Garibaldi and his Red Shirts - F. J. Snell
Medici's fine contingent had barely reached Palermo when, on June 20, the Hungarian General Turr left the city with a small column of about five hundred men, made up of volunteers who had formed part of the Thousand, a company of foreigners who had come over from the Bourbon army, and a dozen Sicilian gentlemen. His orders were to proceed first to Caltanisetta, and thence to Catania. The 'brigade,' as it was termed, was supported, or, rather, hampered, by a train of artillery, which consisted of nothing better than a couple of antiquated cannon that had formerly done duty as posts in the streets of Palermo, and, having been remounted, were hauled along the line of march.
The departure of this column was regarded as an event of the first importance. Brilliant war-correspondents from different countries were told off to accompany it, and Alexandre Dumas was tempted to join them; but after going halfway, the novelist lost interest, and returned to Palermo. The expedition, indeed, was not fruitful in incident. The most salient features were the eloquent preaching of the Franciscan friar, Father Pantaleo, at Misilmeri; and the sickness of General Turr, whose command was taken over by another Hungarian, Eber. That gentleman was acting as correspondent of the Times; and if he was not a naturalized Englishman, he was equally at home in the Lake Country and in London society.
In the latter half of July Eber was joined at Catania by a mixed brigade of North Italians and Sicilians under Bixio, while a third force, of which Medici was in command, advanced along the north coast. As regards arms, discipline, and organization, this last was much superior to the detachments before mentioned, and it needed to be, for upon it was destined to fall the brunt of the fighting. Garibaldi himself remained at Palermo, engaged in forming reserves with which to feed the armies in the field.
By this division of his forces Garibaldi was in effective possession of three-fourths of the island, but the Bourbon troops were by no means a negligible quantity. On June 19 there were eighteen thousand at Messina, two thousand at Siracusa, more than one thousand at Milazzo, and five hundred at Augusta, besides eighty thousand on the mainland, many of whom could have been transported from Naples in case of need. On July 14 three thousand were dispatched from Messina to Milazzo under the command of Bosco, who had a great reputation as a stubborn fighter.
At this time Medici's headquarters were at Barcellona, where he had two thousand men. On receiving the news of Bosco's approach he moved to Meri and drew up his force behind a fiumara, or dry bed of a torrent, in front of the village. The royalists, having come within a short distance of this post, struck off across the plain to Milazzo. Thereupon Medici occupied two hamlets, Coriolo and Archi, cutting off Bosco's communications with his base. The Bourbon general determined to recapture Archi, and his attempt was successful. At Coriolo there was fierce street fighting, and at the close of the day the Garibaldians were still masters of the place.
Bosco then retreated to Milazzo, whence he sent a dispatch to his chief, General Clary, finding fault with his subordinates, and at the same time boasting that, if he were reinforced, he would ride into Palermo on Medici's horse. The Marshal, however, remained inactive in obedience to telegraphed instructions charging him to keep on the defensive. Bosco was under the impression that his opponents were much more numerous than was actually the case, estimating them at seven thousand. It was necessary to concert measures before he discovered his mistake. Dunne's regiment, and a detachment of the force just arrived from Genoa, were already on the march, and entered Meri on July 18. On the morning of the same day Garibaldi went on board an old Scottish cattle-steamer, the City of Aberdeen, which had landed troops from Genoa, and arranged with the captain and crew, all warmly attached to him, to transport men, arms, and ammunition to the scene of action. Among the first-named were the carabiniers of the Thousand, and a company of volunteers from Genoa, which had come just in the nick of time. Garibaldi went with them; and disembarking at Patti, hastened to Barcellona, and thence to Meri.
