The Changing Complexion of Garibaldi’s July 1860 Sicilian Campaign
By: Tom Frascella July 2015
By July 1, 1860 the first Piedmont-Sardinia regular army units, consisting of roughly 650 soldiers had arrived in Sicily. Although they remained officially disguised as “deserters” and “volunteers” they were in fact regular troops of the Piedmont regime. These men supplemented the approximately 3,000 “redshirt” volunteers that Garibaldi had on the island and approximately 9,000-10,000 Sicilian insurgents.
As previously written Garibaldi in late June had dispatched three subordinates with about 3,000 men from Palermo to act in loose coordination with approximately 4,000 Sicilian insurgents in the eastern end of the island. The general purpose for this troop movement was to block in the roughly 15,000-18,000 Bourbon troops still on the island and protect against a counter attack. The troop disbursement left Garibaldi with about 6,500 men in and around Palermo where he was headquartered in early July.
One of the problems Garibaldi faced is that after the successful attack on Palermo some of his Sicilian insurgent support began to go home to their farms and families. These men were for the most part not soldiers and could not afford to be absent from their work and farms for long. Garibaldi attempted to recruit Sicilians for a new militia but that process had not advanced enough to provide meaningful local military support. In addition it was devised by Piedmont that the training, command and support for the newly emerging “national Guard” units would be by Piedmont loyal if not actual Piedmont officers.
It is clear from various statements and communications that Garibaldi and some of the older Carbonari leadership anticipated that once Garibaldi landed in the south there would be a great and building ground swell of popular/volunteer support among the general population. Garibaldi expected that his task of bringing down Bourbon control would be supported by primarily southern Italian insurgents in both Sicily and the mainland. In fact that is exactly what initially occurred during the Sicilian campaign. Of the 10,000-13,000 forces engaged in fighting the Bourbon troops from May 11 through mid-June only 1,000-1,500 were non Sicilian. This gave the initial stages of the conflict a distinctly Sicilian/popular front character. In the waning days of June the arrival of an additional 2,500 “northern” volunteers and the beginning of a reduction in the insurgent force began to change the character of the “unification” forces on the island. Put another way on June 1, 1860 only 1 out of every 13 fighters in the “anti-Bourbon” forces on the island was non- Sicilian. By June 30th 1860 1 out of 3 or 4 was non- Sicilian despite the fact that the total force size had remained about the same around 15,000.
By July 1st it had become clear to Piedmont that Austria would not enter the conflict and rescue the crumbling Bourbon regime. Emboldened by this determination the Piedmont navy, though small, became more active and noticeable off the coast of Sicily although the forces were careful not to engage militarily. In addition Piedmont began a build-up of its ground forces in Sicily as well. Between July 1 and July 15th Piedmont landed, according to records gathered, about 5,700 additional regular troops.
The early July recorded arrivals of Piedmont regulars/so-called deserters on Sicily were as follows;
Date of departure from Piedmont number of troops
*(source “Garibaldi and the Making of Italy”, Appendix B page 317)
Garibaldi’s campaign in the south through July remained politically and logistically dependent for success on support from the Piedmont regime in the north and in turn the allied support of both England and France. However, the tactical campaign forces and leadership at play really consisted of two major camps, the Piedmont government and the old guard revolutionary Carbonari/Young Italia movement. While both groups worked together toward the goal of Italian unification their sense of how that goal could/should be achieved was very different. For the Carbonari faction there was the strongly held belief that the general population of Italy was ready to rise up in a common democratic rebellion that needed only an appropriate spark. As in the case of the 1848 uprising, they felt that internal unrest and desire to unify would carry the day against foreign and domestic tyranny.
On the other hand the Piedmont regime saw the only hope for a united Italy coming under a constitutional/Piedmont Monarchy. In their plan success came from an alliance with superpowers France and England. Otherwise, foreign interference especially from Austria, France and England had always ended in failed Italian efforts to unify. Piedmont gambled that small territorial concessions to France coupled with a promise of stable and friendly trade of strategic minerals from Sicily with England and France would result in the support Piedmont needed for success.
By the end of June-beginning of July Garibaldi’s campaign in Sicily had been successful enough to discourage intervention by Austria. What remained left politically was to maintain England and France’s association with the campaign. To achieve their goal of Piedmont expansion and unification it was necessary to secure Sicily and control of its mineral rights. Securing meant the formal annexation of Sicily to Piedmont and the complete expulsion of all Bourbon troops and authority on the island.
