Battle of Palestro, 30-31 May 1859

Battle of Palestro, 30-31 May 1859


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Battle of Palestro, 30-31 May 1859

The battle of Palestro (30-31 May 1859) was a Piedmontese victory over the Austrians that helped cover the movement of their French allies from their original position on the Austrian left to a new position on the weaker Austrian right, and that prepared the way for the first major Allied victory of the Second War of Italian Independence, at Magenta.

At the start of the war the Piedmontese had been outnumbered by the Austrians, and their main task had been to hold onto the rail head at Alessandria until the bulk of the French army could arrive at Genoa. By 12 May the danger of a quick Austrian victory had passed. The French had arrived in numbers and Napoleon III arrived to take personal command. The Austrians, under Feldzeugmeister Franz Count Gyulai, realised that the main danger came along the Po, and abandoned any plans to threaten Turin. By mid-May the Austrians were arranged in a west-east line that ran from Vercelli in the west, through Mortara and on to Pavia, with another corps further east at Piacenza. Austrian attention was further focused in the south after the battle of Montebello (20 May 1859), a French victory won on the edge of the Apennines south of the Po.

In the aftermath of this battle Gyulai moved his army once again. VII Korps was posted on the Sesia, watching the approaches to Mortara from the west. VIII Corps was moved from Pavia to the confluence of the Sesia and the Po. II and III Korps were south of Mortara. V Korps was on the Po at Pavia and IX Korps was at Piacenza, at the Austrian left. The Austrian commanders expected the Allies to try and move east on the southern side of the Po to get behind their lines.

The Allies spent the next week after Montebello decided what to do next, and eventually decided to take a calculated gamble and use the Piedmontese railway network to move from the Austrian left to the Austrian right. If the Allies could cross the upper reaches of the Sesia River and reach Novara they would be able to threat Milan, and strike the Austrians where they were weakest.

A number of deceptive measures were put in place to prevent the Austrians from realising what was going on. In the south two French corps remained in place and threatened to cross the Po. In the centre of the line the burden fell on the Piedmontese army. This would form the right wing of the Allied army once the move would complete, but for the moment its task was to shield the French move by going onto the offensive. It would cross the Sesia at Vercelli and attack the Austrian right around Mortara. The aim was to attract the attention of the Austrian right wing and prevent them from interfering with the much larger movement going on behind the front. The attack would also create a bridgehead over the Sesia.

Victor Emmanuel was able to commit four infantry divisions to the attack. The Sesia flows past the eastern side of Vercelli, then turns east, before turning south against close to Palestro. The Piedmontese divisions were to advance east and occupy a line running north from Palestro. Fanti's 2nd Division was to be at the northern end of the line, at Confienza. Cialdini's 4th Division would be at Palestro. Durando's 3rd Division was heading for Vinzaglio, in the centre of the line. Finally Castelborgo's 1st Division formed the reserve and was posted behind Fanti on the Piedmontese left.

The nearest Austrian forces were from Zobel's VII Korps. Zobel had outposts at Confienza and Palestro, and stronger forces at Robbio, to the south-east. One of his divisions was too far south to intervene at Palestro, but he could call on Jellacic's Division from II Korps, which was posted further to the east.

On 30 May Vinzaglio and Palestro were defended by the equivalent of a single battalion. Their positions were attacked by Cialdini's and Durando's Divisions, so they were massively outnumbered. Although reinforcements did reach both positions during the first day's fighting, the Austrians were unable to hold them. Palestro fell by 4.30, Vinzaglio two hours later.

Overnight both sides attempted to rush reinforcements to the area. The French wanted to move Canrobert's III Corps into place, but heavy rain meant that the river rose and only 2,600 men from the 3e Zouaves managed to get across. Even so the Piedmontese had three full infantry divisions in their front line and one in reserve.

Zobel managed to assemble four brigades at Robbio, two of his own and two from II Korps. This gave him just under 14,000 men, about half the size of the Piedmontese front line force. One brigade was kept in reserve. A second was sent to make a flanking attack on Confienza. Finally two were sent to attack Palestro.

The flanking attack was a total failure. Weigl's brigade was outnumbered four-to-one by Fanti's division, and was unable to make any progress.

The attack on Palestro was more successful, at least at first. Dondorf's brigade attacked from the east while Szabo's brigade came in from the south, advancing up the Sesia. Dondorf was stopped east of Palestro, but Szabo managed to get around Cialdini's right flank. The Austrians managed to open fire on Canrobert's pontoon bridge, and for a moment posed a serious threat to the Allied position.

This brief Austrian success was ended by the 3e Zouaves. They had taken up a position close to the Sesia, behind a side branch of the river called the Sesietta (the same name is sometimes given to the island formed between the main river and the branch). The Austrians had advanced right past the Zouaves, who were hidden behind some trees. The Zouaves formed up and charged into the left-rear of the Austrian troops. Jäger Battalion 7, the lead Austrian unit, was forced back while all of Szabo's guns were captured. The rest of his brigade fled, suffering heavy casualties when the Allies managed to seize a key bridge.

After this setback Zobel called off the attack and withdrew to Robbio. The Austrians had suffered over 2,000 loses during the day, nearly three times as many as the Allies, who had lost 600. The Zouaves had suffered most heavily, loses 46 dead, 229 wounded and 20 missing. Remarkably Victor Emmanuele had taken part in their charge and on the following day the regiment made him an honorary corporal.

