Ma­genta 1859

The em­peror’s forces won the first of two ma­jor French vic­to­ries dur­ing the Se­cond Ital­ian War of In­de­pen­dence

History of War - - CONTENTS -

The em­peror’s forces won this cru­cial vic­tory dur­ing the Se­cond Ital­ian War of In­de­pen­dence

The road to Ital­ian uni­fi­ca­tion dur­ing the 19th cen­tury was long, com­plex and in­volved sev­eral wars. Of those, the Se­cond Ital­ian War of In­de­pen­dence of 1859 was one of the most sig­nif­i­cant con­flicts. It re­sulted in the estab­lish­ment of a ‘King­dom of Italy’ that com­prised vir­tu­ally all the Ital­ian penin­sula apart from Venice, San Marino and the area around Rome.

A large fac­tor in the out­break of war was the at­tempts of Vic­tor Em­manuel II, the king of Sar­dinia, to drive the Aus­trian Hab­s­burg dy­nasty out of north­ern Italy. Aus­tria ruled

Venice and large parts of the north while also heav­ily in­flu­enc­ing the duchies of Parma and Tus­cany. Sar­dinia, which in­cluded the prin­ci­pal­ity of Pied­mont, was in­de­pen­dent and found a sym­pa­thetic ally in Napoleon III, who had fought with Ital­ian pa­tri­ots against the Aus­tri­ans in his youth. De­spite do­mes­tic op­po­si­tion within France, Napoleon III ac­tively sup­ported the Sar­dini­ans and agreed to join forces with them in ex­change for the ter­ri­to­ries of Nice and Savoy.

France and Sar­dinia of­fi­cially formed an al­liance, which prompted Em­peror Franz Joseph I to de­clare war. On 26 April 1859, an Aus­trian army in­vaded Pied­mont with the in­ten­tion of dis­band­ing the Sar­dinian army. Napoleon III used this mo­ment to em­u­late his fa­mous un­cle and chose to lead the French army into Italy him­self.

Rail ma­noeu­vres

The Aus­tri­ans ini­tially out­num­bered the Sar­dini­ans, but they moved slowly, which gave Napoleon time to move his large army into Italy. The French in­va­sion was no­table be­cause it was the first time that large num­bers of troops were trans­ported by rail. The Aus­tri­ans had moved south, and Napoleon took ad­van­tage of this to use Pied­mont’s rail­way net­work to ma­noeu­vre his army around the Aus­tri­ans’ right flank. The Franco-sar­dinian force could then threaten Mi­lan, and the idea was that the Aus­tri­ans would be forced out of Pied­mont with­out fight­ing a ma­jor bat­tle. The plan worked and Vic­tor Em­manuel won a bat­tle at Pale­stro on 30 May, where he be­came the last Euro­pean monarch to ride into com­bat, par­tic­i­pat­ing with the cav­alry dur­ing the bat­tle.

The Aus­tri­ans, who were com­manded by Ferenc Gyu­lay, with­drew to the Ti­cino River and took up de­fen­sive po­si­tions. Nev­er­the­less, they could not de­cide which side of the river to de­fend, and as the Aus­tri­ans pre­var­i­cated Pa­trice de Macma­hon’s French II Corps se­cured cross­ings at the Bat­tle of Tur­bigo on 3 June. They also crossed the Nav­iglio Grande (Grand Canal) be­fore en­coun­ter­ing Aus­trian de­fences near Ma­genta.

On 4 June 1859, nei­ther the Aus­tri­ans nor the Franco-sar­dini­ans were ex­pect­ing a ma­jor bat­tle. The Aus­tri­ans were re­cov­er­ing from their re­treat while the Franco-sar­dini­ans were pre­par­ing to cross the Ti­cino, although they were un­aware that Macma­hon’s corps had al­ready crossed.

The Pied­mon­tese could only field 1,100 troops, so it would be ap­prox­i­mately 50,000 French sol­diers who would fight 58,000 Aus­tri­ans dur­ing the bat­tle.

Close-quar­ters fight­ing

Macma­hon largely com­manded the French at Ma­genta on 4 June, and the aim was to es­tab­lish more bridge­heads across the Ti­cino. Pon­toon bridges were con­structed, and the French also crossed a dam­aged bridge. The fight­ing around this area was fierce, with the Guard find­ing them­selves re­peat­edly at­tacked by the Aus­tri­ans. The ter­rain around the Ti­cino was dom­i­nated by var­i­ous wa­ter­ways and or­chards, which meant that tra­di­tional pitched bat­tle tac­tics counted for lit­tle and hand-to-hand com­bat largely pre­vailed.

At 4.30pm the Aus­tri­ans looked as though they might win, but French re­in­force­ments from III Corps ar­rived in swel­ter­ing heat to re­lieve the Guard. Macma­hon also launched a fi­nal at­tack to the north of Ma­genta. Ev­ery build­ing in the town had been for­ti­fied and manned by sharp­shoot­ers, who had al­ready re­pulsed one as­sault by Macma­hon’s men. The French now used sub­stan­tial ar­tillery to sup­port the fi­nal at­tack, although each house had to be cleared in a se­ries of bloody en­coun­ters. The Aus­tri­ans per­formed an or­derly re­treat and the French won a closely fought vic­tory. The French suf­fered 4,585 ca­su­al­ties, of whom 707 were killed, com­pared with over 10,200 Aus­tri­ans. 1,368 of these were killed but 4,500 were listed as miss­ing – it is prob­a­ble that many of these men were de­sert­ers.

Napoleon and Vic­tor Em­manuel made a tri­umphal en­try into Mi­lan four days later. Ma­genta en­sured that Bologna and many other cities and dis­tricts rose against Aus­trian rule and joined the cause of Ital­ian unity, which cul­mi­nated in the far blood­ier con­clud­ing bat­tle at Solferino on 24 June 1859. Bat­tles like Ma­genta in Italy con­trib­uted to Napoleon III’S most suc­cess­ful cam­paign and high­lighted the po­ten­tial of France’s re­newed mil­i­tary might.


Zouaves of the French Im­pe­rial Guard en­gage Aus­trian de­fend­ers in the town of Ma­genta

Pa­trice de Macma­hon was cre­ated ‘Duke of Ma­genta’ for his lead­er­ship dur­ing the bat­tle and later be­came the third pres­i­dent of France in 1873

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