Garibaldi and his Red Shirts - F. J. Snell

Ally of France

If we except the Papacy and Austria, there was no power that Garibaldi had greater reason to detest than France, which had twice blasted his prospects by military action and consistently employed her prestige to postpone the realization of his dreams—the union of Italy and the restoration of Rome as its capital. It would naturally be thought that when war broke out between France and Prussia the sympathies of the old hero and those of his countrymen generally would be on the side of the latter; and for a time this seems to have been the case. As the war proceeded it appeared to Garibaldi that the Prussians were unduly pressing their advantage; and on September 6, with unparalleled generosity, he offered his sword to the French Provisional Government that had been installed after the disaster at Sedan and the abdication of the Emperor Napoleon. For a month he received no reply, but at the beginning of October it was notified to him that he would be welcome in France, and on the 7th General Bordone came to Caprera and conveyed him to Marseilles in the Ville de Paris.

It is plain from Garibaldi's own account that he was not really wanted—at any rate, for active service. "They wished," he writes, "to make use of my poor name—nothing else." He was on the point of returning home in disgust, when he was entrusted with the task of organizing some hundreds of Italian volunteers then at Chambery and Marseilles; and repairing to Dole, he occupied himself with the formation of a corps composed of men of all nations, the nucleus of the future army of the Vosges.

What was the meaning of this official coldness? Was it that the heads of the Government were unwilling to place confidence in a broken old man of sixty-three? Or was there a fear that, if Garibaldi were invested with power commensurate with his reputation, he would use it to complicate a situation already complicated enough? It was his firm conviction that what France needed at that hour was not a committee of defense, but a strong man, a dictator uniting in his person supreme civil and military functions. Looking around him he could find no trace of an individual qualified to cope with the terrific difficulties that beset the nation. Cremieux and Glas-Bizoin were both honest men, but not equal to the task of elevating France from the catastrophe into which Napoleon had precipitated her. Gambetta was better; he showed energy and resource. But even for Gambetta circumstances were too strong, and he either failed to recognize or shrank from approaching what, in Garibaldi's opinion, was the first and crying necessity—that of cashiering the commanders whose incompetence had conducted a proud people to humiliation and ruin. Garibaldi nowhere defines the character of his mission, but the tenor of his observations suggests that he arrived in France as a saviour—prepared, if sufficient scope were given to him, to redeem the gigantic blunders of her generals and embarrass the victorious Prussians then marching to the siege of Paris, by destroying their communications. It is not our intention to record in detail the varying phases of Garibaldi's French campaign, which, relatively to the main objects of his life, has an appearance of irrelevancy, and, though it did not detract from, certainly did not add to the glory he had already won.

The force with which he took the field in the middle of November, two brigades of which were commanded by his sons Menotti and Ricciotti, consisted of from six thousand to eight thousand men, while Werder's army, to which it was opposed, numbered twenty thousand, including a strong body of cavalry and artillery. The morale of the volunteers, however, was excellent; and at Chatillon-sur-Seine Ricciotti, with four hundred followers, attacked and defeated one thousand Prussians, taking one hundred and sixty-seven prisoners. This brilliant feat was accomplished at a cost of only six killed and twelve wounded.

Five days later (November 26) Garibaldi committed the superb folly of encountering Werder's corps at Lantenay, not far from Dijon, the capital of Burgundy. His lines advanced without wavering through a hail-storm of shells poured upon them by the enemy's artillery, and Garibaldi's heart beat high when the trained soldiers of Prussia, unable to withstand the pressure of the attack, retired from the plateau and beat a retreat to Dijon.

The same night Garibaldi attempted to storm the city, but though his young troops displayed the utmost gallantry, the task proved beyond their power. At ten o'clock it was reported to the General that the enemy's resistance was terrific and the men could not be induced to advance a step farther. Very reluctantly, therefore, Garibaldi ordered a retreat to Lantenay, where the Prussians attacked on the following afternoon in greatly superior force. There was no serious fighting, however, the volunteers continuing their retreat to Autun, not, it would seem, in the best of order. Garibaldi was not much concerned. "In certain cases," he writes, "one must treat men as one would treat bullocks. If they break loose, one must let them run at their own sweet will."

At Autun the army of the Vosges reformed, save for certain sections and individuals, who had no longer any heart. Garibaldi assigns a disgraceful eminence to Colonel Chenet, who commanded the eastern guerillas, and, on the approach of the Prussians, abandoned the strong position of St Martin. For this pusillanimous conduct he was court-martialled and sentenced to be shot, but his life was spared at the intercession of Garibaldi, who has, nevertheless, covered his memory with infamy.

