Cavour and the 1859 war with Austria

by Ben Alford

Cavour and the war of 1859 with Austria

Dramatis personae: Count Camillo Benso di Cavour


  • Born 1811 in Piedmont, which was under Napoleonic control.
  • The second son of a rich noble family. Father: Successful businessman and minister in Victor Emmanuel I’s absolutist government.

Early life:

  • Sent away to Royal Military Academy, where he proved a rebellious student.
  • Spent a short time in the service of the young Charles Albert.
  • Became an officer in the army, where he again gained a rebellious reputation.
  • For this, he was sent to a frontier post, where he developed an interest in reading (mainly economics and politics).
  • Left the army in 1833.

Government involvement:

  • Stood for election in the first Piedmontese Parliament. Failed, but elected soon after in a by-election.
  • October 1850, appointed minister of agriculture, commerce and the navy.
  • Made free trade treaties with France, Britain and Belgium, and even Austria.
  • The Prime Minister, D’Azeglio, handed over much administration to Cavour.
  • 1851, became minister of finance, after securing a better loan than the government.
  • 1852, formed alliance to create a new centre party.
  • May 1852, resigned position in D’Azeglio’s government.
  • Went abroad; met President Napoleon (later Emperor Napoleon III) of the French Republic.
  • While Cavour was away, there was a crisis in Piedmont over a civil marriage bill. D’Azeglio resigned, suggesting Cavour as his successor. Cavour formed a new government, reluctantly dropping the bill.

Origins of the agreement with Napoleon, 1852–8

Summary: Piedmont’s involvement in the Crimean war paved the way for Piedmont’s later agreements with France, although Cavour probably did not plan this.

November 1852, Cavour became prime minister of Piedmont:

  • He initially had only a limited knowledge and understanding of foreign affairs.

1853, the Crimean War:

  • Russia was fighting France and Britain.
  • Piedmont joined in on the side of France (fought one battle).

Reasons for Piedmontese participation:

  • Traditional view: Cavour was happy to enter the war in order to gain French and British friendship and a seat at a peace conference (ie. part of a plan).
  • Modern view:
    • France needed more troops, and also wanted the Austrians to help.
    • In turn, Austria needed a guarantee that Piedmont would not invade Lombardy while its own troops were absent.
    • Cavour was pressured into the war by Britain and France.

1856, the peace conference (in Paris) for the Crimean War:

  • Cavour gained a second meeting with Napoleon III, and kept in touch with/through Prince Jerome Napoleon (who became a close friend). Piedmont had forged strong links with France.
  • Piedmont made no other gains from the conference.

The Plombieres agreement, and putting it into effect, 1858–9

[From Mr. Grant’s notes and Stiles; from Seaman where shown]

Summary: An agreement was made between Napoleon III and Cavour, both aiming to gain power for their countries at the expense of Austria. However, Napoleon later realised that the plan would unleash forces difficult to limit. Almost succeeding in escaping from the agreement, Austria’s foolishness created the conditions for war that had been planned, and Napoleon was forced to implement the agreement.

July 1858, the Plombieres agreement:

  • Cavour was invited to meet Napoleon at Plombieres (near the Swiss frontier).
  • The meeting took place in great secrecy.
  • January 1859, a secret treaty was signed.

Napoleon III [from Seaman]:

  • “Doing something for Italy.” At the time, this was a vague phrase; applied to part of northern Italy.
  • The creation of a united Italy was against French interests. France’s dominance depended on the weakness of Italy and Germany.
  • Intention: Create large French client states, as Napoleon I had done. Perhaps also acquire extra territory for France.
  • A diminution of the power of the Habsburgs, who stood for the dynastic principle which Napoleon opposed.
  • Not entirely Machiavellian: Shared the “contemporary dream of a free and regenerate Italy” [Seaman]. Consistent with his self-chosen role as leader of the nationalities.

Cavour [from Seaman]:

  • Clearly understood the problem of power. Piedmont lacked huge resources, so required skilful diplomacy. Cavour needed to placate Napoleon.
  • Because of this, Cavour was not a revolutionary. This made him acceptable to Napoleon III. Napoleon could not be associated with revolutionaries.

Napoleon III’s aims [from Seaman]:

  • Expulsion of Austrian influence from the north and centre of Italy. The reform of governments elsewhere in Italy.
  • A kingdom of Italy large enough to be a useful French client state, but not large enough to pursue its own foreign policy.
  • etc.

Cavour’s aims [from Seaman]:

  • Wanted to get as much as could reasonably be obtained, but no more.

Agreement reached:

  • Napoleon would drive the Austrians out of Lombardy.
  • In return for military and financial help from Piedmont.
  • Piedmont would cede Savoy and Nice to France. (Savoy was of French nationality; Nice was closer to Piedmont, but objection overcome in the treaty.)
  • Provided “the war was undertaken for a non-revolutionary end which could be justified in the eyes of diplomatic circles — and still more in the eyes of French and European public opinion” [from Cavour’s letter to Victor Emmanuel].
  • The intended arrangement afterwards:
    • A kingdom of Upper Italy under the House of Savoy (Victor Emmanuel).
    • Rome and its immediate surroundings left to the Pope.
    • Remaining Papal States would form a kingdom of central Italy.
    • Naples and Sicily would remain unchanged.
    • These states would form a confederation under the presidency of the Pope. This idea was abandoned in the treaty.