It took the Austrians several days to realise that this battle was part of a much larger French movement. When it finally became clear what was happening Gyulai decided to abandon his invasion of Piedmont, and on 2 June the Austrians began to retreat back to the Ticino, re-crossing into Lombardy to defend Milan. This would be a short-lived effort, for on 4 June they would suffer a major defeat (battle of Magenta, 4 June 1859), and would be forced to abandon Milan and Lombardy and retreat back towards Venetia.


Second War of Independence, Battle of Palestro, 31 May 1859

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Battle of Palestro, near Pavia

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155th Anniversary of The Battle of Palestro

Palestro, May 25, 2014 – Celebrating the 155th Anniversary of the Battle of Palestro, fought May 31, 1859 between the Franco-Piedmontese army and the Austro-Hungarians during the War of Independence of Italy.

The video includes various ceremonies, the parade of men and women in period costumes, the music of the fanfare of Asti and more. Information about The Battle of Palestro are available on Wikipedia

The running time is 75 minute ca – Language: Italian only

Click on the Video tab to watch a demo video on youtube.

Thanks to the authorities present, and especially to Giovanni Toretti, soul of the National Bersaglieres Association of Vigevano.

DVD– Pal Video. Languages: Italian (SOLD OUT)

File MP4 – simple video file in mp4/h.264 for any system and device. Languages: Italian. File Size 460MB.

Important note: Before buying any product please, read carefully the simple usage notes , make sure you have a stable broadband connection to download the chosen file. The purchase allows a maximum of 2 attempts to download in 15 days.


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Austro-Sardinian War: Battle of Magenta

Few regions in the world are so filled with memories of French military glory as northern Italy. The great Napoleon Bonaparte became a legend with his unforgettable victories over the Austrians at Lodi, Arcola, Rivoli and Marengo. In 1859, his nephew, the French Emperor Napoleon III, sought to re-create the splendor of these famous battles by leading a French army against the Austrians in the same region.

In 1859, Italy’s numerous small states were not yet united into one nation. The most important of those states was Piedmont, located in the northwestern corner of Italy. Piedmont’s prime minister, Camillo Benso, conte di Cavour, wanted to enlarge his state, but the powerful Austrians held the regions of Lombardy and Venetia to the east. Cavour soon found a way to exploit Napoleon III’s ambitions and at the same time further his own.

First, on December 10, 1858, Cavour secured a promise of French military intervention if Piedmont came under attack. He then sought to provoke Austria by mobilizing Piedmontese armed forces on March 9, 1859. Austria began mobilizing on April 9 and issued an ultimatum for Piedmont to demobilize on the 23rd. Cavour rejected the ultimatum, and when Austria invaded Piedmont six days later, rail cars were already rushing French troops to help defend the little kingdom.

The Austrian commander in chief, Field Marshal Graf Ferenc Gyulay, was not a very aggressive leader, and his sluggish and indecisive advance soon petered out. He took up defensive positions along the north bank of the Po River and surrendered the initiative to the Franco-Piedmontese allies. Gyulay did send 20,000 men to probe the allied eastern flank, but they fell back after a defeat at Montebello on May 20. After another defeat by the Piedmontese at Palestro on May 30-31, Gyulay’s exhausted troops began withdrawing back into Lombardy. By June 2, the allied French and Piedmontese army under Napoleon III’s command had swept northward round Gyulay’s western flank to Novara.

Piedmont was safe. Napoleon III now sought to liberate the Austrian-held regions of Lombardy and Venetia to the east. A French brigade commander, Brig. Gen. Auguste-Alexandre Ducrot, was elated. ‘The Austrians are demoralized, he wrote, our soldiers full of confidence and fervor. Success is not in doubt.

To enter Lombardy, the allies had to cross the unfordable Ticino River, which runs from the mighty Alps in the north to join the Po River in the south. The main road, which ran eastward to Milan, the capital of Lombardy, crossed the Ticino at the village of San Martino. There, the Austrians had built a redoubt on the river’s west bank to protect the bridge.

Seven miles to the north of San Martino, the Austrians had left the Ticino unguarded at Turbigo. On June 2, Napoleon III summoned Maj. Gen. Jacques Camou, the commander of the Voltigeur Division of the Guard, and ordered him to secure a bridgehead there. Major General Joseph-Edouard de La Motte Rouge, a French divisional commander, watched Camou’s guardsmen leave Novara. Nothing was finer, he recalled, than to see these magnificent troops parading in the streets of the town, with drummers beating and a band leading the way, before going to prepare the invasion of the enemy territory.

No bridge spanned the Ticino at Turbigo, but by dawn on June 3 Camou’s men had thrown three pontoon bridges over the river. Later that day, Maj. Gen. Marie Edmé Patrice Maurice de MacMahon’s French II Corps began to reinforce Camou at the bridgehead. The Austrian forces that advanced against Turbigo were routed.

Meanwhile, surprising developments had occurred to the south, at San Martino. On the evening of June 2, the Austrians had abandoned the redoubt, retreated across the Ticino and tried to blow up the bridge behind them. But they had no blasting powder, and the ordinary powder merely damaged two arches. Infantrymen could still cross easily, and the bridge could be patched so that cavalry and even artillery could still pass over the weakened section.

Napoleon III planned a two-pronged advance on June 4 to open the main road that crossed the Ticino and continued on to Milan. One prong, spearheaded by the Grenadier Division of the Guard, was to thrust along the road across the Ticino at San Martino and then eastward toward the village of Magenta. Meanwhile, the second prong–MacMahon’s II Corps, supported by the Voltigeur Division of the Guard and followed by the Piedmontese army–would press southward from the Turbigo bridgehead to Magenta, where the two sections of Napoleon III’s army would unite.

