Garibaldi and “The 1,000” Landing at Marsala May 11, 1860
BY: Tom Frascella May 2015
As I write this I have the advantage of looking at the recorded history of the event through the perspective of 165 years of Italian propaganda and international academic research. Yet, a full an honest accounting of what occurred in those critical first hours of the Garibaldi invasion continue to remain hidden from view.
A summary of what we do know as fact which was contained in my first article on the transport of Garibaldi’s force is the following:
1. On May 11, 1860 the port city of
Marsala, Sicily had been under the undisputed authority and control of the
Bourbon Monarchy of
southern Italy for several centuries. Most recently, 35 years, under a configuration known as the “Kingdom of the Two Sicilies”.
2. On the morning of May 11, 1860
not only were the port authorities and guards Bourbon “officials” but three
armed Bourbon warships
lay at anchor in the harbor.
3. Suddenly, for reasons not
determined in the historical record, at approximately 9:00 a.m. the three
Bourbon warships pulled up
anchor and left the harbor for the open sea.
4. At approximately 11:00 a.m. two
British warships entered, for reasons not disclosed in the historical record,
Marsala harbor and
5. At approximately 1:00 p.m. two
unarmed transport ships the Piemonte and the Lombardo carrying Garibaldi and
soldiers from the northern Italian Kingdom of Piedmont-Sardinia arrived at Marsala and made for the commercial docks for landing.
6. The landing was hardly uneventful
as the Lombardo ran aground and became stranded in the harbor with its 500
supplies and ammunition. The Piemonte which carried Garibaldi and half the soldiers was able to dock without incident.
7. There is no mention of any
resistance made to the landing by any of the Bourbon officials or authorities
that were present in the city.
Instead the city is said to have cheered Garibaldi’s arrival.
Over the course of the next two
hours, 1:00-3:00 p.m. Garibaldi was able to disembark the cargo and soldiers on
The Lombardo remained fully loaded and stranded in the harbor.
9. At approximately 3:00 p.m. the
three armed Bourbon warships returned to the harbor at Marsala and observed
unloading on the dock and the unarmed Lombardo fully loaded and stranded in the harbor.
Since my primary goal in writing these articles in to examine the history of our San Felese/ Lucanian ancestors and the major events that affected them, I need to summarize their regional status at the moment of Garibaldi’s arrival in Sicily. San Fele and Lucania are located on the mainland of the Italian peninsula just above Sicily. So the two locations are not physically linked and are separated by the straits of Messina and lower Calabria.
As previously written as early as the collapse of the 1848 Carbonari rebellion in the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies some small number of Lucanian Carbonari had been forced into hiding in the hills and mountains of Lucania. There, although poorly armed, they survived in the wilderness pretty much defensively avoiding the Bourbon authorities. The Bourbon government tended to brand them as “bandits” but while they may have resorted to petty crime for survival they were in fact “political” outcasts.
Following the desperation generated by the massive 1857 earthquake in Lucania, more locals found themselves afoul of the authorities and the number of “outcasts” in hiding from the Bourbon authorities in the mountains reached about 2,000 by 1860. These were men hardened by years on the run, with great knowledge of the terrain of Lucania and adept at avoidance of the Bourbon troops. They were also proficient at small arms tactics which is all that they had at best.
As we have discussed in previous articles these 2,000 men were distributed throughout the Lucanian region among over 300 bands. These bands of “bandits’ infrequently worked together and avoided presenting too large a body of men to the Bourbon troops. Larger forces would have been too easy to track and too exposed as targets. Alarmed by the increasing number of “bandits” in Lucania the Bourbon regime as early as 1859 bolstered local authority with over 5,000 regular troops. Despite the increasing number of opposing forces direct confrontation was generally avoided well into 1860.
We know from a number of sources that the Piedmont regime for close to a year before Garibaldi’s landing had been moving Sicilian agents of the Savoy regime in and out of Sicily. Their job was to test the resolve and encourage the Sicilian people toward revolt against the Bourbons. Sicily, like Lucania had a long history of revolt against the Bourbon regime. It was clear from the preparations made for Garibaldi’s expedition that the Savoy regime of northern Italy sought to connect with this strong anti-Bourbon popular sentiment in southern Italy. The Savoy regime hoped to also connect to the strong “national” or “one Italy” sentiment. The Sicilian agents sent ahead of Garibaldi’s expedition were there to encourage annexation with the Piedmont regime as a way to achieve Italian unity.
