Italy’s Pre-Unification, A Peninsula in Conflict
Part III Lucania
By: Tom Frascella March 2015
The conditions present in Basilicata/Lucania of 1857-1860 were unique in the political/social landscape of Italy. First, it was and had been for a number of centuries the poorest region of Italy. Following the end of the era of the Crusades and the improvement of shipping the use of the Lucania’s mountain passes for trade had essentially evaporated by the 16th century. The commerce dependent on the constant movement of rare commodities which had been the life-blood of its economy was gone. The region’s lack of industry and natural resources left the local population with only an agricultural basis for survival. Agriculture however as an economic base in a region that is classified as 84% mountainous does not provide an abundance of wealth. Among the poorest of the poor starvation and the drudgery of hard labor were constant companions. By 1857 poverty had already become chronic and institutionalized in Lucania and needs to be appreciated from that perspective.
The harsh conditions in the area contributed to the region being the least densely populated per square mile in all of Italy. By the late 1850’s Lucania’s total population was only between 400,000 and 500,000. The land simply could not sustain more. The entire region had only one municipality that could qualify as a small town its capital Potenza with 40,000 -60,000 residents. Most of the Lucanian population was spread throughout the region living in hamlets, villages and towns. Most of these villages had populations well under 10,000 residents. The rugged living conditions produced little opportunity for wealth or leisure. Even simple commerce between nearby villages required strenuous physical effort and time. The relative isolation of the region and lack of commerce fostered cottage industries and local self-dependence.
The social order of the region had also long before 1850 become uniquely stratified even for Italy. The vast majority of the land of the region was either owned by a small non-resident upper class or by the Catholic Church. Neither of these two elements of society answered politically to the people, and both were beyond the reach of common socio-economic protests or upheavals. While there was a small resident noble and middle class their level of affluence, influence and numbers were far less significant to the region than might be expected. These resident noble and middle classes, like their Carbonari counterparts in other parts of Italy, had supported greater constitutional rights and freedoms but their efforts were relatively ineffective. Political suppression was common in the region and non-adherence to the social order generally ended in either death, imprisonment or exile for those that dared to challenge the social order and economic realities of the region. Nevertheless, there was a persistent history of small scale revolt fostered as a by-product of the frustrations and the hardships endured.
Prior to 1857 the general socio-political/economic conditions of the region had led to a number of men of the region running afoul of the law but managing to avoid execution or imprisonment by fleeing into the hills and mountains. There they lead the life of social outcast and perpetual persona non grata. These men basically fell into two groups. First, those that had committed crimes such as murder, theft or failure to pay taxes. To be sure these crimes were often associated with the social inequities of the region but were more “traditional” crimes nevertheless. Second, those that had committed political protest/revolt or civil disobedience and were deemed anti-government/regime. By the late 1850’s these two groups accounted for between 400 and 500 men, who were forced to live the life of fugitives in the mountains of the region. They survived on handouts from sympathetic friends and relatives or by petty theft. At times these men would band together in small groups of at most ten or twenty. Their association generally was determined by necessity, or threat rather than for ideological reasons. They poised no real threat to government officials due to their relatively small numbers. Their lack of unity and cohesiveness usually provided local officials the ability turn a blind eye to their existence. They were largely ignored within their mountain societies. To the Bourbon regime these men were simply all labelled brigands or in Italian “Briganti”.
As I have previously explored socio-economic conditions of Basilicata began a radical change in December of 1857 with the occurrence of the Great earthquake. The earthquake struck and devastated the region. It was a region hardly equipped in terms of available surplus resources to cope with any major calamity. The great earthquake of 1857 was not just a major calamity it was catastrophic in its scope and effect. In addition to the twenty thousand people killed and many more seriously injured there was the widespread crushing structural collapse of the infrastructure. For example, the city of Potenza, Basilicata’s only community of city size experienced 80% of its housing totally destroyed. The scale of the disaster and the region’s poverty made recovery slow, painful, difficult and beyond the endurance of many.
