Garibaldi’s Voyage from Genoa to Marsala 1860
By: Tom Frascella April 2015
Most people are familiar with the story of Garibaldi’s voyage with “The Thousand” which left Genoa on May 6, 1860 and landed in Marsala Sicily on May 11, 1860. It is the military campaign which lead to the downfall of the Bourbon regime in the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies and paved the way for the creation of the Kingdom of Italy. However, there are many aspects of that voyage and the subsequent military campaign which were at the time of the event intentionally hidden from the public. Following the successful military campaign the conspiracy of misinformation continued at the highest levels of the Savoy regime. Thus creating the “Myth” of the events as opposed to the true historical reality of events. It is only more recently, 150 years after the events that modern historians are giving voice and better understanding of what happened.
As I have written in an earlier article, the totality of Garibaldi’s “real” plan certainly did not include the expectation to land on Sicily solely with 1,000 lightly but well trained men. After accomplishing that he did not rely on the possibility of recruiting less well armed and trained Sicilians and defeat the forces of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. That would have been a military impossibility. First, he would have had to sneak his two unarmed steam ship transports past the largest and best equipped Italian naval forces along the Neapolitan coast undetected. The Kingdom of the Two Sicilies’ navy was more than adequate to patrol the Kingdom’s coastline. If the transports were detected any Bourbon naval vessel could have sunk or captured two unarmed vessels with little or no effort. Second, the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies had 40,000 well trained and well equipped soldiers in place defending Sicily with the backing of 60,000-80,000 more troops on the mainland. Garibaldi knew that if he successfully landed his forces he did not have enough supplies, ammunition, rifles and manpower to survive more than a modest encounter on land. This was clearly not the totality of plan. So how did this become the “Myth” of the thousand?
It is clear today that Garibaldi was at all times acting with the support and in concert with the Piedmont government prior to embarking for Sicily in May of 1860. For a number of international and political reasons however Piedmont could not appear to be the aggressor or look as if it was directly involved in an invasion of the southern Italian Bourbon nation. Savoy needed to keep their direct involvement secret, and this secrecy extended to England and France, Piedmont’s allies as well.
As a result an elaborate deception had to be constructed. First, the Savoy regime set up an independent “unassociated organization made up of Piedmont agents to raise money for a “million” rifles to help the insurgents in the non-Piedmont regions seeking unification. In reality the funds and some 15,000 rifles were primarily “warehoused” and secretly supplied by the Piedmont government in the months before Garibaldi’s departure for Sicily.
Second, an initial 8,000 “volunteers” including Garibaldi’s initial 1,000 were released or discharged from the Piedmont army. They then were “recruited as “volunteers” for Garibaldi. Again their salaries were discreetly controlled by the same organization that was raising the “1,000,000” rifles.
Third the forces being sent to Sicily needed maritime transport. These ships could not be traceable to Piedmont, England or France. What was decided upon was the purchase of half a dozen merchant ships sold by French agents to an “unassociated” wealthy American who had close ties to Garibaldi. Most of the vessels so purchased were to be registered as American vessels for the transport. Again, a secret agreement was made by Piedmont to guarantee the purchase price of the vessels.
With the above three pieces of the elaborate deception in place Garibaldi and Piedmont were ready to launch the invasion. The initial thrust would be for Garibaldi to launch two steam vessels from Genoa each carrying about 500 men and light arms. The arms were intentionally made of older but functional ordinance so as not appear as the latest military issue. The ships were steam powered to help out run any Bourbon vessels which might discover the transport and attempt to intercept. Garibaldi, an experienced merchant sea captain was in command of one vessel, named the Piedmonte and his second in command Nino Bixio, a former Piedmont naval officer, was in command of the other vessel named the Lombardo. On the 6th of May both ships began their voyage southward.
It is here that the story gets very interesting. Garibaldi’s expedition southward instead of being done in secret was highly public and reported in the local and foreign press. One could almost suggest “staged”. King Victor Emmanuel II of Piedmont made some public pronouncements of attempting to block the departure and the vessels were allowed to leave on schedule. The nature and target of Garibaldi’s expedition were known and understood well enough that Bourbon troop strength on Sicily was increased from 20,000 to 40,000 men. The King of southern Italy also placed his naval forces on alert to intercept Garibaldi’s two vessels.
