The Arrival of Bourbon General Jose Borjes in Lucania
By: Tom Frascella October 2016
Photograph of General Jose Borjes
The civil unrest in the countryside of southern Italy during the spring and summer of 1861 provided at least the specter for the Unified government in Turin of a counter revolt against Piedmont rule. This perception of danger to Piedmont authority was then mirrored by the reaction of optimism of the Bourbon regime in exile. Where that unrest had led to violent attacks against Piedmont officials, National Guard and Piedmont regulars in south were seen in Rome and among the Bourbons in exile as a sign that an armed revolt in those sou5thern regions was simply a counter revolt movement waiting for proper leadership and organization.
King Francis, because of his relative youth, could be forgiven for his repeated and misguided optimism regarding the popular support he had among his former subjects during Garibaldi and Piedmont’s 1860 campaign. He continued that optimism despite the fact that the support he called for never really materialized during the Piedmont campaign.
However his perceptions regarding growing popular support in 1861 were at least being fed to him from certain landowners in the south after armed men had taken to the field. Former wealthy landowners had been supporting the civil unrest in the countryside since its outset. With their encouragement the insurgents frequently cloaked their acts of revolt in a pro-Bourbonist mantle. In this way they presented the appearance of a movement in favor of the Bourbons. An appearance that had in reality not been politically tested. Indeed many of those in revolt had actively opposed Bourbon rule and there were no changed circumstances that suddenly raised Bourbon sympathies among them.
During the summer of 1861 Francis and his advisors in Rome searched about for proper military leader to rally men and support in the south against the Piedmont regime. As usual this search was carried out in a manner that was entirely detached from the realities of what was needed or existed in the south. King Francis and his advisors looked outside of his kingdom and Italy for a military leader. By doing this he at once made his cause one of foreign military action not nationalistic identity in character.
King Francis settled upon a military leader with strong Bourbon/legitimist credentials from the monarchy’s struggles in Spain not Italy. That figure was the somewhat quixotic military Spanish general Jose Borjes. Borjes had already failed in his years of trying to restore the old Spanish monarchy and was by the spring and summer of 1861 in exile in France.
The opportunity to re-engage in the fight to restore what he considered a legitimate King to the throne of southern Italy I am sure appealed to Borjes’ sense of order. It would appear that the romantic in him was all too willing to accept the assurance that southern Italy was ready to rise and that thousands would greet him upon landing. No doubt he had heard of the Crocco victory of mid-August and that Crocco could command thousands of insurgents in just the Potenza region alone.
With that belief that populist support was his at the taking General Borjes left France with about a dozen Spanish officers and a half dozen Bourbon supporters headed for southern Italy. They secretly made their way to southern Italy by ship where they landed at Gerace on September 14, 1861. Roughly a month after the Crocco led Ruvo del Monte battle. But much had already changed in the southern Italian landscape in that month. As previously written about the Piedmont commanding general Cialdini had already determined to wage war on the civilian population deemed in rebellion.
Borjes and his staff had been told that they would be greeted by two thousand armed and loyal Bourbon supporters at the time of their landing in Gerace. They were also told that as they advanced they could expect that the towns of the region would cheer them waving the old Bourbon flags.
No one was there to greet them at their landing. By September 1861 Piedmont had some 50,000 soldiers in the south and the atrocities against any deemed sympathetic to rebellion was being brutality visited on the civilians. As they made their way northward through the mountains their reception in the towns was less than enthusiastic. To the general population the question must have been who were these foreign nationals? Borjes had no choice but to move toward the center of the conflict, the heart of Basilicata and greater Lucania. This is, as already described mountainous terrain sparsely populated by communities of small rural villages. This was not a region even in a state of revolt that would welcome or trust strangers.
Since the promised army had not come to him in Calabria, there was little to do but to seek out the army where it was. In September 1861 the only functioning large force of insurgents, with proven fighting skill, were occupying the area in and around the Vulture. These roughly two thousand insurgents were loosely following the commands of Carmine Crocco and conducting a guerilla based military action. So Borjes made his way northward into Basilicata in order to join up with the forces following Crocco.
In the fighting in which Crocco had participated to that point he had regularly professed at the insistence of the wealthy landowners that he wanted the reinstatement of the Bourbon regime. However, as a former Bourbon soldier who had deserted he had no love of the Bourbon regime or the Bourbon military discipline he had experienced.