I have spent some time in previous articles writing about the destruction and misery that the region suffered. Due to a lack of government relief response the population was left largely to its own meager resources to recover. The federal lack of concern for the welfare of the population created a new source of resentment toward the government safely tucked away in its Neapolitan palaces. The frustration of the people reduced to living in rubble in the bitter cold of winter was felt by most and witnessed by all in the region. In 1858 hostility and frustration led to some desperate looting and raiding of government stores in the region. Instead of appreciating or caring about the condition of the people of the area the Bourbon regime concentrated what little recovery effort it made to opening up damaged roadways. This was done not for the region but for movement of commerce and commercial interests through rather than to the region. Absentee landlords increased production demands on the surviving populace in order to repair privately owned estates rather than to provide much needed food to the population.
When locals protested and in furtherance of the Bourbon’s external objectives about 5,000 Bourbon troops were sent in to stop the food riots and raids on government offices. People so engaged were again officially deemed to be “criminals” and were also forced to flee into the hills/mountains to escape prison or execution.
In Basilicata’s mountains these displaced, desperate new “outlaw” recruits met up with existing small established “outlaw” bands who had already been in hiding for either criminal or political pre-earthquake activities. Whether by intent and design or unintended consequence the net effect of the Bourbon regime’s suppressive policies toward the earthquake victims was to double the number of individuals in hiding. They were beginning to create a sizeable “briganti” force. These government’s policies also further alienated the affection of the common people of the region. Abuses by the now resident Bourbon troops sent in to “restore” order presented new opportunities for local protest and anti-government acts. These new acts of defiance resulted in more “criminal” acts and more people fleeing to the hills for protection. The alienation only deepened over the next two years and added to the number of ‘Briganti” in the hills. By 1860 about the time of Garibaldi/Piedmont’s invasion of Sicily the Lucanian outlaw force, while still unorganized was beginning to reach the 2,500 man level.
As lightly armed, disorganized and largely leaderless exiles these men, even in these numbers, poised no real military threat to the entrenched Bourbon regime in Naples. The Bourbon regime viewed them as more a political annoyance than military threat. These men were not revolutionary ideologues but rather desperate survivalists. However, their “Lawless” presence created an opportunity for the regime to use a show of force to keep the general population in tow. Suppressive actions by the Bourbons against these “outlaws” and those that helped them continued to escalate as a lesson in the extension of power and central authority.
It is important to empathize, there is no evidence that between the earthquake in December of 1857 and the end of 1859 that these “outlawed” men and their actions were anything but the largely individual acts of desperate people. To call them revolutionaries would be to suggest a greater cohesiveness than I think was initially present. However, I have no doubt that the general culture of the region, after nearly one half century of suppressive Bourbon policies supported more liberal policies, constitutional protections, honest justice and or regime change. They simply did not have the means or opportunity to effectuate that kind of change. Whether change came in the form of regional independence from Naples or it meant a unified Italy as encouraged by the Carbonari-Young Italia proponents probably was a secondary concern in Lucania. An improvement in the general conditions of life being primary. Lucania which was experiencing the depths of poverty and natural disaster was not political with a capitol “P”. Luncanian politics were the politics of survival more than ideology.
With these conditions as backdrop in Lucania the 1860 events unfolding in Sicily must have been watched with some detachment in Basilicata. While revolts against various southern Italian regimes had been common it was not until the Carbonari revolt of 1848 that any attempt to coordinate the revolts between Sicily and the southern mainland had occurred. Even the revolt of 1848 is a bad example as the Carbonari landings were betrayed to the Bourbons by British Intelligence resulting in the landings total failure, the collapse of the revolt on the southern mainland and greater not less regional isolation.
But the events unfolding in Sicily in 1860 were different than any previous revolt and central to that difference was the presence of Garibaldi. Garibaldi shared a common history with the people. He symbolized and personified thirty years of revolt against the tyranny of oppressive regimes, whether those regimes were in the North, the Catholic Church, or in the Americas. His bona fides as a Carbonari, Young Italia republican, military hero, strategist and charismatic leader who would risk his life along side of his men was well established and beyond reproach. He was by 1860 a “national” revolutionary hero and an individual recognized throughout the whole of Italy, including Lucania.
Just as important from an inspirational point of view, Garibaldi had demonstrated that even against superior military force he could win battles and win wars. Garibaldi was a military leader whose “generalship” offered hope of success. The very fact that he was heading to Sicily to join with the revolt there suggested to the people a unity of cause and a unity of the Italian people was possible. Piedmont understood that psychological effect and depended on these perceptions in their planning and execution of a military campaign against the Bourbon regime.