Napoleon III’s plan was fraught with risk and would have proved fatal against a competent foe. If the two allied prongs ran into serious opposition, they would find themselves disunited and unable to lend each other immediate support. No telegraph line linked San Martino and Turbigo, so the French would have to rely on horsemen and cannon-shot signals for communications.

The French emperor did not expect to run into a pitched battle on June 4, for he doubted that the Austrians would have any significant forces in position to block the French advance. He thought that the Austrian army was still to the south and that it might thrust northward. Napoleon therefore aimed to establish his force astride the Ticino by the end of June 4. The French Guard and the II and III corps, supported by the Piedmontese, were to take up positions on the east bank of the Ticino and face south, from which direction the Austrians were expected. The French I and IV corps would stand on the west bank and face south to cover the allied lines of communication to Turin and Genoa.

Magenta would be an encounter battle, unexpected by either general and fought by only a fraction of each army. Ironically, Gyulay had intended to give his troops a day’s rest on June 4 to adjust his dispositions. He had only the II Corps, most of the I Corps, a cavalry division and part of VII Corps immediately available for a battle at Magenta. Other units, including the III Corps, were within reasonable marching distance of the battlefield, but Gyulay’s army was chronically disunited as it straggled back into Lombardy. Thus the French were not going up against a strongly defended or well-prepared position. But if they failed to establish themselves at Magenta by dusk, they would face a nearly impossible task later on.

The Grenadier Division of the Guard began to reach San Martino at 10 a.m. on June 4. Thirty minutes later, Napoleon III also arrived, and soldiers began to repair the damaged bridge and build a pontoon crossing 300 meters to the north. Toward noon, the emperor heard firing from the north and saw clouds of smoke through the trees. MacMahon had begun his advance from the Turbigo bridgehead. It was the signal to unleash the Guard along the main road to seize Magenta.

From the Ticino, the guardsmen first had to advance two miles across a low, flat and exposed plain. This led to a steep bank that rose 50 or 60 feet. East of this bank lay the Naviglio Grande canal, which was 10 meters wide and 2 meters deep with masses of prickly acacia growing on its steep sides. It also had a strong current and could not be crossed except by bridge. But the Austrians had managed to blow up only two, at the villages of Boffalora to the north and Ponte Vecchio to the south. In between lay two intact bridges. One carried the main road over the canal at the hamlet of Ponte Nuovo. Four hundred meters to the south, the other bridge served the railway, which ran parallel to the road all the way to Milan. Without those two vital bridges, the French could not have forced a crossing by direct assault from the west. MacMahon’s command would then have been dangerously isolated as it advanced southward on the east bank.

The Grenadier Division of the Guard was a crack formation of tough troops and renowned commanders. One of the division’s four regiments, the 2nd Grenadiers, thrust northeastward along a minor road to Boffalora. The soldiers attacked the village but found that the bridge had been blown up, so they could only fire across the canal.

Better luck awaited the 3rd Grenadiers 2,000 meters to the south. The regiment advanced along the main road, followed by the Zouaves of the Guard and two guns, while the 1st Grenadiers remained near the Ticino in reserve. The 3rd Grenadiers had covered less than half the distance over the plain when they came under fire from three guns. Two French cannons returned fire and forced the Austrian artillerymen to retire, while the grenadiers quickly descended into the fields south of the main road.

The 3rd Grenadiers waded through the soaked fields, knee-deep in water and ankle-deep in mud. The steep bank now loomed above them and looked like a man-made embankment constructed especially for defense. White-coated Austrian infantrymen had massed at the points where the road and the railway reached the top of the heights, and barricades guarded these two access points. Austrian reserves sheltered under cover. A visitor to the battlefield later commented, The position was so good, that it seemed almost madness to attack it.

The weakest point was the railway line. Immediately next to it, on either side, the ground was bare no trees or vines would hinder charging troops. Furthermore, the railway ran gently up to the crest of the heights on an embankment, which would cover the attackers on one side from flanking fire. The greatest obstacle was the large, exposed field the grenadiers would have to cross to reach the foot of the bank.

The leading battalion assembled at the edge of the field behind a row of trees and then dashed forward under a hail of fire. Before the Austrians could reload, the survivors had reached the far side. Quickly depositing their heavy knapsacks, they charged up the slope. The grenadiers wasted no time firing upward but counted on the sheer élan of their assault to guarantee their success. Indeed, before the first man reached the summit, the Austrians had abandoned both their positions and a gun.

The guardsmen pressed on and chased the fleeing Austrians over the railway bridge. But on either side, other troops held on at Ponte Nuovo and Ponte Vecchio. From Ponte Nuovo in particular, the Austrians poured heavy fire into the grenadiers from only 400 meters away. The French fired back, but they had to either take Ponte Nuovo or abandon their positions. A battalion advanced northward along the canal to seize the two houses of Ponte Nuovo that stood on the west bank, then tried unsuccessfully to storm the stone bridge under fire from the Austrian 60th Infantry.

It was a temporary setback. Brigadier General Jean Joseph Gustave Cler brought up the ferocious Zouaves of the Guard, who burst over the bridge and cleared the customs houses on the far bank with cold steel. How fine it was, recalled a Zouave captain, to see our old sweats cheerfully prepare to attack and hurl themselves on the canal bridge shouting ‘Long live the Emperor!’ We were sniped at from all the windows of the customs houses situated on the other side of the bridge. We lost some men but rapidly took the crossing and saw the Austrians fleeing on every side.

