Military history



Giuseppe Garibaldi and the Struggle for
Italian Unification, 1833–1872

ANOTHER NATION THAT managed to win its freedom and unity was Italy, which before the 1860s had been divided into eight different states dominated by Austria. Its unification was only partially the result of a guerrilla war, but it would give rise to the most famous guerrilla leader of the nineteenth century—one who would remain a prototype for self-styled freedom fighters up to the present day.

It is an oddity of history that many ardent nationalists were not born on the soil of the nation they championed. Napoleon was born in Corsica, not France; Helmuth von Moltke the Elder in the duchy of Mecklenburg-Schwerin, not Prussia; Stalin in Georgia, not Russia; Hitler in Austria, not Germany. Likewise Giuseppe Garibaldi, who would become Italy’s leading nationalist, was born in Nice—a city that, at the time of his birth (1807), was occupied by France. After Napoleon’s defeat, when Garibaldi was eight, Nice reverted to the kingdom of Piedmont-Sardinia, but it would once again become a part of France in 1860, where it has remained ever since. Garibaldi, born to a poor family of sailors and fishermen, grew up fluent in both French and Italian, yet he always thought of himself as Italian.140

He went to sea as a cabin boy at sixteen and spent the next decade plying the waters of the Mediterranean. In 1833, when he was twenty-six, inflamed by “a passionate love of [his] country . . . [as he later wrote] and burning with indignation against her oppressors,”141 this self-educated sailor joined Young Italy, a secret society founded by another Giuseppe, who was just two years older—the lawyer and propagandist Giuseppe Mazzini, a native of Genoa who was determined to unify the Italian peninsula into one nation-state for the first time in its long history.

Dubbed by Prince Metternich of Austria “the most dangerous man in Europe,” Mazzini would inspire liberal revolutionaries across the Continent much as Marx and Engels would later inspire communists. Young Italy would be joined by Young France, Young Austria, and other republican societies, all coordinated by Young Europe. Mazzini believed, “Insurrection—by means of guerrilla bands—is the true method of warfare for all nations desirous of emancipating themselves from a foreign yoke. . . . It is invincible, indestructible.” He even published in 1832 an early guerrilla manual, Rules for the Conduct of Guerrilla Bands, which in many ways anticipated the writings of Mao Zedong. “Guerrilla war is a war of judicious daring and audacity, active legs, and espionage . . . ,” he wrote. “The greatest merit in the commander of regular troops is to know when to fight and conquer; the greatest merit of the guerrilla chief is to contrive constantly to attack, do mischief, and retire.”142

However sensible his advice, Mazzini was more adept with a pen than a gun, more comfortable in a book-lined study than on a blood-drenched battlefield. The plots that he tried to carry out personally ended in tragedy or farce. Garibaldi discovered that for himself in 1834 when he was assigned to infiltrate the Royal Sardinian Navy to incite a mutiny among its sailors. Mazzini and other exiles were supposed to invade Piedmont from Switzerland to coincide with this sailors’ revolt, but the plot fizzled out after Mazzini literally lost his way. Garibaldi, facing a death sentence, was forced to seek refuge in South America.

After trying unsuccessfully to pursue commercial enterprises such as selling macaroni, Garibaldi decided he was “destined for greater things.”143 In 1837 he found his true calling as a soldier when he enlisted on behalf of Rio Grande do Sul, a province trying to break away from Brazil. In 1842 he joined another war in neighboring Uruguay. He would spend the next six years defending its liberal government against an Argentinean dictator and his local allies.

