Road to the Southern Italian Unification, Plebiscite October 21, 1860



BY: Tom Frascella                                                                                                                                November 2015


 As Garibaldi faced off against the forces of King Francis II of Naples in early October 1860 the question of governance of the majority of what had been the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies remained a somewhat fluid proposition in the South. By October most of the Southern Provinces of Italy had informally self-declared provisional governments. The exception was a formal declaration of annexation which was made in Basilicata even prior to Garibaldi’s landing on the mainland. Those provisional governments that were in place also recognized Garibaldi as the self-declared dictator. The provisional governments themselves had no legitimized recognition internationally and so any authority they exerted was purely local.  Further, although many of the provincial governments had requested annexation to Piedmont and welcomed an eventual arrival of King Victor Emmanuel there had been no democratic process through plebiscite or elected legislative authority for their actions. The provisional governments were in fact revolutionary committees. Further they were governments who had not yet, even with the aid of Garibaldi, succeeded in fully defeating the Bourbon King and his military forces.

 But by the end of the day on October 2, 1860 Garibaldi had succeeded in turning back an aggressive Bourbon offensive drive to Naples and had reestablished his defensive line on the south side of the Volturno River. For the moment with King Victor Emmanuel’s regulars still occupied 200 miles north of the border of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies all that they had attained at Volturno was containment. However, that was all that Garibaldi really needed or wanted at that moment in the Campaign for unification. Victor Emmanuel’s forces were registering impressive victories in the Papal States and his arrival in the south was both assured and imminent.

 As it would turn out Garibaldi would direct, from a distance, only one more “insurgent” engagement before the arrival of Piedmont forces and King Victor Emmanuel II in the territories of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. That engagement constitutes only a small appendage to the greater battle of Volturno proper and actually began a few days prior to the main engagement of forces in the Volturno battle.  However the engagement does demonstrate that the Bourbon forces were not fully defeated by the end of the Volturno battle.


                                                                                               The Isernia Skirmish


 A day or two before the main Bourbon offensive at Volturno, local pro-Bourbon loyalists attacked Garibaldian insurgent provisional forces in the Molise area just northeast of the Gaeta position. The locals were able to reestablish Bourbon authority in and around the town of Isernia which had been briefly controlled by pro-unification rebels.  Initially the pro-Bourbon loyalist fought without support from Bourbon regulars and were successful in driving out the Garibaldian rebels. It is unclear whether their actions were coordinated with or a part of the larger Bourbon thrust taking shape in Gaeta but it did arise at about the same time that King Francis and his war cabinet were pushing for the offensive to begin.

 From pro Garibaldian press accounts of the time, which have an expected bias, what appears to have followed the Bourbon loyalist retaking of the town was a two week period of pro-Bourbon alleged local retribution against local pro Garibaldian insurgent people and property. It is difficult to access the accuracy of the press accounts based upon their frequent unbridled support of the unification/Garibaldi cause. However, that there was independent loyalist action underscores that Northern Campania was at this point in the conflict one of the only areas of southern Italy still equally divided among pro and anti-Bourbon supporters.

 Garibaldi became aware of the Isernia conflict a few days after October 2 following the conclusion of the bulk of the fighting at Volturno. Local pro Garibaldian insurgent leaders who had been driven out of the town assured Garibaldi that 3,000 local pro unification insurgents stood ready to support any of his forces he would send to retake the Isernia.  Based upon this information Garibaldi sent out an undersized force to lead the local insurgents to retake Isernia. It is clear that Garibaldi’s attention was primarily focused on reestablishing his defensive lines and reinforcing his defensive batteries in case of a second offensive thrust by the Bourbons at Gaeta.  The 3,000 supporting insurgents never materialized and instead the small force sent by Garibaldi was attacked by local national loyalists who had by then, been joined and were supported by a significant number of Bourbon regulars. Garibaldi’s force was made up of a few hundred Sicilians, some local insurgents from Alife in northern Campania and a few dozen Northern Italians. Outnumbered the Garibaldian force had to retreat sustaining heavy casualties on October 17th. Since the Garibaldian force was small, numbering only about a few hundred men the skirmish does not rank as much of a defeat. However, it does represent an indication that the opposition was still prepared to engage.

 I mention this engagement for two reasons, the first of which really has nothing to do with the story of unification or Lucanians’ participation in the war. What it does concern is the documented antiquity of the region in the story of human habitation at this site and several others throughout the region.