Sadly, the meeting and expectations of Borjes and Crocco do not appear to have been well prepared or diplomatically arranged. For the wealthy landowners who had supported Crocco thus far, Borjes arrival was thought to be of great benefit to their cause. Here was a man with significant military command experience, the approval and support of the Bourbon King and the ability to give the cause a legitimist flavor. Crocco on the other hand while popular among his men and brave in combat was an uneducated peasant soldier who could not possibly understand the complexities of warfare at the level they envisioned.
It became evident from Borjes’ arrival in Basilicata that with the support of the wealthy landowners it was expected that Borjes would seize command of the insurgent forces. Crocco was at best to serve Borjes as a sub-officer. In addition, it also became clear that Borjes intended to raise, and train the insurgent force into a conventional army unit.
In order to get a first-hand picture of the dynamic between these two men, Crocco and Borjes, at their first meeting we can go to Crocco’s own autobiography. Borjes with his small entourage had moved inland and up into the mountains from Gerace in Calabria to northern Matera Province in Basilicata by October of 1861. At this point it was decided that the landowners had to get Crocco to agree to join forces and support Borjes. Rather than reaching out directly to Crocco a messenger was sent from another insurgent leader by the name of Serravalle requesting that Borjes and Crocco meet. The meeting was set to take place at a farm near the town of Tricarico. The meeting was described by Crocco as follows;
“It was here, in October 1861, that I met the Spanish general Borjes came by order of Francis II to try to raise the people of the Two Sicilies. The man who was a stranger and had arrived here to recruit followers and to ask for my band’s help, from the first moment aroused in my soul a strong dislike, so I quickly realized that, according to him, I had to abandon my rank of general commander of my band, to become a subordinate.
He was a poor deluded and came from a distant country to be in charge of an army. He had believed that everywhere there were insurgent people, and after a first colossal fiasco from Calabria to Basilicata, he wanted to convince me and my soldiers that it would not have been difficult to produce a real insurrection, thanks to the number of my band, the excellent element that was in them, our good weapons and excellent horses.” (How I became a Bandit) pages 64 & 65.
So very clearly Crocco sees Borjes as an “outsider” something that Lucanians are inherently distrustful of. In addition he fully realized that if he agrees to join forces that his authority among his men will be reduced to subordinate to Borjes, yet he ultimately agrees. His motivation I find interesting in the way he explains his counter-intuitive willingness to place his life in the leadership of this foreigner:
“The experience, teacher of life, advised me not to look for the help of the reactionaries, if I did not want to repeat another escape like that from Melfi; however, the idea of being commanded by a skilled man of war and being able to use something different from violence to conquer villages and towns, where we could have enriched ourselves with robberies and blackmails, was an encouragement not to reject the requested help.” Page 65.
What I think we see here is that Crocco who was a life-long “outsider” in his own society, regardless of which regime was in power actually longed for “legitimacy”. He goes on to say;
“Serravalle encouraged us to unconditionally accept Borjes proposal, but both my soldiers and I were hesitant, rather inclined to refuse, as we were not accustomed to be subjected to military disciplines, actually we were used to live a free life and to freely steal and rob.
After long negotiations and verbal agreements about the use of force, about the organization of the command, the daily wages, I joined the Spanish general with my band, and with him I began new brigands’ actions, but under the tutelage of a political movement.” Page 65.
So with the joining of these two men the relative spontaneous popular revolt occurring throughout the south takes on the more formal look of a Bourbon lead counter-revolt. Indeed there are many books and articles that describe the time as a counter-revolt by the Bourbon supporters against the Piedmont regime and unification. As the insurrectionists become identified with Bourbon General Borjes the fierceness of the Piedmont military response in the south also intensifies primarily against civilian targets. As far as I can tell although Piedmont has about 50,000 men in southern Italy those men are totally incapable of stemming the movements of the insurgents who know the mountains and can move about at will.
It would appear from what I have read that for the remainder of October general Borjes moves with Crocco operating primarily in the Vulture region and coordinating his command. General Borjes knew however that a few thousand men were insufficient to take on the growing number of Piedmont troops being assigned to the area. Throughout October he develops his plan for general insurrection which focuses heavily on the Basilicata region where he has his greatest strength and sympathies of the people.
