Fighting At Last (May 1859)

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The City of Washington, which sailed from Liverpool on the 25th ult., and passed Cape Race on Thursday evening last, brings intelligence of more than usual interest from the seat of war[1]. The movement of retreat on the part of the Austrians, and the allied advance for the reoccupation of the Lomellina, has decidedly commenced, though it does not seem to be progressing with great rapidity, since the Austrian headquarters, which had been removed to Garlasco, a farm near the Ticino, on the road from Vigevano to Groppello, on the 19th, were still there on the 24th. On the south of the Po, however, a conflict has taken place at Montebello, a small town on the road from Stradella to Voghera, between a body of Stadion's corps and the advanced guard of Baraguay d'Hilliers, in which, according to their own account, the allies had decidedly the advantage. Our reports of this affair are as yet necessarily of the briefest. The French say[2] that Forey's division, 6,000 to 7,000 strong (its full strength is 10,000), with a regiment of Piedmontese cavalry, engaged an Austrian force, 15,000 strong, or the half of Stadion's entire corps, and that after four hours hard fighting they were repulsed with a loss of 1,500 to 2,000 killed and wounded and 200 prisoners, some of whom have already arrived at Marseilles, while the allied loss was only from 600 to 700. However, the defeat of the Austrians was not so decisive as to allow the allies to pursue the retreating enemy. According to the Austrian version[3], Stadion had sent a body of troops across the Po to reconnoiter. They had advanced toward Voghera as far as Montebello, when they encountered a superior French force, and, after a hot fight, retired in good order behind the Po. This discrepancy in the reports is not unnatural considering the exaggerations which always occur in such matters in the absence of positive official figures. We must wait for more precise intelligence before we can judge as to the importance and real features of the fight. At any rate, however, it was merely a set-to of outposts, and not a great field-day in which the strength of the opposing armies and the capacity' of the generals is really tested.

While the second act of the drama has thus fairly commenced, the materials for a critical examination of the operations during the first act have received a very valuable addition in the letters of the correspondents of the London Times[4] and the Augsburg Gazette[5] at the Austrian headquarters. But for these we should be obliged to judge of the Austrian maneuvers by the Piedmontese bulletins, which, as a matter of course, were not intended to report the whole truth in the premises; and by the Austrian bulletins, which have scarcely reported anything at all. To fill up the many deficiencies, we had at first nothing but the contradictory rumors and surmises afloat among the officers and newspaper correspondents now in Piedmont—rumors the credibility of which was very slender indeed. And, as the Austrians had taken the initiative of the campaign, and up to their withdrawal from Vercelli had maintained it, the Allies preserving a comparatively passive attitude, the interest centered in that army of which we had no information at all, or, at the best, but negative information. It is not, therefore, to be wondered that, in matters of detail, we have been led into conclusions which are not now borne out by fact. It is more wonderful, on the contrary, that we should, on the whole, have had the good luck to guess correctly the main features of the campaign. There is only one important point in which we have differed from what is now stated to have been the original plan of the Austrians; but, whether this plan was distinctly traced from the beginning, as it is now said to have been, or whether the present "original plan" is but an afterthought, is still a question.