 Since the mid-20th century the town of Isernia, located about 30 miles northeast of Naples has been known for an important archeological discovery. That archeological discovery involves the discovery f a campsite that is far, far older than the story of unification.  In the Mid-last century an ancient camp site was unearthed near the town. This primitive site was dated to what is known as the Paleolithic Era. The site is estimated to be between 700,000 and 750,000 years old. It contains evidence of human stone tool making. Sites of this antiquity exist and have been found in Africa, Asia and Eastern Europe but I believe from what I have read that it is the oldest hominid site yet uncovered in Western Europe. I believe current thought is that that various ancient human species flowed out of Africa through the middle-east before heading east and west. The existence of the site attests to the fact that this region of the ancient southern Italian penninsula has hosted humanity and human evolution for an immense measure of time. Although, no fossils from the originators of the campsite have been found it is believed from the site’s age as well as the stone tool style that they were created by human evolutionary ancestors referred to as Homo Erectus. The site is important enough that a modern museum to house the find was built in the town of Isernia and can visited by those interested in this area of study and science.




                                                    Photograph from the Museum at Isernia created to house the archeological find.


 For those interested in the subject of human habitation and migration out of Africa a brief summary description relative to Homo Erectus is that it is believed that Homo Erectus existed from possibly as far back as 2.5 million years to as recently as 60,000-70,000 years ago. At that point it appears to have become extinct or in some fashion replaced in the evolutionary chain of modern man. From more ancient sites found throughout Eastern Europe and Asia many believe the Homo erectus’ migration out of Africa occurred around 900,000 years ago. So a site of this antiquity helps project the speed at which this particular sub species spread throughout the landscape and so is important in the study of human migration as well as evolution.

 Closer to San Fele near the town of Venosa, which we visited on our last trip to the region, there was an additional very old Paleolithic campsite discovered that dates between 300,000 to 400,000 years ago. Again no fossil record of the inhabitants were uncovered. However, because of the more recent timeline associated with the Venosa site scientists have been reluctant to describe this as a Homo Erectus site, as it is possible it was created by a more recent human ancestor in the human evolutionary chain.

 The second reason that I mention this relatively minor engagement is that this engagement probably is the only clear example of a Garibaldi initiative that failed in the final months of his campaign. Further in what appears to be somewhat uncharacteristic of the always aggressive Garibaldi he did not follow up on the skirmish defeat by sending more troops to retake the town. This may be the result of the movement and arrival of the anticipated vanguard of Victor Emmanuel’s forces.

 As I stated above propagandists did note this engagement and it is interesting how this relatively minor skirmish was described, especially the parties to the action. It would appear from my reading that this engagement, since the Bourbon loyalist won, provided Unification propagandists with their first real opportunity to cast the loyalists as the aggressors. Up to this point most of the engagements during Garibaldi’s campaign were initiated by Garibaldi’s forces. In proper historical context the Bourbonists were the legitimate government and had substantial support among loyalists in northern Campania at the time of Volturno and Isernia engagements. They were not the rebels. The Bourbon forces and their supporters still controlled a sizeable area in northern Campania and were still the internationally recognized legitimate government.

 Even at this late date, the war was not completely decided. It should be noted that despite the failure to advance on Naples during the battle of Volturno and the loss of between 3,000 and 4,000 men killed wounded or captured the Bourbon forces still numbered between 41,000 and 46,000 men, a significant fighting force. Further, certain municipalities in northern Campania had demonstrated great loyalty and provided intelligence and local militia manpower to the Bourbon forces. Substantial resources were still available to the Bourbon King.

 It was Garibaldi and his force, regardless of their general popularity that constituted the “insurgent’ or rebel force. However, later histories demonstrate an odd tendency to legitimize the insurgents, the ultimate victors especially after Victor Emmanuel’s arrival, at the expense of those fighting for their homeland on the side of the established regime. The confrontation at Isernia and its description in Garibaldi the Making of Italy, pages 258 and 259 demonstrates the point;

