Garibaldi and the Invasion of the Southern Italian Mainland
By: Tom Frascella August 2015
As previously written Garibaldi received his secret orders from King Victor Emanuel II to invade the mainland of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies in late July 1860. He immediately began his preparations in Sicily to cross the straits of Messina to land in Calabria. However, as in any military undertaking Garibaldi needed to organize his strike force, his supplies and his transport before launching his attack. In addition, he needed to secure the civil control of Sicily in his absence, and establish a base among the population in Calabria, his intended landing zone. Garibaldi a master military organizer was faced with a number of challenges before an invasion could take place. Those challenges need to be acknowledged and discussed as they were critical to the success or failure of his plans. The challenges also dictated some of the actions and sequence of actions that Garibaldi made.
Although there had been a number of failed Mazzinian inspired revolts on the Italian peninsula in the decades preceding Garibaldi’s landing in Sicily, the old guard of the Mazzini group continued to believe that the “people” were ready, en masse, to support military action and revolution. They continued to believe that a “peoples” revolt would carry the day.
In the south Mazzini had most recently tested this belief when he supported the landing of Carlo Pisacane in Compania in June 1857. I wrote about this disastrous landing in a previous article and will not go into detail here. However, what the landing demonstrated to the practical political and military strategist in Piedmont was that in their plans they could not be assured the kind of “popular” revolutionary support that Mazzini thought would come.
The failure of Pisacane’s landing to spark a revolution was documented in 1858 by unification advocate/artist Luigi Mercantini in his poem about the landing titled “La spigolatrice di Sapri”. The poem was later translated into English and included in an anthology by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow under the title “The Gleaner of Sapri”. Pisacane who landed in the most densely populated part of southern Italy found no aid or support from the coastal Companians and after several skirmish defeats with Bourbon soldiers was killed in the mountains by Apennine villagers who thought he and his men were there to loot and steal. One stanza of the poem records this perception;
“Landed with arms, but not as foemen land,
For they stooped down and kissed the very sand.
And one by one I looked them in the face;
A tear and smile in each one I could trace!
“Thieves from their dens are these,” some people said,
And yet they took not even a loaf of bread!
I heard them utter but a single cry:
“We for our native land have come to die!”
They were three hundred, they were young and strong,
And they are dead!
As I said, this failure of the common people of the south to rise up in great numbers to support the revolution was not lost on Piedmont or Garibaldi. As an aside in the same year that Mercantini wrote “La spigolatrice di Sapri” Garibaldi commissioned Mercantini to write the lyrics of what would become the patriotic hymn “Canzone Italiana”, also known as Garibaldi’s hymn. This was the official battle song of the Cacciatori delle Alpi and would in World War II become the battle hymn of some brigades of Italian resistance fighters.
Understanding the Pisacane failure to arouse the masses Garibaldi and Piedmont spent months if not several years in fostering connections to the Sicilian rebels base of support. Even as Garibaldi made final preparations to land in Sicily agents made their way to organize that his landing of 1,000 would be welcomed ashore and joined by several thousand Sicilian revolutionaries. Contemplating success and already planning ahead in Sicily Garibaldi had among his 1,000 about 18 Calabrian revolutionaries and at least one Basilicatan. It is important to note that these mainland men left Sicily around the fall of Palermo and secretly crossed to the mainland. Their mission was to garner the support of Calabrians and Basilicatans in advance of a Garibaldi landing on the mainland.
Garibaldi’s campaign in Sicily was one of astonishing success. However as Garibaldi prepared for the invasion of the Bourbon mainland one thing troubled him deeply. For all of his success he had failed to gather the participation of the vast majority of Sicilians in the military aspect of the campaign. Sicily was an island of between 1-2 million people yet Garibaldi could not rely on a Sicilian force that ever numbered more than about 13,000. Further, as his Sicilian campaign was gaining momentum starting with the fall of Palermo his Sicilian forces were shrinking.
By the time the Sicilian campaign ended there were only about 6,500 Sicilians under arms and only about 2,500 who volunteered to go with him to fight the Bourbons on the mainland. Garibaldi knew that without greater popular dedicated support on the mainland his force would suffer the same fate as Pisacane’s force when he went up against A Bourbon army of 100,000.
