Garibaldi’s March to the Sicilian Capital of Palermo



By: Tom Frascella                                                                                                                                          June 2015


 In my last article I left off with Garibaldi arriving in Salemi with his 1,000 northern volunteers, “redshirts” or “Mille” as they are known in Italy. There he was joined by an additional 1,000 local Sicilian insurgents. Combined they were now a lightly armed force of 2,000 facing the scattered but well-armed Bourbon Sicilian army garrison of 40,000. Nevertheless Garibaldi took the opportunity of his arrival at Salemi May 14, 1860 to declare himself Dictator of the Island in the name of Victor Emmanuel II. This just three days after his arrival and without engaging in any military confrontation.

 It is important to remember that Garibaldi’s “volunteer force” in Genoa actually numbered 8,000 men with access to 15,000 rifles, ammunition and supplies. However, only 1,000 or less initially accompanied Garibaldi. The Piedmont government did not want it perceived that too large a force had been organized. In fact, many more “volunteers” wanted to be part of Garibaldi’s unit but were prohibited from joining by the Piedmont regime. Ultimately, it was important to Piedmont for Garibaldi’s expedition to appear to be only a volunteer supplement to the“Sicilian” revolt. The Sicilian struggle had for political reasons, appear as an internal “civil” war or localized revolt against the Bourbons.

 Garibaldi’s combined force of Piedmont volunteers and Sicilian insurgents of 2,000 men then left Salemi later in the day on May 14th heading toward the town of Vita sometimes called San Vito, on the road to the Sicilian Capital of Palermo. His forces occupied Vita on the evening of the 14th. Vita is geographically about midway between Marsala and Palermo. According to Garibaldi’s own account it was the following morning, May 15th that he became aware that a substantial Bourbon force had occupied the neighboring town of Calatafimi.

 Two large contingents, about 2,000 each, of Bourbon troops had been dispatched separately from Palermo shortly after they were notified of Garibaldi’s landing at Marsala.  One of the Bourbon contingents took an intercept route into the mountains and hills to search out Garibaldi’s force and the other contingent took a coastal route. As stated the Bourbon command in Palermo was aware of Garibaldi’s landing at Marsala and that he likely was heading toward the Sicilian Capital of Palermo. These scouting expeditions were dispatched along the two most likely routes with instructions to stop him from advancing. 

 The Bourbon force that occupied Calatafimi on May 14th numbered about 2,000 men and contained a 400 man foreign mercenary unit of highly trained Hungarian soldiers. Numerically, the opposing forces were of about equal size. The advantage in weapons and training as a cohesive force went to the Bourbons. Garibaldi’s Sicilian forces which represented half of the men he had present were not an organized or trained military body and had only been with Garibaldi one day. In addition, they were very lightly armed. Garibaldi was aware that it would have to be his northern “Mille” that would do the lion’s share of the fighting and carry the day in any confrontation with Bourbon regulars.

 Garibaldi according to his own account, became aware of the Bourbon troops when they marched out of Calatafimi to take up defensive positions on a hill-top across from Vita on the morning of May 15th. In response to the Bourbon troop movement Garibaldi ordered his troops to take up a defensive position on an opposite hilltop. In Garibaldi’s words;

      “The heights surrounding Vita face the so-called “Pianto dei Romani” hills where the enemy columns took up their formations. These hills slope gently towards Calatafimi; the enemy were able to climb them easily and once at the top occupied all the summits; the descent on the side facing Vita however is very steep. We were on the facing hills to the south and so I was able to see all the enemy positions quite clearly; they on the other hand could hardly make out the line of marksmen formed by the Genoese carabineri…” My Life page 93.

 With his sharpshooters positioned in front and with a clear view of enemy movements Garibaldi determined that;

   “…both our side and the enemy were in possession of extremely strong positions, facing each other    over a wide stretch of rolling countryside, with a few houses scattered here and there. It was to our advantage then to stay where we were and wait for the enemy to make the first move”. My Life page 93.