With his seafaring background, it was natural that Garibaldi would be employed at first as a privateer preying on enemy shipping—a guerrilla of the sea. But he also commanded forces on land. Armies were so small and distances so vast in Latin America that Garibaldi frequently campaigned with a few men in the wilderness. Often he was pursued by superior forces, but he seldom hesitated to attack even when badly outnumbered, and his audacity usually carried the day. He exhibited preternatural resilience by marching and riding for long periods, notwithstanding illness, wounds, and supply shortages. Even while combating ruthless enemies who once captured and tortured him, he always observed a “chivalrous” code.144 If he lacked detention facilities, as he usually did, he would release prisoners rather than kill them, even if he knew they would report his position, and he took care to prevent his soldiers from abusing civilians.145

His most notable exploits came in hit-and-run raids at the head of the 800-man Italian Legion, which he organized from among his fellow immigrants in Uruguay—the “brave sons of Columbus,” he called them with his typically florid rhetoric.146 Their uniform became the red shirt after the government discovered a stockpile of these garments, which had been intended for use in slaughterhouses, where the red color would not show blood.147 Stocky, bearded, and long-haired, with a serene expression and “eyes [that] were steadfast and piercing,” wearing a red tunic, black felt hat, and “gaudy handkerchief” around his collar, a cavalry sword dangling from his waist and a pair of pistols in a saddle holster—Garibaldi was, in the words of a British naval officer, “the beau ideal of a chief of irregular troops.”148

Among those enraptured with him was Anna Maria Ribeiro da Silva, a young Brazilian woman whose husband, a shoemaker, was away from home performing his army service. She was living in the town of Laguna when Garibaldi’s ship anchored in the harbor. The year was 1839. He was thirty-three, she eighteen. He claimed, perhaps with romantic hindsight, to have first spotted her with a telescope from his quarterdeck while she was standing outside her hilltop home. He immediately disembarked in search of her. His very first words upon meeting her: “Thou oughtest to be mine.” Instead of slapping him, she found his “insolence . . . magnetic.” Garibaldi could not have been accused of falling for just another pretty face. The homely Anita was never known as a great beauty; she was described by one of Garibaldi’s biographers as “a big-busted peasant wench.” But, pretty or not, Garibaldi was instantly smitten with her, and she with him. They proverbially sailed away together but were not married until 1842, which, as another biographer notes, was “two years after the birth of their first child.”

Anita traveled and fought alongside Garibaldi, sharing the dangers and discomforts of a soldier’s life for the next decade while giving birth to four children in all. Their romance, which flew in the face of social convention, added to Garibaldi’s growing reputation as a rebel.149

THANKS IN NO small part to Mazzini’s assiduous propagandizing, Garibaldi’s exploits were avidly recounted in European newspapers, whose circulation was booming.150 Thus he was already a national hero when he returned to Italy in June 1848 along with sixty-three of his legionnaires. Liberal, nationalist revolutions were spreading across Italy and other parts of Europe. Austrian troops were compelled to evacuate Milan and Venice. The kingdom of Piedmont-Sardinia chose this moment to declare war against Austria in an attempt to unify the entire peninsula under its own royal family. Italy’s Risorgimento (Rising Again) was in full swing. “We had fought gloriously to defend the oppressed in other countries,” Garibaldi wrote; “now we were hastening to take up arms for our own beloved motherland.”151

He first tried to offer his services to Piedmont. But the royal army had little use for this adventurer who had once been convicted of treason. Garibaldi wound up fighting on behalf of the revolutionary committee in Milan, leading fifteen hundred volunteers around Lake Maggiore in Austrian-occupied Lombardy. He hoped, he later wrote, to involve his “fellow-countrymen in a guerrilla war which, in the absence of an organized army, by itself would lead on to the liberation of Italy,” but he found few recruits and “any number of traitors and spies among the populace.” The Austrians effectively cowed the people with their brutal tactics. Once the Austrians were expelled from a village, Garibaldi recounted, “they ruthlessly set fire to all the surrounding houses all the while bombarding the village itself indiscriminately.” He and his small band had to stay on the run. “Almost every night we had to change position in order to elude and deceive the enemy.” Finally, after three weeks of skirmishing, he had to seek refuge across the Swiss border, demonstrating not for the first or last time the importance of foreign sanctuaries for hard-pressed guerrillas. Austria had won this round; not only Garibaldi but the regular Piedmontese army had to retreat in disarray.152