So far everything had gone pretty well according to plan for the French. But, suddenly, an entire division of the Austrian VII Corps launched a powerful and wholly unexpected counterattack. Cler’s riderless horse appeared out of the smoke the intrepid general had fallen dead in the midst of his soldiers. The Austrians seized a French gun and retook the houses of Ponte Nuovo on the east bank.

Outnumbered and weary, the Grenadier Division was isolated on the edge of the plateau above the plain as fresh Austrian units advanced against it. If the guardsmen gave way, they would be unlikely to regain their foothold, and MacMahon, whose guns had fallen strangely silent to the north, would be alone, in a perilous position.

Messengers seeking reinforcements galloped to Napoleon III at San Martino only to be told bluntly: I have nothing to send. Hold on. Block the passage. Other messengers rode off one after another to hurry the march of the French III and VII corps, which had been delayed by the congestion on the main road from Novara.

For an hour, the heroic guardsmen fought against the odds and repulsed repeated frontal assaults by Austrian columns. At last, toward 3:30 p.m., when the agony was at its height, fresh troops in blue coats and red trousers appeared along the railway embankment. A brigade of Marshal François de Certain-Canrobert’s III Corps had arrived in the nick of time to save the Guard’s tenuous hold on the canal line.

These fresh troops, the 8th Battalion of Chasseurs and the 23rd and 90th Line infantry regiments, had run the last two miles and arrived in disorder. The guardsmen shouted in joy and relief. Immediately, some of the newly arrived infantrymen repelled the Austrians assaulting Ponte Nuovo while the rest rushed to Ponte Vecchio, where the Austrian III Corps was now attacking northwestward along both banks of the canal to try and roll up the French line from the south. The French took heavy losses in this unequal fight, but they had won time for the leading division of the IV Corps to arrive.

That division, accompanied by the corps commander, Maj. Gen. Adolphe comte Niel, reached the canal at the run and went straight into action. Colonel Barthélemy Véron-Bellecourt led his 85th Line Infantry scrambling up the railway embankment. At the top, he found the Austrians just 20 paces from the railway bridge. He drew his sword, yelled To me, 85th! and led a ferocious bayonet charge that hurled back the foe. Savage fighting ensued, but at 6 p.m. another brigade of the III Corps arrived and further secured the French position.

The butchery was worst at Ponte Vecchio, where the destruction of the bridge made it difficult for both the French and the Austrians to support their comrades on the other bank. At one point, four French generals found themselves together in the village on one side of the canal, while Marshal Canrobert stood opposite. Bullets whistled through the air, breaking tiles or gouging plaster from walls of houses. Thick smoke drifted over the carnage.

The French encountered such strong resistance at Ponte Vecchio because Austrian reinforcements were advancing northwestward from the village of Abbiate Grasso to the battlefield. These troops came up along the canal against Ponte Vecchio and attacked the village several times, giving up only at dusk.

Meanwhile, what had befallen MacMahon’s detachment as it descended from the Turbigo bridgehead? The march had begun at 10 a.m. but became a nightmare when it ran into Austrian resistance about noon. Rows of trees, countless irrigation channels and densely planted mulberry bushes limited visibility to 100 meters. The countryside was as difficult to traverse as the infamous bocage of Normandy that would prove so troublesome to the Allies in June 1944. The French units often halted to re-form before pushing on southeastward in the stifling heat. The ground sloped gently but continuously, like the glacis of a fortress, up to Magenta.

A potentially dangerous gap separated the two infantry divisions of the II Corps, and the Austrian I Corps commander, Lt. Field Marshal Eduard Graf von Clam-Gallas, launched a vigorous counterattack. MacMahon was so rattled that he pulled back and suspended the fighting until about 4:30 p.m., at which time the Austrians were fiercely assailing the grenadiers along the canal. Gyulay sensed victory. He thought that he had beaten MacMahon and would soon crush the Guard. He therefore dispatched a telegram to Vienna, stating that he had successfully repulsed the French attack.

Gyulay’s announcement was a bit premature. By 5 p.m. the Austrians were heavily engaged along the canal. MacMahon had rallied his command and at last renewed his advance, driving southward on Magenta as buglers and drummers sounded the charge. After a ferocious fight, the Austrians gave way and hastened to the village.

Fighting soon raged in Magenta’s narrow streets. MacMahon’s infantrymen penetrated into the village from the north and fired from whatever cover they could find at the Austrians just 100 meters away. The Austrian fire was so fierce that nobody could advance up the main road from the railway station. The French brought up two cannons and somehow established them in the ground floor of the station, using the windows as embrasures. Their rapid fire breached the nearby houses, softened up the defense and allowed the French infantrymen to continue their advance.

One of MacMahon’s divisional commanders, the intrepid Maj. Gen. Charles Marie Esprit Espinasse, led his 2nd Zouaves into Magenta but found corpses and wounded men covering the streets. When his horse stumbled, Epinasse said: We can’t stay on this moving ground. Let us dismount. Suddenly, his 27-year-old orderly, 2nd Lt. André de Froidfond, took a bullet in the stomach and collapsed against a wall.

