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Progress of The War

Frederick Engels

As yet the glory of the war has been carried off by Garibaldi, who certainly does not seem afraid of that dash, which Napoleon III warns his soldiers not to indulge in. All of a sudden this volunteer leader has made himself the hero of Italy, though on this side of the Atlantic the Bonapartist press attempt to monopolize the credit of his exploits for their own great champion. But the laurels of the partisan general seem to have roused a spirit of emulation in the breast of Victor Emmanuel; and hence the battle of Palestro, of which we have unfortunately as yet received only telegraphic reports, and those from the-Sardinian camp alone.

It seems, according to these[a], that the Piedmontese 4th division, under Cialdini, which had some days previously passed the Sesia near Vercelli, and had spent the subsequent time in petty skirmishes with the Austrian outposts, attacked the enemy's entrenched position at Palestro, Vinzaglio, and Confienza on the 30th of May. They defeated the brigade which occupied it (very likely Gen. Gablenz's), but on the next morning (31st) it is reported that a body of 25,000 Austrians tried to retake the position. They attempted to turn the Piedmontese right flank, by which they offered their own flank to Gen. Canrobert's corps (Trochu's division), which had thrown a bridge across the Sesia and was just coming up. The Emperor at once ordered the 3d Zouaves to the support of the Piedmontese. They attacked, "although unsupported," an Austrian battery, took the six guns, and drove the covering party into a canal, where 400 of them are said to have been drowned. The King of Sardinia was in the thickest of the fight, and so bent upon slaughtering the enemy that "the Zouaves tried to restrain his ardor, but in vain"[b]. The Zouaves were led, it is said, by Gen. Cialdini in person. Finally, the Austrians were driven back, leaving in the hands of the Allies 1,000 prisoners and eight guns.

"The loss of the Austrians," say the Piedmontese, "was very great; that of our own troops is not yet known."[c]

At the same time, a separate struggle was going on at Confienza, in which the enemy was defeated by the division of Gen. Fanti. About 6 o'clock in the evening, however, the Austrians again attempted an attack on Palestro, but with no better success. On the 1st of June, Gen. Niel, with the French fourth corps, entered Novara, as it appears, without finding any resistance.

A more confused and contradictory account of a battle it has not been our lot to read since the peace of 1849 returned the spada d'Italia into the scabbard[296]; and yet in our résumé of it we have omitted some of the most inexplicable features. The Austrians attack with 25,000 men; are these all sent against Palestro, or do they comprise the troops beaten by Fanti at Confienza? As the strength of these is not stated separately, we shall certainly be on the right side, considering the extraordinary veracity of the Piedmontese bulletins, if we conclude that the whole of the Austrians engaged on the 31st were about 25,000. What the forces were which defeated them we shall see by and by. When the Piedmontese are in danger, the Emperor orders the 3d Zouaves to advance. Cialdini leads them, and the King presses forward among them where the fight was most furious, the Zouaves trying in vain to restrain him.

An admirable picture! How beautifully the parts are distributed! Louis Napoleon, "the Emperor," orders the Zouaves to advance. Cialdini, the General, and a Piedmontese, too, leads them on—a Piedmontese leading French Zouaves! "The King" rushes among them, and fights under the orders of his own General where the fight is thickest. But we are also told that the King commanded the fourth Piedmontese division, that is, Cialdini's, in person. What may have become of the fourth division while Cialdini led on the Zouaves, and the King rushed into the thickest of the fight, we shall, perhaps, never learn. But this does not surprise us in Victor Emmanuel. At the fatal battle of Novara, he committed equal freaks of childishness, neglected his division, and contributed not a little to the loss of the battle, and the triumph of Radetzky.

From this confused account of an engagement, the real nature of which will not be revealed until we get the official reports of the French and Austrians, we may, however, glean a few useful facts. The extreme left wing of the Allies had been held, hitherto, by the French corps of Gen. Niel; he stood on the Dora Baltea west of Vercelli. Next in order came the two Piedmontese divisions of Cialdini and Durando (4th and 3d) at Casale. At Alessandria and Valenza were the Piedmontese divisions of Castelborgo (1st) and Fanti (2d), the French corps of McMahon, Canrobert and the Guards, forming the center. East of Alessandria, at Tortona, Novi, Voghera, were the Piedmontese 5th division of Cucchiari and the French corps of Baraguay d'Hilliers.

