The Austro-Prussian War of 1866
The Third War of Italian Unification
BY: Tom Frascella September 2017
As I have written previously as a young child I was fortunate enough to overhear many discussions among family members relating to the life of my great-great grandfather Vito Frascella. Vito was born in San Fele in 1840. He was the first person of San Felese birth to take up residence in Trenton NJ in 1862. So he was a pioneer who witnessed the development of the San Felese community in Trenton from its beginning. He was 21 years old when he arrived, leaving a wife and two year old son temporarily behind in Italy.
As I grew older I discovered that many of the stories I heard about Vito revolved around specific dates that are not common, very early, among Italian immigration stories. As I began to question and research those dates a number of correlations began to emerge. Those correlations suggested that his movements and actions seemed to relate to the occurrence of major socio/political events in his native region of Italy. Especially events that occurred in his young adulthood. Knowing this, the critical dates of Vitoís story became important to me in understanding his world. When I was asked to write this history about the San Felese community and its immigration to the U.S I decided to use Vitoís movements as a guide in interpreting the larger San Felese immigration history. His movements served as important time markers. Vitoís life coupled with the "when" that he choose certain movements relate to what was happening to the people of his region, Lucania, and specifically to the people of his town San Fele in general. In a manner of speaking Vitoís story, is a roadmap to the history which was effecting the entire San Felese community.
In previous articles I have described at some length, the historical events taking place when Vito, as a 21 year old abruptly left Italy and came to America. I also described historical events in America and in Italy that I am sure played a part in his decision to return back to his native Lucania in 1865. First and foremost, he had been separated from his wife and son for over three years by the time he decided to return. The end of the American Civil War, the collapse of the Lucanian rebellion against the Piedmont regime, and the repeal of Legge Pica all probably contributed to the now 25 year oldís belief that normalcy may be coming back to the region. He probably thought that maybe there was an opportunity to restore his life and reunite with his family. I say this because historically there had been over the past century in the region a series of large and small rebellions supporting republican principles. Each of these rebellions had failed but each was followed by amnesty and short lived return to peace. But having been away for three years he would probably have had no full comprehension of the level of the
Piedmont governmentís suppression of the region over those three years or Piedmontís attitude toward the south.
While I am sure that San Felese immigrants arriving in the U.S. between 1862-1865, would have delivered ex-pats already in the U.S. some of the news and events that had occurred in Lucania that is not the same as living it. However, it is just as important to note that since political refugees continued to arrive from the region throughout the period it was clear to all that serious social problems continued.
Upon return to Italy in 1865 however, Vito would, I am sure, have become immediately familiar with the history of mass arrests, imprisonments, executions and the 125,000 mostly non-southern Italian federal troops stationed in the south to pacify the population. For someone with a love of republican principles the events must have been appalling.
Although Vito upon arriving would have been confronted with the rather dark circumstances of the preceding three years in Lucania he would probably not been aware that international events which were secretly being developed. Those events were about to start a new round of protest activism would explode around him and the whole of rural southern Italy.
Having been absent and an ocean away there would have been no opportunity to gain knowledge of the secret international political negotiations taking place in 1865-1866 among Prussia, France and Piedmont in preparation for war with Austria. Few people in Italy outside of Piedmontís advisors would have been privy to such negotiations.
Prussia, under the guidance of their Prime Minister Bismarck was plotting the end of the German Confederation as it had existed since Napoleonic times. Bismarck saw the dissolution of the Confederation as necessary for the ascendency of the Prussian State. Bismarck also saw Prussian ascendency as linked to the creation of a strictly northern and separate German confederation of German States. This northern German Confederation would be dominated by Prussia. To accomplish this split up of the existing confederation dominated by Austria, Bismarck believed that war between the northern and southern German States factions was almost certainly inevitable.
