleon: The Path to Power


The Campaigns of Napoleon


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Solferino: Slaughter and Rebirth
Solferino: Slaughter and Rebirth 
by Eric Niderost

In June 1859 long columns of blue-clad French troops marched east though the sun-baked plains of Northern Italy. Normally Lombardy was blessed by the most fertile soil in the peninsula, nourished by the mighty Po River and its many tributaries, but this summer was unseasonably hot, scorching man and beast alike and desiccating the normally bountiful fields.

The French troops pressed on, their spirits buoyed by the memory of past glories—glories they hoped to emulate, if not surpass. It was here that Napoleon Bonaparte had revealed his genius through a series of victories at Arcola, Rivoli, and Marengo some sixty years earlier. Many of the Gallic soldiers had won laurels in the recent Crimean War against the Russians. There was little doubt in their minds that they could achieve an even greater triumph over a seemingly inept Austrian enemy.

Emperor Napoleon III was in command of the French army, a man who lacked his uncle's talent for war, but who nevertheless felt compelled to continue the Napoleonic legend. Commonly known as Louis Napoleon, he was a master politician but indifferent soldier. He attended a Swiss military academy as a young man, but had no experience as a field commander on active service. In truth, he was completely unsuited to be a leader of large armies, but tradition seemed to demand he follow in his famous uncle's footsteps. 1

Louis Napoleon was not as inept as his enemies claimed, merely mediocre--but in a major campaign mediocrity can be almost as fatal as incompetence. The Emperor ordered his sweating columns toward the Mincino River, not knowing that a somewhat reinvigorated—at least by Vienna standards—Austrian army was in the process of resuming the offensive.

Both armies were groping in the dark like two blindfolded prizefighters. Intelligence was faulty, so Louis Napoleon had no real idea of where the enemy might be. The French army did have some relatively modern elements to it, and a Gallic observation balloon actually detected some of the Austrian movement Unfortunately, the Emperor downplayed the report.

The French army was always known for its reckless courage and its offensive spirit, its irresistible élan, on the battlefield. On the march, through, they sometimes looked more like an army of vagabonds than a professional fighting force. Columns were ragged, uneven, and at times almost slovenly. Red-trousered soldiers walked along in bunches, sometimes even singly. It was torture to wear heavy packs and blue woolen tunics in the suffocating heat, the temperatures made worse by the clouds of choking dust that was kicked up by the thousands of tramping feet.

A British correspondent accompanying the French army described its progress with the usual blend of accuracy and Anglo-Saxon prejudice, saying it was a "boa-constrictor, which moves forward, then coils up, and then uncoils and advances again." 2

Though they didn't know it, these sweat-drenched Frenchmen were marching to Solferino and one of the greatest battles of the nineteenth century. Their footsore progress was more than just a march to battle—it was the first fitful, halting steps to Risorgimento, the rebirth of Italy as a unified country.

In the mid-nineteenth century "Italy" was a expression of geography, not nationhood. The Italian "boot" was a patchwork of independent states, the most important of which was Piedmont-Sardinia. The Duchies of Tuscany, Parma and Modena were insignificant entities, and the southern half of the peninsula was dominated by the semi-medieval and corrupt Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. Central Italy was ruled by Pope Pius IX, the head of the Catholic Church being a secular as well as a religious ruler at this time.

Most of the Italian population, some 27 million souls, was composed of illiterate peasants, but in the mid-1800s there were some stirrings of patriotism and national feelings. This nascent nationalism was centered in part on the desire to expel Austria from Italian soil. Austria ruled Lombardy and Venetia, important provinces on both a cultural and historical level. A united Italy would be unthinkable without them

Expelling the Austrians would be no easy task, but one man felt he had a workable plan. Camillo Benso, Conte di Cavour, the prime minister of Piedmont-Sardinia, was a hard-headed realist, thoroughly Machiavellian in his thought and deed, He realized that Sardinia wasn't strong enough to tackle Austria in open warfare. A decade earlier, in the so called First War of Italian Independence had ended in defeat at the hands of the powerful Austrian empire.