But what was unfolding in Sicily, whether successful or not, did not necessarily translate as a call for action in Lucania. First, there was no public suggestion prior to Garibaldi’s success in Sicily that his future actions would in any way spill over onto the mainland. Second even if Garibaldi was successful in Sicily and then directed his movements and actions to the southern mainland it was an open question as to whether the people there be supportive.
Photograph Italian Revolutionary Carlo Pisacane (1818-1857)
The people of the southern Italian mainland had learned to be cautious of “liberating” forces landing in their midst after the failed Carbonari landing of 1848. This was evident in the disastrous Mazzini inspired landing of Carlo Pisacane at the coastal town of Sapri in Campania June 28, 1857¹. Carlo Pisacane was of noble southern birth but born to modest means in Naples². In the 1830’s he had gained some military training in the army of the Two Sicilies. However, he soon became “radicalized” and a follower of Mazzini. With Mazzini and Garibaldi he was an important figure in organizing the defense of the short lived Republic of Rome when the French intervened on behalf of the Pope in 1853.
Like the other leaders of the Italian Carbonari Revolt of 1848 he entered into a period of exile, first in England and later like Garibaldi in Piedmont Sardinia. Most histories indicate that in early 1857 Pisacane was encouraged by Mazzini to lead a force to land on the southern Italian mainland to spark a Carbonari based revolt among the populous. He apparently was enthusiastic about taking on this challenge.
I confess his whole mission is hard for me to define. I don’t know if it was intended to be a second attempt to accomplish what the failed landing of 1848 didn’t. If so it obviously was not done within the context of a large scale Carbonari staged event. As a military mission whose goal may have been to foster general revolt in the south in my opinion the mission was grossly under-manned. In addition the mission does not seem to have been coordinated with sympathetic Carbonari forces in the south.
Maybe it was simply a poorly executed dress rehearsal for garibaldi’s mission three years later.
At any rate, the plan was for Pisacane to board a small ship, the Cagliari, with a small force and sail to the island of Ponza. Ponza is a small volcanic island off the coast of southern Italy about half way between Rome and Naples. This island like many of the volcanic islands off the coast held a small fortress prison which confined a couple of hundred political prisoners.
Pisacane and his men landed on Ponza, quickly overcame the prison guards and released the prisoners, many of whom then joined Pisacane and his mission. He then made for the small coastal town of Sapri in Campania, about fifty miles southwest of San Fele. Apparently, his initial objective was with the help of local insurgents to reach the relative safety of the mountainous region around Cilento about thirty miles north. I suspect that he and his small force made a somewhat dysfunctional appearance. Most of his force was made up of prisoners who had spent varying lengths of time imprisoned under very harsh conditions.
Whatever the reason Pisacane did not get much support in Sapri and he and his force began traveling northeast through the mountain passes. They were intercepted by Bourbon troops and Pisacane’s force was overpowered at Padula about twenty five miles northeast of Sapri. Pisacane was severely wounded in the fight but escaped with a few companions retreating southward.
About five miles south of Padula, Pisacane stopped to rest. The locals there did not recognize him, thought he and his few companions were thieves and he was killed by the locals in the town of Sanza.
A very sad end to a very bad plan.
So as Italian history flowed at the beginning of the Sicilian campaign the questions for discussion or at least for introduction in this article are, “when did the men in Basilicata and others become a cohesive force in favor of the overthrow of the Bourbon regime?” Further, would they become a cohesive force which also was in support of a united Italy under Piedmont stewardship?”
Associated with the answers to those questions above is the question of, if and when did the role of Piedmont initially enter into the Lucanian equation. To grasp any part of the answers to the above requires close scrutiny of the timing and events of what follows in both Sicily and southern Italy during the later part of “The Second War of Italian Unification”. I hope to address this in some detail in later articles.
For now when we consider these questions we need to remember that the “popular” or “Garibaldi Myth” is that Garibaldi and his 1,000 redshirts acted without the consent or aid of Piedmont when they sailed to Sicily and made their landing on May 11, 1860 in support of an already commenced Sicilian revolt.
As we have already discussed, Garibaldi’s assembly of forces and launching of his campaign was anything but without the knowledge and consent of the Piedmont regime. It was undertaken at Piedmont’s direction, control and supervision. Piedmont’s declared “non-support” was pure deception.