 Garibaldi had demonstrated in over thirty years of warfare and military campaigns that he was an excellent tactician and a master of using terrain to advantage. His Piedmont forces had also shown that under his leadership they could prevail against some of Europe’s finest soldiers, Austrians, even where outnumbered on the battlefield.

 Opposing Garibaldi’s forces that day was Bourbon General Landi and as stated roughly 2,000 infantry and four cannon. Landi was from all accounts a veteran military commander. At the time of the engagement Landi was very over-weight resulting in his leading and directing his troops from the rear. Garibaldi on the other hand was a man of action often placing himself in front of his men. This enhanced his style of rapid field movements and on site changes in tactics.

 Garibaldi himself recognized the importance of a successful outcome in this first engagement of the two forces. A fact that he stresses in all of his future commentary. He was fully aware that if the Bourbon’s had been successful in this first battle his whole campaign may have ended at Calatafimi. He was also aware that if the Bourbon’s forces assembled had succeeded in driving Garibaldi from the field or blocking his approach to Palermo then at the least a protracted guerilla type war may have ensued. In Garibaldi’s own assessment he stated;

 “When you fight, you need to win: This is true in all the circumstances of war, but it’s particularly true when you are at the start of a campaign. Our victory at Calatafimi was insignificant in terms of material gains- a single cannon, a few rifles and a handful of prisoners-but its overall effect was immense, in spurring the local population on and demoralising the enemy.” My Life, page 95.

 I agree with Garibaldi statement as to the significance of this first military test on his Sicilian campaign. However, the decision to engage in a head to head confrontation in the face of a superior force so early in the campaign was at least an interesting decision and at best a very bold act. The outcome was far from guaranteed, and this confrontation could have turned into an all or nothing proposition for his men.  Garibaldi had to win. With 38,000 additional Bourbon troops on Sicily the Bourbon military position was far less desperate or seemingly dependent on the outcome of this one battle. Given the historic significance of this engagement I will devote a brief summary passage as to how the battle unfolded and more importantly its immediate aftermath.


                                                                                         The Battle of Calatafemi


According to Garibaldi after he deployed his marksmen on the morning of May 15, 1860 they did not have long to wait until the Bourbon General Landi sent some of his troops toward Garibaldi’s partially hidden troop position:

“The Bourbon troops numbered about two thousand men with several artillery pieces. Sighting only a few of our men, not in uniform and together with local peasants, the enemy boldly sent several lines of bersaglieri forward, backed up by some support troops and two artillery pieces. When they came within firing distance they started to fire their rifles and cannon, all the while continuing to advance on us. I had ordered the Thousand not to fire and to wait for the enemy to approach. There were already several casualties among the Genoese line and they sounded an American reveille on their bugles which had the seeming magical effect of stopping the enemy in their tracks…their soldiers and artillery made a movement backwards.’

 It is interesting that Garibaldi’s force issued an “American Reveille” bugle call in the midst of this first confrontation. It is known that there were some Americans among his “Mille”. It is also interesting that Reveille was the bugle call issued as it is considered a “call to duty” not a specific battle command. For those not familiar with the term this bugle call is what is played in the morning to wake American soldiers to duty. Nevertheless it apparently had an effect on the advancing Bourbons. This may be because using specific battle signals via bugle calls was a common but sophisticated military device in the mid-19th century. If the Bourbons were under the impression that they were facing unorganized

 Sicilian insurgents the use of such a signal would have and apparently did startle them. It suggested that these were in fact not Sicilian insurgents. Further it would have suggested that a level of training and organization was present among the opposing forces.

 At any rate, once their advance stopped they came under fire from Garibaldi’s marksmen. This was followed by Garibaldi’s order to charge the Bourbon advance guard. The
mille” did this with great enthusiasm. Garibaldi himself remained with his mostly Sicilian element atop the hilltop near Vita. Again, Garibaldi’s description of events;

 “At that point the call to charge was sounded and the Thousand moved forward, led by the Genoese carabinieri who were followed by an elite corps of young volunteers, eager for a fight. The plan was to put the enemy vanguard to flight and capture their two cannon, an aim which these heroes accomplished with e’lan. “    “My Life” page 94.