The Plan for a Bourbon Counter-Revolt
General Borjes spent the month developing his plan for what he hoped would be a successful counter-revolt, one that would led to the reinstatement of King Francis II as monarch of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. Again, as Crocco describes Borjes’ plan;
“Now I do not remember exactly which was the route decided by Borjes in his plan of invasion of Basilicata, he had stated his intention to attack the smallest towns, giving them a new order of government, enlisting recruits, weapons and horses and afterwards assaulting the county town, where secret committees were working to prepare weapons and armed men ready to arise when we would have attacked.” Page 65.
Unfortunately, Crocco’s comments need some explanation. I believe that what he means in the above, translation to the contrary is that Borjes was proposing the taking over of the entire State of Basilicata. They were not invading the State as they were already in it. Crocco’s center of operation was the Vulture region roughly 15 miles north of the Basilicatan capitol. Also when he says they would eventually assault the “county town” he is referring to Potenza.
What is interesting is that even though Borjes’ initially had several thousand armed men only 15 miles north of the Capitol at the outset of his campaign and apparently even with some sympathizers in the capitol city he does not attempt a direct assault. This may be because he views the Capitol as to heavily guarded at that time, or his force initially too small or both.
Starting from Crocco’s safe haven in the Vulture at Lagopesole, 15 miles north of Potenza Borjes moves his men stealthily through the mountains. He was careful to avoid the Capitol and the garrison stationed there. His destination the Basento River at a point 15-20 south of Potenza in Matera Province in Basilicata. In Crocco’s words; “From Lagopesole, from bush to bush, (forest) with long and forced marches almost always carried out at night, crossing mule roads and almost impassable paths, we reached the Basento banks, gathering many recruits in the process.
I should take this time to say that Crocco, from the outset of his joining Borjes, was extremely concerned that Borjes’ plan, endorsed by the wealthy landowners, was very similar to the plan the landowners had convinced him to implement in Crocco’s Melfi attack six months prior. In his opinion that engagement was poorly conceived and a complete disaster. As you will recall Crocco attacked several towns gaining popular support and driving out several small garrisons, obtaining their weapons in the process. The landowners then encouraged the citizens to declare themselves reunited with the Bourbons, killing the Piedmont officials and installing their own provisional ad hoc government in Melfi the county capitol.
The problem was that Crocco had thousands of townspeople willing to join him and his cause in April, most were unfortunately untrained and unfit for military service, and only a few hundred had weapons. So when the Piedmont soldiers returned reinforced Crocco was forced to retreat. Those he left behind having declared their disloyalty to Piedmont then got executed in large numbers.
Borjes’ plan while more ambitious, wanting to take over the entire State of Basilicata for the Bourbon’s, nevertheless has some of the same limitations. Yes now there is an initial force of two-three thousand better armed and trained insurgents. But the Piedmont forces in the south had grown from 30,000 to 50,000. Again part of the plan would require the citizens to declare Bourbon reinstatement, kick out or kill Piedmont officials and replace them with people now identified as in revolt. If the plan failed a blood bath on an even larger scale would arise. In addition Borjes’ plan relied on two elements that Crocco’s plan did not have. First, Borjes’ was offering all who joined him in the revolt a daily wage for service backed up by King Francis. In this he hoped to recapture tens of thousands of former Bourbon trained soldiers who had been disarmed by Garibaldi. Second, the wealthy landowners had promised that when Borjes arrived at Potenza with a significantly inflated force that arms would be waiting there. The plan called for thousands of rifles to be secretly transported to Potenza and there distributed to the enlarged insurgent force which it was hoped would number by then between 6,000 and 10,000 men. Armed this force was considered or was hoped to be a match for any force that Piedmont could muster in the region on short notice.
So that being said Borjes’ initial force of several thousand found itself on November 2, 1861 preparing for its first southern town assault. Again in Crocco’s words; “The first country to be attacked was Trivigno. On November 2nd from a bivouac forest of the Brindisi mountain we crossed the Trivigno forest and in the evening of the 3rd at dusk we descended the country by taking an attack position, we gathered all together indoors in an old church in ruins, and exactly in a place called Calvario, which is about 200 meters far from the village.” Page 66.
The military engagement happened almost immediately, when the town’s National Guard unit, 100 strong attacked Crocco’s position. In Crocco’s words;
“The National Guard, a hundred soldiers, informed of our progress, boldly ran to take up arms, and not aware of our strengths, stepped out of the country,(village) to fight against us.
Greeted with my soldiers’ shooting, those soldiers took their position and soon responded to our fire, but their small number and uncomfortable condition compared to ours, had to retire quickly.
Back in the village, they stationed in the first houses so that they could attack us at our entrance and with a large fire made from the windows and the roofs, they forced us to retreat.