The firing came from a large house several stories high at a street corner. Scores of bodies lay slumped before it, and Espinasse knew what he had to do. We must take it at all costs, he exclaimed. Come on, my Zouaves, break down this door! He banged the pommel of his sword against the metal shutter of a ground floor window and shouted, Enter, enter through there! Before anyone could do so, a shot came from the same window and struck Espinasse, breaking his arm and penetrating his kidneys. He dropped his sword and fell, mortally wounded. Espinasse’s men avenged him by storming the house and killing or capturing its defenders.

Espinasse had a white dog, and few pets have been so faithful. The animal refused to leave the spot where the general fell, except when it heard the beating of a drum. Then the dog would dash away in the hope of finding its master. The local people adopted the dog, which died a couple of years later.

Espinasse’s death did not end the struggle in Magenta. Nothing could give an idea of this dreadful fight, wrote one senior French officer, of this bloody turmoil, of these screams, this gunfire mingled with the rifle-fire, this furious and implacable melee. Squeezed in the narrow streets, our men seemed in their heroic, desperate attacks to take the houses corpse by corpse. Magenta was home to 4,000 people, and the Austrians had turned each house into a strongpoint, which the French had to seize in brutal close-quarters fighting. Many of the Austrian defenders were marksmen of the Tyrolean Jägers or hardened Croats who rarely granted quarter.

After repeated attacks, the French Algerian Tirailleurs and 70th Line infantry reached the church and the houses around it. The church was defended extremely bitterly, recalled La Motte Rouge. Numerous skirmishers established in the church tower kept up a murderous fire on our soldiers who left many of their number on the ground, which was swept by this downward fire. Only after repeated attempts did they finally manage to surround and seize it, bayoneting all who did not surrender. However, the toughest strongpoint proved to be the cemetery southwest of Magenta, which finally fell. Toward 8:30 p.m., MacMahon’s men finally occupied the entire village. Shocked French survivors stumbled into cellars and were soon blissfully drunk.

The news reached Paris by telegraph on Sunday, June 5. At 7 p.m., the cannons at the Invalides thundered to announce the victory, just as they had fired to celebrate the glorious triumphs of the First Empire. The entire city was illuminated all night, and to commemorate the victory, a new color of dye created shortly after the battle was called magenta.

At Magenta itself, the surviving troops were coping with the aftermath of the battle. I fought in Africa and the Crimea, declared a bugler of the 85th Line Infantry, but nowhere was it hotter than yesterday. Dead bodies strewed the ghastly field on the morning after the fighting ended. A French newspaper correspondent confessed that after ten minutes, I felt a keen wish to leave and I shut my eyes so as not to see all these pale faces contracted by the final pain. Stretcher-bearers moved somberly through the carnage, each team carrying some bloodstained wretch, and looters prowled the field.

A mournful silence covered the desolate scene, broken only by the murmured words of the priests or the sobs and sighs of the injured soldiers. The fallen troops were buried in mass graves at Magenta with little reverence, while trains collected the seriously wounded men from the local railroad station.

The Austrians believed that the French killed prisoners, and thus many wounded men hid in cellars and bled to death. In fact, the French conduct at Magenta was exemplary, and the troops won high praise from a correspondent of the London Times: Not even towards their own soldiers are the French more humane than towards those who fell into their hands by the chances of war. They nurse them like children, handle them gently, like mothers, and do everything in their power to relieve their sufferings.

The French suffered more than 4,500 casualties at Magenta. The Austrians lost 5,700 troops killed or wounded, in addition to which lines of dejected Austrian prisoners, 4,500 men in all, snaked westward. Edmund Texier wrote to the French newspaper Siècle, This day will have a great place in our military annals. Indeed, Napoleon III promoted both MacMahon and the commander of the Imperial Guard, Maj. Gen. Auguste Michel Marie Étienne Regnault comte de Saint-Jean-d’Angély, to the rank of marshal. He also made MacMahon the Duke of Magenta.

The victory opened the road to Milan for the allies, who entered the city on June 7 and 8, amid scenes of unparalleled rejoicing. Magenta was indeed an epic victory, but not a decisive one. A lack of supplies ruled out an immediate allied pursuit, and the beaten Austrians were able to break contact, retreat 100 miles eastward and regroup to fight again. The war itself would end indecisively after another Austrian defeat at Solferino on June 24. Piedmont would gain Lombardy but not Venetia.

The French defeated the Austrians at Magenta despite the numerical odds and the difficulties of the terrain. The Austrian troops put up a tough defense of the village of Magenta itself, but elsewhere their resistance was unimpressive. The blame lay partly with the appalling Austrian supply system, for the troops had received no rations for 48 hours. The soldiers came from a wide variety of regions and peoples, and many did not want to fight for the Austrian empire. The Austrian high command, like the French, had failed to bring all their troops into battle only about 54,000 Frenchmen and 58,000 Austrians actually saw action.

The French had better training, better troops and better tactics, but these would not have prevailed against a competent Austrian high command. In 1859, as in the Crimean War of 1854-56, the victors won primarily because they were marginally less incompetent than the vanquished. The glory had been won by second-rate generals against a third-rate enemy.

The real heroes were the French rank and file, for Magenta was a soldiers’ battle. As the commander of the Grenadier Division of the Guard, Maj. Gen. Émile Mellinet, proudly wrote, I hope that the Emperor will be pleased with his grenadiers and zouaves, for I defy anyone to find braver troops. *

This article was written by Andrew Uffindell and originally appeared in the June 1996 issue of Military History magazine. For more great articles be sure to subscribe to Military History magazine today!


