In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Mid-Nineteenth-Century European Wars

  • Introduction
  • European Wars at Midcentury
  • Armies
  • Navies
  • First War of Italian Unification (1848)
  • The Crimean War (1853–1856)
  • The Third and Fourth Wars of Italian Unification (1866 and 1870)

Military History Mid-Nineteenth-Century European Wars
Frederick C. Schneid
  • LAST REVIEWED: 19 July 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 21 November 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791279-0043


Wars in the mid-19th century reflected the changing nature of European society, politics, and economy. The Napoleonic Wars led to an understanding by the major European powers that a general European conflict should be avoided at all costs. The principles accepted at the Congress of Vienna formed the foundation of 19th-century diplomacy. This was particularly so through 1848. Revolutions became the greatest threat to European peace, and military interventions to suppress or prevent the exportation of revolution abounded between 1820 and 1849. Thereafter the origins and course of the Crimean War offered the first major crisis, which threatened to expand into a general European war. The Risorgimento, the movement for Italian unification, failed as a revolutionary idea, but its acceptance by the House of Savoy, the rulers of the Kingdom of Piedmont-Sardinia, became the basis of active diplomacy to force Austria from its Italian possessions. The First War of Italian Unification (1848–1849) began with promise, but the skill of the local Austrian commander in Lombardy-Venetia and the ill-coordinated Italian efforts doomed the campaign of 1848 and the foolhardiness of 1849. Although the war failed to eject Austria from northern Italy, Giuseppe Garibaldi’s reputation as a determined Italian nationalist soared. During the Second War of Italian Unification (1859–1861), a coordinated effort by Count Camillo Benso di Cavour, Napoléon III, and Garibaldi succeeded in bringing much of the peninsula under the Savoyard banner. The war in 1859, followed by the Garibaldian and Piedmontese campaigns in 1860, succeeded in establishing a Kingdom of Italy. The Third War of Unification (1866) was tied directly to Prussia’s bid for supremacy in Germany, and while the Austrians defeated the Italian army in Venetia, Prussia’s victory in Bohemia led to the eventual transfer of that Habsburg-controlled kingdom to Italy. Most notably, the wars of the mid-19th century witnessed the employment of modes of transportation and weaponry that were direct products of the Industrial Revolution. Trains, steam-powered navies, the telegraph, percussion-cap rifled muskets using the minié ball, and rifled artillery all played a central role in the conduct and course of war.

European Wars at Midcentury

The military history of Europe during the 19th century is ground well trodden at the chronological ends, the Napoleonic Wars (1800–1815) at one end and the Wars of German Unification (1864–1871) and Wars of Imperialism at the other. Nevertheless, there is a shortage of European military histories that address the wider developments of war in the 19th century. The most cogently written is Black 2009. McNeill 1984, a classic history of technology and war, remains vital for 19th-century military developments. For more specialized works relating to the two primary conflicts of midcentury, the Wars of Italian Unification and the Crimean War, there are fewer. The latter war has a significant literature, but an excellent general work is Goldfrank 1994. Goldfrank’s book is part of a significant series on the origins of wars in which Coppa 1992 addresses the Wars of Italian Unification. Perhaps the best general military history of the Risorgimento is Pieri 1962, followed by the most comprehensive military history of the Kingdom of Piedmont-Sardinia, Paoletti 2011. An important overview of Habsburg strategy in Italy at this time is Wawro 1996.

  • Black, Jeremy. War in the 19th Century, 1800–1914. Cambridge, UK: Polity, 2009.

    An eminently readable account of the transformation of war during the age of the Industrial Revolution, it should be consulted by those unfamiliar with the nature of war in the industrial age.

  • Coppa, Frank J. The Origins of the Italian Wars of Independence. London: Longman, 1992.

    This history is a concise one-volume examination of the complicated interplay of European and Italian politics of the Risorgimento.

  • Goldfrank, David M. The Origins of the Crimean War. London: Longman, 1994.

    The author provides a well-thought-out diplomatic and domestic history of the participants; its perspective provides a broader view of the origins and scope of the Crimean War.

  • McNeill, William H. The Pursuit of Power: Technology, Armed Forces, and Society since AD 1000. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984.

    Although there are quite a number of books on technology and war, McNeill’s is perhaps the most insightful. The chapters on war in the industrial age will be critically important for getting one’s feet wet in the subject of war at midcentury.

  • Paoletti, Ciro. Dal Ducato al Unità: Tre secoli e mezzo di storia militare piemontese. Rome: Ufficio Storico Stato Maggiore dell Esercito, 2011.

    Paoletti’s three-volume military history of the Kingdom of Piedmont-Sardinia is well researched, and the volume covering 1815–1861 provides a comprehensive narrative. It examines the evolution of Piedmontese military power and places the Risorgimento in the context of the kingdom’s military history.

  • Pieri, Piero. Storia militare del Risorgimento: Guerre e insurrezioni. Turin, Italy: Einaudi, 1962.

    Pieri’s classic military history of the Risorgimento must be consulted before embarking on detailed studies. Pieri’s narrative is smooth and his discussion of events clear. It should be a foundation for further research.

  • Wawro, Geoffrey. “Austria versus the Risorgimento: A New Look at Austria’s Italian Strategy in the 1860s.” European History Quarterly 26 (October 1996): 7–29.

    DOI: 10.1177/026569149602600102

    The author is the expert on 19th-century Habsburg and German military history. His research is based on archival material and is absolutely necessary for research on this period.

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