Italy’s Pre-Unification, a Peninsula in Conflict

                                                                                     Part II    Sicily


By: Tom Frascella                                                                                                                                      March 2015



 At the start of the Piedmont-Sardinia conflict with Austria in late April 1859 it was southern Italy’s Kingdom of the Two Sicilies that was the richest regional State on the Italian Peninsula, not Piedmont-Sardinia. The Kingdom of the Two Sicilies contained two of the five richest cities in Italy, Naples and Palermo. The overall treasury of the Kingdom far exceeded the treasuries of all of the other regional Italian States combined. The Kingdom had by far the largest professionally trained and well equipped standing army of over 100,000 men and the largest navy. It also had the most developed manufacturing sector of the peninsula.

 On the negative side the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies was the only absolute monarchy still existing in Western Europe with a history of suppression of middle-class/upper-class demands for constitutional protections. It also had a notoriously corrupt central bureaucracy and corrupt judicial system which fed an extensive prison system for political activists. Many of these activists in fact had taken up positions in exile especially in Piedmont where networks of subversion were fostered against the Bourbon regime. The Kingdom of the Two Sicilies still remained in the mid-19th century a class based society with a disenfranchised tenant farmer lower class and little or no upward mobility.

 As the most powerful and independent of the regional Italian States in 1858 it did not appear on the surface a likely candidate for takeover or rapid political collapse. However a number of significant political and social weaknesses existed which would prove liabilities leading to just that outcome. First, the failure of the Bourbon monarchs to grant constitutional concessions had led to distance and distrust between the monarchy and the middle/upper classes of the Kingdom. Ferdinand II was a forceful and suppressive ruler. He frequently drew on military support from foreign allies primarily Austria and Swiss mercenaries which formed the backbone of his army. Ferdinand II had learned from the repeated attempted revolts that the Carbonari inspired middle and upper classes frequently proved unsupportive of the monarchy when occupying critical military officer roles. As a result there was a dependence on foreign officers and troops to keep rebellious populations in check. During Ferdinand’s reign the Kingdom’s army frequently was composed of 15,000-40,000 foreign troops which served as the nation’s primary defense. In the later part of Ferdinand’s reign there was a gradual cutting back on foreign mercenaries but even as late as 1858 there were 15,000 Swiss soldiers employed under military contract.

 In May 1858 Ferdinand II died and in 1859 Francesco II came to power. The young monarch only twenty-three at the time of his coronation, lacked the necessary experience and qualified advisors to adequately understand and cope with the rapidly changing political landscape of the time. Francesco II a deeply religious man was not prepared to wield the power of the monarchy he possessed. He demonstrated none of the military skill or ruthless directive of his father.

 We have already discussed that the policies of Ferdinand II which were inherited by Francesco II toward control of the sulfur trade had antagonized Great Britain. Both father and son failed to grasp the liability that incurring Britain’s wrath was.

 A second critical miscalculation of power occurred in 1859. Although the Kingdom’s army numbered some 100,000 men a critical part of the army was at that point some 10,000 Swiss troops. In 1858 the Swiss government cancelled the age old practice of allowing Swiss citizens to serve in foreign armies. To continue to do so risked loss of Swiss citizenship. The kingdom was able to retain 10,000 by agreeing to exceptionally generous wages. Even so the loss of citizenship created issues for these troops and discipline problems in the ranks developed.

 Francesco II ultimately perceived a loyalty issue among the Swiss troops and offered immediate discharge for any Swiss soldier who requested it. The result was that in 1859 he lost virtually all of the Swiss contingent. As a result his foreign mercenary contingent was reduced to 500-1,000 soldiers. For the first time since the 1820’s the Kingdom’s army was comprised almost exclusively, except for the officers, of the Kingdom’s own citizens.

 Both Piedmont and Great Britain viewed this military loss of the Swiss contingent as creating a major military opportunity.


                                                    Piedmont’s Timetable for the Invasion of Sicily


 To be clear, the official Italian historical line is that Piedmont-Sardinia never invaded Sicily, or The Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, and never declared war on them. King Victor Emmanuel II and his cabinet went to great lengths to reinforce that non-aggression position, before, during and well after the campaign. They believed, with good reason, that should they have engaged in such an obvious aggression against the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies the fraternity of other European States would have acted to block such a move. Therefore, like the Austrian conflict which had to be seen as one of aggression by Austria, the military campaign against the Bourbon regime had to look like it was internally based, a revolt by the people. That farce, was so well played out that it even today it is the most repeated version of what happened. Most of the old histories say so. Modern historians however don’t accept the Piedmont’s non-aggressor position based on the known facts connect with the campaign.