Now, we find engaged at Palestro and Confienza (these places are scarcely three miles from each other), not only Cialdini but Fanti; and though nothing is said of Niel, yet we find Canrobert there. We also find there the 3d regiment of Zouaves, which does not belong to Canrobert's, nor indeed to any of the other three French corps. Finally, we hear that Louis Napoleon has moved his headquarters to Vercelli, and that Gen. Niel occupied Novara the day after the battle. This shows a decided alteration in the disposition of the allied army. The left wing, formerly composed of Niel's corps, 26 battalions, and Cialdini's division, 14 battalions, in all 40 battalions, has now been reinforced by Canrobert's corps of 39 battalions and Fanti's division of 14, making together 53 battalions, and raising the total of that part of the allied army to 93 battalions in all. Of these, the two Piedmontese divisions, 28 battalions, and Trochu's division of Canrobert's corps, 13 battalions, in all 25,000 Piedmontese and at least 11,000 Frenchmen were, confessedly, more or less engaged in the action of Palestro. The repulse of the 25,000 Austrians is thus accounted for.

But this reenforcing of the left wing has evidently been undertaken with an ulterior object; Niel's advance upon Novara proves it; and so does the removal of Louis Napoleon's head-quarters to Vercelli. The additional probability that the Guard has followed him there, leaves little doubt as to the intentions of the Allies. The Guard increases the force on the Sesia to 127 battalions in all; and by means of the railway, as at Montebello, troops may soon be brought up from the extreme right, and be in time to participate in a general action. There will, then, remain two eventualities. Either Louis Napoleon will follow up the movement which has now begun, by entirely turning the Austrian right, and placing the main body of his army in the direct road from Vercelli to Milan, on the line of Vercelli and Novara, at the same time occupying the Austrians by demonstrations on the line of the Po. Or, while demonstrating strongly on the Austrian right, he will concentrate his main forces about Valenza, where Baraguay, McMahon and the Guards count 99 battalions, and Cucchiari, Durando and Castelborgo 42 battalions, to be reenforced by a quick removal of Canrobert's corps and some Piedmontese to the same quarter, by which 170 battalions might be united on one point, and fall upon the Austrian center with the intention of breaking it.

The ostentation with which Canrobert's corps (of which after all but Trochu's division may be there) .and Fanti's Piedmontese are paraded on the Sesia, while Louis Napoleon removes his headquarters with similar ostentation to Vercelli, would seem to speak for the second alternative; but it is impossible to do more than guess.

In the mean time, the Austrians are apparently still on the Agogna, though their retreat across the Ticino is reported in the London Daily News. Their troops are getting more and more concentrated on a small space around Garlasco. They put a feeler out, now and then, such as the one at Montebello and the other at Palestro, but take care not to scatter themselves. They are at least six army-corps strong from 160 to 200 battalions (varying according to what may have been detached for garrisons). The forces seem pretty equally balanced. A few days, and the clouds must discharge whatever thunderbolts they hold suspended.

Written on June 2, 1859
First published in the New-York Daily Tribune, No. 5665 (as a leading article)
and in the New-York Semi-Weekly Tribune, No. 1467, June 17, 1859
Reproduced from the New-York Daily Tribune


[a] "Bulletin officiel de la guerre: N° 61, Turin, 31 mai soir" and "N° 62, Turin, 1-er juin matin", Le Moniteur universel, No. 155, June 4, 1859.—Ed.

[b] "The Battles of Palestro", The Times, No. 23322, June 2, 1859.—Ed.

[c] "Bulletin officiel de la guerre: N° 60, Turin, 31 mai an matin", Le Moniteur universel, No. 154, June 3, 1859.—Ed.

[296] Engels is referring to the reports on the battle of Novara on March 23, 1849, which he analysed in a series of articles entitled "The Defeat of the Piedmontese" (present edition, Vol. 9, pp. 169-77). One of the causes of the defeat of the Piedmontese at Novara was the cowardly behaviour of Charles Albert, King of Sardinia and Piedmont, whose "valour" had been lauded up to then by monarchist circles, advocates of Italy's unification under the Savoy dynasty, who even named him "spada d'Italia" ("Italy's Sword"). After the abdication of Charles Albert his son Victor Emmanuel, the new King, concluded a peace treaty with the Austrians in Milan in August 1849, under which Austria retained all its possessions in Italy and was paid by Piedmont indemnities amounting to 65 million francs.

Source: Marx and Engels Collected Works, Volume 16 (pp.360-363), Progress Publishers, Moscow 1980
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