Lucanian Insurrection and “Roma O Morte”?
By: Tom Frascella December 2016
After the violent encounters between pro-Piedmont and anti-Piedmont forces in southern Italy in the late fall and early winter of 1861, severe weather conditions in Lucania created a lull in confrontations between the parties. That lull gave the opposing parties an opportunity to assess their military positions and where practical to adjust their tactics.
For the Bourbon regime the death of General Borjes and the treachery/defection of certain of the Lucanian wealthy class to the Piedmont side made it clear that there would be no widespread conventional Bourbon counter-revolt in Lucania. Especially not one manned by tens of thousands of former Bourbon soldiers rallying to the Bourbon cause. Such an uprising had simply failed to materialize during the summer 1861 Borjes campaign. At least half of the insurgents that had joined Borjes’ campaign were not pro-Bourbon, they were simply aggrieved locals who had been mistreated by the Piedmont regime. Safely protected within the Papal States in Rome the Bourbon King and his staff had to contemplate both the successes and failures of the Borjes’ campaign. From these musings would eventually come their next line of attack and attempt to regain the Kingdom of Naples for King Francis.
What the Bourbons could easily determine was that in northern Campania, where actual support for the Bourbon regime had always been high, the exiled King needed to continue to develop a close relationship with the insurgents. However, Northern Campania did not present quite the extreme mountainous geographic conditions of Lucania for the loyalist insurgents there. Therefore insurgent forces had less ability to hide effectively within Campania while employing guerrilla tactics against Piedmont troops. Since northern Campania was adjacent to parts of the Papal States the Campania insurgents, with the approval and support of both the exiled Bourbon King and the Pope started to use the border with Papal territories as a safe haven and staging area for localized attacks within Campania.
Because of the tangled international situation of the time the Papal States were under the protection of France and Napoleon III. King Victor Emmanuel II could not risk conflict with his secret ally Napoleon III by invading or entering the Papal States. Such an action of invasion would require a French response. I can only imagine that unable to respond with force against the Campanian insurgents must have been frustrating to General Cialdini commander of the southern Piedmont army.
Just to the south in Lucania/Basilicata the insurgents, who were far less pro-Bourbon and much more independent, were protected by the mountains. After splitting up for the winter the Lucanian rebels appeared content to remain dispersed into small bands and engage in hit and run tactics. This also must have been frustrating as it required large numbers of Piedmont military who remained ineffective in catching the more mobile and more terrain knowledgeable Basilicatan insurgents.
Facing the above insurgent situation General Cialdini needed to devise a military plan by the spring of 1862 which took into account the restrictions to direct confrontation that he faced. As an extension of the way he had responded to insurgency in October of 1860 when he first arrived in the south his plan was both simple and brutal. If he could not isolate and confront his adversary he would use his troops against civilian targets who his military identified correctly or incorrectly as supporting the insurgents. In this way he hoped to separate the civilian population from the insurgents thereby denying the insurgents their populist base and supplies from the region.
Such a military program against civilians, essentially undeclared martial law, had no constitutional basis under the Piedmont Albertine Constitution which was supposed to apply to all of unified Italy. The acts of suppression against civilian targets, including summary executions were initially imposed solely at the discretion of individual commanders. Initially in 1862 there was no formalized plan of intimidation or civilian punishment. So the amount of force and arbitrary application of suppression of the population was unevenly administered by local commanders. This lead to some communities receiving much harsher forms of abuse than others.
The situation in southern Italy may have gone on like this for years had not a third factor suddenly been injected into the 1862 mix. As noted in the last article near the end of 1861 Garibaldi and Mazzini began to actively seek to continue the full unification of Italy with the inclusion of both the Papal States and Austrian controlled Venetian territory. While this might seem in keeping with the ultimate goals and agenda of Piedmont it was not within the political timing the regime deemed necessary. Mazzini and Garibaldi had become impatient with the slow movement of the Piedmont regime toward full unification. However, individual action separate and without approval of the Piedmont regime was not acceptable to the King or his advisors concerned that such action would lead to war with Austria and possibly France.