By the time August rolled around Garibaldi had at his disposal in Sicily about 3,500 of his original Piedmont “redshirt” volunteers, 6,500 Sicilian “revolutionaries” and 9,000 Piedmont regulars disguised as deserters and volunteers. Garibaldi needed this force for both an invasion of the mainland and to maintain order over an island population of almost two million. These two tasks that he hoped to accomplish were of course well beyond the manpower resources available to him in July-August 1860.
In early August Garibaldi’s control over the civil population began to slip. As one might expect his direct influence and control were most absent in the more remote towns and villages of the island. The rural interior of Sicily provided traditional enterprise of mainly two types, agriculture and mining. The majority of the rural population was engaged in one or the other, however ninety per cent of the people were strictly subsistence labor with little or no ownership in either the land or the fruits of their labor.
In late July a breakdown of civil order created by the tensions between the Bourbon former/current haves and the have nots in and around the duchy of Bronte gave rise to what some refer to as the “Bronte” episode. Bronte is a town and district on the slopes of Mt. Etna. It was not in and of itself a major event. However, in my analysis the actions taken by the common folk at Bronte and surrounding towns and the reactions of the Piedmont authorities including Garibaldi must be recognized and be discussed. The events that took place there in the first and second week in August foreshadow much of what will be seen later in Lucania after the collapse of the Bourbon regime. Many scholars even though they hold divergent perspectives on unification do agree that Bronte is a critical moment in an analysis of what occurs in southern Italy after unification.
Given that it is widely held by scholars as an important historic event and one which will help explain what later effected our ancestors it bears looking at.
Map of Sicily showing location of the town of Bronte
As I have said much has been written about the events that took place in the town of Bronte and a dozen or so surrounding towns between August 1 and August 16, 1860. Each publication presents the events from perspectives that vary widely and which reach conclusions which are anything but consistent. My take on what happened is as follows.
Bronte is located on the slopes of Mt. Etna, Sicily’s famous and very active major volcano. The town name derives from ancient Greek mythology which held that the first Cyclopes lived under the mountain and fashioned weapons for the gods. Bronte being one of the cyclope whose name means “thunderer” or thunder maker.
In 1520 during the reign of Charles V, twenty-four hamlets were organized into a central core community around Bronte. The region boasts decent fertile land, water supply and minerals. However, Etna’s eruptions and lava flows have repeatedly threatened the town most notably close to the time of Garibaldi’s invasion with eruptions in 1832 and 1843.
From my perspective Sicily enjoyed/suffered from many of the same social factors which existed throughout the 19th century Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. Bronte itself was the site of several anti-Bourbon revolts including one in 1820 and 1848. Revolutionary activities were organized by Carbonari sympathizers and later by Mazzinians of the Young Italia movement.
In the mid-19th century the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies was a top down authoritarian monarchy. The King, the Church and a small upper/noble class of absentee landlords controlled the vast percentage of wealth, land and resources of the Kingdom. A small but dissatisfied middle-class made up of lesser noble families, professionals and merchants was present, but the vast majority of the population consisted of the very poor. The poor generally did not live a life that far removed from feudal serfdom.
By 1860 The Kingdom of the Two Sicilies had been ruled for some time by the House of Bourbon which originally had French and Spanish roots. Late in the 18th century Italy and indeed much of Europe’s middle class began to clamor for greater protections of property rights and civil liberties. This movement in southern Italy and in all of Europe became known as the Carbonari movement. The sentiment was behind the French Revolution, the eventual rise of Napoleon and many of the revolts of the 19th century. As part of the turmoil of the age a greater sense of “nationalism began to emerge. In France, Napoleon’s military successes put him in conflict with England and war broke out across Europe. During the first phase of Napoleonic conflict, France invaded many countries including Egypt. Eventually in the British push back Lord Nelson won a great victory on the Nile and the French retreated. It is shortly after that in 1798 that Nelson arrived with his victorious fleet in Naples Harbor and was warmly greeted by the King of Naples. The King of Naples viewed the English as valuable allies against the French threat. The King bestowed a number of expenses gifts on his British senior military and ambassadorial guests. Among those gifts the King gave Lord Nelson the 40,000 acre duchy of Bronte in Sicily.
