Garibaldi and his Red Shirts - F. J. Snell

Bliss on the Pampas

As the national outlook was not promising, and he a marked man, Garibaldi spent twelve years—from 1836 to 1848—in South America, which served as an asylum for many an Italian malcontent. He had hardly set foot on that continent before he struck up a fast friendship with a Genoese exile named Rossetti. The two became partners in a little coasting vessel, and for nine months they traded as merchants in Rio Janeiro. This life was not congenial to Garibaldi's adventurous temper, so he offered his services to the infant republic of Rio Grande do Sul, which was just then entering on a struggle with the empire of Brazil. He and Rossetti equipped a fishing-boat, which they christened Mazzini, and with a dozen other ardent spirits set sail on a buccaneering expedition, for which they had taken out letters of marque.

Garibaldi, however, was not satisfied with preying on the enemy's commerce at sea, and ere long he made a name for himself as a guerilla leader on land. The troops under his command varied from a few hundreds to several thousands; and the cavalry, all practiced horsemen, were remarkable for dash. While most of the latter were armed with lances, some were expert with the sabre; and they had also a peculiar weapon called the bolas, consisting of three heavy stones covered with hide and attached to plaited thongs, which was hurled at the legs of horses when going at full speed, and almost invariably brought them to the ground. For food they had droves of cattle, which they slaughtered and roasted on green spits; and this, it appears, was all they had to eat, since Garibaldi declared, in 1849, that he had lived for five years in America on 'flesh and water.' He had the highest opinion of the skill and endurance of his followers—Spaniards, half-breeds, and negroes—and pronounced them far superior to civilized troops. At the time when he made this observation he had encountered the flower of the French and Austrian armies.

Garibaldi thoroughly enjoyed his experiences in South America, and looked back upon them with rare satisfaction when he came to sit with stiffened limbs by his fireside, conjuring up in memory the joys and sorrows of his adventures in the wilds. He had lost many comrades there, and he himself had narrowly escaped death, but it was there also that he had met the brave woman who became his wife and comrade.

For his share in storming the town of Laguna he was rewarded with the command of the captured Brazilian fleet. But as he paced the deck of his flag-ship, the Itaparica, his feeling was not that of elation. He was, in fact, depressed at the awful gaps in his circle of friends left by the death of many comrades, fallen by the sword or lost by shipwreck, and was conscious of much loneliness. And so came about one of the most romantic episodes in Garibaldi's career. He had been in love before, but those fits of passion had passed. He now formed a more stable attachment and chose a bride out of the young Spanish ladies whose town he had just delivered from the bondage of Brazil—for, whether in Italy or America, Garibaldi deemed it his duty to help the cause of freedom at any risk to himself. How he caught his first glimpse of his future wife is described in the following passage of his autobiography:

"The loss of Luigi, Edoardo, and others of my countrymen left me utterly isolated; I felt quite alone in the world. I needed a human heart to love me, one that I could always keep near me. I felt that unless I found one immediately life would become intolerable. By chance I cast my eyes toward the houses of the Barra, a tolerably high hill on the south side of the entrance of the lagoon, where a few simple and picturesque houses were visible. Outside one of these, by means of a telescope I usually carried with me when on deck, I espied a young woman, and forthwith gave orders for the boat to be got out, as I wished to go ashore."

The young woman's name was Anita Riberas. She was eighteen, and her father had already chosen a husband for her—a man for whom she cared nothing. Garibaldi proceeds:

"I landed, and, making for the houses where I expected to find the object of my excursion, I had just given up hope of seeing her again, when I met an inhabitant of the place, whose acquaintance I had made soon after our arrival.

"He invited me to take coffee in his house; we entered, and the first person who met my eyes was the damsel who had attracted me ashore. We both remained enraptured and silent, gazing like people who meet for the first time and seek in each other's faces something which makes it easier to recall the forgotten past. At last I greeted her by saying Tu devi esser mia ('You must be mine'). I could speak but little Portuguese, and uttered the bold words in Italian. Yet my insolence was magnetic: I now formed a tie, pronounced a decree, which death alone could annul."

A few nights later Garibaldi returned, and carried off his new treasure on board his man-of-war. Such a hasty union often ends in disappointment, but the couple were well matched, and for ten years they lived together in perfect happiness. Nevertheless, at the time of Anita's death Garibaldi bitterly reproached himself. He reproached himself again in his memoirs, where he writes: "She is dead; I am wretched; and he is avenged, yes, avenged!" The precise meaning of these words is profoundly mysterious. 'He' may signify the father whose wishes had been flouted, or the suitor to whom Anita had been promised in vain. There may have been a violent scene—perhaps bloodshed—but Garibaldi would not raise the veil on this painful subject, although he exonerated his wife from all blame.