As with most of Italian history of this period exactly what was going on behind the political scenes and who was calling the shots is not easy to determine. What can be confirmed is that in the spring of 1862 Mazzini was actively encouraging Italians living in the Austrian controlled Venetian territory to revolt against Austria’s control. At about the same time Garibaldi very openly left his island home and sailed for Sicily. It is not clear whether these two actions had either the implicit or implied approval of the Regime in Turin. Clearly both of these actions were known to the Piedmont regime as both Mazzini and Garibaldi’s activities were very carefully monitored by the Piedmont regime and its agents. As Piedmont did nothing to discourage their actions it must be assumed that to some extent their actions were either sanctioned or not considered an immediate threat.
It was only after Garibaldi arrived in Sicily on June 29, 1862 that events begin to take a political turn wherein Piedmont became concerned. Again, Garibaldi’s arrival in Sicily was the opposite of secret or in any way clandestine. His arrival in Sicily was meet with great fanfare and he was acknowledged in his past role as the hero and liberator of the island. Garibaldi was greeted with parades and cheering crowds wherever he went on the island. His warm reception was not limited to just the common folk but included many of the political elite as well.
There are those histories that suggest that Garibaldi arrived in Sicily in possession of several thousand weapons secretly provided by the Piedmont King. The discussion goes that King Victor and his new Prime Minister Rattazzi were secretly trying to resurrect the late Prime Minister Cavour’s plan of two years earlier. That plan being to secretly supply weapons and leadership thru Garibaldi to the Balkan rebels as a distraction to Austria. Once Austria was distracted Italy could encourage and undermine Austria’s authority in Venice and move its army there as liberators supporting a grass roots uprising of pro Unitarian Italians. Whether that was the actual plan that brought Garibaldi to Sicily or the actions of Mazzini and Garibaldi were simply independent acts by men frustrated by the pace of the unification is not clear.
Garibaldi was a very popular figure/liberator on the island of Sicily. But his design and plan to return to Sicily was laid six months before his arrival. As I stated in an earlier article he had arranged to be chosen to head the Masonic lodge of Palermo at the end of 1861. In effect that Masonic Lodge, was the Masonic Lodge for the whole island of Sicily. So even as early as December 1861 in Naples it would appear that Garibaldi was planning something. I suspect that his appointment as Grand Master was part of a plan to bring him to Sicily in the summer in order to effectuate some plan against the Papal States. For him the inclusion of Rome as the capital of Italy was necessary for true unity in the peninsula.
Once Garibaldi arrived in Sicily he knew he could anticipate a great public demonstrations of recognition and greeting. There were many public dinners and meetings with the new Sicilian political elite many with Masonic ties. Whether part of an original Piedmont plan to send “volunteers and arms” to support the Balkan rebels or not Garibaldi very quickly began calling for a force of volunteers. Volunteers that he was somehow prepared to arm. Those public calls for volunteers also began to include the phrase “Roma o Morte” Rome or Death. The phrase becoming both a recruiting call and a battle call almost immediately, and as such catchy phrases are meant it soon was picked up by the international press. So Garibaldi was making no secret and publicly declaring by mid-late July his intent to raise a volunteer army and attack the Papal States.
As this intent became public and as volunteers began to gather Napoleon tested the political climate in France. From this it became diplomatically obvious to Piedmont and King Victor Emmanuel that he did not have Napoleon’s support for such a campaign against the Pope. Napoleon was still politically bound to defend and protect the Vatican. However, 1861 1nd 1862 were not good years for Napoleon and he realized that he did not have the political flexibility to abandon his Papal protection. The failure and animosity projected on France by Napoleon’s involvement in Mexico and the economic pressures resulting from the embargo on American southern goods by the Union Navy had negatively napoleon’s political stature at home.
The net result of this was that King Victor, by mid-July, appears to have tried to get Garibaldi to pull back both his provocative speeches in Sicily and his recruitment. But by late July several thousand men had already flocked to Garibaldi’s cause on the island. When such entreaties failed King Victor was forced to take more serious action in an attempt to stop the escalating international political danger being created by Garibaldi and Mazzini’s actions. On August 3, 1862 King Victor publicly condemned Garibaldi’s “guilty impatience’ with the government’s pace of achieving total unification.
When King Victor Emmanuel condemned Garibaldi’s actions in Sicily, that condemnation was viewed in France and the Vatican as a victory of Napoleon’s diplomacy and faithfulness to the Pope’s protection. However, it was actually more of a tactical problem for Napoleon who secretly was looking for a way out of defending the Papal States. King Victor’s condemnation of Garibaldi’s actions in Sicily was followed up with the Italian Ministry/Parliament issuing orders and a declaration of “state of siege” to General Cialdini in Naples to stop Garibaldi in Sicily from carrying out his plan to cross from Sicily to the mainland with a force at arms.
