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Third Italian War of Independence

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Title: Third Italian War of Independence  
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Subject: Austro-Prussian War, Veneto, 3rd Army Corps (Italy), Ernesto Teodoro Moneta, Italian unification
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Third Italian War of Independence

Third Italian War of Independence
Part of the wars of Italian Unification

Clashes between the Austrian-Hungarian Uhlans and the Italian Bersaglieri during the Battle of Custoza.
Date June 20, 1866 - August 12, 1866
Location Austrian Empire
Result Indecisive, Austrian defeat against Prussia in the north
Austria ceded Venetia to France, which gave it to Italy
Kingdom of Italy Austrian Empire
Commanders and leaders
Victor Emmanuel II
Giuseppe Garibaldi
Alfonso La Marmora
Archduke Albrecht
Franz Josef I
Wilhelm von Tegetthoff
220,000 men 190,000 men

The Third Italian War of Independence was a conflict which paralleled the Austro-Prussian War, and was fought between the Kingdom of Italy and the Austrian Empire.


Victor Emmanuel II of Savoy had been crowned King of Italy on March 17, 1861, but did not control Venetia and the much reduced Papal States. The situation of the Irredente (a later Italian term for part of the country under foreign domination, literally meaning un-redeemed) created an unceasing state of tension for the inner politics of the newly created Kingdom, as well as being a cornerstone of its foreign policy.

A first attempt to capture Rome was that of 1862 by Giuseppe Garibaldi. Confiding in the King's neutrality, he had set sail from Genoa to Palermo. Collecting 1,200 volunteers, he moved from Catania and landed at Melito, in Calabria, on August 24 to reach the Aspromonte, with intention to climb the peninsula up to Rome. The Piedmontese general Enrico Cialdini, however, sent a division under colonel Pallavicino to stop the volunteer army. Garibaldi himself was wounded in the ensuing battle, and taken prisoner along with his men.

The increasing divergences between Austria and Prussia with the latter's growing predominance in Germany turned into an open war in 1866, offering Italy an occasion to regain Venetia. On April 8, 1866 the Italian government signed a military alliance with Prussia, through the mediation of Napoleon III of France. Italian armies, led by general Alfonso Ferrero La Marmora, were to engage the Austrians on the southern front. Simultaneously, taking advantage of their naval superiority, the Italians threatened the Dalmatian coast, forcing Austria to move part of its forces there from the central European front.[1]

Italian preparedness

Allegory of Venice (lion) hoping to join Italy (woman).

At the outbreak of the war, the Italian military were hampered by the following factors:

  • the imperfect merging of the armies of the Kingdom of Sardinia and the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, the two major components of the new state. This was due to the bitter resistance that in southern Italy had preceded and followed the last Neapolitan stand in Gaeta (1861), and to the fact that elements of the former Neapolitan army, considered the conquest of their country as substantially a colonization;
  • the even stronger rivalry between the two navies which had formed the Regia Marina (the unified Italian Navy);
  • the unsolved question about the supreme command, already disputed between Italian former prime minister Camillo Benso, Conte di Cavour and King Victor Emmanuel since 1859, and now aggravated by the lowest qualities of Cavour's successors. The King had in the end decided to remain as the army's effective supreme commander: although courageous, he was unsuited to the role.[2]

Italian invasion

Prussia began hostilities on June 16, 1866 by attacking several German principates allied with Austria. Three days later Italy declared war on Austria, starting the military operations on June 23.

The Italian forces were divided into two armies: the first, under La Marmora himself, was deployed in Lombardy, west of the Mincio River, aiming toward the powerful Quadrilatero fortress of the Austrians; the second, under Enrico Cialdini, in Romagna, south of the Po River, aiming toward Mantua and Rovigo.

La Marmora moved first through Mantua and Borgoforte, south to the Po.

Custoza marked a general arrest of operations, as the Italians decided to reorganize for fear of an Austrian counter-offensive. The Austrians indeed profited from the situation to raid Valtellina and Val Camonica (battle of Vezza d'Oglio). The general course of the war, however, was to turn in Italy's favor thanks to Prussian victories in the north, especially that of Königgrätz on July 3, 1866. The Austrians were compelled to move one of their three army corps deployed in Italy to Vienna, concentrating on the defense of Trentino and Isonzo.[3]

New Italian offensive

The naval battle of Lissa

On July 5, 1866, the Italian government received news of a mediation effort by Napoleon III for a settlement of the situation, which would allow Austria to receive favourable conditions from Prussia, and, in particular, to maintain Venice. The situation was embarrassing for Italy, as its forces had failed to obtain any relevant military success on the field. However, there was an opportunity to renew the military effort, as Austria had just been decisively defeated by Prussia at the battle of Sadowa. As the Austrians were redeploying more and more troops to Vienna to defend it against the Prussians, La Marmora was solicited to take advantage of the numeric superiority, score a good victory, and thus improve the conditions for Italy.

On July 14, during a council of war held in Ferrara, the new conduct of the war was decided, according to the following points:

  • Cialdini was to lead the main army of 150,000 troops through the Venetia, while La Marmora, with c. 70,000 men, would continue the block on the Quadrilatero;
  • the Italian Navy, commanded by Admiral Carlo di Persano was to sail in the Adriatic Sea from Ancona with the island of Lissa (today Vis) as a target to be conquered after landing;
  • Garibaldi's volunteers (named "Cacciatori delle Alpi"), reinforced by a regular division, was to penetrate Trentino, trying to approach as close as possible to the capital, Trento. Though it was sure that Venetia was to be gained through battle or condition of peace, the fate of Trentino was dubious.

Cialdini crossed the Po and occupied Rovigo (July 11), Padua (July 12), Treviso (July 14), San Donà di Piave (July 18), Valdobbiadene and Oderzo (July 20), Vicenza (July 21) and finally Udine, in Friuli (July 22). In the meantime Garibaldi's volunteers had pushed forward from Brescia towards Trento (see Invasion of Trentino) fighting victoriously at the battle of Bezzecca of July 21. However, the Italian gains remained rather limited and with the end of the German war in the north, the Austrian seemed ready to send reinforcements to Italy.

Morever, these successes were overshadowed by the unexpected defeat of the Italian Navy at the Battle of Lissa (July 20, 1866). Unwilling to risk another defeat against new Austrian armies and facing the risk of being severely outnumbered, the Italians decided to stop the war at once. On August 9, upon receiving from the King the order to retreat from the newly conquered positions, Garibaldi complied with his famous "Obbedisco!" ("I obey!") telegram, and retreated from Trentino.

The ceasing of hostilities was marked by the Armistice of Cormons signed on August 12, followed by the Treaty of Vienna of October 3, 1866.[4]


The terms included the cession of Venetia (with Mantua and western Friuli) to France (having not been defeated, Austria did not want to give it to Italy) and of the Iron Crown (worn by the old Lombard Kings of Italy and by the Holy Roman Emperors, as well as by Napoleon Bonaparte himself). However, the Italians felt humiliated by the condescending attitude of their German ally which did little to support their territorial claims and by the refusal of Austria to cede Venetia directly to them. [5]

The redente ("released") lands were annexed to Italy through a plebiscite held on October 21 and 22 of 1866.

This left Rome and its Patrimony of St Peter (now Lazio) outside the Kingdom of Italy, until the "Capture of Rome" in September 1870 and the subsequent plebiscite approving its unification with the rest of Italy.[6]

See also


  1. ^
  2. ^
  3. ^
  4. ^
  5. ^ History of Italy; Pierre Milza
  6. ^

This article is a translation of an article in the Italian-language WorldHeritage.

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