Key Facts & Information

BACKGROUND

  • In 1848-1849, the First Italian War of Independence took place, which resulted in the defeat of Piedmont-Sardinia.
  • Following this, Italy remained divided into various kingdoms, while the Austrian Habsburg Empire still ruled the Italian states of Lombardy and Venetia, which became their puppet states.
  • To the north, Piedmont was ruled by King Victor Emmanuel II from Sardinia. To the west, France was ruled by Napoleon Bonaparte’s nephew, Emperor Napoleon III.
  • Even though the First Italian War of Independence rendered no success, the Italian Risorgimento movement continued to flourish in popularity and gained further support from across the European states.
  • This movement aimed to expel Austria’s control of the north and establish a more compassionate government that could offer freedom and rights to Italians. Its supporters also wanted to unify all parts of Italy.
  • Consequently, Count Cavour was assigned to be the chief minister of Piedmont in 1852. Cavour thought that for Piedmont-Sardinia to defeat Austria and take control of northern Italian states of Lombardy and Venetia, it must have powerful allies.
  • As a result, the Piedmontese chief minister allied with Napoleon III of France to strengthen their ambition of defeating the Austrian Empire. In July 1858, this allegiance was finalized in secret at Plombières.
  • France eventually pledged their support to Piedmont against any aggression launched by the Austrian Empire as long as the Austrians were the first ones to initiate attacks, which meant that Cavour had to think of a way to provoke Austria to declare war for the French support to materialize.
  • The chief minister ordered the army of Piedmont to mobilize and conduct a series of operations along the borders of Lombardy. Austria reacted by issuing an ultimatum that if Piedmont were to continue its operations, they would declare war—a perfect opportunity that Cavour wanted.
  • On April 26, 1859, Austria declared war on Piedmont-Sardinia due to its failure to take orders of demobilizing its troops.
  • During this time, the Austrian Empire was already losing international support, forcing them to rely on their own army.
  • France declared war on Austria in support to Piedmont on May 3, 1859. Shortly after, Austrian forces advanced to Turin, the capital of Piedmont, on May 7, 1859. However, as more French allies went to Piedmont, the Austrian advance was stopped.

THE WAR

  • In the first weeks of the outbreak of the war, the Austrian forces had the chance to defeat Piedmont-Sardinia before the advance of the French army to the kingdom. Contrary to this, Field Marshal Ferenc Gyulay, the Austrian commander, did not act quickly to take advantage of the situation.
  • Moreover, the Austrian advance to Piedmont’s capital, Turin, was halted because the Sardinians flooded the rice fields, where the troops would travel.
  • On May 9, 1859, the Sardinian forces, along with some French allies, successfully stopped the Austrians to take control of the Po river crossings around Casale Monferrato.
  • The defensive tactics of the Italians were successful, which caused the failure of the Austrian forces to strike back against an early blow to them.
  • On May 12, 1859, Napoleon III, emperor of France, finally arrived at the port of Genoa. He led the command of the tens of thousands of French forces that were already in Piedmont.
  • On May 20, 1859, the Battle of Montebello took place, the first major clash of the war. The French and Sardinian armies were heavily outnumbered, but despite this, they managed to force the Austrians out of the village and eventually retreat.
  • Meanwhile, Italian nationalist Giuseppe Garibaldi aided the Sardinians in northern Italy by forming his own army corps. His troops included men who successfully escaped Lombardy that was in control of the Austrian Empire to help liberate Italy. They were also called Hunters of the Alps.
  • Following this, the Battle of Varese took place on May 26, 1859, where Garibaldi led his Hunters to defeat the Austrians. Shortly after, they won the Battle of San Fermo. They also captured the city of Como easily since Austrian forces had already retreated eastwards.
  • In the south, the reinforcements of the Franco-Sardinian army made an advance to cross from Piedmont to Austrian-held Lombardy.
  • On May 30-31, 1859, the Battle of Palestro happened, in which French allies successfully captured border towns and drove the Austrians out of the area through the help of their North African Zouaves. Sardinian King Victor Emmanuel likewise led additional Italian troops to back up the French forces.
  • On June 4, 1859, the French army, through the command of Napoleon III, successfully crossed the Ticino river and outmanoeuvred the Austrian forces, known as the Battle of Magenta.
  • On June 16, 1859, the Austrian commander resigned and was replaced by Emperor Franz Josef due to the defeat of Milan and Lombardy.
  • The battle that happened on June 24, 1859 at Solferino was the most decisive one, where the French army pushed through the centre of Austrian troops. The Austrians withdrew to the Quadrilateral fortresses.

THE BREAKTHROUGH

  • In June 1859, a significant number of revolutions took place in Parma, the Papal Legations, and Modena. People were clamouring for unification with Piedmont.
  • Following this, France and Austria signed an agreement, known as the Peace of Villafranca on July 11, 1859, where Lombardy came under the control of Piedmont, while Savoy and Nice were ruled by France.
  • From April to May 1860, another uprising took place against the Bourbon rule in Sicily. By October 1860, the Bourbons were conquered in Sicily and in the Kingdom of Naples, through the help of Giuseppe Garibaldi from the mainland.
  • Piedmont controlled these states along with other central Italian states, excluding Lazio and Rome. Venetia, meanwhile, remained under Austrian rule.
  • Ultimately, the Kingdom of Italy was declared in Turin on March 17, 1861.

