The Risorgimento refers to the process by which the modern country of Italy was forged from a collection of individual Italian States linked only by geography. It began with the ending of Napoleon’s reign and the Congress of Vienna in 1815, and ended with the Franco-Prussian War in 1870-71. Throughout that period the question of Italy dominated European politics: with personalities such as Cavour, Mazzini and, of course, Garibaldi becoming household names.

For the wargamer, the Risorgimento offers a fascinating and colourful mixture of armies, personalities, skirmishes, rebellions, grand battles and wars. Understanding what was actually happening, however, is somewhat complicated. This article is designed to give a brief overview of the period: offering the wargamer the basic knowledge (sometimes as simple as who was fighting whom) needed for further research.

The following maps show the gradual unification of Italy:

So don your red shirt and grey poncho, read on, and cry: Qui si fa l’Italia o si muore (“Here we make Italy - or die!” Guiseppe Garibaldi, at the battle of Calatafimi, in Sicily, 15th May 1860)

Part 1:  The First Italian War of Independence (1848-49)

Carlo Alberto

Carlo Alberto

When France and Napoleon were expelled from Italy at the end of the Napoleonic Wars, the various Italian states were largely returned to either their Austrian (Hapsburg) or local royal family rulers (including the Pope in the Papal States). Both the Austrians and the traditional monarchs were generally eager to return the States to an almost feudal political system and isolation from the rest of Europe. The States had, however, tasted reform and the modern world under the French, and calls grew either for a change from traditional monarchy to constitutional monarchy or for the disparate states of Italy to unite as one nation.

A refusal on the part of the Austrians, in particular, to accept any reform led to the Austrian garrisons of Milan and Venice being expelled by their citizens and, on 24th March 1848, Carlo Amberto, King of Sardinia (at the time an area composed of the Piedmont region on the mainland and the island of Sardinia), declared war on the Austrians and invaded the Austrian-ruled neighboring state of Lombardo-Veneto.

The rest of the Italian States mobilised with various degrees of efficiency and numbers: with some sending either regular or volunteer units to aid the Sardinians. Successes at Goito and Pastrengo bottled the Austrians up in what were known as the Quadrilateral City-fortresses (Verona; Mantua; Legnago and Peschiera) protecting their lines of communication to Vienna.

The Italians were, however, beset by political turmoil: for example, the question of whether Sardinia was actually fighting for a united Italian republic or a united Italy ruled by Sardinia. Not only this, but they were a volunteer army run by untrained aristocrats and had been raised with no preparation of supplies. They were also fighting one of the most professional  armies of Europe on, effectively, that army’s home ground. Although Peschiera was captured, the Austrians, under the experienced Radetsky, received reinforcements by forced march from Vienna and, at the same time, Naples, the only other Italian state with a ‘regular’ army, withdrew from the war.

A four day battle on 22-25 July at Custoza led to the first proper Austrian victory: with the Italians fighting bravely but being defeated almost by the Austrians’ superior training and staff work. On the fourth day, for example, the Italians were exhausted and out of supplies, whereas the Austrian units facing them had been properly rotated with their reserves and were therefore relatively fresh.

The Italians fell back, river by river, to Milan where, amid scenes of riot and turmoil, an armistice was agreed. Garibaldi, who had joined the fight for independence just as the armistice was about to be agreed, took his followers into the mountains and fought on for another three weeks, winning two stunning victories with his 500 men against an Austrian army of 5,000, but then was forced to retreat to Switzerland. This left only the Venetians still fighting the Austrians.

The armistice lasted seven months until Carlo Alberto, under pressure from his ministers, reluctantly cancelled it and once more led Sardinia to war. The Sardinian army was now about 80,000 strong and facing a more experienced Austrian army of  about 75,000. The Sardinains again expected Radetsky to retreat to the Quadrilaterals, and were somewhat surprised when, as they moved north towards the four cities, the Austrians moved south: outflanking the Sardinians and thrusting towards Turin itself (the capital of Sardinia). A great battle was fought at Novara in Piedmont on 23rd March, with the Austrians actually between the Italians and Turin. Although at some stages it looked as if the Sardinians might win, the Austrians eventually achieved a comprehensive victory. Carlo Alberto first surrendered, then abdicated in favour of his son Vittorio Emanuele, and the Sardinian part of the conflict was over.