It is of great significance that the Piedmont government issued this order by declaration of a “state of siege” in Sicily. Basically this is a declaration of a state of emergency, suspension of civil law and institution of military/martial law. This is the first time such a formal emergency action was declared in the “new unified” Italy. The fact that a state of siege is not provided for and was not authorized under the Albertine Constitution that Piedmont and by extension southern Italy professed to follow did not immediately appear to bother anyone within the regime.
Garibaldi who was always the tactician upon hearing of the declaration of state of siege removed his gathering force from Palermo to the relative safety of the Sicilian mountainous interior. There undeterred by King Victor’s act, he concentrated his efforts on gathering men, supplies and weapons for his crossing to the mainland. By mid-August Garibaldi had gathered approximately 3,000 volunteers experiencing little interference from the Piedmont forces on the island. In previous articles I mentioned that the Piedmont regime had been slowly building up its armed forces including those stationed in the south. By the time mid-August came along the Piedmont forces numbered about 25,000 men in Sicily or roughly a third of the total Piedmont forces of 75,000 men in the south.
Around August 20th Garibaldi was ready to set his “March on Rome” in action. In total he had approximately 3,000 volunteers with him. He carefully avoided direct confrontation with the Piedmont forces on Sicily which vastly outnumbered his force. He successfully entered the port city of Catania where he was hailed, as he was throughout most of Sicily, as a hero.
At the port of Catania he found two merchant ships, one owned by the Calabrian/Sicilian merchant Florio family the other a French vessel. I assume Garibaldi had advance notice of the vessels presence in port and somehow made arrangement for the ships to prepare to transport his men to the Italian mainland. More interesting was the presence of three Italian naval vessels. These were part of a fleet of vessels sent by Piedmont to prohibit Garibaldi’s crossing. These naval vessels with clear orders to stop Garibaldi were at all times of relevance aware that Garibaldi and his force had arrived at Catania but made no effort to stop him from boarding the vessels, something a few well place cannon shots would have accomplished.
Packing as many men and as much equipment as he could on the two vessels Garibaldi set sail for the Italian mainland in Calabria on the evening of August 25, 1862. The two vessels were not large enough to accommodate his full force and about a thousand men had to be left behind. Departure from the port meant that Garibaldi’s unarmed vessels had to pass by the three Italian warships stationed there to stop him.
The commanders on the Italian vessels apparently refused to fire on Garibaldi and he left port unmolested. After he left Catania the Piedmont army arrived to retake control of the city and arrest the thousand or so men he had left behind. This was done without violence. The commanders of the naval vessels were arrested for failing to carry out their orders.
On the morning of August 26, 1862 Garibaldi’s force landed on the Italian mainland at Mileto in Calabria as a force of about 2,000 men. Somewhat like his previous 1860’s landing the limitation on transport meant that his force carried with it limited supplies. Garibaldi being a guerrilla tactic specialist probably viewed the lack of food supplies as a problem that could be overcome. Nevertheless, without acquiring the necessary sustained supply he would have difficulty fueling his march on Rome especially if he was forced into the mountains.
Drawing of Garibaldi’s transports disembarking at Mileto
At this point the Piedmont government in Turin further alarmed at Garibaldi’s progress formally issued a “state of siege” declaration effecting all of mainland southern Italy. This represented the second time that this parliamentary constitutionally unauthorized device was used in the young unified country. General Cialdini with enlarged authority to carry out his military mission issued orders to his commanders in Calabria to stop Garibaldi’s advance.
General Cialdini viewed the development of Garibaldi as a major threat to the stability of the area and to his own forces’ security well beyond Calabria. The insurgent forces in the south and especially in Lucania had for the preceding two years, mounted major offenses in August when they deemed the opposing foe either weak or less than capable of focusing its military in the region. In 1860 the Lucanians successfully struck at the Bourbons when they were focused on Garibaldi in Sicily. As you will recall Basilicata became the only Italian State to independently declare its freedom from the Bourbon rule without outside aid. In August of 1861 the Lucanian insurgents with Bourbon General Borjes struck when Piedmont manpower was weak in the region and too spread out. As earlier demonstrated a relatively small number of Lucanians can hold their own against superior numbers of trained and well-equipped troops in the region if those opposing forces are distracted.