In preparation for this "political" and likely "military" conflict Bismarck believed Prussia needed allies. The key potential ally in this drama, in Bismarckís opinion, had to be France. In 1865 France was considered the most powerful military on the continent. So in the event of conflict between the German States, Franceís reaction had to be known and managed to Prussiaís advantage. Bismarck therefore met secretly and privately with Napoleon III reaching a secret non-aggression pact in 1865.
It was at Napoleonís urging Bismarck further negotiated an alliance starting in mid-1865 directly with Italy and the Piedmont regime. By mid-1866, the secret alliances, negotiations and treaties between the allied parties to Prussia were complete. Basically the agreement allowed that if hostilities commenced between Prussia with its German State allies, and Austria with its southern German States allies, Italy would declare war on Austria attacking Austriaís northern Italian possession of Venetia. France in turn would either remain neutral or enter on the side of Prussia. As is obvious the alliance of France, Prussia and Italy against Austria in the event of war would force Austria to defend itself on at least two if not three fronts.
Piedmont had always been exceedingly desirous of obtaining the Provence of Venetia as part of the completion of a unified Italy. Part of the political division between the Piedmont regime and the Mazzinian republicans was Piedmontís reluctance to take on Austriaís military alone. The Piedmont regimeís reluctance stemmed from having suffered defeat embarrassing defeat in the 1850ís at the hands of Austria. That defeat had forced the abdication of King Victor Emmanuelís father. Victor Emmanuel therefore knew the risks first hand and was not willing to repeat those mistakes. The alliance of France, Prussia and Italy however, offered the best military conditions for accomplishing Piedmontís unification goal and defeating Austria, avenging the loss of the 1850ís. If Austria was attacked on multiple sides it could not reinforce its southern army in Italy. Therefore Italy would have to contend against a greatly reduced, unreinforced Austrian army in Venetia. It would also have as its advantage an Austrian Monarchy preoccupied with the Prussian threat to disunity of the German Confederation.
It is difficult to assess what the Piedmont regime thought of its military strength or the fighting capability of its armed forces in 1865. Northern Italy standing alone in the mid-1850ís conflict with Austria had been badly outmatched and defeated. Certainly once "unified" with southern Italy in 1861 Piedmont had the opportunity to draw from more than double its 1850ís population. In fact, Piedmont had been making efforts to double its army and combine northern and southern Italian forces into one unified force since the southern Italian plebiscite of 1861.
In fact, Piedmont went about enlarging its forces almost immediately after coming to power in the south but choose to do so for reasons based upon larger internal political concerns by instituting a draft. That draft targeted rather young inexperienced southern draftees to form the basis of the southern Italian element of the "unified" Italian army. The draft however, intentionally excluded experienced older southern Italian Bourbon soldiers or those who had volunteered in the rebellion against the Bourbon regime. Regardless of age that component of southern Italians were instead ordered to report for arrest. So the southern contingent of the army was from its inception made up of young inexperienced draftees without the stabilizing effects of veteran soldiers in the ranks.
What Piedmont advisors to the regime failed to recognize early on was that the merger of northern and southern Italians into a single "unified" military force did not present merely issues of manpower, equipment, coordination or experience. An army drawn from the general population especially by draft will reflect the socio/political issues of the society from which it is drawn. This of course could have both positive and negative consequences. However the merger of southern Italian draftees into Piedmontís service in the early 1860ís began to reflect the same social problems that were inherent in the heavy handed way Piedmont had acted toward the southern Italian civilian population. In a region that was experiencing great civil unrest Piedmont knew that some of that unrest would filter into the ranks of its southern draftees.
An Army Divided
As I mentioned the Piedmont regime had basically built up the southern Italian contingent of the army by heavily relying on the draft of younger aged men. Those who had served in the Bourbon army or those who had fought as irregular volunteers for unification were both intentionally not considered appropriate for military service. Worse many of them were ordered to report for arrest. Ultimately driving many of them into rebellion in the mountains of Basilicata and elsewhere in rural southern Italy. It turns out that the more mature or veteran fighters in the south were distrusted and intentionally left out of the mix by the Piedmont regime and military command structure. It was felt that the younger draftees would present a more malleable recruit for service and indoctrination. One that could be shaped into the "type" of soldier Piedmont wanted. Especially, it was felt, once the younger men were segregated from the "negative" influence of the more mature southern fighting man.