The gifts and the arrival of the British was well timed for the Bourbon monarchy. A Carbonari uprising at the end of the 1700’s lead to a brief ouster to the Bourbons in the south and the establishment of a Republic. Lord Nelson was instrumental in helping the Bourbon monarch to flee Naples for Sicily with his family and much of the Bourbon treasury intact and aboard the British fleet. The Republic collapsed when the Bourbons were aided in a return to power by other European powers including England, Lord Nelson and Austria in 1799.
Again the Bourbon monarchy suffered an ouster from power on mainland southern Italy with the advance of Napoleon’s armies. For a period France ruled the mainland part of the Kingdom first through Napoleon’s installation of his brother Joseph, and later his brother-in-law as Kings of Naples. The advance of Napoleon’s armies saw the Bourbon monarchy retreat to the island of Sicily once again where their security was preserved by the British navy under and British ground troops on the island. British defense of the Bourbons and Sicily was of course not altruistically motivated. In addition to being part of an effort to contain Napoleon’s expansion, Sicily accounted for 99% of the world’s production of sulfur a strategic resource.
As to Lord Nelson himself, he never got much use or benefit from the gift of the Duchy of Bronte as he was killed in the Napoleonic conflict in 1805. However the estate passed on to his brother and his heirs and provided for quite a large concentration of British/foreign interest going forward in the Bronte region. Throughout the revolutionary conflicts between Sicilians and the Bourbon regime the British property interests in and around Bronte were always protected by the Bourbons and backed up by British Mediterranean naval power.
This situation of British control and management of vast tracks of land at Bronte continued up and thru Garibaldi’s landing on the island. Garibaldi was perceived and saw himself as a liberator of his people. On landing in Sicily he named himself as co-dictator of Sicily in the name of King Victor Emanuel II. He promised greater constitutional rights and land reform to the people. These promises were loudly proclaimed by Garibaldi in June of 1860 during his military campaign. While he may have personally believed in these proclamations they were also designed to obtain support among the rural classes.
Garibaldi also did a few things that were not so popular but again intended to secure the gains that his military successes had produced. First he made rioting, civil disobedience and looting execution offenses, essentially creating martial law on the island. Second, he established a draft. He expected that young Sicilians would flock to the cause or happily join in military units. This was usually unpopular with the Sicilians and largely ignored as most notices of conscription were not responded to. Part of the reaction that made the draft unpopular was that for some time Sicilians had been exempt from the Bourbon draft. So Sicilians had a history of exemption.
Due in part to the rapid success that his campaign achieved civil reform of any significance was at best suspended and really not addressed during his military campaign on the island. In addition the rapid collapse of the Bourbon authority on the island and limited manpower of Garibaldi’s forces created a vacuum of power on most of the island. So the reality was that many areas of the island simply function without real authority but with a real expectation of change.
In late July as Garibaldi approached final victory on the island this vacuum of civil authority created civil strain and unrest and unmet expectations. In many towns and villages the existing local power, with its connection to Bourbon and upper class ownership, clashed with reformers, Carbonari and peasants. In Bronte and about a dozen surrounding towns such a clash of civil interests fostered by decades of mistreatment by the upper/foreign class and their managers erupted into several days of rioting. The anger of the mobs was directed primarily at local Sicilian officials as well as foreign managers and their families. Many were forced to flee. In all in about four days of rioting starting around August 1st about 18 people were dragged from their homes and executed by the mobs. The killings were most barbaric and mindless. Local police authority essentially stood by and did nothing to stop the killing and looting and when the local National Guard was called they did little or nothing as well.
Apparently, from reports received from Catania and fearing that the rioting would result in the loss of British lives and property Garibaldi received urgent directives from Palermo to intervene in Bronte to protect British property.
Garibaldi’s success in Sicily had on several occasions come as a direct result of British aid or presence and he knew British goodwill was critical to the success of his campaign. Despite the fact that he was in the planning phase of his invasion of the mainland he immediately diverted 400 of his best Piedmont troops under the command of his second in command Nino Bixio to establish order in Bronte.