Second Italian War of Independence Worksheets

This is a fantastic bundle which includes everything you need to know about the Second Italian War of Independence across 23 in-depth pages. These are ready-to-use Second Italian War of Independence worksheets that are perfect for teaching students about the Second Italian War of Independence (1859-1861) which was considered to be the most significant of all the four wars. The French Empire and the Kingdom of Sardinia fought against the Austrian Empire, which ultimately resulted in the unification of Italy and the establishment of its kingdom that consisted of all parts of Italy, excluding Venetia and the area around Rome.

Complete List Of Included Worksheets

  • Second Italian War of Independence Facts
  • Locating Italy
  • Find the Words
  • Fact or Bluff?
  • Second Italian War of Independence: A Timeline
  • Battles
  • Napoleon III
  • Giuseppe Garibaldi
  • Outcome
  • Historical Significance
  • In a Nutshell

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Use With Any Curriculum

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Battle of Palestro, 30-31 May 1859 - History

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In the days preceding the Battle of Palestro (30-31 May 1859), at Prarolo, a small village on the. more In the days preceding the Battle of Palestro (30-31 May 1859), at Prarolo, a small village on the right bank of the Sesia river in front of Palestro, operated both troops belonging to the Third Division of Piedmont, under the command of General Durando, and the Third French Army commanded by General Canrobert. From Prarolo, Durando simulated crossing the Sesia on May 22 and Canrobert crossed the river on May 31, when the battle of Palestro was about to end. Prarolo events of May 1859 are reconstructed on the basis of official Italian and French documents and numerous memoirs written by the protagonists. The first part of the volume, instead, gives a picture of the story of Prarolo, a community belonging to the Abbey of Santo Stefano di Vercelli until 1801, when its territory was divided into twelve lots purchased by farmers who completely transformed the economy of the country. The figures of some citizens of Prarolo who have played an important role in the local history of Vercelli are outlined. Among these, stands Giuseppe Malinverni who, starting from Prarolo where he lived was head of the Moti of 1821 in Vercelli. He was then condemned to death in absentia and died in exile in Paris (1856). Another important citizen of Prarolo was the architect Giuseppe Locarni who, among other things, built the Vercelli synagogue.

Alla vigilia della battaglia di Palestro (30-31 maggio 1859), a Prarolo, posto in sponda destra della Sesia di fronte a Palestro, si accamparono prima truppe della Terza Divisione piemontese, al comando del generale Durando, e poi la Terza armata francese al comando del generale Canrobert. Da Prarolo, i Piemontesi simularono un passaggio della Sesia il 22 maggio e i Francesi attraversarono il fiume il 31 maggio quando la battaglia di Palestro stava per concludersi. Gli eventi di Prarolo sono ricostruiti sulla base dei documenti ufficiali italiani e francesi e di numerose memorie scritte dai protagonisti. Nella prima parte del volume si dà un quadro della storia di Prarolo, località appartenuta all’Abbazia di Santo Stefano di Vercelli fino al 1801, quando il territorio fu diviso in dodici lotti acquistati da agricoltori che trasformarono completamente l’economia del paese. Sono delineate le figure di alcuni personaggi che ebbero un ruolo importante nelle vicende di Vercelli. Tra questi spicca Giuseppe Malinverni che, partendo da Prarolo dove abitava, fu a capo dei Moti del 1821 a Vercelli. Egli fu condannato a morte in contumacia e morì in esilio a Parigi nel 1856. Altro importante personaggio di Prarolo fu l’architetto Giuseppe Locarni che, tra l’altro, costruì la sinagoga di Vercelli.

Prarolo's tribute to World War I was reconstructed through archive documents and local memories. . more Prarolo's tribute to World War I was reconstructed through archive documents and local memories. Prarolo, a small agricultural community of 1500 inhabitants near Vercelli, had 350 men sent to the front. Of these, 55 died 31 were injured (7 mutilated) 40 were taken prisoners and 19 of them died in such condition 4 received military decorations. The Fallen left 20 widows and 27 orphans. The agricultural economy, without its young workforce, came out shocked. Prarolo was among the first communes to build a monument to the Fallen since November 1920 with his controversy on how to assess the loss of so much youth: glory or useless sacrifice? Then followed a Remembrance Avenue in 1924. Altogether, what happened to Prarolo can be considered a case story typical of so many small rural communities heavily affected by World War I.

Il tributo di Prarolo alla Prima Guerra Mondiale è ricostruito attraverso documenti di archivio e ricordi locali. Prarolo, una piccola comunità agricola di 1500 abitanti nei pressi di Vercelli, ebbe 350 uomini inviati al fronte di questi, 55 morirono 31 furono feriti (7 mutilati) 40 caddero prigionieri e 19 di loro morirono in prigionia 4 ricevettero decorazioni al valor militare. I Caduti lasciarono 20 vedove e 27 orfani. L’economia agricola, privata della sua forza lavoro, ne uscì sconvolta. Prarolo fu tra i primi comuni a costruire un monumento ai Caduti fin dal novembre 1920, con il suo seguito di polemiche sul come valutare la perdita di tanta gioventù: gloria o inutile sacrificio? Seguì un Viale della Rimembranza nel 1924. Complessivamente, quello che successe a Prarolo può essere considerato una case story tipica di tante piccole comunità rurali pesantemente colpite dalla guerra.