Less is known about how many, when or if similar agents of the Piedmont were dispatched to mainland southern Italy. Later events in Lucania strongly suggest that such agents of Piedmont were present in Lucania as well. I think it fair to say that some communication existed but that prior to Garibaldi’s landing the focus of Piedmont was to secure Sicily.
We do know however that counted among the “1,000” volunteers that Garibaldi initially had at the landing at Marsala were about sixty Sicilians and an additional eighteen who were identified as “Calabrians”. I say identified as “Calabrians” because the resistance forces engaged in activities against the Bourbons were located primarily in the mountainous center of southern Italy. While this area overlaps several Italian States, including Calabria, Basilicata and Apulia the mountainous region is ancient “Lucania”.
So to sum up at the time of Garibaldi’s landing at Marsala Sicily in 1860 a significant number of men had been in revolt in the mountains of Lucania for a number of years. Further, their actions and numbers, unsupported by the rest of Italy, had not dissipated over time but were in fact growing.
With that as back drop in the story we can turn the discussion back to the actual landing of Garibaldi at Marsala May 11, 1860. We can look to various sources for accounts of what happened at Marsala harbor as the events were widely reported and since that day often written about. We also have some firsthand accounts of actions taken and the reasons given for the actions and results. An interesting place to start was how Garibaldi, in his memoirs, described what happened and why.
Picking up Garibaldi’s recollection of events starting at about 3:00 p.m. at the arrival of the returning Bourbon naval squadron.
From Garibaldi’s memoirs “My Life” translated in 2004:
“This meant that by the time they got within firing distance of us, all of the men on the Piemonte had already disembarked while those on the other ship were just beginning to get off. The presence of the two English warships must have given pause to the commanders of the enemy ships, who were obviously impatient to start bombarding us, and so we had time to complete the disembarkation from the Lombardo. Albion’s noble flag once more served to prevent bloodshed and this seagoing race, who have taken me to their hearts, once again, and for the hundredth time, afforded me protection.
However, the view put about by our enemies that the English had deliberately planned to help our landing in Marsala with their own ships is untrue. The British flags, so widely respected and so authoritative, which fluttered from the two warships and on the roof of Mr. Ingham’s firm in town, made the Bourbon mercenaries hesitate, almost as if they were ashamed in their presence to fire their huge guns on a small band carrying only the wretched rifles with which the Italian monarchy see fit to equip its volunteers. Nonetheless the Bourbons still sent over a hail of grenades and small shot, despite the fact that over three-quarters of the volunteers were already on the quay; luckily no one was hurt. The enemy carried off the empty Piemonte, but they left the Lombardo which had run aground.” pages 91 and 92
The above version has for the better part of the last century and a half represented the official Italian government’s line on how Garibaldi miraculously avoided having his forces decimated by the Bourbon warships. However Garibaldi’s rendition doesn’t pass the fact test or the smell test.
First, the official British commentary suggest a slightly and subtly different sequence of events. In the British version upon the arrival of the Bourbon vessels to the port the British warships placed themselves between the Bourbon vessels and Garibaldi’s landing. This is not a passive, uninvolved act that Garibaldi describes but rather a deliberate act of interference. The British warships were commanded to take action not sit by as observers. Admiral Mundy commander of the British ships maintained in his accounts that he took this action, not to aid Garibaldi’s invasion, but to protect British property and civilians residing in Marsala from bombardment. Admiral Mundy was well aware that his actions were interfering with the Bourbon commander’s ability to attack Garibaldi’s forces. I believe there were immediate protests of the British action by the Bourbon regime however in response Admiral Mundy’s rationale was immediately adopted by the British foreign office as the reason for the interference.