In Venice, the Venetians, although now bottled up in their lagoons, still resisted the Austrians.

In Rome, however, the Pope (known as Pio Nono, and even more reluctant to reduce his absolute secular authority than the Austrians) had been expelled by republicans: who had declared the Papal States to be a new Roman Republic. This was a more significant act for the rest of Europe than a mere rebellion: it was a slap in the face for Catholics in general. For a month the great Catholic European powers (Spain, France, Austria) argued amongst themselves about what to do until eventually, seizing the opportunity to make a name for himself, Louis Napoleon (who would become by coup d’etat Napoleon III) sent 10,000 troops under Oudinot to capture Rome and restore the Papacy.

The Roman Republic’s army consisted of a mish-mash of volunteers from all over Italy including, obviously, Garibaldi and his Italian Legion of 1300 men. Incredibly this rag-tag volunteer army held off the French for two months of fierce, often hand-to-hand, street fighting. The French, determined that they would not be beaten, sent reinforcements until eventually, they had 30,000 men besieging Rome and, on 30 June, the city surrendered. Garibaldi escaped, however, and began ‘the retreat from Rome’:  in terms of providing a focus for Italian republicanism almost more of a victory than the unsuccessful defense of the city itself.

Meanwhile, the Sardinian defeat at Novara released Austrian troops for Radetsky to use to crush the Venetians. Protected by its geography, the fight for the city centered around the forts of Malghera and Chioggia (the Forte di Brondolo). After Malghera was abandonned by the Venetians in May, the city  held out until August: when its people were forced to capitulate by a combination of disease and starvation.

With the fall of Venice, the First War of Italian Unification was over. 

Part 2: The Franco-Austrian War or Second War of Italian Unification (1859)      

Vittorio Emanuele II

Vittorio Emanuele II

Although soundly beaten in the First War of Italian Unification, the Sardinians under their new king Vittorio Emanuele and chief minister Camillo Cavour were still eager to evict the Austrians from their Italian provinces. They realised, however, that they could not defeat the mighty Austrian Empire on their own and therefore, in 1856, sent troops to fight in the Crimea allied to Britain and France. As a result, and also because of Napoleon III’s ambition, Cavour managed to persuade the French Emperor to agree to a Treaty of Defensive Alliance against the Austrians and, with this safely signed, set about provoking the Austrians to war.

This proved easy. Cavour put Piedmont on a war footing and called for volunteers to enlist in a new war of Italian liberation. The Austrians demanded that the Sardinians stand down and, when they refused, declared war on April 26th.

The Austrian plan was to use their superior forces (the Austrian 2nd Army was approximately 140,000 strong facing the 70,000 men of the entire Piedmontese army) to crush the Sardinians before the French could intervene. Unfortunately, the Austrian army had become a parade-ground army: led by men chosen by the Austrian Emperor Franz Josef for their social standing rather than their ability to fight. Under its commander Field Marshall Count von Ferenc Gyulai, and to the surprise of everyone, the 2nd Army advanced into Piedmont at a crawl and, rather than striking swiftly at Turin, took almost ten days to travel the fifty or so miles to be within reach of the Sardinian capital. There, now faced with reports of a combined Sardinian/French army massing to his southern flank, he lost his nerve, and retreated.

A skirmish at Montebello (May 20th) convinced Gyulai that the Allies would try to circle around him to the south and cut his lines of communication. He had, however, completely misread the situation. Napoleon III had joined the Allied army in early May, assumed personal command, and decided to circle north, rather than south, of the Austrians: using the railways to accomplish the rather tricky maneuver of shifting his entire army across the front of the enemy and cross the River Ticino near Novarro.

To cover this maneuver, he ordered the Sardinians to feint towards Palestro and there, at the end of May, when the Austrians responded with a reconnaissance in force, the first serious battle of the war was fought. Some 14,000 Austrians supported by 40 guns attacked a combined French/Sardinian force of 10,700 men and 18 guns: but were thrown back with heavy casualties. As a point of interest, Vittorio Emanuele, who had been watching the battle, was unable to restrain himself: and, as probably the last European monarch to do so, charged into battle at the head of his troops!