Even in the 1860’s steam powered vessels were capable of travelling from Genoa to Sicily in two days, Garibaldi took five. Garibaldi made some effort after leaving Genoa at disguising his approach to Sicily by feinting an attack on the Papal States of central Italy. He faked a landing there using up a day in the process. But this feint apparently fooled no one within the Bourbon regime. As a result the Bourbon fleet had plenty of time to be alerted and be on the lookout for Garibaldi’s two unarmed vessels.
No sooner had Garibaldi left Genoa on his adventure southward than three additional American flagged unarmed transports began the loading of an additional 3,500 “volunteer” troops and approximately 6,000 modern rifles. The second wave apparently being held in reserve until word of the success or failure of the first landing. Obviously a great deal could go wrong in the initial thrust. But clearly there was also some expectation that all would go well.
Sometime after Unification Garibaldi published his memoirs which offer a glimpse into the events that were about to transpire. In reading the memoirs however at times Garibaldi is highly guarded and tows the less than factual Piedmont version of events. However his memoirs do offer important anecdotal comments concerning the voyage and landing.
It appears that Garibaldi’s vessels resumed their southward voyage after a day feinting a landing in central Italy. This maneuver would have added a day onto the journey meaning that Garibaldi should have reached Sicily on the 9th of May. However, a second delay occurred which Garibaldi wrote about and is interesting. Apparently on the 9th of May as they were approaching but not yet in sight of the small island of Marettimo, about twenty miles just west of the port of Marsala Garibaldi increased the speed of his vessel. Apparently he thought it important to sight the island before nightfall on the 9th.
The increase in speed caused Garibaldi’s vessel to pull ahead of Bixio’s vessel the Lombardo. Before long however, Garibaldi noticed that the distance between the two vessels was much further than it should be. What Garibaldi had no way of knowing was that one of the men on the Lombardo had either fallen overboard or had thrown himself overboard and the Lombardo had stopped to rescue him. Not having travelled far enough to have sighted of the island of Marettimo, and not knowing what happened on the Lombardo, Garibaldi turned his ship around to link back up with Bixio’s ship.
Bixio in the meantime noted that several unidentified naval vessels were in his immediate area. This made him uneasy as he completed his rescue of the soldier who had gone overboard. Bixio had also lost sight of Garibaldi’s ship. Suddenly he saw the smoke of a steam powered vessel bearing down in his direction. Bixio thought that this was a Bourbon vessel and immediately began steaming westward away from the Italian coast. It took Garibaldi the better part of half the night to catch up with him, stop his flight and head back to Marettimo. Of interesting note this is the only notation of either of the vessels sighting potentially hostile vessels on their journey. Where was the Bourbon navy?
Garibaldi and Bixio arrived at the small island of Marettimo on the morning of May 10th. It is at this point that Garibaldi’s mission begins to make even less sense from a military perspective. As I stated Garibaldi’s expedition was undersized, under supplied, and lacked tactical surprise. The expedition only makes sense if one considers it as a military probe. If successful the initial thrust could quickly be supplied with reinforcements which could follow to exploit any opportunity that arose. But I see no tactical advantage to stopping and disembarking on the island of Marettimo. The island offered no protection from detection by the Bourbon fleet. Yet they remained there well into the next day May 11, 1860.
According to Garibaldi’s memoirs;
“We at first planned to land at Sciacca, but the day was already far advanced and we were afraid we might encounter enemy battle cruisers. So the decision was made to head for the port nearest to us: Marsala. It was the eleventh of May 1860.” Page 91 “Giuseppe Garibaldi My Life”.
The question remains unanswered as to why Garibaldi held his men on Marettimo Island for over a day, from early morning on the tenth until late morning on the eleventh. Also there is the additional question of why he didn’t sail the roughly forty miles to the small fishing port of Sciacca on the tenth or land at the closer port of Marsala on the tenth. In a steamship it would have taken him only about four hours to make Sciacca or two hours to reach Marsala. Was he waiting for something?
