Garibaldi and his Red Shirts - F. J. Snell

Revenge on the White-Coats

When, by his dilatory tactics, the Austrian general, Gyulai, gave time for the French army to arrive and take the offensive, the Garibaldians were dispatched on an independent expedition to the north of Lombardy, and crossing the Ticino, took up their position at Varese. General Urban, surnamed 'the Austrian Garibaldi,' was sent, with a regular force of infantry, cavalry, and artillery, to dislodge them. Urban decided to attack Varese on two sides, but the movements were ill-timed, and Garibaldi's men swept the main body away by a bayonet charge before the smaller column could reach the scene of action.

Thoroughly alarmed at this defeat, Gyulai hastened to reinforce his subordinate, who had retired on Corso, and there with six thousand four hundred infantry, besides cavalry and artillery, he ought to have been secure against the three thousand Garibaldians, all foot-soldiers. Fortune, however, again scowled upon him. The battle opened at the pass of San Fermo, which the Garibaldians cleared at the point of the bayonet. Many hundreds of feet below lay Como, and the General, greatly daring, ordered his troops to advance on the town in the face of what might well have seemed impossible odds. The sequel has been well described by Peard, who was, of course, an eye-witness.

"For some time," he writes, "a steady fire was poured down on the ravine from the height above, and just as the sun had gone down and it was beginning to get dusk, the whole of the troops on our left were collected and formed in the high road.

"After a short time Garibaldi rode to the front with his staff, with the peak of his cap pulled down close on his eyes, the only indication he ever gave of his thoughts being more intensely occupied than usual. It was as usual a barometer of his feelings as the working of the stump of Nelson's arm.

"Slowly our whole body began to move. As we descended the high road, darkness began to close in. Everyone expected some hot work before we should be in Como, for they had seen the formidable column that occupied the Piazza d'Armi. As we got nearer what was naturally supposed to be the scene of a hand-to-hand struggle, the halts, though of only a few minutes' duration, became frequent. The men were careful in arranging the position of their canteens and anything that might make a noise. They seemed to step lighter than usual, for not a footfall was to be heard. The silence became almost painful.

"In this way the first of the houses of the suburb were reached. The inhabitants instantly, as the column advanced, showed lights at their windows. They began to cry 'Viva Garibaldi!' but someone would run over immediately and beg them to remain silent. We were rapidly passing the suburb. Where were the Austrians, whom we had seen in such strength an hour or two before in occupation of the place? The suburb is passed. At the entrance of the city is a dense mass of figures with torches. Lights rapidly appear in all the windows, and instead of a storm of Austrian bullets the troops were met with a deafening shout, 'Viva Italia! Viva Garibaldi! '

"The people were wild with delight. Men with torches marched on either side of his horse, and old and young rushed forward, kissing his feet and clothes. Old men with tears streaming down their faces and young girls threw their arms round our necks and saluted us as their deliverers. The uproar was immense. The sound of the bells, which were ringing in all the campanili, and music of the bands, were drowned by the cheering of the crowds that were assembled in the Piazza. Marshal Urban, with eight battalions, a battery of guns and some squadrons of Uhlans, had evacuated the city about an hour previous to our arrival."

By this unexpected piece of good fortune the Garibaldians acquired a precious store of arms, provisions, and money that had been left behind by the Austrians.

Resigning Como to the care of the inhabitants and a detachment of cacciatori, Garibaldi led back his forces to Varese. Upon his withdrawal the citizens were seized with something like a panic; and on June 1 the General wrote to the royal commissary, Signor Venosta, from Robarello, "I am fronting the enemy in Varese; I mean to attack him this evening. Send those who are afraid and any families who tremble out of the city, but let the sturdy population sound their tocsin, and, sustained by our Camozzi and his two companies, resist to the uttermost."

When Garibaldi sent this sarcastic message, things were going none too well with him. From Varese his troops had marched to the assault of Legano on Lago Maggiore. The storming parties were led by Landi and Bronzetti respectively; and the former succeeded in entering the fortress. Bronzetti, on the other hand, was misled by his guides and failed to support his fellow-leader, who was compelled by a heavy fire to retreat. Landi himself was wounded, but managed to drag himself to the General, to whom he reported the issue of the affair. "Your tale is not true!" cried Garibaldi. "Bronzetti must be in the fort. I bet my head Bronzetti is master of the castle. Accursed fear!"

"General," replied Landi, reproachfully, "I am wounded; Gastaldi, Sprovieri, and many soldiers are also wounded"

"Go!" thundered the General; and, so saying, he wheeled his horse and rode off to ascertain the state of the case for himself. He soon found that Bronzetti was retreating, and that Bixio had been unable to capture the steamers. Both from these and from the fort guns were pouring a storm of shot on the discomfited troops, of whom Garibaldi then took command. He led them in good order to Cuvio, and, on his way thither, passed cart after cart laden with wounded. Amongst others, he observed Sprovieri with a broken arm and Landi in convulsions. Landi had been right after all, and the General confessed, "I was mistaken this morning." All through the campaign Garibaldi is said to have been extremely stern to his men, and more than once expressed contempt for the "cowardly conscripts," who, instead of attacking with the bayonet, preferred to waste their ammunition.