The officer core for these draftees was also drawn primarily from the northern Italian officer pool. Again was done in order to assure that the young and impressionable recruits were indoctrinated correctly. Additionally, all of the commanders and general staff officers were drawn primarily from the northern ranks. Southerners were not considered trustworthy enough for critical military positions.
So, from the perspective of southern Italians the way the "unified" army had been constructed already represented three major insults to their culture, region and value to their "new" society. First, they were not considered appropriate to fill the ranks of staff officers or leaders in the new order of things. It was clear at every turn that both their loyalty and their native intelligence was questioned. Second, since previous military service including that which had furthered the goals of unification went unrecognized by Piedmont there was no expectation that demonstrating initiative, intelligence bravery etc. would result in advancement within this new Italian army. Third, there was the issue of the draft itself. In the rural south of Italy under the Bourbons the army had never relied on a draft. There were practical agricultural reasons for this policy. By not having a draft the local farmers of the south did not have to sacrifice their labor pool for military service. Unlike the north agriculture in most of the rural south is labor intensive. The southern Italians resented a draft being implemented and recognized it immediately as a hardship to families and potential major economic loss.
Added to this was the fact that these young southern draftees had as part of their conscription and initial training been utilized in the suppression of their own people in the south. Their forced suppressive actions against their own people, ordered and supervised by an officer core that was under the total direction of northern officers. Those same officersí commands were backed up by locally stationed pacifying northern troops or northern paid mercenaries. This situation created a divisive undercurrent, resentment and dissatisfaction within the ranks. That disharmony sometimes rising to downright hostility between northern and southern troops.
As Piedmont formalized its political position as a military ally of Prussia and the northern German States it began to prepare its own military for outbreak of hostilities. In the early spring of 1866 it began to reposition troops just as the finalized treaty with Prussia was secretly signed. In the early spring of 1866 Piedmontís "unified" army counted about 250,000 men at arms with about forty per cent being southern Italian draftees. However, before the treaty with Prussia was signed about half of the army was positioned in what had been the southern Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. There they exercised a role of suppressing the local populations.
Piedmontís goal if hostilities erupted, was to capture the northern Italian Provence of Venetia and incorporate it into the new Italian nation. Piedmont strategists knew that when war erupted with Austria Italy would have to bring the fight to the Austrian army positioned in Venetia. They felt that they needed to strike quickly in order to take advantage of the numerical opportunity presented. Austria had only about 130,000 troops stationed along a defensive line in Venetia in 1866. Theoretically Piedmontís army had a numerical two to one advantage. However, although numbering about 130,000 the Austrian army was a veteran force commanded by a competent commander. Further it was located behind very strong defensive fortifications. I suspect that Piedmont knew that a successful campaign, even with numerical advantage, could prove difficult for their young unified army.
As war approached Piedmont began to pull some "pacifying" troops northward from southern Italy. Both southern Italy and Sicily saw significant reductions in numbers of pacifying troops in anticipation of this war. By the time April 1866 came around the Piedmont army which had shifted to the north numbered about 200,000 on northern station. This of course meant that only about 50,000 Piedmont "pacifying" troops remained stationed in the south. An open question, and risk in this for Piedmont was that the civil population would again intensify in its efforts to revolt. Maybe Piedmont thought that the harsh actions it had delivered on the south between 1862-1865 would be enough to discourage any further rebellion. Or perhaps Piedmont was so focused on a quick potential of victory against Austria that the threat of rebellion in the south was a secondary concern. Whatever the thought process Piedmont did withdraw many of its troops northward.