 The main body of the Bourbon forces was spread upward among terraced levels on the hilltop. With the main Bourbon artillery battery located at the summit of their hill.  Assaulting an enemy entrenched on a well defended height is not a tactic one would engage in without the anticipation of heavy casualties. Again, it is interesting in his memoirs Garibaldi makes clear that his plan was to attack the vanguard only not assault the hill. That is interesting because his unorthodox decision to attack is often cited as something he ordered. He states in his memoirs:

 “Going on to attack the enemy head-on in their most impregnable positions was another matter, but the volunteers were fired up and there was no stopping them. Our trumpets sounded out “halt”, but they didn’t hear, or chose not to hear, like Nelson at the battle of Copenhagen. They thrust into the enemy’s vanguard with their bayonets and drove them back deep into their lines”. My Life page 94

 What this shows is one of Garibaldi’s, as a field commander, great strengths which was to quickly recognize changing conditions and adapt. Seeing that his “Mille” were committed to advancing up the hill Garibaldi ordered his remaining Sicilian and Calabrian troops to cross the valley in support of the Mille’s” advance against the Bourbons. At that point he was all in or as he described the day;

 “There was not a moment to be lost in following up this brave attack. I gave the order to charge and all the men of the Thousand, together with the brave Sicilians and Calabrians who had joined us, moved swiftly forward towards the enemy. They had by now abandoned the low-lying terrain between us and regained their positions on the summit of the hills, where their reserves were stationed….The valley which lay between us and the enemy positions was the most dangerous part for our troops to cross; a storm of artillery and musket fire rained down on us, wounding many of our men. Once we reached the foot of the hill on top of which the enemy was positioned we had some cover from their fire”. My Life page 94.

 Using the terraces as cover Garibaldi’s men were able to snake their way up the hilltop. From the summit the Bourbons troops could not lower their cannon angle downward and the soldiers had to stand up, exposing themselves in order to get an angle to shoot at Garibaldi’s men. Once again,

 Garibaldi was able to use what at first appeared to be a strength for the enemy, terrain, to his own advantage. The battle lasted about three hours. When Garibaldi’s men had ascended to the top they organized for a final thrust/ bayonet charge at the enemy’s defensive line. It was then that General Landi, whose troops were running low on ammunitions gave the order to retreat abandoning the summit to Garibaldi. After the engagement and low on ammunition Landi’s retreat took on the characteristic of a full flight to Palermo some twenty-five to forty miles away.



                                                                          Italian painting depicting the Battle of Calatafemi .


 Garibaldi could not follow Landi’s troops for several reasons, not least of which that he too had exhausted his ammunition. Fortunately, independent Sicilian insurgents were able to mount harassment attacks on Landi’s retreating column inflicting additional casualties.

 The independent insurgent’s harassment of Landi’s troops on their retreat to Palermo played well into Garibaldi and Piedmont’s plan for the campaign. At this point Piedmont wanted the campaign to appear as a spontaneous Sicilian uprising in which Garibaldi and his “Volunteers” were a supportive force of comrade in arms. It probably also confirmed that the revolt had spread out through the countryside with insurgents everywhere.

 This brings us to the assessment of the engagement. Modern commentators are of very mixed opinion on the subject. Traditionally, the view is that Garibaldi’s troops certainly won the engagement in terms of taking the field and forcing the Bourbon troops to withdraw. They also won the day in defeating the column sent to block their approach to Palermo. The road was now open to proceed to the Capital. Garibaldi also was correct in regarding the psychological impact on the Sicilian population of winning the engagement or forcing the opponent to flee the field. It most certainly boosted the cause of revolt and encouraged those among the Sicilian insurgents who had not fully committed to Garibaldi’s aggressive confrontational campaign. Therefore, the engagement is regarded by the majority of commentators as a victory for Garibaldi’s forces with some suggesting that it was in fact a “great” victory.