Gyulai, totally confused, retreated back across the river Ticino and dug in. Napoleon, now ready to complete his northern thrust, left most of his men on the Sardinian side of the river, and took 30,000 troops across the Ticino heading for the village of Magenta where he intended to establish a bridgehead. There, however, he ran into significant numbers of Austrians and, as both sides realised what was happening, a battle developed between Napoleon’s vanguard (desperate not to be cut off on the wrong side of the river) and the Austrians: with both sides calling up reinforcements as fast as possible.

Magenta was another victory for the Allies and, on June 6th, the Austrians abandoned Milan and retreated east. Another Allied victory at Melegnano kept them on the run until they arrived back in the Quadrilaterals.

Napoleon III

Napoleon III

From there, and reinforced from Vienna, the Austrians sortied out from Solferino to attack the Allied Army: assuming that it would be strung out in pursuit. Unfortunately, the Allies had moved quickly, and their whole army was closer than the Austrians thought. The Allies, however, thought that they were fighting only another Austrian rearguard.

The battle rapidly developed into a series of attacks and counter-attacks as the Austrians tried to crush the French right wing and ‘roll up’ the rest of their army, and the Allies tried to capture Solferino and pierce the Austrian centre. It ranged over an enormous area, some sixty square miles, with the Allies committing their forces to action as soon as they arrived on the field. Eventually, however, Napoleon committed the Imperial Guard, and the Austrians were driven back into the Quadrilaterals.

It had been, however, a bloody day:  with the Allies taking 17,000 casualties out of 137,000; and the Austrians taking 21,000 casualties out of 128,000. A young Swiss tourist, Henri Dunant wrote an account of his experiences of Solferino that directly led to the founding of the Red Cross.

Napoleon, too, had been badly affected by Solferino’s butcher’s bill. He signed an armistice with the Austrians without consulting his Sardinian allies: knowing that they could not continue the war on their own. Although furious with the French, Cavour had to agree but, by clever political maneuvering, managed to ensure that Sardinia absorbed Lombardy and the Duchies of Parma and Magenta (as the war continued, both had declared that they wished to join with Sardinia: with their Austrian-backed rulers fleeing in the face of bloodless, popular uprisings). The Unification of Italy had finally begun!

Postscript:  Garibaldi led a force of 3-4000 volunteers (the Cacciatori delle Alpi) against the Austrians throughout the war. He led the Sardinians into Lombardy and then, when the French arrived, regularly defeated Austrian forces on the far north of the main Allied army, so tying up large numbers of Austrian troops and protecting the Allied flank.

Part 3: Garibaldi’s Unification of Italy (1860)

At the end of the Second War of Italian Unification, Piedmont/Sardinia now controlled all of northern Italy except the region of Veneto, and its capital Venice, which were still controlled by the Austrians. See Map here. This left only the Papal States in the centre and the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies (ie Sicily and the Neapolitan mainland) to the South. Cavour and King Vittorio Emanuele were fully occupied in sorting out the aftermath of the war, but Garibaldi was still fanatically dedicated to the idea of fighting for a wholly unified Italy.

Over the preceding years, there had been various rebellions on the island of Sicily, but all had been put down by Neapolitan troops. The leaders of the rebel faction, knowing that Garibaldi was their only real hope, invited him to Sicily and, after some soul-searching as to what this would man to his relationship with the King, he agreed to lead an invasion.

Accordingly, on May 11th 1860, Garibaldi and his “Thousand Men” (actually 1049) landed at Marsala, and began marching inland towards the capital, Palermo. They defeated a force of some 2000 Neapolitan troops at Calatafirmi and, with numbers now swollen to over 3000 by Sicilian volunteers, arrived at Palermo on 26th May. Garibaldi attacked immediately: narrowly defeating the garrison of 15,000 Neapolitan troops largely due to the inactivity, indecisiveness and lack of willpower of the Neapolitan governor, Lanza. So narrow was the victory, in fact, that had Lanza delayed his request for a ceasefire by even one day, Garibaldi would probably have been forced to retreat from Palermo.