The Piedmont regime decided that the "unified" army now in the north should be led by their best "northern" generals. It was also decided by the Piedmont strategists that the repositioned Piedmont army would be divided into two main battle groups forcing the Austrian to battle on a divided front. Of course this also meant that the Italian force was divided. As a divided field force it placed about 120,000 commanded by General La Marmora, considered their best general. This part of the army was stationed in Lombardy, just west of the Mincio River. The second force was comprised of about 80,000 men commanded by General Cialdini a seasoned commander of the southern Italian campaign. This portion of the army was positioned in Romangna, south of the Po River.
It is interesting and probably reflects Piedmontís internal anxiety on the brink of war that as military action loomed they reached out to of all people, Garibaldi. Garibaldi, in 1866 was almost sixty years old and crippled from the wound he received from Piedmontís own troops at Aspromonte. Since he had tried independently to lead a force against the Vatican Piedmontís attitude was to keep him under close wraps. He remained distrusted by most in the Piedmont regime. A regime that had purposely launched a media campaign to discredit his former service to the Italian Piedmont Crown.
Garibaldi had for the past several years lived semi-disgraced in "exile" on his island estate off the coast of Italy, a virtual non-person. Yet at this eleventh hour on the brink of war with Austria, Piedmont reached out to him calling for him to raise a "volunteer force" to fight for the liberation of Venetia.
Surprisingly, Garibaldi, always focused on the unification and a patriot at heart agreed to raise and lead such a force. He began immediately to raise up his former "volunteers". Many of those volunteers were those same men that had followed him thoughout Italy in his campaigns to further the cause of a united Italy. Just as surprisingly these men, many of whom were Mazziniansí or Young Italia advocates and idealists answered the call to this the new campaign without reservation. In very short order he successfully amassed and equipped a force of about 20,000 men. Garibaldi always the master of bravado and colorful expression named this force "Cacciatori delle Alpi" or "Hunters of the Alps".
Hostilities broke out on June 19, 1866 when Prussia attacked Austria and several of Austriaís southern German state allies. Italy was then compelled and quickly joined three days later in fulfillment of their secret military alliance with Prussia. War had begun. This 1866 war is known as the Austro-Prussian War, in Germany, and also as the Third War of Italian Unification, in Italy.
As Italy had hoped the attack on two fronts split Austriaís attention with the Prussian assault considered the greater threat by Austria. As a result Austria did not reinforce its army in Venetia, or what it called its southern army. Italy continued to hope that its numerically superior army and geographic tactical advantages would carry the day in a quick strike.
Piedmont also enjoyed a very great numerical advantage over Austria in terms of its Mediterranean fleet. However, here a gain the fleet was composed of the combination of Piedmontís pre-1861 fleet with the Bourbon fleet of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. Once again the merger had given rise to disharmony and resentment rather than comradery. Piedmont believed that it could use it naval advantage to threaten the Austrianís Dalmatian coast. They felt that the threat could further draw away much needed Austrian reserve forces from the contested Venetia Provence.
La Marmora, with the bulk of the Italian forces, struck first through Mantua and Peschiera Del Garda with what they thought would be a decisive blow. However, despite the fact that La Marmoraís forces outnumbered the Austrian contingents it faced his forces were defeated at the Battle of Custoza on June 24, 1866. This defeat forced him to retreat with his army back to his initial position across the Mincio River. This was a shocking and demoralizing defeat to the Italian armyís confidence. The major element of their army command by their best general had failed, despite every advantage to take its objective or press its advantage. General Cialdini in turn witnessing the defeat became hesitant, essentially choosing not to advance or support La Marmoraís retreat in force at all. The best Cialdini managed over the next week or so were several short small force thrusts and retreats.
The Italian armyís failure was made all the more embarrassing when Prussia on the other hand accomplished a number of quick victories against the Austrian forces in the north during that same time.