By late June Garibaldi came or seemed to come under increasing pressure from certain quarters in Piedmont to declare or allow the Sicilians to declare the island of Sicily annexed to Piedmont even though the island was not fully secured. In fact, this could not occur without bringing Piedmont into a direct and declared conflict with the Bourbon regime. Garibaldi’s supposed reluctance to declare the annexation played well internationally, and with the “young Italia” faction demonstrating a level of “independent” action.
His position allowed him to express the concern, in sympathy with the old Carbonari leadership, that if Sicily was annexed early in the campaign, Piedmont might stop its support for further action with that limited territorial gain. In addition the incentive for continued international support from England and France might also disappear with annexation of part of Sicily and its Sulphur mines or failure of the revolt to fully acquire control. This allowed Garibaldi to avoid the repeated pressure to annex and reinforced his seeming independence from either faction. His official refusal created the public perception of a divide with Cavour and other advisors to King Victor Emanuel. Cavour in fact was a crafty and astute politician. I doubt that he trusted anyone but knew how to secure loyalty by all of the many means at his disposal. Cavour never let Garibaldi act too independently and always had spies at his headquarters confirming his plans.
On July 14th the Bourbon monarch assembled a war council in Naples. Before him were two options. First, to start a counter attack originating from his eastern strongholds on Sicily which still remained in Bourbon hands. In such a counter attack he could supplement the roughly 18,000 Bourbon troops still on the island with some of the more than 80,000 Bourbon troops on the mainland. On paper this was a plan that could succeed. He had at his disposal more than enough men and more than enough transport ships and ships of the line to mount an overwhelming assault.
The second option was a course of action which had his Sicilian troops remain within the fortifications on eastern Sicily where the Garibaldi led forces had insufficient siege weapons to defeat them or force them out of the strongholds. Thus creating a protracted stalemate. The young and inexperienced Bourbon King Francis continued to view time as an ally, when later events proved that it was not.
In the council a slight majority of the King’s advisors favored the plan of inaction which ultimately was accepted by the King. It had been speculated by those advocating inaction that the decision to refrain from further bloodshed in Sicily would give the Monarchy several immediate political benefits. The King had offered to the people of his Kingdom a promise of greater constitutional rights and freedoms. Something the people had been demanding for over sixty years. Time might give his offer of greater constitutional liberty time to be discussed both within the country and internationally in England and France. It was argued that by his demonstrating restraint England and France might be swayed to help restore order in Sicily. It was further offered that a show of good faith and sincerity might even win over the foreign powers to help in establishing these greater freedoms. If he could convince the Powers they might block any attempt by Garibaldi to cross the straits and land on the mainland. It was hoped by some of the Bourbon advisors that an armistice might be achieved which would eventually lead to a restoration of Bourbon authority on Sicily as the primary force that would secure new contracts and greater accessibility to the minerals for the European powers.
In mid-July as a gesture of further good will the Bourbon regime, in yet another act of complete misreading of the political and military realities, released the approximately 1,000 “redshirt” volunteers of Garibaldi that it had captured in transit at sea a month before as they made their way to Sicily. Instead of returning to Piedmont the released volunteers immediately set sail for Sicily and joined Garibaldi there. So by July 17th Garibaldi could count on approximately 9,000 Sicilian insurgents, 4,500 “redshirt” volunteers and about 5,700 Piedmont regulars. For the first time the northern forces on the island actually outnumbered the Sicilian insurgent volunteers a clear “political” turning point.
It is obvious that the Bourbon regime continued to be held in the dark as to how committed the French and especially the English were to regime change in the south, especially control of the island of Sicily. England and France were not willing to put control of the Sicilian Sulphur production back under the ownership of the Bourbon regime. From their perspective there had been a thirty year history of failed diplomatic negotiations on the subject of fair and exclusive access.
In addition, the Bourbon regime probably had not realized the extent to which the Piedmont regime had already engaged in a troop build-up on the island. Even though Piedmont “regulars” were now arriving they were said to be deserters and troops that had mustered out of the regular army. The numbers and training of the Piedmont force on the island was steadily improving. This fact alone should have signaled the Piedmont endgame. However, the young and inexperienced Bourbon King influenced by poor advice failed to grasp the situation.
In furtherance of the Piedmont endgame Cavour secretly was promoting a plan to try to get the Neapolitan population to rise up independently of a Garibaldi landing on the mainland or an invasion by Piedmont forces. He had sent agents into the capitol to try to judge if there was enough sentiment for revolt. He was prepared if the response was positive to send the Piedmont fleet in Naples’ harbor to support such an uprising. Interestingly, the only place in southern Italy where the King was actually popular was in the city of Naples.