Garibaldi spent the next two months consolidating his hold on the island, winning a significant victory over the Neapolitans at Milazzo - a victory that finally broke the rest of the Sicilian-based Neapolitan army’s resolve - and preparing for an invasion of the mainland. This began on the night of August 18th/19th with an attack on the heavily defended town of Reggio Calabria, which fell despite stiff opposition from the Neapolitans. From there, Garaibaldi marched on Naples, which fell on 7th September after the King of Naples, Francis II, fled to the region surrounding Capua with his army of 50,000 men.

The Garibaldini followed and, after a heavy defeat at Caiazzo on 19th September without Garibaldi present, fought a great defensive battle at the river Volturno on 1st October with him there. This battle was Garibaldi at his absolute best: with him leading his 20,000 men to victory over the 30,000 Neapolitans facing them.

Meanwhile, Cavour and Vittorio Emanuele, determined not to lose their central role in the Unification, had invaded the Papal States from the north on 11th September. Two Sardinian columns, numbering in total about 33,000 men, struck at the forts of Ancona, Castelfidardo and Loreto: and heavily defeated an army of Papal volunteers (a mixed bag of Swiss and Austrians, with aristocratic French commanders) at Castelfidardo. From there, the Sardinians marched south into the Kingdom of Naples (fighting a small action against the Neapolitans at Macerone on October 20th): with the King and Garibaldi finally meeting on 26th October near Teano.  Garibaldi turned over Sicily and Naples to the King, and his army of “Red Shirts” was either disbanded or absorbed into the main Sardinian force.

The Sardinians then fought a series of small engagements against the remaining Neapolitan troops: eventually bottling them up in the fortress of Gaeta. There, on February 13th 1861, they surrendered, leaving all of Italy, save Veneto and the area immediately surrounding Rome (known as the Patrimony of St Peter), united under Vittorio Emanuele.

Part 4: The Austro-Prussian War and Third War of Italian Unification (1866)



Part of Bismark’s preparation for the Austro-Prussian War was a Prussian-Italian alliance aimed firmly at Austria. The Third War of Italian Unification began when Austria refused to allow Italy to buy Veneto from them, and, concerned about the Italian alliance with Prussia,  accused the Italians of strengthening their army in Lombardy. Both sides began to mobilise and, when the Prussians finally declared war on the Austrians on 16th June 1866, the Italians and followed suit.

Although the Italians outnumbered the Austrians about 250,000 to 190,000, this advantage was largely negated by the fact that the Austrians could fight defensively from behind the Quadrilateral forts and had a shorter supply chain through the valley of the Adige. This advantage was also greatly increased by the fact that the Italian army had no clear chain of unified command: Garibaldi unilaterally commanded 20,000 volunteers in the Alps to the north; and the main Italian army was split into two forces commanded by La Marmora and Cialdini, the latter being wildly jealous of the other and refusing to take direct orders. Add the intervention of Vittorio Emanuele, armchair strategist extraordinaire, and it is hardly surprising that no sensible line of attack could be decided upon.

The first fighting was at Custoza: where La Marmora allowed himself to get sucked into an unexpected battle fighting an Austrian force under Archduke Albrecht fighting from prepared positions on higher ground and with internal lines. Casualties were about even in this inconclusive fight; but La Marmora, lacking intelligence (of the military, not cerebral, sort), reacted as if the Italians had suffered a great defeat. This feeling spread throughout the army, and succeeded in demoralising the entire country!

The Austrians, however, did not follow up and, after their northern army was soundly defeated by the Prussians at Sadowa, recalled Albrecht and the bulk of his force to defend Austria itself. The Italians, with the main force now wholly under Cialdini, started forward again, bypassed the Quadrilaterals, and began to take Venetian cities behind them. Garaibaldi also managed to clear the Austrians from some of the Alpine valleys, although he was now leading his men from a carriage after taking a wound to his leg.

Unfortunately for the Italians, this was the high point of their campaign. They lost a naval battle at Lissa despite outnumbering the Austrians twelve ironclads to seven (the Austrians, under von Tegethoff, using the ram rather than their inferior guns) and, when the Prussians broke the terms of their Prussian-Italian alliance and signed a peace treaty with the Austrians, found themselves facing the entire Austrian army of some 300,000 troops!