“…Bixio received new instructions. These were to requisition all means of transport and turn back to Taormina with 400 men, and then to move inland to Mount Etna and make for Bronte where, in the words of Garibaldi, “disorder…that is threatening English property” had been reported. Driven by the alarming news that worsened as he got closer to Bronte, as well as by ‘dispatch after dispatch’ from the authorities in Catania appealing for reinforcements, Bixio did as he was told”. “Under the Vocanco” by Lucy Riall, page 125.
Over the span of about two weeks on August 6th with his arrival in Bronte, Bixio and his Piedmont troops entered Bronte and the surrounding riotous towns, and basically declared Martial law. In the process they rounded up about 18 individuals identified as leaders of the riot and sentenced them to immediate execution. The sentences were arrived at based upon military trial by accusation only. The executions were carried out swiftly and in a very public way. In addition about 300-400 individuals were arrested and carted off to prison in Catania again on little more than suspicion and accusation.
Bixio’s men also entered into the homes in the towns reclaiming any property they deemed “looted” from the estate and confiscated about 350 rifles. This effectively quieted the riot down and reestablished local authority in the same people that had held authority under the Bourbon regime. While Bixio’s actions certainly accomplished his immediate objective of stopping the threat to British property it clearly was not a civil or social resolution to Sicily’s long standing problems. As we continue in our history that fact of this failed opportunity to redress long standing social injustice will haunt Sicilian and southern Italian politics and social order for generations to come. Those interested in learning more about the Bronte riots and their aftermath may find Prof. Lucy Riall book “Under the Volcano” an interesting modern study of the event.
As an additional side note to the Bronte affair Bixio himself noted with shock the breakdown of authority and the failure of property owners/authorities to defend themselves. He also noted the relative ease with which he was able to arrest, execute, place in prison, recover looted property and confiscate weapons from the local population.
“Above all, Bixio was shocked by the breakdown of authority. He marveled that although his forces had recovered 350 guns, all belonging to property owners, none of these men had used their weapons to defend themselves: “why didn’t they defend themselves?” Bixio asked; “everybody abandoned their posts crying for help and a few stupid villains remained in control of the town.” For all these reasons, he quickly decided that only a strong, rapid response would bring order and set the right example. “An example is necessary, and they will have a frightful one,” Bixio wrote to the local council in Cesaro: “May decent people stick together-may authorities be vigilant-may the National Guard close ranks-and peace will return among us, and we shall return the soldiers of liberty as hence we came”.
The formula for dealing with civil unrest became established.
Photograph of Nino Bixio
Probing the Bourbon Mainland Defense
While Bixio was off in Bronte Garibaldi continued his preparations for the invasion of the mainland from his headquarters in Messina. As was stated earlier when Garibaldi sailed for Sicily in May among his “1,000” redshirts were at least 18 men from Calabria and one from Basilicata. Their mission was not to be part of Garibaldi’s military force in the Sicilian campaign, although they did take part in the first few Sicilian battles. They were there to be advance forces/agents for the landing on the mainland. These men disappear from Sicily by July and reappear in Calabria and Basilicata in August.
Garibaldi the strategist knew as he planned his invasion in early August that he had available on Sicily at most 3,500 Piedmont “redshirt” volunteers and about 2,500 Sicilians for the crossing. The remaining 4,000 or so Sicilian insurgents had not volunteered to continue the fight on the mainland. In addition the 9,000-11,000 Piedmont regulars that had recently arrived were there for Sicilian security not the mainland campaign. By the end of August the Piedmont regular forces on Sicily sent to secure the island’s civil order would number about 21,000 troops.
Garibaldi knew that the roughly 6,000 men he had available for invasion were facing a largely intact Bourbon navy and 80,000-100,000 Bourbon soldiers whose willingness to fight for their homeland was still an unknown.
He also knew that without major naval transport he would have to rely on small vessels crossing the narrow straits of Messina and landing on Calabria’s southern coast.