If he was lucky, he might enlist the aid of France's Napoleon III. Once the Austrians were expelled from the peninsula, Italy might be united under Sardinia's King Victor Emanuel. Arrangements were made for Cavour to secretly meet Napoleon at Plombieres, where the French monarch customarily took the waters The cloak-and-dagger aspect of the encounter must have appealed to Louis Napoleon, who delighted in subterfuge and backdoor deals.

The pair met on July 19, 1858. An inveterate conspirator, Louis Napoleon didn't even bother to inform his foreign minister, Count Alexandre Walewski, of the clandestine negotiations. The Emperor could be ruthless if his own personal power was threathened, but still retained much of the dreamy-eyed romanticism of his youth. He sympathized with the poor and downtrodden, and genuinely wished Italy to be free of foreign control.

As a young man of 23, full of ardor and idealism, Louis Napoleon had actually fought with Italian patriots in an abortive uprising Now, almost thirty years later, the Emperor was willing to help unify Italy under Piedmont's House of Savoy.3

After Austria was defeated, Louis Napoleon was willing to add Lombardy, Venetia, and the duchies of Modena, Parma, and Lucca to Piedmont, creating a Kingdom of Northern Italy. Remaining Italian states would fall into Piedmont's orbit with the creating of a loose confederation under the nominal aegis of the Pope.

The conspirators were in general agreement, but Louis Napoleon insisted the France receive compensation for its help. The emperor wanted to annex Savoy and Nice, though a final settlement would have to wait until Austria was defeated.

The next few months were ones of increasing tension between Austria and Piedmont. Austria had gotten wind of the secret meeting at Plombieres, which seemed yet another reason to stifle Piedmontese ambitions before they got out of hand. In the spring of 1859 Austria demanded that Piedmont demobilize its forces and withdraw its troops along the border. To Cavour, this was a heaven-sent ultimatum, which he gleefully rejected. The Franco-Austrian War of 1959, sometimes called the Second war of Italian Independence, was now a reality.

Austria's plan was simple and direct: to invade Piedmont, take its capital at Turin, and crush the Piedmonese army before the French could intervene. On paper, at least, it seemed an easy task. The Austrian Second Army was massed along the Ticino River, the waterway that marked the boundary between Piedmont and Austrian controlled Lombardy, which placed them only 75 miles from Turin. The Second Army had some 107,000 men and 364 guns, while the Piedmontese army could only muster some 60,000 troops.

The Austrian army seemed a formidable force, but the coming campaign would reveal serious weaknesses. The infantry was generally dressed in traditional white tunics, though as summer progressed they donned kittels, linen tunics that were technically barracks or fatigue wear, but were useful in the torrid heat. The soldiers were armed with the Lorenz rifle-musket, an up-to date weapon more accurate than a smoothbore.

But a kind of dry rot had weakened the Imperial army's command structure. There were too many incompetents in positions of responsibility, men who owned their rank more to court connections than to any innate ability. This was particularly true of the Second army's commander in chief. Field Marshal Count Ferenc Gyulai He made an impressive apprance at Vienna reviews, but on campaign was indecisive, overcautious, and slow.

By contrast the Piedmontese army was well trained, its forces recently reorganized. Some of its light infantry units, like the feather-hatted Bersaglieri, were renowned as tough and courageous fighters. King Victor Emmanuel was a good soldier blessed with sound military instincts. The Piedmontese army did have some weaknesses—many of its regiments were equipped with old fashioned smoothbore muskets—but overall it was still a formidable fighting force.