Now once again Piedmont forces in the south were forced to concentrate their limited resources to stop Garibaldi, reducing manpower available to suppress the insurgents especially in Lucania. General Cialdini probably anticipated that if a prolonged struggle with Garibaldi ensued the Lucanians would once again look to capitalize. So while the insurgency and Garibaldi’s “Roma o Morte” campaign are not politically connected there was a practical military relationship that linked them together in the view of the Piedmont military leadership in the south. The issuance of the “state of siege” authority was therefore as much applicable to the handling of Garibaldi as it was to other “insurgent” groups.
But the “insurgent” relationship Garibaldi with Apennine rebels, was however purely one of location. Unlike Garibaldi’s first crossing from Sicily in August of 1860 there was no large body of young, organized Calabrian or Lucanian men waiting to join up with Garibaldi’s campaign at or near the beaches of Mileto. Whether this was the result of a lack of planning, organization or advanced notice to those sympathetic to Garibaldi’s campaign, I do not know. There were certainly some men in both Calabria and Lucania that were still sympathetic to Mazzini and Garibaldi’s cause. Actually the question of how much support they had never developed much of an opportunity to be answered. Garibaldi does give a somewhat inconsistent take on the question of lack of initial support from the southern mainland in his memoirs which I will quote at later point in this article.
Once landed Garibaldi moved his small force along the coast road past Capo dell’Armi toward Reggio as he had done on his previous landing in 1860. It was while he was proceeding along the coast road that he first came under attack by Piedmont forces. In Garibaldi’s own words; “It was an Italian battleship which first attacked us. It was moving along the coast in parallel with our march and fired some muskets in our direction so that we had to move men inland to protect them.” “My Life” by Giuseppe Garibaldi page 128.
While the naval fire was not effective in stopping his progress it did deny him the easier coastal route of travel in Calabria. Once he was forced inland by naval fire I will let Garibaldi’s own words describe what occurred. “Some units sent out from Reggio with orders to attack us made an assault on our vanguard. We tried to let them know that we had no wish to fight them, but in vain: they ordered us to surrender. Obviously we didn’t want to so we had to escape their fratricidal bullets.
Faced with such a state of affairs and wanting to avoid unnecessary bloodshed I ordered the troops to turn off to the right and take the road to Aspromonte.” My Life pages 129 & 129.
The Battle of Aspromonte
While turning into the mountains was the only way to avoid a confrontation with the Piedmont troops it was not an ideal solution for Garibaldi. As I mentioned he was under-supplied with food and did not have the aid of home grown Calabrians to guide him thru the mountains and provide advance intelligence on Piedmont troop movement. Again, using Garibaldi’s own description of the situation;
“The Italian army’s hostility towards us had naturally created alarm among the local people and made it very difficult for us to obtain provisions. My poor volunteers lacked everything, including the most vital necessity, food; whenever by some miracle we came across a shepherd with his folk he refused to help us as though we were brigands or worse. The priests and the reactionaries had had no trouble convincing these good but simple folk that we should be regarded as excommunicates and outlaws. Yet we were the same men we had been in 1860 and our purpose was as noble as the one we pursued then. Fortune was less kind to us, it is true; it is not the first time I have seen the local populace inert and indifferent towards those who wished to give them their freedom…”
What I find interesting in the above is that Garibaldi fails to acknowledge that any of the Piedmont policies toward the south may have contributed to an alienation of the people. He goes on to say;
“I was hungry, but many of my companions must have suffered from worse hunger. After immensely difficult marches along paths which were practically impassable, we reached the high plateau at Aspromonte at dawn on the twenty-ninth of August 1862, tired and famished. We gathered some green potatoes to eat-raw at first, and then when the first hunger pangs had subsided, roasted.” “My Life page 129.
Despite his initial description of the locals and their lack of aid, his narrative then change and he says; “Here I must pay tribute to the good folk who live in that mountainous region of Calabria. They didn’t appear immediately-the paths are poor and communication difficult- but in the afternoon they arrived carrying plentiful supplies of fruit and bread and other food. But the oncoming catastrophe gave us little time to enjoy their benevolence.” Page 129.