 “During this period of waiting, the only military event of interest was the expedition to Isernia. That town, like most others in the Molise and neighboring province of Abruzzi, had been seized by the citizens in the name of Garibaldi and Victor Emmanuel. But on the day before the battle of the Volturno it was invaded by peasants from the hills, authorized to act for the good cause by their Bishop and by the authorities at Gaeta, and led by Royal gens-d’armes. During the following week pillage, massacre, torture and mutilation were the lot of the inhabitants of Isernia and other centres of Nationalism in the neighborhood. This system of “reaction” or “brigandage”, accompanied by all the bestial cruelty of which the half-savage peasants of the south were still capable, afforded a last weapon for the expiring system of Church and State. Francis II, when finally driven from Gaeta by Victor Emmanuel’s army, took refuge in Rome in 1861, and thence, under the protection of the Pope, continued to foster this kind of “Brigandage” in his lost dominions in the Abruzzi for nearly seven years to come. No such horrors were committed on the other side by the Garibaldian peasantry of Calabria, Basilicata, Abruzzi or any other province of the mainland, and the difference may fairly be attributed to the higher ethical standard of the local Nationalist leaders-men like Stocco and Pace, touched by the idealism of the risorgimento movement- as compared with the reactionary clergy and the Bourbon officials, who had been brought up in an evil school on frankly mediaeval ideas of religion and government.”

 It is easy to discern how the pro-unification forces described themselves versus the Bourbonists.  The propagandists who wrote about future southern resistance to the policies of the Piedmont regime would be described in terms of good vs. evil, progressivism vs. antiquated traditionalism, savagery vs. high ethical morality and corrupt Church vs. secular humanism. These terms arose and helped create negative descriptive images of resistance fighters that were applied and continue to be applied to all those who resisted the Piedmont or later unified government actions in the south. Additionally, later writers frequently adopted such images of the resistance and applied it to the “southern” Italian in general. These descriptive references continue to be extended beyond those who came to resist the policies of the new “united Italy” in the 19th century and have followed into the 20th and 21st centuries. In the above case the writer did not personally witness or confirm any acts of “brigandage” or “bestial cruelty” but is perfectly comfortable in asserting such occurred. In referring to the loyalist peasantry as “half-savage” and lacking in the “higher ethical standards” of the pro insurgent force inherently suggests higher moral bearing and superiority. Again a statement without any basis in fact, put out their strictly to dehumanize the character of resistance at the time.  Such imagery was useful for the next seven years of social unrest as well as moving forward to deflect any criticism of the shortcomings of the government or its often cruel and inhumane treatment of the people of the south. As is often the case when such rhetoric takes hold there is, and in the case of southern Italy has been a genesis of negativity that devolves into declarations of racial distinction and inferiority, yet another tactic to deflect criticism of the establishment policies. So the practice of assigning negative stereotypes in the press and media by supporters of the northern “nationalists” against “southerners” can be traced to these very early pro-Piedmont propagandists.


                                                Preparations for Victor Emmanuel’s Arrival in Campania



 After Garibaldi reestablished his defensive line at the Volturno on October 2, 1860 he knew he only needed to hold it until Victor Emmanuel II and his forces arrived. Garibaldi knew that Victor Emmanuel II had 35,000 Piedmont regulars and with their arrival military superiority would firmly rest in the Piedmont position. Nevertheless many very important political decisions regarding “how” Victor Emmanuel II arrived had to be resolved. From all accounts a great deal of care and forethought went into the construction of events which immediately proceeded the Piedmont Army’s arrival. There were essentially three ways in which a northern Italian army, the regular Piedmont forces which were advancing through the Papal States could arrive and enter in the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies.

 First, they could come and be perceived locally or internationally as an invading and/or conquering army. This was a perception that Piedmont had taken great diplomatic and clandestine military efforts to avoid throughout Garibaldi’s campaign in the south. We have seen that Piedmont went so far as to claim Garibaldi actions and invasion were wholly independent and that the Piedmont forces with Garibaldi were either former Piedmont soldiers no longer employed or deserters. The constructed perception that the forces of the south were “independent” insurgents was critical in keeping other European governments from becoming involved in what needed to look like an “internal” struggle.

 The second way that Victor Emmanuel and his forces could enter was at the formal request of the provisional revolutionary provincial governments set up under the control of Garibaldi, as Dictator, during his campaign in the south. From these governments could come either a declaration by the revolutionary government’s legislature, or from the Dictator himself, a proposal for formal annexation with Piedmont. We have seen that several of Garibaldi’s advisors had at various times during the campaign urged Garibaldi to declare such annexation. We have also seen that each time Garibaldi had refused. His refusal is generally regarded as an attempt on his part to keep pressure on Cavour and Piedmont for an attack on the Papal States. However a declaration made by either an unelected legislature or by Garibaldi himself could clearly have been publicly/internationally viewed as an act not authorized by the “people” of southern Italy. Therefore it could be argued that Piedmont’s incursion was in fact an unauthorized invasion, not the established will of the people. Further history and historians would probably had an easier time addressing or undressing the conspiracy of the agents of Piedmont in creating the events that lead to Victor Emmanuel’s arrival in the south. Again this was something that politically Piedmont went to great lengths to avoid.