The Piedmontese army also had some rugged and controversial auxilleries. The Cacciatori delle Alpi—The "Hunters of the Alps"- were around 2,000 irregulars led by Guiseppi Garabaldi. Garabaldi was an out-and-out revolutionary who had an unsavory reputation in conservative circles. Louis Napoleon consented to the Caccaiatori with some reluctance, because conservative and Catholic elements were strong in France. 4

But when all was said and done, it was Austrian incompetence, not Piedmontese valor that saved the tiny country in the early weeks. The Austrian army crossed the Ticino, but soon its advance slowed to a crawl. Young Austrian officers spoke of taking Turin but progress was glacially slow. At times the Second Army was marching four miles a day, it's probes half-hearted and overly cautious. Heavy rains slowed progress, but a dilatory, almost "comatose" Gyulai must bear the lion's share of the blame.

Soon fear replaced inaction as Gyulai worried about the French troops he knew to be pouring into Piedmont every day The Austrian Field Marshal began to suspect the French would advance south of the Po River through Piacenza and cut his lines of communication. This fear grew so strong Gyulai ordered his army to retire lest they be caught and attacked from behind.

In reality the French and their Piedmontese allies intended to thrust north, not south. The addled Gyulai had thrown away Austria's last chance for victory, at the same time handing the initiative to the enemy.

In the meantime, the French had not been idle. An expeditionary force of over 100,000 men was to begin as soon as the first Austrian whitecoat crossed the Ticino. Part of the army embarked on ships for a sea journey to Genoa., but other French regiments traveled by train into Northern Italy via the Mont Cenis Pass. It was the first time in history that the railroad was used to move troops on military campaign. The French railroads managed to send 8,000 men and 500 horses a day into Italy, without compromising or upsetting civilian train schedules.5

The French army was a heady mixture of pride, panoply and panache, ever. eager to come to grips with the enemy and win fresh battle honors for the Second Empire. It had performed well in the Crimean War, and to many soldiers the very name "Napoleon" was a talisman of glory and a harbinger of victory.

The infantry was dressed in shakoes, long blue tunics and red trousers, and carried the Minie rifle-musket. Grenadiers of the Imperial Guard sported tall bearskin caps, hairy headgear that recalled the famous guardsmen of the First Empire. The hussars, lancers, and cuirassiers also wore colorful uniforms that echoed the illustrious past

Louis Napoleon lacked his famous uncle's military genius, but he did have some talents as an artillerist. He had recently reequipped the Imperial army with bronze 4-pounder muzzle-loading rifled cannon that were far superior to the old smoothbores the Austrians were using. The rifled cannon fired a conical shell with great accuracy at ranges up to 3,500 yards—twice the range of their Austrian counterparts.

Louis Napoleon landed in Genoa on May 12, greeted by a triumphant Cavour and acclaimed as a hero by cheering citizens. The Emperor attended an opera, but soon left for his headquarters at Alessandria. By May 17 a Franco-Piedmontese army of 160.000 and 400 guns occupied a 50-mile front just north of Alessandria.

There was a skirmish at Montebello on May 20, but the first real battle took place at Palestro. A 14,000 men Austrian reconnaissance in force bumped into a Franco-Piedmontese army of some 10,700 men under the personal command of King Victor Emmanuel. The Austrians were sent packing, and were forced to retreat.

King Victor Emmanuel was a passive observer at first, but as the battle progressed his blood was up and he could restraint himself no longer. Mounted on a gallant charger, the king took part in the fighting at great risk to himself. It was the last time that a European monarch ever personally led troops into battle. 6

Piedmont was now safe from invasion and the Austrians in full retreat. The next order of business was the liberation of Lombardy and Venetia. The Ticino River was the first obstacle to Allied designs, a swift, unfordable stream that marked the Lombardy-Piedmont border.

Milan, the capital of Lombardy, was a sought-after prize, but there would be problems getting to it. The main road to Milan crossed the Ticino at the village of San Martino. The Austrians defended the crossing by building a powerful redoubt on the west bank of the river. As events unfolded, the Austrians abandoned the redoubt, but tried to delay French progress by blowing up the San Martino Bridge.