Whether a diplomatic solution or bolstering of defensive positions by the Bourbons could have succeeded in either deflating Piedmont/Garibaldi’s momentum or eroding English and French support is unknown as that initiative never had a chance to be tested. On July 14th the Bourbon commander in Messina Marshal Clary on his own initiative, ordered his subordinate Colonel Bosco and 3,000 troops out of Messina to take control of the territory between Milazzo and Barcellona. The fortress at Milazzo was already in Bourbon hands with a garrison of 1,000 men. Col. Bosco’s approach toward Barcellona was detected by Garibaldi’s sub-commander Giacomo Medici who had been sent in command of one of three advanced Garibaldi columns eastward to protect the north road. He commanded 1,800 northern troops supplemented by several hundred Sicilian insurgents.
On July 15th Col. Medici set a trap for the advancing Bourbons which they avoided when Bosco’s column unexpectedly turned toward the Bourbon controlled fortress at Milazzo. When the ambush failed to materialize Col Medici regrouped and followed behind the Bourbon column. He then took up positions in the nearby towns of Coriolo and Archi. Since Archi was a town within the territory that Bosco was supposed to be securing from the insurgents’ Medici’s presence was an invitation for Col. Bosco to attack. As a result what would become known as the battle of Milazzo began on the morning of July 17th as skirmishes developed between the opposing forces for control of the two small villages.
Photograph of Col. Giacomo Medici
The Battle of Milazzo
Photograph of Milazzo Fortress as it appeared in the 1860’s
This engagement, like many in the southern campaign was marked by poor leadership on the part of the Bourbon commanders rather than a lack of professionalism or courage on the part of the ordinary Bourbon soldier. Once again as the conflict was about to start the Bourbons were in possession of superior numbers and better trained troops as well as better equipment. Col. Bosco weakened his superior position by dividing his three thousand man force. He sent Major Maringh, a popular commander, with four companies of cavalry supported by artillery, about 650 men. His orders were to take the town of Archi. Archi was defended by about 300 Piedmont troops and a hundred Sicilians.
At the town the Bourbon soldiers performed well inflicting heavy casualties on the defenders and capturing about twenty prisoners. However, rather than capturing the town which was within his grasp the Bourbon commander inexplicably ordered his men to retreat back to Milazzo. When he arrived back without capturing the town Col. Bosco promptly placed his subordinate under arrest. The obvious dissention on view by this arrest produced an immediate demoralizing effect among the enlisted men who knew they were facing combat with a motivated and determined adversary.
As a result of Major Maringh failure that morning Col Bosco sent out a larger force of six companies, about 1,000 soldiers, under the command of Lt. Col. Marra to assault the towns of Coriolo and Archi. Fierce fighting between the forces again ensued with the Bourbons initially obtaining their objective of capturing the two towns. However the Bourbons were driven out of Coriolo later in the day by a fierce bayonet charge. At the end of the day the Bourbon forces held Archi and Medici’s men held Coriolo. It was not until the end of the day’s fighting on the 17th that Col. Bosco arrived at the front to assess the outcomes. For some reason Bosco assessed the Insurgent force at about 7,000 men rather than the roughly 1,500 Medici had left. Based on that estimate of enemy strength Col. Bosco called for a retreat of his forward troops back to Milazzo abandoning the hard fought territory just gained and giving the enemy free rein of the countryside about Milazzo.
Ironically, Col. Bosco’s order to retreat to a defensive position was not well received by his men. It was not lost upon his troops that his action was the same action that he had arrested his subordinate for earlier in the day. Upon his arrival back at Milazzo Col. Bosco took up a defensive perimeter. Within his perimeter he had available 2,500 men remaining from his original force and 1,000 in the fortress. Col. Bosco immediately sent word to Marshal Clary in Messina, who still had about 15,000 men, to send reinforcements.
Col. Medici on the other hand realizing that Bosco had positioned his troops with their backs to the sea and the fortress spread his remaining 1,500 man force out to lock in Bosco’s forces. Once positioned, Medici sent word back to Palermo asking Garibaldi for reinforcements.
The response of the respective commanders probably sums up why the remaining phase of the battle turned out the way it did. Marshal Clary, on orders from Naples decided that he did not have authority to send aid and reinforcements. He advised Col. Bosco that no reinforcements would be coming. He and his forces remained securely fixed in Messina. One can only imagine the psychological effect that must have had on his men at Milazzo, who were now effectively trapped in a defensive siege. A fact further aggravated by the reality that Col. Bosco could have broken out if he had correctly estimated the enemy’s strength at 1,500 rather than 7,000.