 What aided the Piedmont plan and its official deniability of aggression was how fast they were prepared to implement an action against the Bourbon regime.  Almost immediately following the armistice with Austria in July of 1859, former Sicilian Carbonari leaders Francesco Crespi and Giuseppe La Masa working from Piedmont with other exiled Sicilian leaders began to make clandestine trips to Sicily using forged identity papers provided by the Piedmont government. They made several important trips in the later part of 1859.  The purpose of these late 1859 trips was to organize a staged revolt. The staged revolt would serve as the excuse for Garibaldi to arrive with a small “volunteer” force to support the Sicilians in their uprising. The program to set up this “volunteer” force was well underway by late 1859 and well before any revolt had commenced in Sicily.

 The July 11, 1859 armistice with Austria resulted in the November 1859 Peace Accord. This in turn set up the Plebiscite schedule for March 1860 which when passed brought a great deal of northern Italy under the “official” control of Piedmont-Sardinia. After the November Peace accord was signed Garibaldi with Piedmont’s blessing was in a position to stand down as commander of the so-called Cacciatori delle Alpi, “Hunters of the Alps”brigade. This brigade of “volunteers” consisted of roughly three thousand men.  When Garibaldi resigned his commission about two thousand of the men were absorbed into the regular Piedmont army. About 1,000 of the remaining men were “officially” discharged. Garibaldi then had no “official” status with the Piedmont military nor did the 1,000 men who had been discharged.

 By March the rest of Europe was distracted with observing the anticipated northern Italian Plebiscite. If successful the Plebiscite would create a largely “unified” northern Italy. Piedmont had taken every precaution to insure the Plebiscite’s success secretly they were also very busy insuring that long range other plans were well under way as well.

 One important part of those additional plans was arranged in early 1860. If a successful clandestine military invasion of Sicily was to occur, transportation of that clandestine force was necessary.  Fortunately a former U.S. naval officer suddenly decided to purchase “with his own money” a fleet of merchant vessels from France and sail the vessels into Genoa harbor under an American flag. This former officer had no apparent connection, nor did his funds, to the Piedmont regime. He did however connect to personal service with Garibaldi in his successful South American Brazilian/Uruguay campaign. Genoa was under Piedmont jurisdiction, this would include the port, it fortresses, customs offices and naval assets when the “American” vessels anchored. To be sure the arrival of these vessels which began in March could not have happened without the consent of the port authorities/Piedmont government.

 At about the same time as this mysterious fleet arrived Francesco Crespi disappeared from Piedmont leaving behind his wife. It turns out he was once again secretly smuggled back to Sicily where he could continue his preparations for a Sicilian “revolt”.

 I should note that in the beginning of April 1860, the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies had between 20,000 and 21,000 soldiers stationed on Sicily with a considerable naval presence in and around the island’s main ports. These men were well trained and equipped and more than a match for any poorly armed and untrained citizen revolt. The likelihood of a successful uprising that depended on local men and arms was very unlikely.

 Nevertheless on the morning of April 4, 1860 the uprising on the Island of Sicily started in Messina and Palermo at opposite sides of the island, at the same time. I will focus on the Palermo uprising, as most do, as the more interesting and important of the two initial actions. Its importance arising from the fact that Palermo was the Capital of Sicily, its most important city, and the uprising there was the deadliest of the two.


                                                             The Palermo Uprising April 4, 1860


 At the time of the uprising some 10,000 heavily armed troops of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies were stationed in and around Sicily’s largest city Palermo. In the days preceding April 4th preparations were made by a small group of rebels, led by Francisco Riso, to gather some light small arms, muskets and pistols and two wooden cannon and hide them in the Church of Santa Maria della Angeli, also known as La Gancia. Apparently this was done with the knowledge of the priests and nuns of the convent.

 The plan as it is understood was that on the morning of April 4, 1860 at the sound of the vigorous ringing of the La Gancia church bell the rebels would gather up their arms and begin an attack on outposts of the garrison. This might seem like a reasonable plan until one realizes that the rebel force would consist of about 80 lightly armed individuals. Clearly, the rebels were not anticipating a major successful battle, but rather a small skirmish.

 The Palermo affair was compromised by the fact that the Kingdom’s garrison was tipped off to the plan and its timing well in advance and so they were prepared. At the appointed time the local square was so full of armed soldiers that the majority of the rebels decided to flee even before they could fully gather. An intelligent decision which allowed most to escape to fight another day. However, about twenty of the rebels had already convened in the Church and were cornered. The soldiers burst into the Church surprising the rebels and killed about a half a dozen of the men there and took 13 captives.