So in the first week or so of the war the victories by Prussia in the north against Austria and losses by Italy in the south stood in stark contrast. Nevertheless, Prussiaís victories resulted in a mixed benefit for the Italy. By way of benefit Austria was forced due to the pressure of the Prussian armyís victories to withdraw about a third of its forces in northern Italy. Defense of Austriaís capitol obviously being a more important concern than defense of Venetia. This of course further significantly increased the considerable numerical advantage that the Italian army had over the southern Austrian forces.
The Austrian commander recognized his weakened position. His response was to reposition his forces defensively around Trentino and Isonzo rather than take the fight to the Italians or spread his forces too thin. Again this created opportunity for the Italian army..
After the first two weeks of the war which had gone badly for the Italians, a new concern, diplomatic, arose for Piedmont. That concern soon turned to political panic when they learned on July 5th that France, through the diplomatic efforts of Napoleon III, had unilaterally offered to broker a peace between Prussia and Austria. Italy was in danger of being left out of those negotiations. Worse Piedmont was now concerned that if peace between Prussia and Austria was established they might be facing the whole of the Austrian army, alone. Piedmont needed a victory and needed to act quickly before their numerical advantages disappeared. With the Austrian forces further depleted by virtue of a third being redeployed on the Prussian front the Austrians now numbered only about 100,000 in Venetia. The Piedmont regime urged its generals to be more aggressive and to push their advantages before they no longer had them.
A new comprehensive battle plan was quickly drafted and approved by Piedmont on July 14th. Essentially the new plan of battle had four elements.
1. La Marmora now commanding a reduced force of 70,000 men was to push in against a network of four Austrian fortresses, Peschiera, Mantua, Legnago and Verona in hopes of tying down a large number of Austrian defenders.
2. In the meantime Cialdinni commanding about 130,000 men would push through to Venetia and hopefully take the capitol.
3. Garibaldi and his forces with some reinforcements from the Italian army would independently but parallel to Cialdini force advance on Trentino and capture its capitol Trento.
4. The Italian navy would initiate an assault on the Dalmatian coast. The Italian navy also made up of the combined navies of Piedmont and the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies both outnumbered and gunned the Austrian navy. The objective of the attack was the capture Trieste.
While this was an aggressive plan its execution was again met with mixed results. La Marmora advance was able to keep the bulk of the Austrian defenders in their entrenched positions. They were not in much of a position to counter. To the extent this allowed Cialdini and his troops to advance without much opposition they were able to reach the Udine region on July 22. It was at least, a measure of forward movement and success, but far from the sweeping offensive envisioned and needed to capture the whole of Venetia. Since Cialdiniís forces had in fact met little Austrian opposition or resistance it also did not provide much of an opportunity for a much needed positive evaluation of the Italian force.
Garibaldiís advance was on the other hand a different matter. His advance toward Trento was opposed by Austrian forces stationed in the region. Garibaldi once again proved a brilliant strategist who was well within his element in the mountainous terrain of the region. Garibaldi and his forces actually won a battle against the Austrian forces at Bezzecca on July 21. This was as much the result of Garibaldiís ability to maneuver his forces and recognize and jump on opportunity as anything else. He followed up his victory by capturing Trento. However, even though three parts of the new battle plan had gone at least in part as planned the overall plan was once again dealt a startling defeat.
Painting depicting the Battle of Bezzecca
Painting depicting the Battle of Lissa
On July 20th the numerically superior Italian navy met the much smaller Austrian Mediterranean fleet, at the battle of Lissa . The Austrian navy dealt a stunning blow to the poorly organized and lead Italian fleet. This battle defeat was again a major blow to the competency and international reputation of the Italian fighting force. It was also another example of how badly the northern and southern forces had been integrated as a single fighting force.
Since Trieste had not fallen and indeed the Italian naval force had to withdraw there was an immediate impact on the whole of the new Italian strategy. Cialdini and Garibaldiís forces were now flanked on two sides. This made the growing possibility that Prussia and Austria would come to terms even more dangerous to the Italian army. If peace between Prussia and Austria occurred it would place the bulk of the entire Italian army positioned to be attacked on three sides.