A touching incident occurred at Barcellona. The largest of the churches had been converted into a hospital, and at the news of the General's arrival the wounded left their beds, and crawled on hands and knees to the door, where they lay in a huddled heap on the steps. As he passed, Garibaldi waved his hand to them in token of sympathy; and the poor fellows, having obtained a sight of their beloved commander, crawled back to their beds. A young Lombard was of the number. He had been shot through the lungs, and the effort of moving proved too great for him. Hardly had he reached his bed when he fell back and died. The General had left behind at Palermo some North Italians who were occupying civic and military posts. Almost to a man they threw up their appointments and hastened after him, their places being taken by wounded from the hospital, who could not endure being idle at such a crisis of affairs.
July 19 was Garibaldi's official birthday, and when, in his open carriage, he reached the fiumara, the men rushed tumultuously from their dinners to embrace him as he descended.
Soon after dawn the Garibaldians moved to the attack. At first fortune favored the royalists, who drove back the left wing and half center of their assailants for nearly a mile. The General was undismayed, and kept saying to Dunne's regiment as it filed past, "Avanti! Corragio, uomini! ("Forward! Courage, men!"). This, with a veteran company of Genoese carabiniers, was on the right wing, which gradually pressed back the Neapolitans to their last position before the town. In the course of the advance Patterson, with some of his comrades, was standing at the end of a corn-brake, and the royalists were firing at him from behind a wall. Suddenly up galloped Garibaldi, sprang from his horse, and without saying a word or turning to see if the men were following him, dashed at a narrow gap in the wall. The enemy stood their ground and the wall had to be carried at the point of the bayonet. Later in the day Patterson was wounded, and Garibaldi rewarded him for his bravery by making him a lieutenant.
Patterson received his wound at the bridge at Meri, where Peard, 'Garibaldi's Englishman,' with his long beard, made a fine stand with his company of thirty men, armed with an experimental weapon—Colt's five-chambered revolving rifle. This instrument of warfare proved very defective; it leaked fire at the breach and scorched the soldiers' hands. It was also troublesome to load. For these, and perhaps other reasons, the revolving rifle did not commend itself to practical minds, and has never since found a place in modern armories. It is most improbable that it would have been used on this occasion, if Colt, the American inventor, had not presented Garibaldi with one hundred of these rifles, either as a pure act of generosity, or in order to test their efficacy on the field of battle.
The left wing was being hard pressed by Bosco, when a new turn was given to events by the providential arrival of the Tukory, a paddle-wheel steamer, carrying eight guns. Garibaldi, in a small boat, rowed out to the vessel, and taking her inshore, directed her fire on the Neapolitans. The latter, aware of the ill-success of their other division, began to retreat, and Cosenz, the Garibaldian commander, was free to join Medici on the bridge.
Milazzo was now invested by a line extending right across the neck of the peninsula. The Bourbon troops, though their losses had not been excessive, were so completely demoralized that Bosco withdrew them into the castle, leaving only a few soldiers to fire upon the enemy from the town walls. At about four o'clock the Garibaldians entered the town on the side of the harbor, where there were no fortifications. They found the streets empty, and ere sunset all save the castle was in their possession. The steps of a small church near the sea were Garibaldi's headquarters, and there he sat issuing his orders, propped against a South American saddle, which it was his practice to take off his horse with his own hands. With this as his pillow he slept for a few hours after midnight.
Bosco was in a critical position. He could have held out for a considerable space if his men had been animated by the true spirit and the fortress properly provisioned, but very soon the troops had to be placed on half rations, and a mutinous temper began to manifest itself. Bosco made frantic appeals for help, but the authorities at Messina appeared impotent. At one moment, indeed, Clary decided on sending three regiments, and dispatched a message to Bosco that they were coming, but the order was rescinded.
Matters went from bad to worse. The Neapolitan fleet refused to embark an expedition from the mainland, and the Ministry was reduced to sending transports for bringing away Bosco and his craven force. As if that were not enough, a large naval squadron was sent after the transports; and on board one of the vessels was Colonel Anzani, who had been instructed by the War Minister Pianell to negotiate the surrender not only of Milazzo, but of Messina!