The Prussian attack, being in the nature of a surprise, ought to have succeeded, but, thanks to Garibaldi's energy, the efficient service of his gunners, and the indomitable courage of his riflemen, the enemy were repulsed.

During the greater part of December Garibaldi remained at Autun, organizing fresh corps. Meanwhile the great army of the Loire swept forward under General Bourbaki, and the Prussians were compelled to evacuate Dijon. Immediately Garibaldi detached some companies of rifles to occupy that city, and these were presently followed by the entire force. On January 21 the enemy came on again, and Garibaldi cannot withhold a tribute of admiration to their firm courage and discipline.

"I have never seen better soldiers," he writes, "than I saw before me that day. The column marching on our central position showed admirable valor and coolness. They came up compact as a raincloud, not quickly, but with a uniformity, an order, and a calmness that were perfectly terrible.

"This column, raked by all our enfilading artillery, and by all the lines of infantry in advance of Talant and Fontaine parallel to the road, left the field covered with corpses, and reforming several times in the depressions of the ground, resumed their forward march in the same calm and orderly way as before. They were famous troops."

Garibaldi's own men stood their ground with splendid tenacity, and at the end of the day neither side had gained any advantage. On the following day a still more desperate combat took place, and for some time victory inclined to the side of the Prussians, who delivered a formidable attack on the Langres road, and, advancing in dense columns, caused the Garibaldians to recoil, with the exception of the fourth brigade. To this corps the honors of the battle are due, since it successfully maintained itself in a manufactory to the left of the road, and in a hand-to-hand fight captured the colors of the sixty-first Prussian regiment, buried under a heap of slain. "I have seen," says Garibaldi, "more than one murderous fight in my time, but certainly not often looked on so great a number of corpses piled up in a small space as I saw in the position to the north of the building I before spoke of, occupied by the fourth and part of the fifth brigade." The so-called fourth brigade did not actually number more than one thousand men; the fifth, less than three hundred.

At Dijon the Prussians were defeated, but after the capitulation of Paris Garibaldi's position became untenable. The armistice observed in the capital, and everywhere else in France, did not apply to Dijon, and the Prussians prepared to overwhelm the comparatively small force of obstinate foes in occupation of that city. Garibaldi therefore ordered a retreat on the night of January 31. The headquarters were first at Chagny, whence they were transferred to Chalons-sur-Saone, and finally to Courcelles.

Garibaldi had done his best for the unhappy country, and he could do no more. Accordingly he repaired to Marseilles en route for Caprera, where he arrived on February 16, 1871.

We have cited Garibaldi's opinion of the Prussian troops, and it will no doubt be of interest to learn what the Prussians thought of Garibaldi. That great soldier Manteuffel, the historian of the Franco-Prussian war, writes as follows:

"Garibaldi's tactics are specially characterized by the great rapidity of his movements, by the sapient dispositions given under fire during the combat, by his energy and intensity in attack, which, if partly due to the courage of his soldiers, demonstrates that the general never for an instant forgets the objective point of the combat, which is precisely to dislodge the enemy from his positions by dint of a rapid, vigorous, resolute attack. The proofs of this, his special quality, we have in a combat which proves equally the heroism of our soldiers and the bravery of the Garibaldians. The sixty-first fusiliers had its flag buried under a heap of dead and wounded, because it was impossible for them to escape from the celerity of Garibaldi's movements. The successes of Garibaldi were partial successes, and were not followed up; but if General Bourbaki had acted on his advice, the campaign of the Vosges would have been one of the most fortunate of the war of 1870-71."

And the French? Let Michelet's passionate eloquence express the sentiments of the nobler part of the nation.

"There is one hero in Europe," writes the historian, "one! I do not know a second. All his life is a legend, and since he had the greatest reasons for hatred to France, who had stolen his Nice, caused him to be fired upon at Aspromonte, fought against him at Mentana, you guess that it was this man who flew to immolate himself for France. And how modestly withal! Nothing mattered it to him that he was placed in obscure posts, quite unworthy of him. Grand man, my Garibaldi! my single hero! always loftier than fortune. How sublimely does his monument rise and swell toward the future! Beautiful, too, the story of those noble Italian hearts, who made such noble efforts to follow him! Neither the sea nor the horrors of the Alps in mid-winter could arrest them."