An armistice was signed on 12th August which led to a treaty that gave Italy control of Veneto and recognition by Austria as a nation. The Third War of Italian Unification had led to political, if not military, gains.

Part 5:  Rome

Garibaldi was still, however, not content: the unification of Italy required Rome and the reduced Papal States. The Italian/Sardinian government, recognising that they did not have the backing of the European powers for an invasion, was content to try to negotiate themselves into Rome but, after a year of furious politiking, Garibaldi lost patience and led a volunteer army into the region.

Although the Garibaldini succeeded in capturing the Papal city of Moterotondo, he and his ten thousand volunteers then found themselves facing the Papal army of 15,000 and a newly-arrived French force landing at Civitavecchia, armed with new-fangled breech-loading rifles. Even worse, the Italian/Sardinian government had also announced that it would not tolerate this latest ‘rebellion’, and was planning to send Italian troops to arrest Garibaldi and the volunteers!

With men leaving his army in droves, Garibaldi fought a battle at Mentana: where his 4,000 remaining troops faced a combined Papal and French army of 9,000. Although Garibaldi tried his usually tactics of inspirational charges, the odds were too great, and the volunteers already too dispirited. After suffering a conclusive defeat, Garaibaldi and the survivors were forced to retreat back across the border: Garibaldi being arrested as he attempted to return home to Caprera.

Postscript:  Rome was eventually joined to Italy towards the end of the Franco-Prussian war. After the French defeat at Sedan, their troops in Rome were withdrawn to help defend Paris. The Italians ‘seized the day’, and sent an overwhelming force (30,000 plus artillery) into the Papal States and, after a short fight with the Papal army, Rome was formerly annexed to the Kingdom of Italy. The Risorgimento was over.

Wargaming the Risorgimento

As mentioned in the introduction, the Risorgimento is fertile ground for the wargamer! On a grand scale, it offers much scope for campaigns:

Geo-political: each player takes one of the key states (including Austria and France) in either 1848-59 or one of the two 1860 situations. There is plenty of room for political alliances, military campaigns and battles in both periods. Each player should have a detailed brief that includes who they are; the forces they have available (easily available from the titles in the bibliography); who their historical allies and enemies are; and an objective. A modern map of Italy can be used as the campaign area.

Grand Military: looking either at the First or Second War of Unification, the players re-fight the Po Valley campaigns. No politics, just out-and-out warfare! Small numbers of players could play the commanders of the Austrian and Sardinian armies (and French for the Second War); large numbers could play individual Corps commanders. Again, a modern map of Italy can be used (a tourist road map will suffice), and forces are available in some detail.

Military: the obvious campaigns here are Garibaldi’s invasion of Sicily, and then his invasion of the mainland and the fall of Naples. The Sicily campaign is particularly appropriate for this: as it includes a small, water-surrounded arena and the forces available to both sides are fairly clearly detailed in the many campaign histories. The Neapolitan player(s) will need to be severely hampered in what they can or cannot do as, as I hope is obvious from the description above, if they had ever got their act together, they could have easily defeated the Thousand, Garibaldi or no Garibaldi.

The Risorgimento also offers great scope for both tabletop battles and skirmishes. Palestro; Magenta; Solferino; and Custoza, in particular, offer encounters between very manageable forces that are, really, quite homogenous in terms of equipment and quality. No Needle Gun verses muzzle-loader massacres here! The armies are also colorful and fun to paint: white-coated Austrians verses multi-colored Italians and French. Orders of battle and terrain are easy to research (the Ulster Imports books give both). A Sardinian/Russian encounter also offers and interesting Crimean War alternative.

Skirmish-wise, I can think of nothing better than a fight involving Garibaldini. They could fight Austrians Jaegers in the snow, Neapolitans in the fields, or the French in a Roman streetfight. Garibaldi should, of course, be indestructable...a real Captain Scarlet!


The Red Shirt and the Cross of Savoy by George Martin (Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1970)

Red Shirts by Luigi Casali (Ulster Imports, 1989)

The Second Italian War of Independence by Luigi Casali (Ulster Imports)

Garibaldi and his Enemies by Christopher Hibbert (Penguin, 1987)