 Folk legend in Palermo states that two of the rebels, Giuseppe Bivona and Filippo Patti, who were in the Church when it was raided managed to hide in the crypt undetected for five agonizing days. On the fifth day they managed to escape through a small hole in the church wall. The escape is said to have been aided by several Sicilian women who orchestrated a disturbance to distract the soldiers who were in the neighborhood. There is a plaque at the spot in the church wall that commemorates the escape. The enshrined hole is called Buca della Salvezza or Hole of Salvation. In the present case salvation certainly did not come without considerable sacrifice.


                                                                     Photograph of the “the hole of Salvation” Palermo Sicily



 The two rebels who hid in the Church crypt along with most of their comrades managed to escape into the hills outside of Palermo where they were hunted by royalist soldiers. Following the initial attack the rebels appear to have opted for a strategy of small tactic hit and run actions both urban and rural throughout the island. If afforded them minimal casualties while forcing the royalist troops to disburse throughout the island. There they caused more annoyance than damage but forced the Royalist troops to fan out searching for them. The thirteen who were captured at the church in Palermo including Francisco Riso’s father were not so lucky as to continue on in their rebellious actions. On April 14 all thirteen were publicly executed in the town square. The Square is now known as “the Square of the thirteen victims”. I note that the square’s name describes those executed as “victims” not patriots an interesting omission.

 Although in dispatches to Naples the commander of the Sicilian Royalist forces assured the monarchy that the revolt had been put down and everything was under control. The Bourbon regime had seen through the decades how seemingly insignificant events could cascade in Sicily into major revolts. Therefore they decided to reinforce the Sicilian garrison with an additional 10,000 troops.  So by the end of April there were approximately 31,000 trained and equipped royalist forces on Sicily. It is the magnitude of the Bourbon forces entrenched on the island which makes what happened next very difficult to believe and therefore has attained a certain degree of Mythic stature.




                                                      Piedmont/Garibaldi’s Response to the Uprising


 As soon as the “revolt” began in Palermo the British consulate in the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies advised the Piedmont government that the revolt had begun. The fact that the “revolt” had been crushed or at least less than successful did not seem to disturb anyone. In fact from everything I have read the failure was so irrelevant that one has to question whether the “failure” was not the desired outcome. I say this because had a large scale general revolt commenced instead of a small scale uprising the Bourbon regime would probably have responded with even more troops than were already dispatched. A greater number would create a more formidable military force than that already present and would have found targets among the rebellious Sicilians easier.

  Once the revolt was confirmed in Piedmont over the next several weeks of April Garibaldi “raised” and organized his 1,000 man “volunteer” force from the remnants of his “Hunters of the Alps” brigade. He touted this force as volunteers to join with their oppressed brethren in a righteous campaign of national unity. In an interesting and inspiring move, which also meant to emphasize that this force was not connected to the Piedmont regime the “volunteers” were dressed in redshirts. Garibaldi had made the redshirts famous, almost Italian folklore, in his independence campaign in South America.

 Garibaldi after some minor organizing moved his men to the port of Genoa where supplies and several small artillery pieces were being loaded on to two “American” merchant ships renamed for their mission the Piemonte and the Lombardo. In Genoa Garibaldi and his men were also expecting 1,000 rifles to be secretly supplied by the Piedmont arsenal. At the last minute the arrival of these rifles was cancelled. I believe there was a concern that the weapons would give away Piedmont’s involvement. A scramble ensued to find less traceable replacement muskets which delayed departure of the two vessels until May 6, 1860.

 The “redshirts” were divided up between the two vessels. Garibaldi on one vessel and his second in command Nino Bixio in charge of the second vessel. In addition to the “volunteers were a number of important Sicilian rebel leaders including Giuseppe La Masa and Rosalino Pilo as well as Francesco Crespi’s wife.

 The departure of Garibaldi from Genoa on May 6th was soon known throughout Italy including at the court of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. To its credit the Bourbon regime again reinforced the Sicilian garrison with an additional 10,000 troops raising the total force on the island to 40,000. The Bourbons further ordered its navy to be on the lookout for the two vessels and to intercept them.

 To be sure Garibaldi made a career of brash, aggressive military actions where he commanded weaker, poorly trained, under weaponized forces against significantly superior forces. In many cases he rested victory from what on paper and reality were terrible odds. His willingness to risk “all” including his own personal safety and that of his men deserves to be painted in the heroic terms. The case of Garibaldi taking two unarmed vessels with between 500 and 1,000 lightly armed trained “volunteers” on board prepared to confront 40,000 entrenched trained and equipped Bourbon soldiers is clearly an example of such brash aggressiveness.