We thought when the first news of the invasion of Piedmont by the Austrians reached us, that their intention was still, as it evidently had been all along, to fall by a rapid march on the Piedmontese army and French vanguard before the body of the French had time to arrive. We are now informed that this idea had previously been given up. The Austrians appear to have been under the impression that the French began to enter the Piedmontese territory on the 24th; and, although no French regiment put a foot on Piedmontese ground before the 26th, this false report may indeed have induced them to abandon all attempts at a coup de main against whatever troops might be in front of them. Consequently, the invasion lost that character of rapidity with which the pursuit of the larger object would have invested it. It was merely a commencement of hostilities, ordered by the Emperor, and with no further object than to occupy part of the hostile territory, to make its resources available for the invaders, and to deprive the defending army of the use of these resources. If this was the object, it was pretty evident that the invasion must halt at the Sesia and Po, at Vercelli and Valenza. This being the case, no hurry was required. Methodically, slowly and surely, the Austrian army marched into the Piedmontese territory. There was another point which had great influence on this mode of action. The Austrians moved by the two main roads which lead from east to west through the Lomellina; the one from Pavia to Valenza, the other from Abbiategrasso to Vigevano and Casale. The northern road, from Boffalora to Vercelli, was not used by them at all. Both these roads are intersected by numerous rivers running from north-west to south-east, two of which, the Terdoppio and Agogna, are of some importance. The bridges being destroyed, the roads broken up in many places, while the lowlands to the right and left of the roads were either inundated or soaked with water, the advance was much retarded, and the whole of the army, 150,000 to 180,000 men, had to march on these two roads. Accordingly, we are not now astonished to learn that the last corps of the Austrian army crossed the Ticino not earlier than the 1st of May; for a corps of 30,000 to 35,000 men, marching on one single road, with its baggage and train, will take up a length of at least 12 to 15 miles, or a day's march; and as three corps marched on the road from Pavia to Casale, it follows that the third of these corps passed the Ticino, at Pavia, two days after the first.

The advanced guard passed on the 29th at Pavia; this was a brigade of the 5th corps under Gen. Festetics. It was followed by the whole of the 3d corps (Schwarzenberg) advancing to Groppello; on the same day another corps, the 7th (Gen. Zobel), passed further north at Bereguardo and went to Gambolò. On the 30th the 8th corps (Benedek) followed the 3d at Pavia, and the 5th (Stadion) followed the 7th at Bereguardo. On the 1st of May, the 2d corps (Liechtenstein) passed at Pavia. In this formation, the 7th corps forming the extreme right, the 5th, 3d and 2d forming the center, and the 8th the extreme left, the army passed first the Terdoppio, then the Agogna, and finally appeared about the evening of the 2d before the Po and Sesia. From this we see that the Piedmontese reports about large bodies of troops passing at Boffalora and Arona, were completely in error (a fact which Garibaldi's unopposed advance to Gravellona, on Lake Maggiore, fully confirms), and that they were equally wrong in supposing Gen. Benedek with the 8th corps to have issued from Piacenza and marched, in an isolated column, along the southern bank of the Po[6] The Austrians marched, on the contrary, on as narrow a front (of twelve miles) as an army of 150,000 men ever march. They kept together as closely and methodically as possible, having but a few flying columns on their flanks about Novara, Arona and the southern side of the Po. Now this very methodical march seems to us to prove that every idea of an attack upon the Piedmontese had not been given up. The enemy being notoriously incapable of offering serious resistance before his line of defense was reached, it would have been, but for this idea, subjecting the troops to unnecessary fatigue and hardships to confine them to such a narrow space. The road to Novara might have been used without detriment and to immense advantage, Vercelli being, under all circumstances, one of the necessary objects of a mere occupation of the Lomellina and Novarese. That this advantage was neglected, seems to us a certain proof that a hope was still lingering in the Austrian headquarters of finding a chance to attack, with superior strength and under favorable circumstances, the hostile forces about Casale or Alessandria. A coup de main against Novi (the nucleus of the railway connection between Genoa, Alessandria and Stradella) appears certainly to have been under consideration. To effect this, the bridge at Cornale was thrown across the Po during the night of the 3d, and Gen. Benedek passed over with his 8th corps. He behaved with great activity; in less than twelve hours he occupied Voghera, Castelnuovo della Scrivia and Tortona, destroyed the railway bridges; and would very likely have ventured on toward Novi, had not the rains and the sudden rise of the Po, which partly destroyed his bridge, compelled him to retreat in order to keep his communication with the main army. The bridge was. restored, and the whole of the Austrian force was again concentrated on the northern bank of the Po. The weather rendered a stay in the inundated lowlands of the Po impossible; consequently, the army took up a position further north, between Garlasco, Mortara and Vercelli, profiting by the proximity of the main forces to the Sesia, to reconnoiter and forage in the district west of that river. This they accomplished without finding any resistance worth speaking of; and on the 9th abandoned the western bank of the Sesia except Vercelli, removing their headquarters to Mortara, where they remained as we have said, till the 19th. While at Belgiojoso they threw a bridge across the Po, near the mouth of the Ticino, and a corps—it is not known how strong or how composed—occupied the position of Stradella, and foraged the districts of Southern Piedmont, adjoining the duchy of Parma. We suspect that this was the corps with which Forey had the battle at Montebello. But on this point we must wait for more positive information. The Sardinians are apparently on the point of experiencing the full delights of the French alliance. Their army is to be cut up; instead of forming a separate corps, and earning its own glory, each of its five divisions is to be made an appendix to one of the five French army corps, in which, of course, it will be completely merged, so that all the generalship and all the glory will belong to the French exclusively. Genoa, forts and all, has already passed completely into the possession of the French; and now the Sardinian army will cease to exist, except as a sort of appendix to the French. The Napoleonic liberation of Italy is indeed beginning to dawn. Though there is nothing surprising or improbable in the charges of brutal atrocity and plundering in the Lomellina, which the Sardinians bring against the Austrians, it is but just to say that the correspondence of the London Times[7] and the Augsburg Gazette[8], from the Austrian headquarters, casts a different light on .the matter. According to these authorities, the hatred of the peasantry in the Lomellina, as well as in Lombardy, against the landlords far exceeds their aversion against the foreign oppressor. Now, the landlords of the Lomellina (formerly an Austrian province) are mostly sudditi misti, mixed subjects, belonging to Austria as well as to Piedmont. All the great nobles of Milan have large possessions in the Lomellina. They are Piedmontese, and anti-Austrian at heart; and, by contrast, the peasantry of the province rather lean toward Austria. This is proved by the cordial reception the Austrians have found in the Lomellina, and it would appear that their requisitions and exactions have been as much as possible confined to the property of the nobles, and to the towns, the seats of Italian patriotism, while the peasantry have been as much as possible spared. This policy is essentially Austrian, and has been so ever since 1846[9]; and it explains at once the outcry made in the Piedmontese press about requisitions which do not exceed, after all, what is customary in modern warfare, and do not reach what French troops have been in the habit of exacting.

