Garibaldi and his Red Shirts - F. J. Snell

The Thousand

The kingdom of the Two Sicilies, as it was called, comprising the island of Sicily and the southern half of peninsular Italy, was, owing to corrupt and tyrannical government, the plague-spot of Europe and the scandal of enlightened Christendom. Under the reign of Ferdinand II, scores of patriots, whose political opinions were offensive to the bigoted rulers, were immured in loathsome prisons, where they lay chained to each other, or, worse still, to some criminal of the lowest and most desperate type. The administration of justice was a parody, and the lives of many, nominally at large, were rendered a burden by the pestilent attentions of a swarm of spies. This monstrous condition of things Mr. Gladstone exposed in his Letters to Lord Aberdeen, and a more complete case for revolution or intervention could not have been made out. Jealousy between the great nations, however, made it dangerous for any one of them to step in, especially as the interests of the Papacy were inextricably bound up with those of Naples, and the whole of the Catholic world was opposed to the destruction of a regime as evil as the Inquisition, to which it bore a family resemblance.

The cruel rule of the Bourbons was most vulnerable in Sicily, where the Neapolitan garrisons could only maintain themselves in the coast towns. The interior of the island was occupied by a hardy peasantry, thoroughly disaffected to Ferdinand and his minions, and even the priests and bishops were in warm sympathy with its deep seated love of independence. Here, if anywhere, was a field for Garibaldi's disengaged energies, and appeal after appeal was made to him to champion the cause of Ferdinand's tortured thralls. Garibaldi was not unwilling to try fortune once more, but he answered every requisition by saying that the Sicilians themselves must initiate the fight for freedom. On the very day of his unhappy second wedding he wrote to Dr. Bertani, "You can assure your friends of South Italy that I am always at their disposal when they are willing really to act"; and this had been the tenor of several previous answers since the fall of the Roman Republic. Garibaldi seems to have understood the Sicilian temperament, and his subsequent experiences in the island fully justified his cautious attitude. Grim, stubborn warfare of the kind to which the North Italians were habituated was not to the liking of the mobile mountaineers, who preferred desultory skirmishing.

The Sicilians were not all alike; and the frightful and hopeless struggle waged by Francesco Riso, mason and plumber, and his seventeen followers, against the large Neapolitan garrison in the streets of Palermo, shows of what sacrifices patriots were capable. This occurred on April 4, 1860. On the 10th of the same month Rosalino Pilo, scion of a noble Sicilian family, and a companion named Corrao, landed at Messina, in order to foster an insurrection that had broken out simultaneously with Riso's bootless attempt to induce the Palermitans to rebel. He arrived from Genoa with the resolution of fulfilling Garibaldi's condition, and was so confident of success that he used the General's name as a talisman. Everywhere he announced to the enthusiastic villagers that Garibaldi would soon be among them.

Garibaldi, however, still hesitated. Sirtori, an ex-priest who had become a soldier and Garibaldi's chief of staff, sounded Cavour and found that that statesman would not compromise Piedmont by openly countenancing buccaneers, but was ready to furnish arms and reap the fruits of a successful expedition. Cavour, better informed than Garibaldi, did not think success at all probable, and believed that the death of the brave general would be a disaster from which it would take Italy many years to recover. Sirtori was equally despondent. He plainly told Garibaldi that if they went to Sicily, in his opinion not one of them would return alive.

The result was the postponement of the expedition, and it began to be whispered "Garibaldi is afraid." On April 30 he wrote to the Directors of the Million Rifles' Fund—for subscriptions had been pouring in and five hundred volunteers had assembled at Genoa in readiness to sail—"By now you will know about Sicily. The expedition does not start." But the same morning Bixio appeared with a 'new fact'—which seems to have been the revival of the insurrection by Pilo—and Garibaldi changed his mind. "We will go," he said. The decision was approved by a council of war, only Sirtori dissenting.

It was fortunate this delay occurred. The first intention had been to embark with five hundred volunteers; when Garibaldi left Quarto on the night of May 5 the number had risen to over one thousand—not one too many. Among them were men like Sirtori and the poet Nievo, firmly persuaded that they were doomed to a great calamity, but steadfast in their attachment to their heroic leader.