On the other hand when Garibaldi got word of the situation he quickly organized a force of about 1,500 Piedmont men and arms in Palermo, loaded them on a transport in the harbor, and headed toward the action. The unarmed transport was accompanied by a Piedmont warship as escort. In all it is estimated that by July 19th Garibaldi was on site at Milazzo and the total force he had with him including Medici’s troops was between 5,700 and 6,500 men. The ratio of Northern Italian forces to Sicilian forces that Garibaldi had for this engagement was about 5 to 1 northern majority. The assault that would begin on July 20th marks only the second time in the Sicilian campaign that Northern Italian troops formed the majority of the “insurgent” forces in battle on Sicily. The first being on initial days of May before Garibaldi met up with the Sicilian support.
Characteristically in a rush to secure advantage Garibaldi on the morning of July 20th 1860 launched his attack against the entrenched forces of Col. Bosco and the 1,000 Bourbons within the Milazzo fortress. Fierce fighting resulted in an all-day battle for control of the town of Milazzo. The Bourbon soldiers fought well and suffered between 125 and 250 men killed. Garibaldi’s forces probably suffered three times that number. There were a number of opportunities during the battle for the Bourbons to have won, but timidity continued to plague there officer corp. On the other hand Garibaldi led from the front as usual. He frequently placed himself in the enemy line of fire and on several occasions came dangerously close to being killed. But also characteristically his presence bolstered his men’s courage and aggressiveness.
Painting of Garibaldi who was almost killed at Millazo by a Bourbon Cavalry Officer
As evening struck Garibaldi’s men were in control of the town of Milazzo. Col. Bosco had retreated with his force into the fortress. Col. Bosco again urgently requested relief from Marshal Clary in Messina who had 15,000 troops on hand. On July 21 Marshall Clary called his senior staff together. Indecision again was the order of the day in part because Marshal Clary was concerned that if he abandoned Messina or diminished his troop numbers there Garibaldi’s other forces would come in.
On July 22 however Clary reversed his decision and decided to send three regiments or about 6,000 men to relieve Bosco and the fortress. He then sent word to Col. Bosco that the men relief column had boarded ships and was on the way. However, before the men left Messina Clary changed his mind yet again and cancelled his order. One can only imagine how that news was received in Millazo.
Upon word of the Milazzo situation in Naples and of the refusal of Clary to relieve the troops there, concern arose and another Neapolitan war council convened to determine how to deal with the siege. It was finally decided that a Neapolitan relief force must be sent to break the siege even if it meant that Naples attempt to appear non aggressive to the international community had to be abandoned.
The Neapolitan fleet in Naples was under the command of King Francis’ uncle Admiral Count D’Aquila. Relief troops were assembled and organized at the port of Naples. However as they were delivered for transport the Neapolitan navy commanded by Admiral D’Aquila refused to have the troops board. Instead he insisted that the young King Francis keep to the plan of defensive control. Garibaldi did not have sufficient manpower or artillery to effectively attack the Milazzo fortification. Therefore the real threat to the position was lack of sanitation or starvation from a protracted siege not assault. D’Aquila argued, successfully that transports backed by Neapolitan warships be sent to Milazzo to negotiate a withdrawal of the Bourbon troops with arms. He reasoned the position was not significant in their overall strategy. The fleet then set sail with orders to withdraw the Bourbon forces at Milazzo.
On July 23 both the forces within Milazzo and Garibaldi’s forces awoke to see the approach of a large Neapolitan naval fleet approaching. For Garibaldi this was not a welcomed sight. Garibaldi knew that he could not hold the town of Milazzo under bombardment from both the fortress and the ships off the coast. He was again surprised when Col. Anzani of the Bourbon fleet requested a negotiation and further surprised when the commander suggested a withdrawal of the Bourbon forces under arms. On July 25, 1860 Bosco’s forces left the fortress at Milazzo and embarked on transports to be taken back to Naples. Garibaldi had won the battle and captured the fortress without a shot.
The only major Bourbon force left on Sicily was Marshal Clary’s 15,000 men within the virtually impregnable fortress at Messina. It is against this force that Garibaldi showed one of his greatest abilities as a commander. By the previous actions or better inactions of Marshal Clary Garibaldi extrapolated that Clary had no will to fight. Garibaldi took little time in basking in the victory at Milazzo before marching directly on Messina.
Garibaldi was at Messina by July 27 and with the support of the ministers in Naples Garibaldi and Clary entered into an armistice giving control of the town of Messina and a guaranteed cease fire from the fortress which would remain in the control of the Bourbon garrison within the citadel. Garibaldi formally took control of Messina on July 28 effectively ending the military campaign in Sicily. Remarkably Garibaldi had won control of Sicily out manned, out gunned and poorly equipped in just under two and half months.