The mission of the Calabrian agents was critical as well as obvious. First, they were sent ashore in advance to gather intelligence on the Bourbon forces in Calabria, the Bourbon troop readiness and their morale. Second, they were to make contact in advance of an invasion with their Calabrian insurgent brothers to gauge their support of the invasion and to recruit Calabrian fighters to supplement Garibaldi’s meager invasion force. This advance scouting force was very similar to the preparation made by Piedmont prior to Garibaldi’s landing in Sicily when advanced Sicilian agents were secretly sent in.
However, Garibaldi had additional knowledge based upon the way the Sicilian campaign had gone and understood that the social structure of Calabria was slightly different than that of Sicily. This knowledge was in fact why the 18 individual Calabrian agents were chosen. In Sicily, Garibaldi’s support among Sicilians had come from primarily political sympathizers who left their homes to join him in the rural interior. He was even able to gain a significant amount of fighting support among residents of Palermo during that battle.
Calabria was different. The Pisacane 1857 failure underscored just how different the two regions were. Pisacane, himself a southerner landed with a thousand men on the coast of Compania slightly north of Calabria expecting the people to rise up, they didn’t. He was then forced to flee into the rugged Apennine Mountains where he not only did not have support but where he was actually attacked by the locals. Garibaldi could not afford to make the same mistakes.
In the Sicilian campaign if Garibaldi had thought that the general population would flock to the cause of unification in the tens of thousands he soon learned otherwise. Most of the Sicilian population remained passively on the sidelines. The question of would the Calabrians act the same had to be assessed to determine the degree of resource in the field the Calabrian population might provide. Also Apennine Calabrians maintained a culture that was clannish and which resulted in fractured political/social groupings. Would the clans fight together or recognize Garibaldi’s authority and would they support unification? These were all important questions that needed to be answered before the invasion was launched.
To help answer those questions Garibaldi dispatched agents who were native Calabrians and who had personal blood ties to the various Calabrian factions. These agents reported back to him in early August that there was strong support among the Calabrian people for a landing and the cause of unification. Further, that Garibaldi had the support of many of the leaders of factions up in the mountains. It was also reported that the shore garrison of the Bourbon fortresses at castle Scylla and Forte del Cavello on the Calabrian coast were ready to turn themselves over.
Upon receipt of this intelligence Garibaldi demonstrated one of the rare examples, for him, of restraint and also his uncommon use of deception as a military tactic. He choose not to launch a full invasion based upon the information he received. Instead he organized what can only be described as an exploratory expedition/feint. Under the command of Major Missori, Garibaldi gathered about 250 of his Piedmont “volunteers” and had them board the steamship Aberdeen. Under cover of darkness on the evening of August 8, 1860 he and his force sailed to about midway across the straits of Messina to an area roughly half way to the fortress. The men then disembarked onto small boats for the remainder of the trip to shore. Garibaldi remained aboard the steamship which became his operations command center for the next two days
Once the force was off loaded onto the smaller vessels for landing the force divided with about 200 men staying with Major Missori and heading toward the fortress at Scylla and about 50 heading toward Scylla Point where a Neapolitan shore battery had been set up. The force at Scylla Point landed first and almost immediately encountered the guards of the Bourbon shore position. Not only did the Bourbons not surrender but the patrol engaged in firing at Garibaldi’s force. The fighting on the beach alerted the Castle and the small landing force could see that preparations were being made to attack them. This force then re-boarded their small craft and returned to Sicily about ten miles away. I do not know the exact extent of casualties on either side but the incident was minor at best and I have only a newspaper report that one British volunteer among the landing force was wounded.
In the meantime Missori and his 200 men landed safely and undetected. However, due to the firing from the point he became aware that his force on the left had been found out. It would seem that Missori had at that point three choices of action. First, having lost the element of surprise in attacking the fort he could attack it without the element of surprise. Second, he could get back on his small boats and sail back to Sicily, not difficult as his force had not been found out yet. Three, he could move his force inland into the mountains. The third choice would seem less than ideal as he was not familiar with the region. Further with such a small force and few supplies his force could be hunted down by the Bourbons.