But I was not naïve enough to be not prepared; I ordered a centurion to advance along the covered path, stopping at a convenient distance to open fire, while several platoons had to try entering the country (village) from different directions to attack the defenders from their backs.
The really fierce fight lasted for three hours, then the brave defenders being in bad conditions because of the deficiency of ammunitions, abandoned all thoughts of defense and left the country (village) at our mercy.” Page 66.
What followed was a looting burning and massacre of most of the civilian population of the town by Crocco’s men. Crocco indicates that the behavior of his men was unsanctioned by Borjes, who blamed Crocco for not controlling his forces. The massacre apparently caused a major rift between Borjes and Crocco which Crocco takes full blame for in his account of the events and even declares that he regrets what happened.
I would note that just as the American Civil War helped develop both weapons and tactics which would be further developed to their deadliest levels in later wars so to the tactics of the Lucanian guerilla fighters were appreciated and built upon in later guerilla conflicts. The Piedmont soldiers were using extreme fear of atrocities to oppress the civilian population. The same tactic then was used on the otherside in an effort to neutralize the Piedmont approach. That left the civilian population caught in the middle.
From Trivigno Borjes turned his forces southward away from Potenza, heading deeper into Matera Province. His next stop was Calciano which was occupied without a shot on November 5th. Nevertheless the looting and brutalities continued on the civilian population.
From Calciano, Borjes forces headed for Garaguso where although some atrocities were committed they were fewer in number. From Garaguso the force moved to Salandra where a National Guard force of 200 took up defensive positions in the old fortress of the town and resisted the advance. Caught between the opposing forces the civilian population eventually let Crocco’s forces in and they defeated the Guard. The town was put to the torch and looted with many civilians killed.
During this period Borjes’ forces continued to gain recruits in southern Basilicata, although most were either poorly armed or unarmed. From what I am reading it would appear that roughly three thousand “armed” insurgents were with him at this point. In this southern campaign to date the insurgent forces had encountered and defeated somewhere between 500 and 1,000 mostly Piedmont lead National Guard troops occupying various small towns in garrisons numbering 50 to 200 troops.
At this point I would have to say that the campaign, four or five days in, was going very well. 2,000-3,000 well armed insurgents with probably another 1,000-1,500 unarmed insurgents were basically making their case for dominance in the lower rural Basilicata landscape. They had begun the military action just south of Potenza and were moving further south and away from the Capitol. However, it was planned that as the insurgent force gained strength it would eventually turn north toward Potenza. Thousands of weapons had been secreted to Potenza the capitol and only “city/population center” in Basilicata. If the insurgent army could reach Potenza it could very well expect to be greeted warmly, either coming out of fear or genuine support, and therefore expect significant numbers of the city joining with them. After all a surge in rebellious recruits is what had happened 15 months before when the population overthrew the Bourbon military.
For Borjes there were only two obstacles left in front of him before he could achieve the success he was hoping for in arriving at Potenza. First, at some point he was likely to face a sizeable force of regular Piedmont troops bent on destroying his force. Second, would the city which had so recently overthrown the Bourbons switch sides to support the Bourbon regime. Borjes, Crocco and all of the insurgent leadership knew that both of those questions were likely to be answered within days. Upon the answers to those questions lay the outcome of this revolt.
From Salandra the insurgent forces continued southward toward Craco. Craco being close to the most southern point that the insurgent campaign anticipated. In the words of Crocco describing his approach to the town of Craco which appears to be about November 8th;
“Leaving Salandra we headed for Craco where we met half way a procession of women and children led by a priest with his cross. They came to ask for clemency for their country (town) and this clemency was given to them, as just small disturbances difficult to avoid with so many people, actually with people with that kind of nature, ( he is talking about his men) happened. From Craco after having crossed the river Agri we arrived in Aliano.” “How I Became a Bandit” page 69.
Aliano is essentially west of Craco. Again we are seeing the insurgent tactic that leaves towns that don’t resist generally intact. It appears that the majority of the townspeople of Aliano were either Piedmont supporters or just in total fear of the insurgents. Either way, Crocco with the insurgent force finds the town which had a population of about 4,000 virtually deserted when they arrive on the morning of the 9th.