Unfortunately for the whitecoats they succeeded in damaging two arches. French infantry could easily cross, and the bridge could be patched up enough to allow cavalry and artillery over the river. 7

Seven miles to the north of San Martino was another possible river crossing point at Turbigo Mulling things over, Louis Napoleon ordered Major General Jacques Camou, commander of the Voltigeur Division of the Imperial Guard, to march on Tibigo and secure a bridgehead. These orders were carried out in style, with drums beating and a band at the head of the column playing martial airs.

Camou reached Turbigo without any opposition and by the early morning of June 3 three pontoon bridges had been thrown across the Ticino. General Camou was joined by Major General Marie Edme Patrice Maurice de MacMahon's French II Corps, and the weak Austrian opposition they encountered at Turbigo was quickly brushed aside.

Now that the crossing were secured, Louis Napoleon decided to launch a two-pronged drive across the river early on June 4. The ultimate object was to clear the main road and advance on Milan. To this end the Grenadier Division of the Imperial guard would cross the Ticino at San Martino and continue on to the village of Magenta. MacMahon's II Corps would cross further south at Tibigo, accompanied by the Voltigeur Division of the Guard and the Piedmontese army.

If all went according to plan, both spearheads would rendezvous and reunited at Magenta. This was a dangerous, even foolhardy maneuver. Louis Napoleon was dividing his army at a time when he had no idea where the enemy's main forces were. There was no telegraph lines between San Martino and Tibigo, so the French would have to fall back on unreliable, "old fashioned" horse couriers.

In short, Louis Napoleon was violating the most basic precepts of military science, a sign of his inexperience as well as overconfidence. If one of his spearheads got into trouble, the other would be hard pressed to come to its aid.

The Grenadiers of the Imperial Guard crossed the Ticino without incident, but soon clashed with Austrian forces who had positioned themselves behind the Naviglio Grande canal There were two intact bridges over the canal: one at Ponte Nuovo, which carried the main road to Milan, and a railroad bridge just to the south.

The Grenadiers attacked without hesitation, beginning what later would be called the Battle of Magenta. It was a soldier's battle, with little rhyme and less reason. Positions were taken at the bayonet, briefly held, but then relinquished when opposing forces counterattacked. Louis Napoleon eventually arrived on the scene, but he was less general than a helpless observer of events seemingly out of his control.

More and more units were sucked into the bloody vortex, yet neither side seemed to have gained the upper hand. Fighting was particularly fierce at Magenta, where every house and street was fiercely contested. Austrian sharpshooters—Jaegers from the mountainous Tyrol—picked off French officers with chilling ease.

The French Zouaves distinguished themselves at Magenta, colorful in their Algerian-inspired uniforms. This fame came at a high cost, where "squeezed in the narrow streets, our men seemed in their desperate attacks to take the houses corpse by corpse." 8

The Austrians finally withdrew, giving the French a very hard-won victory. The French lost 4,600 killed, wounded and missing, while the Austrian casualties were even higher. The Piedmontese army had not marched to the sound of the guns, and in fact had not even fired a shot, yet their newspapers trumpeted Magenta as a Franco_Piedmonese triumph. The French, having borne all of the fighting, were not pleased with their ally's dubious claims.

Any residual bad feelings were washed away in a tide of continuing victory. The Austrians fell back, establishing a new defensive line along the Micino River. On June 8, 1858, Louis Napoleon and King Victor Emmanuel entered Milan in triumph, capping liberation festivities by attending an opera at La Scala. Lombardy was free, but the Austrians were far from defeated. The campaign would continue.

On June 17 Louis Napoleon established his headquarters at Brescia, which was decorated in honor of the French emperor. Secretive as always, Louis Napoleon kept his staff in the dark most of the time. He would consult them from time to time, but every his closest aides had no idea of his plans. This was not popular with staffers, who complained he "waged war like a conspirator."