Map of Calabria showing Scylla and Aspromonte
Major Missori signaled to Garibaldi on his command ship that he had landed safely and was moving his men up into the mountains. The third choice, and probably the prearranged plan B for this landing. I think that if the Bourbon troops had surrendered without a fight and the coastal people had risen up en masse that Garibaldi would have exploited the opportunity. He had a knack for exploiting opportunity and commanded from the front so as to know when an opportunity presented itself. I also think this mission was a test. The coastal population had not risen up and the Bourbon troops had not surrendered so those questions were answered. Would the mountain clans join him and fight or would they attack his men as they had Pisacane remained unanswered. A question that could only be answered by sending a small force inland and finding out.
Garibaldi mentions this mission and landing rather simply in his autobiography “My Life” on page 112:
“Through the mediation of one of our supporters in Calabria we entered into negotiation with some soldiers garrisoned in the important fortress at Fiumara on the eastern shore of the straits. I ordered Missori and Mussolin to make an overnight crossing with two hundred men and try to take the fort. But the attempt failed, either because our intelligence was faulty or the guide took fright or for some other reason. The men disembarked and found themselves face to face with an enemy patrol, which they routed but who were able to raise the alarm so that our soldiers were forced to take refuge in the mountains.”
Reports that the force was split and that some returned are contained in newspaper reports. (See august 10, 1860 news article in the Manchester Guardian)
Pisacane’s misadventure was obviously on all of their minds. Several days before the battle of Milazzo in Sicily at the end of July some of Garibaldi’s men had liberated prisoners from one of the Bourbon prisons off the coast. Among the prisoners were several survivors of Pisacane’s landing who had been imprisoned for the past three years. These men were brought directly to Garibaldi at the time of the battle of Milazzo, a reminder of past failure in planning.
As Major Massori and his men made their way into the southern Apennine Mountains his force encountered a Bourbon rifle company on patrol, about a hundred men, and a skirmish broke out. Major Massori broke off the engagement but suffered one killed and seven wounded. Eventually he and his men made it to mountain town of Aspromonte. At Aspromonte he was joined by insurgents lead by the Baron of San Giovanni a local Calabrian leader.
It must be noted that at this point moving forward Massori’s men do not engage the Bourbon troops in the area but rather elude them. They are supplied and move about under the guidance of the local insurgents. They immediately report the support they are getting by signal to Garibaldi. Garibaldi remains off shore for two days receiving pre-arranged coded messages each day that Massori and his men are safe. In fact from pre-arranged locations and signals Sicilian command confirms each day that Massori remains safe and supported by local insurgents.
Once Garibaldi confirms by the second day August 10th, that he has insurgent support in the Apennine Mountains he begins to put the remaining parts of his invasion plan into operation.
First, Garibaldi secretly sails away from Sicily aboard the Aberdeen headed for Sardinia. In fact he will be absent from Sicily until August 17th. This secret is kept closely guarded by his commanders in Sicily. There are a significant number of foreign and especially British press on hand in Sicily. It is carefully suggested that Garibaldi is actively engaged in landing his forces on the mainland.
The British press accurately estimates and reports that Garibaldi’s force on Sicily numbers by August 10th about 20,000-21,000 men. This would be about 3,500-4,000 of his original “redshirt” volunteers, about 6,500 Sicilians insurgents and the rest recently arrived Piedmont soldiers. They inaccurately report that this is his “landing force” troop count. In reality Garibaldi only has his 3,500 volunteer “redshirts and about 2,500 Sicilian insurgent volunteers committed to the landing. The rest and more arriving Piedmont forces are for the security of Sicily.
In the absence of seeing Garibaldi in Sicily between August 10th and August 17th the press begins to report that Garibaldi is landing small units of men all along the Calabrian coast and that large numbers of Calabrian insurgents are joining these units as they land. That was complete misinformation probably implied by his commanders to distract the Bourbons on the mainland.
During the week he is missing from Sicily, Garibaldi was on Sardinia where a force of the remaining 3,000 original “redshirts” supplemented by about 2,000 additional volunteers had been assembled. On Sardinia garibaldi conferred with his commanders and naval transport to coordinate their landing on the southern mainland and the link up of these troops with those he will take with him from Sicily.
When Garibaldi arrived back at Messina on August 17th everything was ready for the invasion to begin.
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