The expedition sailed in two steamers, the Piemonte  and Lombardo, commanded by Garibaldi and Bixio respectively. They anchored at Talamone in Tuscany for a few days to coal and revictual, and here Zambianchi was detached with two hundred and thirty men to invade the Papal States. This officer had shot priests in Rome in 1849—and Garibaldi knew it. He was not only a bully, but an incompetent commander, and his force was absurdly inadequate. Altogether, this method of placing the enemy between cross fires must be accounted one of Garibaldi's occasional blunders, all the more serious because the men could be ill-spared.

When the voyage was resumed, the two vessels lost touch with each other in the darkness; and, as the Neapolitan fleet was patrolling the coast of Sicily with a view to intercepting them, Bixio, believing the Piemonte to be one of the hostile cruisers, ordered his ship to be steered against her. Suddenly he heard a familiar voice, calling to him "Bixio."

"General!" he exclaimed; whereupon Garibaldi inquired, "Why do you wish to send us to the bottom?" The danger was averted, but by the narrowest of margins, those on board the Piemonte having laboured under a similar delusion in regard to the other vessel.

When at length the transports reached Marsala, that port was found unoccupied. But the Neapolitan squadron was sighted on the offing, and the landing had been barely effected when one of the enemy's ships, the Stromboli, steamed up, and having been joined by the Partenope and Capri, opened fire on Garibaldi's column as it was marching along the mole. The bombardment did little or no execution. One man was knocked over and the wife of an English resident narrowly escaped being killed, but, so far as was known, these were the only casualties.

Within the walls of Marsala Garibaldi caused himself to be proclaimed Dictator in the name of Victor Emmanuel, and the morning after, he led out his little army in the direction of Salemi. At Rampagallo he was joined by some squadre or native bands somewhat resembling our old militia, and officered by such magnates as Baron Sant' Anna of Alcamo and Don Alberto Mistretta of Salemi and Rampagallo. At Salemi Garibaldi was reinforced by one thousand more of these troops. They were indifferently armed with flintlocks and blunderbusses, and most of them were raw youths of twenty and under. Garibaldi's own force consisted entirely of civilians, owing to .Cavour's resolution not to embroil Piedmont with the Great Powers; they had wretched muskets and a woefully insufficient supply of ammunition.

Let us now consider the situation of the enemy. The Neapolitans had nearly twenty-five thousand regular soldiers in Sicily, and about four-fifths of that total was concentrated in or near Palermo. They were under the orders of the Governor, Castelcicala, an aged man, who enjoyed the distinction of having fought in the British army at Waterloo. In the present day, when so much is heard of 'grand old men' holding responsible positions and displaying an activity the envy of their juniors, it may sound paradoxical to talk of the numbing effects of age, but there is little doubt that the Neapolitans were guilty of a serious blunder in entrusting their armies to generals long past their prime. When Castelcicala was superseded, it was only that his place might be taken by a veteran of seventy-two, General Lanza, who had not had a specially brilliant career. The Sicilians remembered with glee an occasion when, as Filangieri's chief of staff, he attended a king's birthday review at Palermo and had been thrown with his horse in the mire, which had wrought havoc on his gorgeous uniform—and they could not remember much else. As for initiation, it may be easily surmised how much he possessed of that quality, when it is stated that General Nunziante had to be sent from Naples to make sure that he attacked Garibaldi instead of waiting to be attacked by him,

The original plan of campaign was to land at Marsala three or four battalions from Naples under General Bonanno, while General Landi was to operate with three battalions from Palermo. As soon as it became known that Garibaldi' had reached Salemi, the plan was changed, and Bonanno's force disembarked at Palermo. Landi, who was seventy years old, moved slowly forward, following his column in a carriage; and the march from Palermo to Alcamo, a distance of thirty miles, occupied six days! Still, there were good elements in the Neapolitan army, as there were bad elements in that of their opponents. The 8th Cacciatori, under Major Sforza, was a battalion of which any commander might have been proud, while large numbers of the squadre, recruited by the oratory of La Masa and Father Pantaleo—Garibaldi's 'New Ugo Bassi'—were enthusiastic, but not steady, except behind defenses.