Napoleon realised the plan would unleash unforeseen forces [Seaman]:

  • The patriotism of Italian liberals and radicals.
  • The fears of Catholics everywhere.
  • The determination of Cavour.

Provoking Austria into war:

  • Cavour wrote an anti-Austrian speech for Victor Emmanuel II for the opening of Parliament in January 1859.
  • France did not want to be blamed for an attack on Austria, it wanted the Austrians to appear to be at fault. This proved difficult to arrange.
  • Napoleon began to talk Cavour about abandoning the plan and using a European congress to settle the Italian question. Cavour disagreed; it would deprive Piedmont of strength. However, Austria was adopting a menacing position anyway.
  • The final spark:
    • April 1859, Austria issued an ultimatum demanding demobilisation by Piedmont.
    • Austria did not have enough money to fight a war; she had mobilised a large army in northern Italy, but could not afford to maintain it for long.
    • Cavour refused to comply, and Victor Emmanuel started the war.

The war of 1859 with Austria:

  • Napoleon took several days to declare war in support, and France’s army was then badly organised. Austria was even slower.
  • Very short war, only 7 weeks. Violent and horrible.
  • June 1859, two major defeats for Austria (at Magenta and Solferino), thousands of casualties.

Napoleon’s vacillations, and a settlement, 1859

11th July 1859, Napoleon III called a truce with Austria. Reasons:

  • The bloodshed was unpopular at home in France.
  • The military position:
    • The Prussians could mobilise and help Austria, since France was a threat to them.
    • The Austrian army was still strong, and it seemed unlikely that France could take Venetia.
  • Cavour had started to overstep the Plombi`eres Agreement. He seemed to be encouraging revolutions:
    • Revolt in Tuscany (working class demonstration). The Duke left for Vienna. An upper class group assumed control, and declared an interest to unite with Piedmont.
    • Revolt spread to Modena and Parma. Piedmontese soldiers and officials stepped in and set up a provisional government.
    • Revolution was being encouraged in the Romagna (part of the Papal States) by one of Cavour’s agents.

August 1859, Armistice of Villafranca:

  • Agreed between Napoleon III and the Austrian Emperor (Franz Joseph). There was no Piedmont representative.
  • Lombardy was given to France to pass on to Piedmont.
  • Venetia was to remain Austrian.
  • The idea of an Italian confederation under the Pope was reconsidered.
  • The rulers of Tuscany, Modena and Parma were to be restored. (Not carried out; not made clear how this could be done.)
  • Victor Emmanuel was forced (or persuaded?) to sign it. Cavour was furious, and resigned (although he later took back his position).

Cavour was out of office for 9 months:

  • The provisional governments (in Tuscany, Modena and Romagna) set up carefully-rigged assemblies which voted for annexation to Piedmont.
  • This was not put into effect immediately, since Napoleon III remained unsympathetic. Provisional governments were left in control.
  • Cavour continued negotiation with Napoleon III. [From Seaman]

November 1859, a further peace conference is held in Zurich:

  • Piedmont was allowed to send representatives.
  • Agreement over larger states:
    • Piedmont got Lombardy (ceded via France).
    • Austria got Venetia.
  • There was a disagreement over the smaller states in Central Italy. The problem was initially shelved, to be referred to a European congress.

Napoleon became more sympathetic to union of Northern and Central Italy:

  • A pamphlet (“The Pope and the Congress”) was published in Paris, recommending that the Pope not press for an Italian Confederation, put up with his loss of most of the Papal States, and settle with the area around Rome (the Patrimony).
  • The pamphlet turned out to be an officially-inspired government leak, on Napoleon’s orders and representing his plans for the Papal States at his proposed congress.
  • Reaction: Pope shocked and angry. Austria refused to take part in any congress along these lines. The possibility of settling central Italy by congress collapsed.
  • Napoleon became more sympathetic because the possibility of settlement disappeared, and also partly through pressure from Britain.

The Plombieres agreement was implemented:

  • Early 1860, Cavour returned to office as Prime Minister.
  • Cavour decided that to re-establish good relations with France, and annex central Italy, Piedmont would have to cede Savoy and Nice, even though Napoleon had failed to free Venetia from the Austrians as agreed.
  • Mid-March 1860, plebiscites were held in the central states to determine their future (after propaganda campaigns by provisional governments):
    • Tuscany voted to join Piedmont.
    • Emilia (Modena, Parma and Romagna) voted to join Piedmont.
  • March 1860, a secret treaty ceded Savoy and Nice to France. April, plebiscites took place, with suspicious results.

Result: Piedmont had increased in size and power, but the Austrians were still present in Italy.


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