Anita was a magnificent horsewoman, and as courageous as Garibaldi himself. Struck by a cannon-shot in the first serious sea-fight after their union, she fell on the bodies of three dead men, but before Garibaldi could reach her, she was again on her feet, as cool and collected as if nothing had happened. On another occasion, when the army of Rio Grande met with a reverse, Anita was taken prisoner and her husband was believed to be slain. Having obtained leave to visit the battlefield, she scanned the faces of the fallen one by one, and satisfied herself that Garibaldi had escaped. Thereupon she contrived to elude her drunken guards, procured a high-mettled horse from a peasant, and made her way across sixty miles of forest, flood, and pampas to Lagos. The enemy's pickets gave her no trouble: they took her for a phantom and bolted in craven alarm. Soon after arriving at her destination, she was joined by her admiring husband.

Their first child was born on September 1, 1840, and was called Menotti, after the martyr of Italian independence before mentioned. As the newcomer almost perished of cold in the 'forest primaeval,' Garibaldi determined to settle down to a peaceful life at Montevideo, but in a few months he was again campaigning. The Republic of Uruguay, of which Montevideo was the capital, became involved in a struggle with its neighbor, Argentina, and Garibaldi raised an Italian legion among his compatriots, of whom there was a large colony in the city. There were also many Frenchmen, and the fine military traditions of their nation caused them to look down on the Italians. Garibaldi resolved to show them that their scorn was misplaced.

The Italian legion enlisted at Montevideo was the germ of the army with which Garibaldi was to attempt his great mission, and its members were the first to don the famous red shirt. The origin of this uniform is uncertain, but Admiral Winnington-Ingram, who was in Montevideo in 1846 as a young sailor, supplies the following unromantic account of the matter:

"Its adoption was caused by the necessity of clothing as economically as possible the newly raised legion, and a liberal offer having been made by a mercantile house in Montevideo to sell the Government at reduced prices a stock of red woolen shirts that had been intended for the Buenos Ayres market, which was now closed by the blockade established there, it was thought too good a chance to be neglected, and the purchase was therefore effected. These goods had been intended to be worn by those employed at the Saladeros, or great slaughtering and salting establishments for cattle at Ensenada and other places in the Argentine province, as they made good winter clothing, and by their colour disguised in a measure the bloody work the men had in hand."

If this explanation be correct, the Garibaldian red shirt was not, as might have been supposed, the symbol of revolution, but an accident—the proper costume, not of soldiers, but of butchers. In disciplining the raw force Garibaldi had the assistance of two capable lieutenants, both of whom had seen service. One, Anzani, had been engaged since the year 1821 in fighting the battles of freedom in Greece, in Spain, in Portugal, and in Brazil; the other, a young and handsome citizen of Milan called Medici, had fought in the Carlist wars in Spain, forgathered with Mazzini in England, and was then a merchant in South America. Later, he was to play an honorable part in the liberation of his native land.

The formation of the Italian legion was a lucky circumstance for Montevideo, as it bore the brunt of severe engagements during the sieges of 1843 and 1846. In the latter year the Italians defeated Rosas' infantry and held their ground with superb tenacity against the wily and impetuous attacks of his numerous horse—notably, at Sant' Antonio. Years afterward Garibaldi recalled their valor to the disadvantage of their countrymen in Europe. "I have heard," he said, "our lads cry 'Cavalry! cavalry!' and, I am ashamed to say, throw down their arms and fly, often at a false alarm. Cavalry! Why, the Italians at Sant' Antonio and the Dayman laughed at the finest cavalry in the world, though in those days they had nothing but flintlocks."

The Government of Uruguay was not ungrateful to Garibaldi, and would gladly have rewarded him with lands, high rank, and riches, but he preferred to live in almost abject poverty. One day Anita missed three small coins, the last of her slender store, and Garibaldi confessed that he had taken them to buy a doll for their little girl. Another time he returned to his house with his coat buttoned up to the chin—he had parted with his only shirt to a comrade whom he believed to be in greater need. His friends at the British Legation remarked that, although he often called, it was always in the daytime. A member of the staff was curious to learn the reason. Instead of answering, Garibaldi flung open his cloak and displayed his ragged underwear.

He not only practiced this self-denial himself, but induced the men of the legion to follow his example. While he liked the people of Uruguay, he distrusted the politicians, whom he suspected of an ignoble desire to 'feather their own nests.' So one of his aims was to raise the tone of public life. At the same time he did not wish to rest under obligations to the republic, whose service he might be compelled to renounce at the call of his own beloved country.