Garibaldi got another chance to fight when on April 27, 1849, he arrived, atop nothing less than a white horse, at the head of thirteen hundred men from his Italian Legion to defend the newly proclaimed Roman republic against the armies of Austria, Spain, Naples, and France—all Catholic states that wanted to restore papal rule. Garibaldi hoped to wage a guerrilla war from redoubts in the Apennine Mountains. Instead he was forced by Mazzini, the de facto leader of Rome, to conduct a more conventional defense, against hopeless odds. Citizens were mobilized and barricades erected. Fighting “like lions,” the Romans managed to check the initial French and Neapolitan onslaught. But before long the Roman revolution, like others across Europe, was on its deathbed.

Garibaldi was recovering from a stomach wound and assorted bruises suffered during the fighting, but he turned down an American diplomat’s offer to evacuate him on an American warship. He decided to march out of Rome and continue the fight. His stirring call for volunteers would be echoed by Winston Churchill during the darkest days of World War II: “This is what I have to offer to those who wish to follow me: hunger, cold, the heat of the sun; no wages, no barracks, no ammunition; but continual skirmishes, forced marches, and bayonet-fights. Those of you who love your country and love glory, follow me!”

More than four thousand men heeded his call. So did his wife, pregnant with their fifth child, who came despite his “entreaties that she should remain behind.” They marched out of Rome on July 2, 1849, with tens of thousands of soldiers from four nations in pursuit. As their desperate monthlong trek progressed, many of Garibaldi’s men deserted, while no peasants rallied to his cause, leading him to curse “the timidity and effeminacy of my fellow Italians . . . who were incapable of keeping the field a month without their three meals a day.” It was hardly surprising, however, that conservative Catholic peasants would not support a radical republican who denounced the pope as the “Antichrist” and their priests as the “pestilent scum of humanity” and “the prop of every vice, despotism, and corruption to be found on this earth.”

While most people wanted nothing to do with him, Garibaldi did find a few republican loyalists who helped him elude his pursuers after some close calls. Once, he recalled, he was lying “on one side of a clump of bushes,” while “the Austrians passed on the other” without discovering him.

Although he managed to escape, his beloved Anita was not so lucky. She caught a fever, possibly malaria, and, in spite of being “in a deplorable state of suffering,” refused to turn back. She died on August 4, 1849, not far from Ravenna. It was a bitter blow to her devoted husband, but, prefiguring Mao’s Long March, Garibaldi’s success in eluding capture only added to his luster.153

AFTER THE END of the 1848–49 revolutions, Garibaldi was in for another long, frustrating period of exile, which took him from New York to Lima, Canton, and London. He supported himself by working jobs ranging from candle maker to captain of a cargo ship carrying guano. In 1856 he moved to the tiny isle of Caprera, near Sardinia, using a small inheritance from his brother to buy half of this “mass of granite, clothed here and there with a thin mass of earth.”154 Here he built with his own hands a four-room stone cottage that would serve as a refuge until the end of his life. Although a lock of his late wife’s hair hung in an ebony frame over his bed,155 Garibaldi did not allow his devotion to her memory to stand in the way of fulfilling his “increasing need” for, as one of his conquests put it, “womanly attentions.”156

He would marry again in 1860, when he was fifty-two, to an eighteen-year-old Italian aristocrat far more comely than his first wife. At the wedding reception, in a scene that could have come straight from an opera written by his fellow Italian nationalist Giuseppe Verdi, Garibaldi was approached by a man who passed him a note claiming that his bride had spent the preceding night with him, that she was pregnant, and did not love her new husband. He immediately asked her whether the letter was accurate. When she said it was, he loudly called her a puttana, declared that she was not really his wife, and never spoke to her again. He did not get a formal divorce and marry again until the end of his life.157 In 1880 he wed his children’s nanny, a simple peasant woman, neither beautiful nor clever, who had already borne him three children during the course of a relationship that began in 1866. Earlier, in 1859, the guerrilla chief had had yet another child with his “small and rather ugly” housekeeper—or at least so she appeared to another jealous girlfriend.158

Garibaldi provides an early example of how the nascent mass media, created by the proliferation of cheap books, newspapers, and magazines in rapidly growing cities, could turn a guerrilla into a popular idol, even a sex symbol. Future rebel leaders, from Tito and Mao to Arafat, Nasrallah, and Bin Laden, would benefit from the same phenomenon: a media-driven cult of personality.