 The third way that the northern forces could arrive was as a consequence of a “peoples” vote. This could only be perceived as an invitation of the “people”. This could be accomplished by either a direct vote by the people, a Plebiscite for annexation with Piedmont, or by actually through formal electoral process a southern or provincial legislature which in turn would negotiate and/or develop a formal agreement of merger.

 By the middle of October Victor Emmanuel and his forces were only days away from reaching the northern border of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. This necessitated that the process employed be swift and conclusive. It was obvious that the only way to satisfy that condition and that Piedmont’s arrival be perceived as legitimate, in the eyes of the international and local communities, was to hold a direct Plebiscite. As had been shown in the north a direct Plebiscite vote could be organized in a matter of days. Like the plebiscites of the north the question had to be simple, direct and the affirmation of support be overwhelming clear.

 Garibaldi organized the proposition of annexation very rapidly. He put the question of merger/unification with Piedmont directly to the people of the south in a Plebiscite that was held on October 21, 1860. Clearly, the vote on annexation did not require in the eyes of the pro-unification forces an actual full defeat of the Bourbon monarchy as King Francis was still in command of a sizeable force in northern Campania. The structure of the Plebiscite as designed and presented by Garibaldi to the people of the south left much to be desired in terms of clarity, fairness, opportunity and legitimate authority, but was one of direct simplicity.

 In terms of timing the proposition for a Plebiscite the decision to do it was made by Garibaldi sometime around the 13th or 14th. However, it was formally put forth and authorized by Garibaldi from his headquarters in Casserta no earlier than October 17th . This means the people had roughly four days to consider the question before it was put to vote.

 Further, the question on the ballot was a simple Yes for annexation or No against it. With a simple yes or no vote the people were expected to adopt an entirely new government and set of laws sight unseen.

 To further structure the vote it was proposed as a non-universal vote, only about 10% of southern Italy’s  male population were eligible to vote. These select males with voting rights would be joined by those who had enlisted in Garibaldi’s forces, including those who were non southern Italian. In addition, not all of southern Italy was even under the control of Garibaldi’s forces at the time the vote would take place and therefore would not be able to vote even if otherwise qualified.

 The vote itself was conducted by open ballot, not a secret ballot. As a result, those few voting in opposition would come under immediate harassment of the military authorities and militias who were placed in charge of conducting the balloting and keeping track of the vote count. There were reports of troops harassing, even bayoneting opposition to annexation at the polling places. So voting no was not a popular or safe thing to do.

 Although the above issues are not a complete list of the limitations of the “democratic” process employed for the Plebiscite as directed by Garibaldi, it does illustrate some of the most egregious flaws in the way it was conducted. As a result it is probably not surprising that eligible voting population of the south responded overwhelming for annexation. Any criticism of the process was stifled if not outright harassed and intimidated. The official count of the vote as reported was;


From the Neapolitan mainland     1,302,064,   yes

                                                                  10,312,    no


 From the Island of Sicily                    432,053,    yes   

                                                                       667,     no

In total      1,734,117 voted Yes, with   10,979 voting No. This is a margin of 99.006% in favor of annexation with .004% opposed.

 The sad fact is that I have never read anything to suggest that a vote on the issue would not have had overwhelming support in the south without the manipulation that clearly is evident. However, the real concern was that if not hurried and controlled democratic forces might move to prolong the process or insist on political rights and controls that would have provided greater democratic access to the south in determining their future within the unification. This was all about power and control, not democracy.

 At any rate the overwhelming political victory for unification via the Plebiscite, however flawed, paved the way for King Victor Emmanuel II and his troops to cross the border from the Papal States to the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies cloaked in the embrace of the population’s declaration for annexation. Although, technically elements of the Piedmont army crossed the border on October 16th  or 17th  just prior to the plebiscite vote the King did not begin his descent into the kingdom of the Two Sicilies until after the Plebiscite was announced.

 It should be noted that the Piedmont advance guard reached the Bourbon held town of Isernia on October 20th prepared to engage the forces there and begin the assumption of military action against the Bourbon forces.




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