I think it is clear that the British were aware that any sovereign State’s naval force would attempt to protect the homeland from invasion. This is a fundamental right of International Law. Yet admiral Mundy took deliberate steps to interfere with the host country’s representatives from doing their jobs. Thus, he participated in fostering the landing of a hostile and armed force on a “friendly” States sovereign territory.
The Bourbon warships, the legitimate representatives of the government of the port were prohibited from defending their sovereign territory by the British warships in the harbor.
Following this act of interference by the British vessels the commander of the Bourbon squadron, interestingly a Captain by the name of Acton, sought immediate parlay with the British Admiral. It would appear that the Bourbon commander was seeking to avoid the escalation of the international incident that was clearly taking place. It seems odd however, that reports indicate that the Bourbon naval commander was brought aboard the British flagship and not the other way round. After all the British were in the host country’s port. The discussion between the commanders of the opposing ships conveniently lasted until the remainder of Garibaldi’s company aboard the Lombardo was also disembarked. So effectively the Bourbon commander was restrained from action until the landing was complete.
It was only after this “parlay” that the Bourbon commander took any offensive action against the landing forces. He fired a few lightly packed shots of minimum ordinance at the dock area, striking nothing, wounding no one, civilian or soldier and then ceased his bombardment of garibaldi’s forces in the town. The only other action recorded as being taken by the Bourbon commander was his sending a boarding party to capture the now empty and deserted vessel Piemonte. The Bourbon vessels then left port with their captured vessel leaving behind the grounded Lombardo. To summarize the Bourbon warships arrived back in port around 3:00 p.m. and left with one empty captured transport somewhere around 6:00-7:00 p.m on the evening of May 11, 1860.
This quick exit by the Bourbon squadron may seem like a rational act on the Bourbon commander’s part. Apparently once Garibaldi’s forces were ashore there were no Bourbon ground forces present in the town. So Garibaldi’s forces could have retreated out of range of the warships guns and beyond the city limits of Marsala quickly and without resistance. . Movement away from the Bourbon naval squadron’s shipboard batteries and toward the protection of the outlying hills would seem prudent under the totality of the circumstances.
Of course that is not what occurred here. The Captain Acton left the harbor with his squadron of warships leaving Garibaldi’s invasion force intact and unmolested on the docks of Marsala. The Bourbon commander made no attempt to apprehend, injure, delay or defeat the enemy forces then in front of him. One cannot even argue that the commander’s complete dereliction of duty had anything to do with the threat that Garibaldi’s forces posed to the commander’s vessels. Garibaldi’s land forces had no artillery of their own and therefore could not strike the Bourbon warships.
Anyone studying the accounts of the transport of Garibaldi men to Sicily, both on this initial landing or subsequently over the next several months and dozens of add8itional transports has to be struck by the complete failure of the Bourbon navy’s coastal fleet. Forewarned that Garibaldi’s force was departing Genoa the largest navy in Italy at the time, not only couldn’t stop two unarmed steamer ships along the coast, they didn’t even spot them. Then when they had half of Garibaldi’s force trapped on a grounded vessel and the other half poorly armed sitting on the docks of Marsala harbor three armed naval vessels didn’t manage to capture, wound or kill a single invader.
In fact the performance of the Bourbon navy throughout the Sicilian and mainland campaigns was so poor as to rate as almost a complete absence of action. For all intentions there was no Bourbon Navy action during the campaigns. The Navy’s nonperformance was so ridiculously poor that it suggests that navy commanders were encouraged not to participate in the defense of their homeland. A charge raised by many both at the time and since.
After the landing with less than a 1,000 lightly armed men and no reserves Garibaldi’s actions do not seem consistent with a commander who is expecting either resistance or a counter attack. The Bourbons had 40,000 troops on the island of Sicily.
In Garibaldi’s own account of the immediate aftermath of the landing:
“But the poor inhabitants of the town welcomed us with applause and warmth. All their thoughts were for the sense of sacrifice, the arduous and generous mission which had led this band of valiant young men from afar in support of their Sicilian brothers. We spent the rest of the day and the following night in Marsala”. Page 92.