It is while resting his men in Aliano that Crocco and Borjes are informed that the Piedmont sub-prefect stationed in Matera is either by order or on his own initiative moving out to confront the insurgent force. The sub-prefect in Matera had at his immediate disposal about 1,200 troops most of whom were Piedmont regulars or Piedmont mercenaries like the Hungarian mounted troops. For a reason that Crocco attributes to arrogance, the Piedmont sub-prefect divided his troops into two separate columns of 600 men each. These columns then took separate mountainous routes toward the insurgents. The insurgents were well aware of these troop movements, the geography and the opportunity presented.
Given the route thru the mountains being taken by the two separate Piedmont columns, Borjes and his command decided on where it was best to stage an attack. What was decided was that one of the columns should be attacked as it approached and attempted to cross the Sauro River, which was relatively dry, on the plain of Taverna dell’Acinello.
Crocco and Borjes had available between 1,800 and 2,300 men to throw into an attack. This gave them at least a three to one advantage in manpower. Without getting into the particulars of the engagement as described by Crocco it should be said that both sides fought hard and well. They displayed discipline under fire and followed the command of their officers. However, the superior manpower of the insurgents turned the tide of battle eventually leading to rout of the Piedmont column and heavy casualties. In effect the column was reduced to a non-factor as a military threat.
This was the greatest insurgent victory of the campaign. A victory over the very best of the Piedmont forces in the area. A victory that had great potential for exploitation in the insurgents favor among the common folk. With this victory Borjes and the Lucanian insurgents could turn northward toward their real objective Potenza. They had accomplished this remarkable series of events in only a week of campaign.
The speed at which the insurgent military campaign was moving forced the Piedmont command into hasty action. The race to Potenza was on.
The insurgents then moved on to the town of Stigliano where they rested for two days, the 10th and 11th of November. In the interim the Piedmont command was gathering every available soldier in the region to attempt to stop the advance. The insurgents marched through the towns of Cirigliano and Gorgoglione without opposition where they were informed that Piedmont forces were advancing and attempting to encircle them.
It is clear from my readings that the insurgents had several “real” advantages by the time they turned northward toward Potenza. First, they had very accurate and reliable information concerning Piedmont military movements in the region. Also it is clear that Piedmont’s information was not as accurate or reliable. Second, they had a very good understanding of the terrain and its passes. Third the insurgents include many who had spent their lives in the mountains and were used to traversing its rivers, paths and mountains. Many of their movements to avoid the regular army troops, were carried out at night, in the pitch black, moving along little more than goat paths.
This apparent advantage was employed as the Piedmont regulars supported by National Guard attempted to encircle them around November 12th. The Piedmont plan was to converge various army units and attack the insurgents at Gaurdia Perticara on November 13. Which might have been a good plan had the insurgents not used their knowledge of the passes to leave before the Piedmont forces arrived. In fact on November 13th Borjes forces were in Accettura, Oliveto and Garaguso.
By November 15th Borjes forces were attacking the village of Vaglio six miles from Potenza. The Piedmont army in the region is out of position for a defense of the Capitol. By the time this is realized there was a panic among the Piedmont commanders and additional troops were rushed from northern Basilicata to the defense of Potenza. It is at this time that Captain Stia is credited with acting before ordered to remove the National Guard troops from San Fele and rush to Potenza.
On November 16th the Insurgents entered the valley of Potenza prepared to assault a diminished garrison in the Capitol city and to acquire the much needed weaponry secreted by the pro-Bourbon committee there. With this additional large cache of weapons and additional recruits it was hoped that there would be sufficient military strength to repel any assault by the Piedmont forces. In addition with a little luck and winter closing in the mountain passes would be closed and the insurgents would have the winter to solidify their position, both militarily and politically. They were in other words on the threshold of potential victory, or at least victory of the first part of the war.
Unfortunately, according to Crocco’s own account that the insurgent force learned for the first time that a member of the inner circle of the pro-Bourbon secret committee had betrayed the revolt. He had in fact turned over to the military commander of Potenza La Piazza the location of the secret stash of weapons and the names of the members of the secret committee. The weapons had been destroyed. The last key element of Borjes’ plan frustrated by the very wealthy pro-Bourbon landowners that had sworn their allegiance to the cause. The insurgents suddenly found themselves a force too lightly armed to confront the approaching Piedmont force once again converging on their position.
Faced with the possibility of a grossly mismatched direct confrontation with the Piedmont army or retreat and disbandment into the mountains the choice was easy to make. With winter in the mountains rapidly approaching the long trek back to the Vulture region began for Crocco and his men. Borjes had no choice but to accompany the most organized of the insurgent forces and reassess his position.
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