  1. This sentence is inserted by the editors of the New York Daily Tribune.—Ed.
  2. The report from Alessandria of May 21, 1859, Le Moniteur universel, No. 142, May 22, 1859.—Ed.
  3. The report from Vienna of May 22, 1859, The Times, No. 23313, May 23, 1859.—Ed.
  4. "The Austrian Army in Piedmont", The Times, No. 23313, May 23, 1859.—Ed.
  5. "Von der österreichischen Armee in Italien. Mortara, 16. Mai", Augsburg Allgemeine Zeitung, No. 144, May 24, 1859.—Ed.
  6. See "Bulletin officiel de la guerre: N° 2. Turin, 30 avril au matin", Le Moniteur universel, No. 124, May 4, 1859; The Times, No. 23295, May 2, 1859; Neue Preussische Zeitung, No. 107, May 8, 1859.—Ed.
  7. "The Austrian Army in Piedmont", The Times, No. 23309, May 18, 1859.—Ed.
  8. "Von der österreichischen Armee in Italien, Lomello, 3. Mai," Augsburg Allgemeine Zeitung, No. 131, May 11, 1859.—Ed.
  9. The reference is to the policy of the Austrian ruling circles during a big peasant uprising in Galicia in February and March 1846 which coincided with the Cracow national liberation uprising (*). Taking advantage of class and national contradictions, the Austrian authorities provoked clashes between the insurgent Galician peasants and the Polish lesser nobility (szlachta) who were trying to come to the assistance of Cracow. The peasant uprising began with the disarming of the insurgent szlachta detachments, and grew into a mass sacking of landowners' estates. After dealing with the insurgent szlachta, the Austrian Government also suppressed the peasant uprising in Galicia.

    (*) The reference is to the national liberation and anti-feudal uprising in the city of Cracow, which had been under the joint control of Austria, Russia and Prussia since 1815. The insurgents seized power on February 22, 1846 and set up a National Government, which issued a manifesto abolishing feudal services. The uprising was put down in early March 1846. In November 1846, Austria, Prussia and Russia signed a treaty incorporating Cracow in the Austrian Empire.