With the mixed descriptions of what support he gained from the locals who clearly did not know he was coming I would question how “inert” some of the locals were. As I said, all of this was occurring within a day of his landing and hardly had any chance to develop into a clear picture. However, clearly Garibaldi and his men had some sympathy among the locals or in the alternative the locals when confronted with this armed force thought it better to give them food rather than have their homes looted.
The catastrophe that he alludes to unfolded in Garibaldi’s word as follows;
“At three in the afternoon we sighted to the west, some miles off, the head of a column led by Pallavincini, on its way to attack us. The level where we had spent the whole day resting was too exposed and we could easily have been surrounded so I ordered us to move camp further up the mountain. We reached the edges of the beautiful pine forest which crowns Aspromonte; here we set up camp facing our attackers and with the forest behind us.” Page 129.
Drawing of drawn battle lines at Aspromonte
So late in the afternoon of August 29th what has become known in Italian history as the Battle of Aspromonte was set. In Garibaldi’s words;
“In 1862, however, the Italian army was stronger and we were much weaker; they vowed to destroy us and ran upon us as if we had been a band of brigands, or with even greater keenness. (It is ironic that Garibaldi’s complaint here is that the Piedmont army is treating them like “brigands” not comrades in the unification process) No warnings of any kind were given. They arrived and they charged us with astonishing casualness. They were obeying orders, obviously: it was a question of wiping us out, and since brothers born from the same mother might be expected to hesitate before trying to kill each other, those orders were to charge on us when they found us without stopping to think. When the column was within firing range, Pallavicini drew up his lines which started resolutely to advance on us, firing all the time…
We did not return their fire. For me the moment was truly terrible. We could either throw down our arms and submit like sheep, or shed the blood of our brothers. But no such scruples affected the monarchy’s soldiers, or rather their leaders. Were they counting on my hatred of civil war? This seems likely and would explain why they marched on us with such imperturbable confidence.
I ordered my men not to fire and they obeyed, except for a few excitable youths on our right wing, under the command of my son Menotti, who, when they charged, countercharged, a little ostentatiously, and drove them back.” Page 130.
As the attack by the Piedmont forces continued to approach Garibaldi’s position, he attempted to stop the carnage by standing between the advancing Piedmont force and his men shouting “Viva Italia”. This apparently did not have the desired effect on the advancing Piedmont soldiers and as a result he was shot twice by the Piedmont soldiers, once in the left foot and once in the left thigh. His son was also wounded in the thigh. At great risk to their own safety while still under Piedmont fire Garibaldi was dragged beyond the range of opposing fire by his men and his surgeon was called up to dress his wounds.
Drawing of the wounded Garibaldi at Aspromont
After Garibaldi was wounded he and his men were captured/surrendered without further resistance. In all the confrontation had lasted about fifteen minutes, about a dozen of Garibaldi’s men had died and about 300 were injured. The Piedmont force had given no quarter and indeed garibaldi was being treated as were others in the region as “brigands”. Any political agenda whether supportive of unification or not was not part of the consideration. It was submission to Piedmont’s directive or face the consequences including death.
So Garibaldi’s bold plan to capture Rome in the name of Victor Emmanuel and the unity of Italy in 1862 came to a violent and abrupt end, quite literally only a few days after it began. Garibaldi had gone from hero of the unification to prisoner of Italy. He had travelled from ally to captive of the Piedmont regime.
Once Garibaldi was wounded and captured there seems to have been some indecision as to what to do with him and his men. Ultimately it was decided that Garibaldi was to be carried by stretcher down from the mountain. It is interesting to note that prior to removal he was allowed only minimal treatment from his own physician. Once his transporting detachment reached the coast he was immediately place on an Italian naval vessel. Garibaldi had apparently demanded that his captors deliver him to an English merchant ship for transport to England. That request was denied. The naval warship he was removed to sailed under orders for the prison fortress at Varignano near La Spezia in the province of Genoa. Of course as the news of his march was already widely publicized in Italy and abroad, so was his wounding and capture.
As a military operation the Roma O Morte campaign really did not amount to much. However, its real historical importance was in its immediate consequences, in Italy, in Lucania and internationally, including the United States. Those immediate consequences are the subject of the next article. However, it is noted that the capture of garibaldi and his force of volunteers was not viewed as the end of the crisis of authority in the south. The “state of siege” was not rescinded in either Sicily or Calabria, Campania or Basilicata. As a result Piedmont general Cialdini for the first time had actual authority to impose continuing “martial Law” on the civilian population of the south.
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