After the repulse at Legano someone hinted to the General that retreat into Switzerland might be necessary. Garibaldi scouted the notion. "There are a hundred and one things to be done before we think of quitting Lombard soil," he replied. The situation did not improve, however, and on the following morning he was concerned at the news that Urban had appeared before Varese with three complete brigades, and was shelling the town, which the inhabitants had quitted for the upland village of S. Maria del Monte. It would have been sheer madness for Garibaldi to attack an enemy four times as numerous as his own little force, so he returned to Como and proceeded to fortify that city. Medici, athirst for glory, was for pushing on to Milan, which, it was reported, the Austrians were preparing to evacuate, but Garibaldi, though by no means deficient in boldness and initiative, realized that he was playing a subordinate part in this campaign and renounced the opportunity of winning laurels which he would probably have seized had he been in supreme command.

Meanwhile greater events, the marshaling of larger forces, began to tell. On May 30 Victor Emmanuel and General Cialdini had defeated the Austrians at Palestro, and in consequence of this reverse Urban had received orders to relax the pursuit of Garibaldi. But he and his three brigades were not—as they should have been—peremptorily recalled, and took no part in the decisive battle of Magenta (June 4), in which the French, under the Emperor Napoleon, were victorious. Thereupon Gyulai withdrew his army from Lombardy, and retired into Venetia.

Tidings of the battle reached Garibaldi on the following day, and he at once set out to harass the retreating enemy. At Seriate, a company commanded by Narciso Bronzetti put to flight a battalion of Hungarians, probably only half-hearted in the cause of the Empire from which, not many years before, their countrymen had striven to liberate themselves. At Bergamo a remarkable scene occurred. Half a dozen Austrian officers were conducted as prisoners into the presence of Garibaldi. Not one of them doubted that this man, who had been tracked as a criminal ten years before, would now take his revenge by ordering them to be shot, but to their intense relief and amazement the 'Red Devil' shook their hands, praised their valor, and sympathized with them in their misfortune.

At Brescia Garibaldi came in touch with the allied armies, and ceased to hold an independent command. In a subsequent action at Ponte S. Giacomo the heroic Narciso Bronzetti was mortally wounded, and a grave disaster was averted only by the timely arrival of the regular cavalry. Garibaldi was then dispatched to the Valtelline, far distant from the main theatre of hostilities, where there was only a small body of the enemy quite unable to make a stand against the twelve thousand cacciatori. Either the general staff must have been misled by false reports or they were actuated by a mean desire to get rid of the amateur soldier. Whatever may have been then the sentiments of professional soldiers towards Garibaldi, there can be no question that, as always, he was the darling of the Italian people. This is proved by the testimony of Giovanni Visconti Venosta, a native of the Valtelline:

"When Garibaldi passed through a village, although he was not now wearing the red shirt, you would not have said he was a general, but the head of a new religion, followed by a crowd of fanatics. The women, no less enthusiastic than the men, brought their babes to Garibaldi that he might bless, and even baptize, them. To these crowds that thronged him Garibaldi would speak with that beautiful voice of his, which was a part of the secret of his charm—'Come! he who stays at home is a coward. I promise you weariness, hardship, and battles. But we will conquer or die!' These were not cheerful words, but when they were heard, the enthusiasm rose to its highest. It was a delirium. The crowd broke up deeply moved, commenting on what the General had said: many had tears in their eyes."

On the march to the Valtelline, the volunteers were informed of the battle of Solferino, which had occurred on June 24, in which the Austrians were again the losers. After another fortnight conditions of peace were arranged at a meeting between the emperors at Villafranca, and the war was at an end.

Although the campaign had been a triumph for the French arms, Napoleon yielded to an attack of political 'nerves,' and the Treaty of Villafranca amounted to a shameless betrayal of his Italian allies and the aspirations for which so many of them had bled and died. Austria was to retain those portions of Venetian territory of which she was still in possession. The Dukes of Modena, Tuscany, and Parma were to be restored and the Papal flag was again to wave in the Romagna; all that Piedmont gained was Lombardy. This was not what Cavour—whom the Great Powers had not deigned to consult—had bargained for, and he signed the treaty with reluctance, adding, "Pour ce que me concerne."  He evidently did not think it would be acceptable to the mass of his countrymen, and, in a private conversation with the Hungarian patriot Kossuth, remarked, "This treaty shall not be executed."

A year later Tuscany, Emilia, Parma, Modena, and the Romagna were added to the dominions of King Victor Emmanuel, but at what was, to Garibaldi, the terrible cost of the cession of Nice and Savoy to France. By this act, he said, the Governments of France and Piedmont made him, as a native of Nice, a foreigner. Central Italy, still under the provisional government of dictators, was marked out for future absorption by Piedmont, and after that the kingdom of Naples. But Cavour was in no hurry; he saw plainly how things were tending.

Garibaldi was in a very different state of mind. He was distracted with anxiety to save Nice to Italy, and at one moment harboured the mad design of breaking the ballot-boxes at Genoa, in which the more complaisant subjects of Victor Emmanuel were expected to record their approval of the compromise. The General had perhaps not quite recovered from a stunning blow that he had brought upon himself by his own folly. His union with Anita had been an ideal one, and he was not likely to find in this world another Anita. He seems, however, to have thought otherwise. During his campaign in the Alps a message had been conveyed to him by a plucky and handsome girl, the daughter of Count Raimondi. In December he renewed her acquaintance as her father's guest at Fino, near Como, and toward the end of January, 1860, he married her. On the very day of their wedding a communication reached him, suggesting that she ought to have been the wife of another and younger gentleman. The bride, on being questioned, made no denial, whereupon Garibaldi exclaimed, "Then see you do not bear my name; I leave you forever.'

Deeply chagrined, he returned to the 'simple life' at Caprera; but large portions of Italy were not yet free, and without strenuous efforts on the part of the famous knight-errant did not seem likely to be free—at any rate, in the immediate future.