 However, in all historical fairness Garibaldi never thought that such a plan could succeed, nor did the Piedmont regime, or its French and British allies. Garibaldi knew that his landing with a thousand or less trained men, counting on local poorly armed rebels as back-up facing 40,000 well-trained royalist soldiers with unlimited potential for reinforcement would have been a suicide mission. If that was the plan Garibaldi would never have set foot on those ships. So the questions are, what was the actual plan, and what actually occurred during the Piedmont invasion of Sicily?

 First we have to appreciate that the entire push against the Bourbon regime by Piedmont and its allies was constructed as a stealth campaign of misinformation and deception. If it had been more honest in its goals the plan would have been stopped by Bourbon’s European allies. So the “official” history of what took place both as it was happening and afterward was never exposed. The myth became the reality with the passage of time.

 Publicly, Piedmont had to appear to have no control and not to sanction Garibaldi’s actions, and France and England publicly had to appear unaware and uninvolved in Garibaldi’s mission as well. Since there was no hiding Garibaldi’s departure from Genoa, the Piedmont regime publicly issued orders to its navy, the day after Garibaldi’s two vessels left the Piedmont controlled port of Genoa, to stop the vessels. Obviously this would have been more effective as an order if it had been issued the day before they left rather than the day after. In addition, just to make sure the order was completely ineffective the navy was sent to Sardinia on the intercept when the Piedmont regime knew Garibaldi’s vessels were in fact headed to Tuscany.

 Why Tuscany when his target was Sicily? Garibaldi feinted a landing in Tuscany as a pretense, a threat against the Papal States. France which had pledged to protect the Papal States could then protest Garibaldi’s threat. This protest then forced Garibaldi to withdraw from Tuscany. France was then the hero averting this potential threat and positioned to show that it had nothing to do with Garibaldi. The fact that Garibaldi was sailing on vessels originally registered to France could then be safely ignored by history.

 The allied governments understood the need for deception so both Piedmont and France could “credibly” maintain that not only were they not involved in Garibaldi’s actions but had acted to stop him. Upon leaving Tuscany more misinformation was planted in the form a rumor that Garibaldi’s new landing would be in Palermo. While such news may have stirred the emotions of those who were awaiting his arrival it is unlikely that anyone gave this rumor serious consideration. Two unarmed vessels were not likely to attack one of the most heavily defended ports in Europe. Such an engagement would be futile. Garibaldi’s real landing site at Marsala was kept secret.

 Comments and descriptions on Garibaldi’s impressive campaign in Sicily will be covered in later articles. What is important at this point is to recognize that if Piedmont and its allies hoped for a victory in Sicily over the Bourbon regime certain major obstacles had to be overcome.

1.       Garibaldi’s two unarmed transports had to reach the Sicilian coast undetected.

2.       He had to find a suitable landing port, unguarded/or in friendly hands, in which he could disembark both troops and supplies.

3.       He would need to garner Sicilian support especially irregulars willing to fight.

4.       He would need to secretly continue to obtain resupplies and reinforcements from Piedmont.

5.       He would need to limit Bourbon resupply and reinforcements.


 How Garibaldi, Piedmont and its allies went about dealing with the above obstacles again will be the subject for future articles. However, by early May 1860 it should be stated that complete plans to deal with all of the above was in place and ready to be implemented. In fact, as an example, by May 7th, the day after Garibaldi’s departure from Genoa, the Piedmont regime was already engaged in loading ammunition, supplies and organizing another 2,500 “volunteers” for passage to Sicily.

 These men and supplies were to be loaded in Genoa upon three additional merchant vessels, formerly French, now owned by the same American ex-naval officer that owned the Piemonte and the Lombardo. The three new transport vessels were also re-commissioned as American merchant vessels and renamed the Washington, the Oregon and the Franklin.

 In addition, to the above a number of small ships carrying lesser amounts of men and supplies were also being regularly displaced by Piedmont. As the resupply and reinforcement of Garibaldi gained momentum the departure port for these vessels shifted to the island of Sardinia. From this port of departure the movement of vessels could be more protected from spies of the Bourbon regime and its allies.

 “I Mille” or The Thousand as the initial troops that accompanied Garibaldi to Sicily are known were never meant to be all of the Piedmont troops that would land on Sicily. Rather they were the initial wave, the first shock troops dispatched. Critically important to the campaign, but far less than what would ultimately be needed.

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