On 24 June 1859, Solferino — the bloodiest, most horrific battle that Europe had seen or would see between 1813 and 1914 — was fought. Not even Waterloo compared in terms of the numbers of casulties incurred. Improbably fought in the incredibly beautiful area just south of Italy’s splendid Lake Garda, the Battle of Solferino was the largest gathering of troops upon the European continent since the Napoleonic Battle of Leipzig, at which some 500,000 troops clashed. Waterloo was far smaller: perhaps 170,000 troops fought there. Solferino, at which some 220,000 troops clashed, was the largest, deadliest battlefield conflict Europe would see until 1914 with the battle of the Marne, where some 2.5 million troops would be engaged, and unimaginably, more than 100,000 soldiers died.
The Battle of Solferino was a major part of the Risorgimento, the resurgance of Italy as a nation. Italy had been fragmented into numerous contending states since the Fall of Rome; by the mid 19th Century, there was widespread sentiment that Italy, too, along with other major European powers, should be a unified nation. However, major European powers had divided and conflicting interests in Italian unification. Austria-Hungary under the young Emperor Franz-Josef, had laid claim to Lombardo-Venetia (the provinces of Venice and Lombardy) and had no interest in reuniting these provinces with the proposed Italian State.
Conversely, the King of Sardinia – a small Island whose royal house became claimants to the throne of Italy – with the support of France in the person of Louis Napoleon, by this time known as Napoleon III, had determined the thwart any Austrian attempts to prevent Italian reunification. France wanted to humble Austria, and to gain influence with a newly unified Italy.
Solferino is not so much remembered today. Yet it is certainly notable in the fact that it is the last battle in human history at which the Kings of the combatant states led the battle: young Franz Josef of Austria determined to lead his troops, and so did Vittorio Emmanuale II of sardenia in conjunction with Napoleon III of France. The Battle of Solferino is, therefore, sometimes known as “The Battle of the Three Kings.”
In a world where battlefield deaths have been reckoned in the tens of thousands, Solferino’s toll of some 6,000 dead seems slight. The battle had a more grisly toll of perhaps 35,000 wounded or missing, but it is the aftermath of the battle which truly merits its mention.
One aspect of the fierce battle is that an observer from the United States Army, cavalryman Philip Kearny, later a famous Union General during the Civil War, took active part. Indeed, Kearny, who fought as an observer with the French General Staff, was described as “charging with the reins in his teeth and a sword in each hand,” (impossible, actually, as Kearny had lost an arm in the Mexican-American War in 1846) as he faced-down the Austrian forces. Kearny fought with such distinction that Napoleon III awarded him the Legion d’Honneur – France’s highest award – making Kearny the first American to receive the honor. (Kearny Street in San Francisco, however, is named for his uncle, General Stephen Kearny.)
The practical aftermath of solferino was that France gave up on intervening in Italian affairs, concludng a separate peace with Austria in which Austria ceded Lomabardy to “Italy” but retained control of Venetia, the mainland region around Venice. Another result was a deep-seated Italian mistrust of French political promises. The longest-reaching effect, perhaps, was the impact of the battle upon one observer, Henri Dunant, Swiss businessman.
Dunant was, apparently, only by chance near Solferino that fateful day, but he felt compelled to act. He immediately began to round up resources to care for the wounded and dying. Dunant possesed a persuasive manner and was able to impress local people – depsite their partisan status – to help the wounded. And so they did. Bit by bit, in the days following the battle, Dunant saw the relief of the grotesque sufferings of the wounded. In the wake of an overwhelmingly positive reponse to the good deeds Dunant coordinated at Solfrino, much of Europe cried for more of Dunant’s sort of work. Accordingly, Dunant decided to found an International society to provide aid and relief to the suffering in battle. His ideas formed the basis for the International Red Cross.
Dunant invested his time and fortune into the creation of the Red Cross, but he was marginalized in the effort in part because he was deemed too idealistic. As things developed, Dunant languished even as his ideas took root and flourished. It was not until much later, in 1901, that Dunant was truly and properly recognized for his achievements; he was the first recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize:
“There is no man who more deserves this honour, for it was you, forty years ago, who set on foot the international organization for the relief of the wounded on the battlefield. Without you, the Red Cross, the supreme humanitarian achievement of the nineteenth century would probably have never been undertaken.”
Of additional note for this battle must be this: this was the first large-scale armed conflict where the newly issued “Minie Balls” had an impact. The “Minie Ball” was not a musket “ball” at all: it was an immense innovation above its predecessors: a lead projectile that could hit its target! It was a recognizably modern bullet!!!
The Minie Ball dominated conflicts during the American Civil War, and excavations of Civil War battlefields yield hundreds of pounds of these projectiles every year. What made the Minie bullet so effective was that it was designed to easily “take” the rifling of a musket barrel which improved accuracy at least three-fold. Smooth-bore muskets indeed used spherical balls which traveled through the air rather like a pitcher’s knuckleball; after about 100 yards, hitting one’s target was pure chance. The Minie design allowed the bullet to develop spin as it traveled down the barrel of the musket. This tripled the projectile’s range and greatly improved its accuracy with inescapably devastating effect upon troops facing a volley of musket fire.
One reason for the horrific casualties at Solferino, and the even greater and more hideous casualty figures from Civil War battles is this vast improvement in firearm technology. Unfortunately, at Solferino, and throughout the American Civil War, generals and strategic planners who had grown up with smooth-bore muskets, and who had studied almost three hundred years of standard firearm practice never really digested the impact of this new technology. Even at the end of the Civil War, troops were sent to charge directly into massed musket fire with predictable, deadly results.
Unaccountably, as late as 1917, European generals were still applying Napoleonic tactical convention to the battlefield, while rates, range, and accuracy of firepower had increased vastly from the day of the Minie ball. Battlefield casualties in World War One were staggering as a result. At least there was a well-organized Red Cross to aid the wounded. One result of Solferino made a lasting and positive difference.
Flower Mound, Texas
Are we doomed to it, Lord,
chained to the pendulum of our own mad clockwork,
helpless to halt its swing?
— Walter Miller, “A Canticle For Leibowitz”
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