 On the other hand some historians rate the engagement as a mere draw. Both sides sustained an equal number of casualties, about 200 each. Neither side had advanced or critically damaged their respective military position. The hilltop contested, although won by Garibaldi’s troops held no strategic value and was immediately abandoned. Garibaldi’s men moving on to the town of Calatafemi for the evening as part of an advancement to Palermo.

 In fact, it could just as easily be argued that Garibaldi’s military position relative to that of the Bourbon forces on the island had been weakened by the engagement. While both sides lost equal numbers, 200 men, for the Bourbons this was 200 out of 40,000. For Garibaldi on the other hand his losses were 200 out of 2,000 or ten percent of his force. In addition the majority of Garibaldi’s losses were sustained among his elite “Mille”. Just as importantly Garibaldi had exhausted his supply of ammunition in the battle. The fact that Garibaldi’s “victory” might draw other lightly armed local insurgent volunteers to his forces did not in itself enhance Garibaldi’s military strengths.  The lack of supplies and ammunition were a critical disadvantage going forward.

 However, despite the above Garibaldi wasted no time assessing his negatives and giving them little value. He decided to push on toward Palermo. He knew fully that Palermo was where an estimated 10,000-15,000 well armed and well trained Bourbon enemy troops in and around the Capital city would be waiting for his arrival. 

 His determined decision to push on toward the Capital may have been influenced by the fact that he had 7,000 well trained “volunteer” troops and 15,000 rifles in reserve in Genoa that could be available to him. 

 Although it would appear that after the battle at Calatafimi Garibaldi was in desperate need of the 7,000 additional “volunteers” in Genoa, 3,500 of whom had since May 6th been loaded on to transports and were ready to go. He also was in desperate need of the 15,000 rifles, ammunition and supplies also warehoused for his expedition. Yet the bulk of these resources would not be forthcoming.

 It is not officially known if Garibaldi requested the additional “volunteers’ at that point in the campaign, is not recorded. I think the general consensus is that he did not. Significant reinforcements at that point would have made the Piedmont involvement too obvious. Their continued to be a concern that the international community of European nations, Including Austria, might become involved in supporting the Bourbons if it was perceived that Piedmont was mounting this incursion.

 Instead of getting large scale reinforcements from those “volunteers” readily available what Garibaldi received were only enough men to replace his losses at Calatafimi, 60-100 “redshirts”. He also received ammunition and supplies enough to resupply his “Mille” force. Garibaldi however, does not appear to have been given additional weapons to better equip his Sicilian contingents. There are probably several reasons for this one of which is clearly to keep up the spontaneous revolt appearances.

 In fact the only direct record of resupply is the note that the “Utsle”, one of the De Rohan transports, ferried 60 men rifles and ammunition under military command of Col. Agnetta. I found a detailed list of troop movements to the Sicilian campaign in a copy of a book entitled “Garibaldi and the Making of Italy (June-November 1860). It confirms a vessel, Utsle, which was part of De Rohan transport fleet left Genoa for Garibaldi on May 24. It is the only vessel mentioned as transporting troops in May other than the two original transports that deposited Garibaldi in Marsala on May 11. Unfortunately, vessels carrying only ammunition and supplies were not recorded at any point in the campaign. Only those also ferrying men were noted so the picture is less than clear. It seems to me that this voyage of the Utsle would have barely had enough time to arrive and unload before Garibaldi’s initial attack on Palermo which began on the morning of May 27. However, over the course of the fighting in the Capital there would have been more than enough time for these troops to link up with Garibaldi. So at the time of the battle for Palermo, Garibaldi’s “redshirts” had been reinforced slightly and you can think of them as the Mille+ 100.

 The next article will deal with the battle for Palermo.


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