As it turns out three Bourbon warships were anchored in Marsala Harbor on the morning of the tenth of May. If Garibaldi had either attempted to enter Marsala harbor or pass the harbor heading toward Sciacca on the tenth of May he would have been found out. However, Garibaldi makes no mention of being aware of the Bourbon fleet’s presence. Was his decision to stop at Marettimo just good luck or did he have intelligence supporting the decision to wait? If he was aware of the enemy fleet presence what was he waiting for?
Photograph of the Harbor of Sciacca
What we do know from numerous other accounts is that on the next day, the morning of May 11, 1860 the three Bourbon ships at Marsala raised anchor and set sail eastward in the direction of Sciacca. This would be away from Garibaldi’s hiding place on Marettimo Island. The Bourbon fleet’s departure was at approximately 9:00 a.m. Again, it is interesting that Garibaldi if planning a landing on the Sicilian coast had not started toward the coast before 9:00 a.m. He was still anchored off Marettimo as late as noon.
Approximately two hours after the Bourbon fleet left the harbor two British warships entered Marsala harbor and anchored around 11:00 a.m. There is no report either in British or Italian records as to where these two British warships were coming. It is interesting that two hours would be about the sailing time to get from Marettimo to Marsala. Had the British and Garibaldi met up? Was he aware of their presence? Was their arrival pre-arranged?
The two British warships that subsequently lay at anchor in Marsala Harbor happened to be under the command of their ranking on board officer, British Admiral Rodney Mundy. Admiral Mundy was at the time Second-in-Command of the entire British Mediterranean Fleet. As such he was the ultimate representative of British military authority for that sector of the Mediterranean. Again, a stroke of good luck for Garibaldi? A curious fact is how often Admiral Mundy fortuitously shows up at critical moments in Garibaldi’s Sicilian campaign.
Garibaldi’s two steamships entered Marsala Harbor at approximately 1:00 p.m. unopposed. A rather casual time for a military landing. Garibaldi’s own comments on his fantastic good luck and timing of ship movements is interesting.
He describes the events in his Memoirs as;
“Fortune was really on our side and leading the expedition; we couldn’t have made a better choice of landing. The battle cruisers from the Bourbon fleet had left Marsala that very morning. They had gone off towards the east whereas we were arriving from the west; they could be seen off Capo San Marco as we entered Marsala.” Page 91 “Giuseppe Garibaldi My Life”.
This incredible good luck meant that Garibaldi could take his unarmed steam vessel The Piedmonte directly up to the merchant loading dock of the harbor and disembark his troops, supplies and equipment without concern for interference. Garibaldi, managed to disembark in less than two hours. That turned out to be important as at 3:00 p.m. the three armed warships of the Bourbon fleet reentered Marsala Harbor.
Photograph of Marsala Harbor. The name Marsala is derived from the Arabic meaning “Port of Allah”.
The arrival of the returning Bourbon warships should not have caused a problem. Had the Lombardo commanded by Nino Bixio followed Garibaldi’s ship and docked it too would have been able to fully unload before the Bourbon fleet arrived. Garibaldi’s troops could then have left Marsala and been beyond the range of the Bourbon ships.
Unfortunately, Bixio had not followed course through the harbor exactly and had instead managed to run his ship aground in the harbor. So at the time the Bourbon fleet returned, only half of Garibaldi’s force was unloaded on the docks and half were stranded on the unarmed grounded Lombardo.
So, one half of Garibaldi’s invasion force was literally dead in the water, stranded aground in the harbor. The other half of his force was positioned at the docks looking out at their stranded comrades. Standing on the docks Garibaldi could see three Bourbon warships approaching the Lombardo. There was literally nothing Garibaldi could do to prevent the impending military disaster. Garibaldi’s forces did not even have sufficient artillery to direct even a minimal defense.
On the Bourbon side it would not take much to capture an unarmed grounded ship. Generally one shot across the bow and the white flag has to go up goes up. That is especially true where the unarmed vessel is laden with gunpowder.
But surrender and defeat isn’t even close to what happened next. For that story I will follow this article with an article on the actually happened. That follow up to the landing story will be in the second article of May. The first article will be reserved for a profile on one of the American connections to Garibaldi’s Sicilian campaign, the “Admiral” of Garibaldi’s revolutionary fleet..
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