By the beginning of August a ceasefire between Prussia and Austria brokered by Napoleon appeared imminent. The Piedmont regime was unwilling to press its gains or face the Austrian army and navy unilaterally realizing that based on performance and position such a course of action would be disastrous. The best Piedmont could hope for was to join in the peace negotiations.
As part of the effort to be included at the peace table Piedmont ordered Garibaldi to withdraw from Trento on August 9, 1866. A formal Armistice, known as the Armistice of Commons, was signed among the parties on August 12th, and this brief war was over.
In terms of cost of life in this Italian-Austrian conflict, Italy lost 1,633 soldiers killed, 3,926 wounded and 5,638 captured or missing. Austriaís southern army lost 1,392 killed, 4,471 wounded and 3,864 captured or missing.
Despite losing over 11,000 men killed, wounded or captured Italy at the conclusion of the war had gained no territory that it could directly hold on to. In addition despite having vastly greater numerical superiority both on land and at sea Austriaís forces had consistently held their ground and in fact had suffered fewer casualties. The bright spot for the Italians was Garibaldiís victory commanding irregulars. In a match-up of conventional forces both ground and naval the Italian forces had been out-commanded and fought at every level. From a military/international perspective the young "unified" Italian armed forces had proved poorly lead and relatively ineffective. Certainly not the image that Piedmont wanted to project. Piedmontís ambition was to be seen as a player on the international stage and the lack of an effective military did not help.
With the August 12th ceasefire or armistice there needed to follow a formal negotiated peace treaty. The "peace treaty" in this instance was interesting as brokered by Napoleon III. In many ways the brokered peace further diminished rather than lifted the Italian Stateís international stature. The brokered peace in fact took place in a bifurcated way.
Austria refused to sit down with Italy at the peace table. Their feeling was that Italy had won no battles and could not hold on to territories gained against them. However, by way of smoothing the process and helping to move it forward Bismarck on behalf of Prussia agreed not to press the territorial gains it had received over Austria and in fact turn any captured Austrian territory back. Prussia however would agree to this only if Austria accepted certain conditions. First and foremost for Prussian Prime Minister Bismarck was the end and the division of the German Confederation. This was and had been Prussiaís principle goal in the conflict. Austria, the Hapsburgs and its southern German state allies had to agree to be permanently excluded from a new North German Confederation which was to be formed. This would insure that Prussia would have political dominance over the new northern German Confederation. In fact Bismarck had argued in cabinet with the Prussian King that a relatively strong Austria to Germanyís south was actually security and in Prussiaís best interest as a hedge against encroachment by other European powers.
In addition to the division of the old Confederation Austria, allied with the Confederation of southern German States, had to agree to turn over Venetia to Italy. The later condition became a sticking point as Austria once again maintained that Italy had won nothing and was not entitled to any territorial gain.
A diplomatic solution to this impasse was reached wherein Venetia was ceded by Austria to France who would, turn it over to Italy, only following a successful conclusion of a Plebiscite by the Venetian people. This would allow for it to appear as the will of the Venetian people rather than a capitulation by Austria or a gift by France to Italy. The arrangement ceding Venetia to France is known as the Peace of Prague and was signed to on August 23, 1866.
The Peace of Prague was followed with the agreement which let France turn over Venetia to Italy by way of Plebiscite. This Treaty between France and Italy is known as The Treaty of Vienna and was entered into on October 3, 1866.
The two important takeaways from this episode involving the Italian Third War of Unification are first, that Italy had come one step closer to the unification of the country that we know as modern Italy. Second and more important to our understanding of what was happening in the lives of our ancestors was that for almost the entire year of 1866 the south of Italy had been free of the vast northern Italian peacekeeping northern Italian led army.
The next article therefore will address how our ancestors felt about this war, how they reacted to it and how they reacted to the sudden withdraw of the majority of northern Italian troops from southern Italy during the conflict.
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