THE WHOLE TIME he was on Caprera, Garibaldi was a caged lion, impatiently biding his time until “the day,” as one of his girlfriends wrote, “when he will be wanted” again by the Risorgimento.159 That moment arrived in 1858, when the “Lion of Caprera” was recruited for service as an irregular by Count Camillo di Cavour, the calculating aristocrat who was prime minister of Piedmont-Sardinia. Like Prussia’s Otto von Bismarck, Cavour wanted to co-opt nationalist sentiment, hitherto a force for liberal revolutions, to create a conservative nation-state under his king, Victor Emmanuel II. As part of this strategy, Cavour had forged an alliance with France’s emperor, Louis Napoleon, to wage another war against Austria in order to seize its Italian domains. Cavour wanted to enlist Garibaldi to bolster public enthusiasm for what might otherwise be seen as a disreputable landgrab by two Machiavellian monarchs. Against Mazzini’s advice, Garibaldi agreed to help. He was not told that as part of the deal Piedmont had agreed to give his hometown, Nice, back to France.

War duly came in 1859. Garibaldi, newly commissioned a major general in the royal army of Piedmont but still wearing his old poncho and slouch hat, set off once again to wage a guerrilla campaign around Lake Maggiore with three thousand “ill-armed but high-spirited youths” organized into the Cacciatori delle Alpi (Hunters of the Alps). He was operating on the left flank of the French and Piedmontese armies, much as T. E. Lawrence would do nearly sixty years later with his Arab irregulars on the right flank of a British army in the Holy Land. Garibaldi’s goals included “disorganizing the Austrian Army, disrupting their lines of communications by blowing up bridges, cutting telegraph wires and burning stores.” He won a series of victories against the more numerous and better-equipped Austrians by taking advantage of the mountainous terrain to appear where he was not expected, striking at night, and pressing home his attacks with the bayonet. Garibaldi’s actions were peripheral to the main event, however, which was a showdown between the Austrian and the Franco-Piedmontese armies. The latter won, and the resulting peace treaty ceded Lombardy to Piedmont while France got Nice and the nearby region of Savoy.160

GARIBALDI WAS TO play a more central role in the next phase of the Risorgimento, which began when a revolution broke out in Sicily on April 4, 1860, against the Bourbon king of Naples. With Cavour taking a wait-and-see attitude—ready to support Garibaldi if he succeeded and disavow him if he failed161—the famous guerrilla chief went to the Sicilians’ aid on his own initiative with 1,089 volunteers. They were mostly young professionals, workers, students, and intellectuals from the cities of the north, and they became known as the Thousand or the Redshirts. “Their faith in Garibaldi,” commented an observer, amounted almost “to a religion.”162

This small force departed aboard two steamships from a small port near Genoa on May 5, 1860, and arrived at the Sicilian port of Marsala six days later. It was extraordinarily lucky that two Neopolitan battle cruisers had just left. By the time the warships returned and began bombarding their steamers, the Redshirts had already disembarked. Four days later, under what one of the Redshirts described as a “sky of glory from which a warm light poured down which, blending with the perfumes of the valley, intoxicated us all,” they ran into three thousand Bourbon troops atop a hill outside the town of Calatafimi. Because the Redshirts had only “decrepit old rifles,” Garibaldi ordered them to fire as little as possible. They charged up the hill “under a hail of bullets” and scattered the enemy with their bayonets. This skirmish, Garibaldi wrote, “had an immeasurable moral result in encouraging the population and demoralizing the hostile army.”163

Aided by squadre (bands) of local guerrillas, the Redshirts advanced on Palermo, a city of 160,000 people held by 20,000 troops. Thousands of enemy soldiers advanced to meet them, but Garibaldi’s small force avoided them and slipped into the hills. He staged “incessant feints by night and day,” but refused to accept battle in the open. Even Garibaldi’s men wondered what he was up to. “What are we waiting for?” one Redshirt wrote on May 23. “What does this circling around Palermo mean, as though we were moths round a lamp?” It meant that Garibaldi was intent on achieving surprise when he finally did attack.