Louis Napoleon was improvising the campaign as he went along, still hampered by his own inexperience and a crippling lack of reliable intelligence. While the French Emperor dithered, the Austrian army made an attempt to regain the initiative. Emperor Franz Josef reinforced and reorganized his army, then sacked the incompetent Gyulai and took personal command himself.

The 28-year-old Austrian monarch lacked experience, but he was determined to regain what Gyulai had so foolishly lost. The Austrian army, now numbered some 133,000 men organized into nine corps, supported by 400 guns, began an offensive by recrossing the Mincino and advancing west. At the same time, completely ignorant of enemy maneuvers, Louis Napoleon urged his columns eastward. The stage was set for a set-piece battle of the largest scale.

The two armies literally blundered into each other in the early morning hours of June 24. Leading elements of the French advance guard ran into Austrian pickets, driving them in and forcing them back to their main line. The Austrian line was improvised, but strong They had the high ground, which would make them particularly hard to dislodge in a fight. The Austrian center was at Solferino, a village perched atop a series of hilly ridges that looked like a giant's backbone.

The village was in the shadow of Solferino Castle and tower, a medieval fortress now crammed with Austrian infantry and artillery. Altogether the battle front stretched some 15 miles from Pozzolengo in the north, past Castiglione, Solferino, Cavriana and Medole in the center, to Castel Grinaldo in the south.10

When Louis Napoleon began to receive reports of fighting he could scarcely believe it. Mounting his horse, he galloped over to village of Castiglione and climbed its church's bell tower for a better view of the impending crisis. From his "holy" perch he could clearly see skeins of whitecoated troops massing on the heights from San Martino to Cavriana. About four miles west of Cavriana, Louis Napoleon could make out General Adolphe Neil's French Fourth Corps hotly engaged at Medole.

Medole fell, but the French advance soon bogged down. A merciless sun beat down on friend and foe alike, and the dust-choked ravines and steep gullies were hard to climb under heavy Austrian fire. Louis Napoleon came down from the church tower and positioned himself near the center. Surrounded by his staff, the Emperor chain smoked cigarettes, a passive observer to the carnage he himself helped create.

The battle degenerated into a soldier's fight, brutal and bloody, where men tried to bludgeon their opponents into submission. There was no art in this war, no finesse or attempt at intricate textbook maneuvers, just slaughter on an unprecidently scale.

Louis Napoleon sat on his beautiful charger, surrounded by a glittering stall, but he was feeling anything buy warlike. Clearly appalled by the horrors that assaulted his eyes, the emperor was a passive observer of the carnage he helped create. Occasionally he issued a terse order or two, but mainly he chain smoke cigarettes to ease his nerves.

Later, enemies in Paris had a field day describing his behavior, suggesting he was smoking to calm his fear. They had mistaken nausea for cowardice. Louis Napoleon showed his courage on many occasions, and was so near the fighting an aide was killed right by his side. But he hated bloodshed and was sickened by the slaughter of his men.

"Oh, the poor fellows," he sighed, "Oh the poor fellows! What a terrible thing war is!" 11 He was simply out of his element, and lacked the killer instinct and indifference to physical suffering and pain of a great commander.

Philip Kearny did not share the emperor's qualms. He was an retired American cavalry officer who was living in Paris and had been an observer with the Chasseurs d'Afrique in Algeria nineteen years before. When the Italian war broke out Kearny applied to Louis Napoleon for permission to join the Chasseurs once again. Permission was denied, but be managed to get on the staff of a French general anyway.

During the battle Kearny distinguished himself by participating in charge after charge with the Chasseurs d' Afrique. Kearny was called the "American Murat," recalling the famous First Empire cavalry general. Bold, dashing. and utterly fearless, he was the very essence of the cavalryman. One wonders what the Austrians made of him, dressed as he was in the uniform of a major of the First Regiment, United States Dragoons.