While there is some debate over the exact number of men that accompanied Garibaldi 750-1,000 in the first landing a close look at who those men were is important. Most were from northern Italy, had served in the Piedmont army and were veterans of the recently concluded War with Austria. While these volunteers may have had a comrade based affinity with Garibaldi it is to Piedmont that their loyalties lay. Of important note however, is that about sixty-five of the men accompanying Garibaldi were not from northern Italy or as far as I can determine had seen active service during the Austrian campaign.
Those sixty-five break down into two groups, about forty-five of these non- northern Italian Garibaldi “redshirts” were from Sicily and about twenty were from the southern Italian mainland. From what I have read these men were not intended or expected to be foot-soldiers. They were well known local Sicilian and southern mainland Carbonari/Young Italia revolutionaries who were along for the specific purpose of liaison/contact with indigenous revolutionary forces. As such they would be critical in two ways to the coordination and success of the Garibaldi/Piedmont operation/campaign that would follow.
To be clear, Garibaldi could not hope to defeat the 40,000 well-armed and well trained Bourbon soldiers already stationed on Sicily with 1,000 lightly armed Piedmont veterans and an unspecified number of poorly trained and poorly equipped Sicilian revolutionaries. In time of course had Garibaldi’s campaign survived local forces may have been molded into an effective fighting force either guerrilla based or conventionally trained. This is what happened for example in our own American Revolution. Initially the Americans were poorly armed and trained and survived and prospered only when using guerrilla tactics. In direct open confrontation they almost always lost unless they could employ the advantage of surprise. Eventually however, with time, training improved, tactics improved and better armament conventional military success was achieved.
An additional problem common to both General Washington and Garibaldi was that initially already outnumbered by the opposing forces those forces could be resupplied and reinforced by the relatively limitless reserves from the mainland. At least Washington had a three thousand mile buffer, Garibaldi had only a thirty mile separation. The Bourbon troops on Sicily could be bolstered at any time by at least 60,000 Bourbon reserves on the mainland.
If in fact 1,000 men and some local revolutionaries was all Garibaldi could count on then his only hope of even surviving a landing was to head into the Sicilian hills and hope with partisan support to engage in guerilla warfare. This is what Pisacane had had to do three years before. I suspect that in Basilicata and on Sicily based on the 1857 example many sympathetic to a revolt waited to see how Garibaldi’s Sicilian landing would unfold.
Those who were waiting did not have long to wait. As Garibaldi’s campaign quickly developed it was clear that guerilla tactics were not Garibaldi’s intent, rather it was direct military confrontation. The obvious problem with this is that direct confrontation with a superior force leads to high and normally unreplaceable casualties. When you are outnumbered as Garibaldi was any serious attrition rate would have destined his campaign to failure from the start.
So in recap, Garibaldi at the time of landing on Sicily as military commander surprisingly did not seem concerned with the fact that he was landing on an island surrounded by an opposing force that had the strongest coastal navy in Italy. On land he faced 40 to 1 military manpower odds, with his troops were armed with inferior equipment and very limited reserves of supplies and ammunition. He also didn’t seem concerned that his opposition could be reinforced with tens of thousands of fresh men and materials whenever needed. From these facts he deduced that the best course of action after he landed and almost immediately, within days, was to go on a direct open field attack. From a military standpoint the above should only result in failure, but that is not what occurred. Therefore, the picture described above cannot be accurate for the real conditions Garibaldi faced.
Piedmont and its allies England and France were masters at political deception and misdirection. To understand this all one has to do is understand that a year before Garibaldi’s landing in Sicily, Piedmont could not hope to defeat the military might of Austria. However with the help of its’ declared and undeclared allies England and France it could and did do just that while making Austria appear the aggressor. Piedmont also could not hope to defeat the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies or to even launch a perceived aggressive attack. What they could do is secretly support the “voluntary” acts of Garibaldi, in aiding the resistance forces of the region. Bur even in this to be successful Piedmont needed the undeclared help and support of its allies England and France. The secret and full support of Garibaldi’s campaign by Piedmont, England and France had to be clear to the revolutionary factions from the outset of the campaign in the south or they would not have supported his campaign. How this was accomplished and how the locals responded is the subject of the articles of the future articles.
The day and place of his landing and death in
southern Italy in 1857 are commemorated annually at those sites, and he is now
considered a local hero who gave his life for the cause of liberty.
2. Carlo Pisacane although raised in the City of Naples is descended from ancient Lucanian nobility.
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