The Redshirts entered Palermo quietly at 2 a.m. on May 27, 1860, catching the garrison unawares. Three days of bitter street fighting ensued, with Neapolitan artillery bombarding the city, creating what one witness described as “frightful . . . carnage”—“those ten-inch shells bringing down houses wholesale, and burying the unfortunate inhabitants in the ruins.” The brutality of the Bourbons enraged rather than cowed the populace, which erected barricades to impede the movement of Bourbon infantry. “Many joined us,” Garibaldi wrote, “with daggers, knives, roasting spits and iron utensils of all kinds since they didn’t have rifles. . . . Every balcony and loggia was covered with mattresses for defense and heaped with stones and projectiles of every description.” Seeing this mass mobilization and short on supplies, the Bourbon commander agreed to a truce that allowed him to evacuate his troops. An English naval officer noted that this victory was “won in utter defiance of . . . the rules of war”—rules that Garibaldi, a self-taught soldier, was blissfully unaware of.164

Continuing their improbable string of successes, the Redshirts routed the rest of the Bourbon troops in Sicily, then on August 19 crossed the Straits of Messina to land in Calabria, on the toe of the Italian boot. After they bested the first Neapolitan troops they met, many of the rest surrendered or deserted. Garibaldi entered Naples, Italy’s largest city, to “an everlasting chorus of vivas.”165 The rest of the Bourbon army, totaling fifty thousand men, gathered for a counteroffensive on the Volturno River north of the city. On October 1–2, Garibaldi beat them with thirty thousand troops in the only large-scale engagement that he ever fought. Naturally, a correspondent wrote, Garibaldi was in the thick of the action, “revolver in hand,” while “the balls and grape were flying about.”166

He then briefly ruled southern Italy as its “dictator,” not yet a pejorative term, before voluntarily handing over power to Victor Emmanuel II on November 8, 1860, following a plebiscite in which the people of Sicily and Naples agreed to accept the king as their ruler. Garibaldi had more than doubled the king’s domains,167 but he characteristically refused offers of a rich reward, preferring to retire to his frugal existence on Caprera. Such selflessness was one of the secrets of his popularity. An English naval officer who knew him commented, “The irresistible spell which enables him to usurp all hearts may be traced to the simple fact that he is . . . ‘an honest man.’ ”168

The kingdom of Italy, the goal toward which Garibaldi had been working his whole life, finally came into existence in 1861. Venice was added in 1866, following a war against Austria by Prussia and Italy. During this conflict Garibaldi once again undertook guerrilla warfare in northern Italy and, although wounded, was more successful than the regular Italian forces. That left only Rome outside the new state. Vowing Roma o Morte! (Rome or Death), Garibaldi invaded the pope’s domains in 1862 and 1867.169 Both expeditions failed, and Garibaldi was badly wounded in the former instance. Rome finally would be annexed in 1870 by the Italian army, not by Garibaldi’s irregulars.

WITH HIS WORLDWIDE fame (more than half a million people thronged the streets of London to greet him in 1864),170 Garibaldi was often in demand in other people’s wars. In 1861 he turned down an offer from Abraham Lincoln to fight in the U.S. Civil War because the Union had not yet committed to abolish slavery—and because he was not offered command of the entire Union army. Garibaldi may have been an idealist, but he also had a healthy ego.171

In November 1870, although by now “old and lame,”172 suffering from rheumatism and old wounds, he was more eager to go to the defense of his erstwhile enemy, France, in its war against Prussia. The regular French armies under Emperor Louis Napoleon were swiftly surrounded and forced to surrender. A republican government then took power and vowed to continue resistance. Now that the “execrable tyrant,” Napoleon, had been overthrown, Garibaldi volunteered “what was left of him,” explaining, “Whenever an oppressed people struggles against its oppressors, whenever an enslaved people combats for its liberty, my place is in their midst.”