Kearny later recalled he had been scarcely out of the saddle from early morning until very late at night. Although he technically disobeyed the emperor by joining the Chasseurs, Kearny's courage and élan won the admiration of all. Louis Napoleon granted him the Legion of Honor, the first time an American was awarded the coveted medal for military purposes.

In the meantime, Louis Napoleon began to fear that Austrian reinforcements might attack his vulnerable right flank. There was no time to waste—the Austrians had to be defeated as soon as was practicable. 12

The French Emperor decided on a frontal attack that would take the Austrian center at Solferino. The massive castle and its village would be tough nuts to crack, but there seemed no other way to break the back of the Austrian defense. Louis Napoleon sent a message asked King Victor Emmanuel for support.

Unfortunately the Piedmontese monarch had his hands full, and had to turn down the request. Around 7 am the Piedmontese advance guard had run into General Ludwig von Benedek's Austrian VIII Corps in front of Pozzolengo. A fierce fight erupted, prompting Benedek to dig in on the heights west of San Martino. The Piedmontese army found themselves fully engaged with an enemy that contested every foot of ground.

In the meantime, superior French artillery hammered Solferino, the shells raining down on the Austrians dug in on the heights. Gouts of flame and smoke blossomed on the dusty slopes, marking each hit, but it was clear the Austrians would not be dislodged by artillery fire alone. The long-suffering yet gallant French infantry would have to take the heights by bayonet and sheer guts. Louis Napoleon could see no other way to accomplish his goal

This was war at its most basic, without his uncle's masterful maneuvers or brilliant tactics. In such a battle soldiers had to rely on improvisation. The Austrians were tough and resolute fighters, firmly positioned on the high ground. At one point, French General Sevelinges had Grenadiers of the Guard manhandle his guns up a hill, because the slopes were simply too steep for horses

On the right-center a high slope was mantled by a copse of cypress trees, their tall, skinny forms spiking the sky. Cypress Hill was a key point, and its capture would led into Solferino village. Louis Napoleon ordered his own Imperial Guard to take Cypress Hill, fearsome apparitions in their towering bearskins and greatcoats, red epaulettes on each shoulder. They must have been sweltering under these uniforms, but comfort took second place to honor and pride.

The guardsmen clambered up Cypress Hill under fire, but nothing could resist their advance. After heavy fighting, much of it hand to hand, the Guardsmen took the hill and swept into Solferino village itself. The Austrians gave ground but did not give up, having transformed each building into a miniature fortress. The butchery continued.

The other side of Solferino—the left-center—was attacked by men of the French First Corps. General Francois Baizain's 3rd Division went forward, only to be repulsed by heavy fire and forced to retire. They quickly reformed and marched up the hill again, only to be met by such a withering fire they had to retreat once again. The dusty, scrub-covered slopes were carpeted by scores of blue-clad figures, some inert, some writhing in pain.

But the 3rd Division took no notice of casualties, or how many were now missing from their depleted ranks. Soaked in sweat, grimy with dust, specked with blood, the French soldiers formed up again for a third try.

Growing exhaustion, pain from wounds, and heat-induced thirst were all numbed by the anesthesia of battle. As one soldier later recalled, "The smell of powder, the noise of the guns, drums beating and bugles sounding, it all puts life into you and stirs you up."13

The third time proved the charm, and French troops managed to take the position, fighting their way up the slopes and into a walled cemetery. The Austrians stubbornly defended the place, until there were probably as many corpses above the ground as below. In time, though, the whitecoats fell back, unable to hold off simultaneous attacks by the 3rd Division on one side and the Imperial guard on the other. Solderfine was taken by about 2 pm.,

The back of the Austrian line was broken, and with the French in the center the two remaining halves of the Imperial army was in danger of being crushed in detail. Emperor Franz Josef wanted to continue the struggle, but after a time was forced to accept the inevitable. A general retreat was ordered, with. the remains of the Austrian army retiring behind the Mincino River.