If we strip away the gratuitous language of the paragraph we see that Garibaldi is content with leaving his forces in an exposed position overnight. Obviously he did not expect a counter offensive from the 40,000 Bourbon troops that were stationed in Sicily at the time. What could possibly explain this veteran commander’s lack of establishing a defensive position for the night? Did he know the position and disposition of Bourbon troops? If he was apprised that the Bourbon military was concentrated around Palermo he would have known that he had a three or four day period to make his exit. Apparently this allowed him to be content to spend the night sitting on the docks of Marsala, 120 miles from the Sicilian Capital of Palermo where overwhelming numbers of Bourbon troops and munitions stand at the ready.
Beyond Garibaldi’s failure to assume a defensive military posture, in reading Garibaldi’s memoirs I was also struck with the timing of his first reference regarding the Sicilian people, and his declaration as dictator of Sicily in the name of King Victor Emmanuel II. In fact, in Piedmont’s grab at unification from the close of hostilities with Austria to the time of setting up provisional governments, plebiscites and formal annexation all of the timings seem both very aggressive and non-reflective of the actual status of things on the ground. In the case of his dictatorship and provisional government Garibaldi seems to indicate that the subject is suggested by his Sicilian companions while he is still in Marsala. Garibaldi states;
“I was not familiar with the island and its inhabitants and I relied on Crispi’s services; this honest and extremely able man was a native Sicilian and provided invaluable help with essential matters such as administering the island and dealing with its people. There was talk of setting up a dictatorship to which I had no objection.”
While the subject was raised in Marsala Garibaldi did not declare himself dictator at that time. Instead, he waited. His dictatorship was not officially proclaimed by him in the name of Victor Emmanuel II until his arrival in Salemi three days after is landing on May 14, 1860. A fact which I find astounding for Garibaldi’s presumption of his position of power at the time and the initial apparent odds of his eventual success in the overall campaign.
By taking such a bold action so early in the campaign it clearly demonstrates that Garibaldi and Piedmont had a very forward and aggressive plan of conquest and annexation. I believe that his declaration of a dictatorship in the name of Victor Emmanuel II was set up very early on, probably before the invasion force left Genoa. But the question remains as to why Piedmont was so confident so early on. But as in the Piedmont Campaign against Austria, the apparent odds against Piedmont’s success were greatly reduced by direct and indirect aid and support from Britain and france.
Following Garibaldi’s successful landing a familiar pattern for the southern Italian campaign of conquest begins to emerge. Once landed Garibaldi sent out Sicilian agents to rouse the local insurgents to join his forces. In Sicily it appears that local insurgents had been gathering in the hills of central Sicily awaiting his arrival. On the morning of May 12th Garibaldi led his “1,000” minus those Sicilians who had been sent forward to recruit insurgents, out of Marsala. His initial destination was the Sicilian town of Salemi. Salemi is located about twenty-five miles from Marsala. Because of the mountainous terrain Garibaldi arrived in Salemi on May 14, 1860, a two day march, and received an enthusiastic greeting from the town’s people.
It was at Salemi that Garibaldi was joined by the first coordinated group of the Sicilian insurgents, approximately 1,000 in number. Sicilian insurgents were known as “squadre”. Emboldened by the greeting and support of the town’s people and the doubling of his force to two thousand Garibaldi took this opportunity to declare himself dictator of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies in the name of Victor Emmanuel II and declared the annexation of the Sicily to the Piedmont regime. It is said that he personally raised the tri-color flag on the tower of the Norman Castle on that date.
Photograph of “old” Salemi as it appeared in Garibaldi’s time. Norman Castle and tower is toward the right.
Remarkably, as Garibaldi is declaring himself dictator of Sicily, to this point Garibaldi had been on the island of Sicily only three days. Further in those three days he had travelled inland only about 25 country miles and was still at least seventy-five miles from the Sicilian capital. In those three days he had not encountered a single Bourbon contingent, had not fired a single shot at a Bourbon soldier or sustained a single soldier killed among his forces.
As a note, because of Garibaldi’s declaration that day on the occasion of the 150th anniversary Salemi was honored as the birthplace of the “Unified” country of the Kingdom of Italy May 14,, 2010 although the official “unification” would not take place for almost another year.
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