In spite of the hostility of conservative Catholics toward this notorious freethinker, the provisional government accepted his services and assigned him to command the irregular Army of the Vosges in eastern France. This was one of many units of francs-tireurs(“free shooters”) that sprang up across occupied France (roughly a third of its total territory) in response to the republican leader Léon Gambetta’s call to “harass the enemy’s detachments without pause or relaxation.” They sniped at “the Boche” and blew up bridges, railroads, and telegraph lines.

Garibaldi’s force, which swelled to over sixteen thousand men, was made up not only of Frenchmen but also of Italians, including his two sons, Poles, Hungarians, and other foreigners dedicated to defending liberty. “In his element once again,” writes the foremost student of the francs-tireurs, “[Garibaldi] fought the way he knew best, striking, feinting, falling back, and striking again—tactics which were the essence of irregular warfare.” His son Ricciotti scored a particularly notable success with his raid on the town of Châtillon-sur-Seine on November 18, 1870, killing or capturing more than three hundred soldiers out of a Prussian garrison of eight hundred. Garibaldi later occupied the city of Dijon and held it for a while against heavy counterattack.

German commanders were exasperated by such setbacks. They ordered their soldiers to shoot captured guerrillas and to impose “harsh reprisals” on towns suspected of aiding them. “They are not soldiers: we are treating them as murderers,” Prussia’s prime minister, Otto von Bismarck, declared. This was in keeping with the traditional approach to guerrillas codified in the influential Lieber Code, authored by the German-American law professor Francis Lieber and promulgated by the Union army in 1863 as General Orders No. 100 to deal with Southern “bushwhackers.” Lieber’s most important contribution was to distinguish between partisans and guerrillas. The former were fighters “wearing the uniform of their army” and “belonging to a corps which acts detached from the main body.” They were entitled if captured “to all the privileges of the prisoner of war.” But “men, or squads of men, who commit hostilities . . . without being part and portion of the organized hostile army . . . shall be treated summarily as highway robbers or pirates.”173

This sounds as if it could have been a prescription for mass executions of captured guerrillas. But it was applied much more inconsistently and humanely by Lincoln’s soldiers in the South and, in spite of Germany’s later reputation for inhumane warfare, by the kaiser’s soldiers in France. Both armies were considerably more restrained than French troops had been in the Vendée, Spain, or Haiti. Captured Garibaldini were especially well treated, because they wore uniforms and generally obeyed the laws of war. The Germans could afford to be magnanimous. The francs-tireurs never seriously threatened to change the outcome of the war, which ended with the fall of Paris in January 1871.

Garibaldi returned home to the jeers of French conservatives. Their vitriol was understandable given that the veteran revolutionary had not worked the miracles that were now expected of him. All of the francs-tireurs had killed fewer than a thousand German troops and tied down a hundred thousand more while prolonging the war for just a few months. They had not saved France from a humiliating defeat that included the loss of two provinces. But then the entire conflict had been so short—just six months—that there was no time for the guerrillas to wear down the invaders, as the Spanish had done seven decades earlier.174

NOTWITHSTANDING THE Anticlimactic end of his career, when he died in 1882, at seventy-four, Garibaldi was celebrated far outside his homeland as “the Hero of Two Worlds.”175 The British historian A. J. P. Taylor would reportedly call him “the only wholly admirable figure in modern history.”176 He was the forerunner of all the twentieth-century guerrillas who would become international celebrities. But he was more laudable than most guerrilla chieftains in that he consistently displayed humanity and restraint in his war making and never sought power or riches for himself. In both his sterling conduct and his spectacular results, he set a standard seldom matched before or since.

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