The Creation of the Kingdom of Italy 1856-61

- Purpose was to promote cause of Italian national unity within Piedmont
- encouraged other states that Piedmont should lead the way
- Used 'modern' methods of persuasion
- 'Il Piccolo Corriere d'Italia' - newspaper

- Needed to find a wife for his cousin, Prince Jerome Bonaparte
- Piedmontese princess could be the answer

- Kingdom of Upper Italy
- Piedmont, Venetia, Lombardy, Romagna, Parma, Modena
- to be ruled by House of Savoy

- Kingdom of Central Italy
- Tuscany, Umbria, papal marches

- Rome and surrounding area would remain in control of the papacy
- Pope would lead Italian Confederation

- 23th April 1859 - demanded Piedmont to remove troops

- May 1859
- National Society engineered peaceful revolutions in Tuscany, Modena and Parma (Grand Duchies)
- rulers fled, leaving PGs in charge

- 4 June 1859
- major battle at Magenta - Austria defeated - pushed back to Lombardy
- 4,000 allies killed, 6,000 Austrians killed

- 24 June 1859
- another key battle fought at Solferino - Austria defeated again
- 40,000 casualties

- Meeting between NIII and Franz Joseph (Austrian Emperor) - no Cavour
- keen to downplay role of Piedmont

- Similar position in Emilia
- Luigi Farini had total control

- Cavour decided on holding plebiscites to decide the states' fates - would please Britain and France
- Tuscany - 386,000 in favour, 15,000 against
- Emilia - 425,000 in favour, less than 1,000 against

- Had been planning on going to Nice to protest against it joining France

- 5th May - left Genoa
- seized two boats and left at night

- Garibaldi announced they were: "Going to create Italy in the name of Victor Emmanuel II"
- some Mazzinians abandoned ship and tried to capture Rome - v. unsuccessful

- 27th May - attack on Palermo
- support up to 3,000 men - up against 20,000 troops
- Garibaldi's guerrilla warfare tactics key to victory

- Garibaldi appointed Crispi as secretary of state in Sicily
- set up reforms such as banning the macinato tax
- slow distribution of land - peasantry out of control
- Garibaldi set up National Guard to restore order

- Cavour sent La Farina (from the National Society) to Sicily, to claim its annexation to Piedmont
- Cavour didn't want Garibaldi to cross to Naples
- Garibaldi banished La Farina from island

- Cavour organised failed uprising in Naples
- also considered an alliance with Naples to go to war against Garibaldi

- Bourbon troops offered very little resistance
- some even joined with Garibaldi

- 18th September - Battle of Castelfidaro
- easy win for Piedmont against Papal Army

- 26th October - meeting of Garibaldi's volunteers and VEII's troops
- VEII announced King of Italy

- 6th November - inspection of Garibaldi's troops organised
- VEII did not show up - denied them from joining the army
- Garibaldi declined title of prince and a castle - went back home to Caprera

- November - plebiscites in The Marches and Umbria
- resounding victory in favour of unification


Tulsa Race Massacre begins

Beginning on the night of May 31, 1921, thousands of white citizens in Tulsa, Oklahoma descended on the city’s predominantly Black Greenwood District, burning homes and businesses to the ground and killing hundreds of people. Long mischaracterized as a race riot, rather than mass murder, the Tulsa Race Massacre stands as one of the worst incidents of racial violence in the nation’s history.

In the years following World War I, segregation was the law of the land, and the Ku Klux Klan was gaining ground—not only in the Jim Crow South, but across the United States. Amid that charged environment, Tulsa’s African American community was nationally recognized for its affluence. The Greenwood District, known as 𠇋lack Wall Street,” boasted more than 300 Black-owned businesses, including two movie theaters, doctors’ offices and pharmacies.

LISTEN:਋lindspot: Tulsa Burningਏrom The HISTORY® Channel and WNYC Studios

On May 30, 1921, a young Black man named Dick Rowland entered an elevator in an office building in downtown Tulsa. At some point, Rowland was alone in the elevator with its white operator, Sarah Page. It’s unclear what happened next (one common version is that Rowland stepped on Page’s foot) but Page screamed, and Rowland fled the scene. The next day, the police arrested him.

Rumors about the incident spread quickly through Tulsa’s white community, some members of which undoubtedly resented the prosperity of the Greenwood District. After a story published in the Tulsa Tribune on the afternoon of May 31 claimed that Rowland had attempted to rape Page, an angry white mob gathered in front of the courthouse, demanding that Rowland be handed over.

Seeking to prevent a lynching, a group of some 75 Black men arrived on the scene that night, some of them World War I veterans who were carrying weapons. After a white man tried to disarm a Black veteran and the gun went off, chaos broke out.

Over the next 24 hours, thousands of white rioters poured into the Greenwood District, shooting unarmed Black citizens in the streets and burning an area of some 35 city blocks, including more than 1,200 Black-owned houses, numerous businesses, a school, a hospital and a dozen churches. Historians believe as many as 300 people were killed in the rampage, though official counts at the time were much lower.

By the time Governor James Robertson declared martial law, and National Guard troops arrived in Tulsa by noon on June 1, the Greenwood District lay in ruins. Survivors of the massacre worked to rebuild the neighborhood, but segregation remained in force in Tulsa (and the nation) and racial tensions only grew, even as the massacre and its lingering scars were left largely unacknowledged by the white community for decades to come.

In 1997, the Oklahoma state legislature created the Oklahoma Commission to Study the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921 (later renamed the Tulsa Race Massacre Commission), which studied the massacre and recommended that reparations be paid to the remaining Black survivors. City officials continue to investigate the events of May 31-June 1, 1921, and to search for unmarked graves used to bury the massacre’s many victims. 


Watch the video: Battle of Palestro


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