It was now around 3 in the afternoon, and gathering clouds produced a torrential thunderstorm that soaked victor and vanquished alike. Nature's rumblings mixed with the last salvoes of artillery to produce a fearful din. The rain must have been welcome, since it broke the almost tropical heat, but it also impeded Allied pursuit of the retreating Austrian army.

The next day dawn on a scene of unprecedented horror. On paper, the French lost some 11,000 dead, wounded and missing, the Piedmontese some 5,000. Austrian casualties were even greater, listed at some 22,000. Some estimates place all the figures much higher, but the debate is moot in the face of such suffering.

Henri Durnant, a civilian observer who later founded the International Red Cross, recalled "Bodies of men and horses covered the battlefield; corpses were strewn over roads, ditches, ravines, thickets, and fields; the approaches of Solferino were literally thick with dead…. Here and there were pools of blood."

Louis Napoleon had won the victory he had so long sought, but the triumph was so horrific it left a bad taste in his mouth. His response to Solferino was typically laconic, as when he telegraphed his wife Eugenie "great battle" and "great victory."

The French emperor was shaken and nauseated by the carnage, and the day after brought new horrors even more terrible. To his credit Louis Napoleon insisted on visiting a barn which had been converted into a field hospital. It was a vision of hell more terrible than the torments described in Dante's Inferno.

Hundreds of wounded soldiers lay packed together, uniforms torn, filthy, and caked with blood. The stench of gore and excrement was overpowering. While the emperor watched, overworked surgeons were forced to discard amputated arms and legs in one corner of the barn. The mound of bloodied flesh grew with each operation.

Louis Napoleon ended his tour of the hospital, emerging with reddened eyes and a deathlike pallor. Profoundly moved, the Emperor went to the side of the barn and vomited, while his staff stood discreetly nearby. He had had enough, in more ways than one.15

The Austrians had retired into a region called the "the Quadrilateral"—a fortified region that included Mantua, Peschiera, Verona, and Legnano. Taking this area would be no picnic. In fact, there was every likelihood there would be battles even bloodier than Solferino.

Louis Napoleon asked for an armistice, which was granted, then personally met with Emperor Franz Joseph at Villafranca. A peace treaty was hammered out that granted Lombardy to Piedmont but fell far short of Napoleon's earlier pledge to liberate Italy "from Alps to Adriatic."16

Piedmont felt betrayed, but had to agree to the terms. In any case, events outran Louis Napoleon's improvised peace. Piedmont annexed Tuscany, then quickly took over the Grand Dutchies of Lucia, Modena, and Parma. By 1861 most of the papal states and the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies also fell into line. Italy was finally united under King Victor Emmanuel, as Cavour had hoped and planned.

Only Venetia and a small patch of territory around Rome remained outside the Italian orbit. Venetia was annexed in 1866, and the Pope's temporal rule ended in 1870 when Italy seized Rome. Ironically, Rome had been protected by French troops, but they were withdrawn because of the Franco-Prussian War.

Solferino was an important step in the unification of the Italian peninsula. The victory enabled Piedmont to take over Lombardy, and important ‘domino" that led to other states falling into place. But Solferino's greatest legacy was its aftermath, where the horrific carnage and plight of the wounded led to the creation of the International Red Cross.

* * *

Show Footnotes and Bibliography

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Copyright © 2008 Eric Niderost

Written by Eric Niderost. If you have questions or comments on this article, please contact Eric Niderost at:
enideros@yahoo.com.

About the author:
Eric Niderost teaches history at Chbaot College, a community college in Hayward, California. A regular contributor to a number of magazines, he also is the co-author of Civil War Firsts (2001) and A Nation Transformed (2007).

Published online: 05/26/2008. Originally appeared in Military Heritage Magazine.

* Views expressed by contributors are their own and do not necessarily represent those of MHO.
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