Garibaldi and his Red Shirts - F. J. Snell
The commencement of hostilities between Prussia and Austria in 1866 was felt by every Italian to be a great occasion for achieving the freedom of those provinces that were still unredeemed. There can be little question that if things had been properly ordered, the torrent of Italian valor would have proved irresistible. Austria, hard pressed by her powerful neighbor on the north, could spare only eighty or ninety thousand men under the Archduke Albert for the defense of her southern territories, while the Government of Italy could place in the field a regular army of two hundred thousand men, besides a formidable number of volunteers, which, Garibaldi computes, might have amounted to one hundred thousand, and did amount to nearly a third of that total. The campaign, which should have been a splendid triumph for Italian arms, was singularly inglorious; and the two incidents which stand out distinct from events of minor importance are the battle of Custoza on June 24 and the naval engagement at Lissa in the following month. In both actions the Italians were decisively defeated. Toward the close of the brief struggle there were signs of greater efficiency on the part of the land forces, but the cession of Venetia, which was Italy's reward for participating in the war, was the happy consequence of the alliance with Prussia rather than the fruit of actual victory.
After the affair of Aspromonte Garibaldi might have been excused for cherishing a sense of injury and sulking in his tent, but it was not like him to manifest resentment when he found himself in a position to render service to his country. It appears also that in the first stage of the preparations Victor Emmanuel had dangled before him the dazzling prospect of heading a descent on the coast of Dalmatia. For a time Garibaldi's imagination ran riot. He dreamed of himself as the chosen instrument for overthrowing the unwieldy empire of Austria, his own ancient enemy and the inveterate foe of peoples longing to be free. He thought he had only to plant his standard on the further shore of the Adriatic, and whole populations from Hungary to Greece would press forward to follow in his train, and, penetrating with that mighty avalanche into the very heart of Austria, he might crown his career by dictating terms at Vienna.
This magnificent dream was soon shattered by adverse influences, to which indeed Garibaldi was not unused, but which were none the less offensive to his pride and patriotism. At no time, of course, had there been any idea of appointing him to the command of regular troops, but the envy or unreason of high persons was not content with insisting on his civilian status. The number of volunteers to be raised was limited, and one half of them was detained in Southern Italy, where they were totally useless for the purposes of the war. The entire force was armed with wretched muskets, in contrast with the excellent carbines supplied to the regulars of both armies; and Garibaldi attributes the disproportionate losses sustained by his men to this mean, unfair, and suicidal policy. It was, in fact, the old story of the campaign in the Alps, when all these injustices had been perpetrated; and that the analogy might lack no point of resemblance, Garibaldi was sent to operate, not in Dalmatia, but in the mountainous regions bordering the Lago di Garda.
In this later expedition he was hampered by a fresh drawback, which he in a sense brought upon himself. He asked for the command of the flotilla anchored at Salo on the lake, expecting to find it a valuable auxiliary. The request was granted with almost suspicious readiness, and, on arriving at the port, Garibaldi discovered that he had merely increased his responsibility. Instead of adding to his resources he had diminished them. Nominally the little fleet consisted of six gun-boats, each of them armed with a twenty-four pounder, but only one was available for service. Of the rest one was ashore, useless, while the engines of the other four were out of repair. Against this phantom fleet the Austrians had eight war-steamers, fully manned and provisioned, and armed with forty-eight cannon of superior caliber. One of Garibaldi's chief cares, therefore, was to save his scarecrow flotilla from capture; and a whole regiment was detached to keep guard over it and the forts that were being gradually raised for its protection.
Undeterred by so many obstacles to effective action, Garibaldi pushed on with his gallant volunteers, and had already driven the enemy from the bridge at Caffaro and the strong position of Monte Suello, when the news arrived of the disastrous battle of Custoza. The result of the engagement was conveyed to him in a message of General Della Marmora, who ordered him to cover Brescia and not to rely on the support of the army which was retiring behind the Oglio. Thereupon Garibaldi recalled his vanguard and concentrated his forces in the neighborhood of Lonato, where he was in grave danger of being attacked by the victorious army of Austria. But the risk was worth taking, since Garibaldi was enabled not only to cover Brescia and Salo, with its depots and flotilla, but to collect the stragglers of the routed army and some of the baggage-trains. "The Italian volunteers," he says, "may well be proud of it, and I hope my younger readers will deduce from it the lesson not to retreat before an enemy, however strong, without having first seen and carefully examined his numbers, and coolly calculated the injury and disgrace which may result from an over-hasty retreat."
The shame of Custoza might have been avoided if the Italian army had not been split into two divisions, one on the Mincio and the other on the Po. Together, they outnumbered the Austrians by considerably more than two to one—a fact which no doubt weighed with the Imperial commanders no less than the exhaustion of their men in abstaining from pursuit. The union of two Italian armies restored confidence; and Garibaldi was ordered to recommence in the Tyrol. His first thought was to recover his lost ground at Caffaro and Monte Suello, which the Austrians had garrisoned in strong force, and from which he endeavored to dislodge them by a coup de main. The volunteers were full of heart, but found it hard work to contend with the Tyrolese sharpshooters with their magnificent carbines, and Garibaldi himself received a wound in the left thigh, which compelled him to retire and leave the command to Colonel Corte. It is clear from his account that his young soldiers, worn out by the fatigues of previous marches, suffered a repulse nearly followed by a flight; but on the following day, July 4, the Austrians having withdrawn, Monte Suello and Caffaro were again in the hands of the indomitable Garibaldi.
The only engagement, after this, of real importance was the fight at Bezzecco on July 21. Having gradually thrust back some Garibaldian detachments from the valley of Conzei, the Austrians, six thousand strong, advanced to the village of Bezzecco, where the valley joins the Val di Ledro at right angles. Garibaldi sent all the regiments he could possibly spare to the Val di Ledro; and a battery of eight pieces, stationed in front of Bezzecco, made desperate efforts to stay the progress of the enemy. All the horses belonging to one of the pieces were killed, and all the gunners killed or wounded except one. "This gallant fellow," writes Garibaldi, "after sending his last projectile against the enemy, mounted astride his gun as coolly as if he had been at a review." On the center and right the volunteers were slowly retreating, firing all the time, when the General was informed that there was a fresh battery in the rear, and its six guns, joined to three pieces of the battery in retreat, poured a rapid and deadly fire on the Austrians, who at the same time, or shortly after, were charged with intrepid determination by the infantry. The enemy, completely worsted, not only abandoned Bezzecco and the valley of Conzei, but gave up all idea of defending the Italian Tyrol.
On August 25 the order arrived to cease hostilities, to retreat, to evacuate the Tyrol. Although flushed with success and on the eve of occupying Trento, the Tyrolese capital, Garibaldi loyally replied, "I obey," and, after the disbandment of the volunteers at Brescia, again retired to Caprera.