By the terms of capitulation the troops were allowed to march out of Milazzo Castle with the honors of war, but even the most callous of them must have experienced a feeling of shame at parading between two ranks of tattered patriots, very few of whom were professional soldiers. Bosco, whose humiliation was complete, had no part in this ceremony, as he was placed under arrest and guarded as a prisoner until the last of his men was aboard.
This treatment may seem to have been ungenerous, but in point of fact Bosco had brought it on himself. When Peard and a few other Englishmen entered the castle, mules, which it had been agreed to surrender, were found dead, many of the guns were spiked, and a train of gunpowder, overspread with detonators and concealed by straw, ran under the door of the magazine. A terrible explosion and the loss of valuable lives might have resulted from this perfidy but for the fortunate accident of its timely discovery.
It is only fair to add that no one suspected Bosco of complicity in this diabolical design, which was believed to have been hatched by some Neapolitan blackguard serving in the army. But Bosco was not blameless, for the slaughter of the mules and the spiking of the guns must have been due to his orders. Garibaldi received early information of these doings, and it was for that reason that Bosco was subjected to disgrace.
Sometime after this, Garibaldi himself, in company with the Piedmontese Admiral Persano and Signor and Signora Mario, paid a visit to the castle, where Bosco's horses were wildly careering on the turf of the outer enclosure. When in South America, twenty years before, the victorious general had mastered the art of catching such animals, and, taking his lassoo, he gave a demonstration of his proficiency to his admiring friends.
Alberto and Jessie White Mario had come from Palermo in the wake of the army, and they now met with quite a number of boys they had missed from the Garibaldi Foundling Hospital. Half a dozen had been seriously wounded; and one of the little fellows, stroking Mario's hand, observed excusingly, "Are you angry with us, Signor Commandante? So many of our brigade are killed and wounded. Milordo the Colonel says that after the battle of Milazzo no one can say again that the Sicilians never fight."
A boy of twelve had to undergo amputation, and Jessie Mario held him in her lap, crying more than the sufferer. The conduct of other soldiers in hospital was equally admirable, and the British officers could not sufficiently praise their silent fortitude under operations for which no chloroform was available. The Marios had brought bed-ticks from Palermo, but at Milazzo there was no straw with which to stuff them. At Barcellona, however, whither three hundred wounded—one half of the total number—were transported, better accommodation was provided, the inhabitants having been aroused to a sense of their obligations.
A warm tribute is due to the matchless devotion of the lady to whom we have referred as the Florence Nightingale of the campaigns. Although not backed by a staff of trained nurses, she did all that lay in her power at Milazzo, and afterward at Naples and Caserta, to succor the victims of war. An out-and-out republican, she was rather narrow in her political outlook, and is said to have been somewhat deficient in feminine charm, but she was capable of an unselfishness that stretched to all lengths. Garibaldi acknowledged his deep indebtedness to her, for by her unwearied efforts she preserved to him lives he could ill spare, and appeared as a ministering angel at the pallets of hundreds of Italians mangled in battle. One of them called her "that excellent creature of the Lord, Jessie White Mario "; and though English people were repelled by her fervent republicanism, they were bound to applaud her magnificent services to the cause of humanity.
The next event was the capitulation of Messina, followed by the evacuation of Sicily by most of the royalist army. Bosco had said that he would ride into Palermo on Medici's horse. Garibaldi determined that Medici should ride into Messina on Bosco's horse, and it was on Bosco's horse that the Piedmontese general led the van into Messina on July 28. A treaty was then signed between him and Marshal Clary, whereby the town was given up to the Garibaldians, while the Neapolitan garrison retained possession of the citadel. The guns, however, were not to fire on the town or the General's ships in the harbor, which they might have damaged or sunk, since hostilities were to cease from that hour. In a very short time Clary's fifteen thousand warriors were shipped to the mainland. From so numerous a garrison in an impregnable position a much better performance might have been expected, but the Neapolitan Ministry appears to have come to the conclusion that the time had arrived to renounce the contest in Sicily, and Clary's apparent cowardice was the outcome of a general policy dictated by military failures for which he was only partially to blame.