However while the period July 17-27 may have marked the last days of the military phase of the Sicilian campaign it did not mark the end of the “political” campaign associated with the unification effort. First, despite Garibaldi’s extraordinary success against the Bourbon forces on Sicily the complexion of his forces and his military authority was continuing to change. By the end of July and effectively the military campaign on the island the insurgent Sicilian force continued to fade away and return to their farms and businesses. After Messina fell Garibaldi saw about a third of his insurgent force leave the “cause” reducing to about 6,000 fighters. With regard to his own “redshirt” forces he also saw a reduction due to battle casualties so that they were down to about 3,000. On the other hand the Piedmont regular forces which numbered about 5,700 before the Milazzo campaign had also been reduced by casualties to about 5,000. However, Piedmont had continued to bring additional troops to Sicily throughout July. By the end of July the Piedmont regulars numbered about 9,000 troops. This number would increase to an estimated 19,000-21,000 by the end of August.
As the Sicilian campaign wound down the question for the Piedmont leadership was what to do next. Garibaldi had always determined that an attack on the mainland to finish the Bourbons was the next step. Indeed, he had dispatched agents into Calabria and Basilicata in an effort to obtain local support for such a landing.
Cavour became persuaded that the Bourbon regime was ripe for the taking. He had tried in mid-July to encourage a revolt in Naples but that did not materialize. He now began to think about a direct assault by Piedmont forces and the international consequences of that in England and France. At any rate Cavour was concerned that if Garibaldi launched an assault with success the people of the south and Garibaldi’s Carbonari friends could still divert the direction of the revolution to a democratic republic.
Then there was Mazzini and friends still in northern Italy. There were 3,500 “redshirts that had never been sent to join Garibaldi in the Sicilian campaign to which the Mazzini group had another 1,000-1,500 volunteers ready to join. However, they wanted to land in central Italy and begin a campaign against the Papal States. They were convinced that if they landed in central Italy the local population would rally to them.
As for England and France their goal of regime change in Sicily had been achieved and the question remained would they now support an assault on the mainland in southern Italy or allow an assault on central Italy’s Papal States. Cavour realized that very delicate international diplomacy had to be employed moving forward as the Bourbon regime continued to seek support of the international community against an invasion. Which at least publicly to the bourbon regime seemed to be gaining some momentum. It is at this point that King Victor Emmanuel II, Garibaldi and Cavour enter into another political act of misdirection for the benefit of the international press, the Bourbon regime and the international powers.
On July 22, 1860 Count Litta Modigani was summoned to the Piedmont Palace in Turin and given a letter from King Victor Emmanuel to be delivered personally to Garibaldi in Sicily. The formal letter was also to be published in the international press. In essence it directed in the sternest of terms that Garibaldi was not to cross with his troops from Sicily to the southern mainland. This is the position the world saw and to which King Victor Emmanuel II professed to be committed to.
What the world did not see was that the King also sent a hand written personal note to Garibaldi which was delivered in secret by the Count. The Count was ordered by the King to collect the second letter after it was read by Garibaldi so that no trace of it would exist. Garibaldi received the Count on July 27 in Messina and read the order not to cross the straits and invade the mainland. He then read the second letter from the King. It should be noted that the existence of the second letter was not discovered until recent times so reference to it was available contemporaneous to the issuance.
The second letter said;
“To the Dictator General Garibaldi.
Now, having written as King, Victor Emmanuel suggests to you to reply in this sense, which I know is what you feel. Reply that you are full of devotion and reverence for your King, that you would like to obey his counsels, but that your duty to Italy forbids you to promise not to help the Neapolitans, when they appeal to you to free them from a Government which true men and good Italians cannot trust that you cannot therefore obey the wishes of the King, but must reserve full freedom of action.” (“Garibaldi and the Making of Italy” page 102)
Based upon the public perception that no such instruction for Garibaldi’s response existed from the King, Garibaldi’s famous reply to the King’s order was played by the media in the way Piedmont wanted it to be. By following the King’s instruction to disobey his direct order Garibaldi immediately was cast as the great liberator of the people of southern Italy prepared to defy even his King’s orders “for the people.”
Garibaldi’s actual published “spontaneous response to the King’s command not to cross over shows how closely he was following Piedmont’s orchestrated script. His public published response was;
"Sire, Your Majesty knows the high esteem and love I bear you". But the present state of things in Italy does not allow me to obey you, as I should have wished. Called by the peoples (chiamato dai popoli) I refrained as long as I could. But if now, in spite of all the calls that reach me, I were longer to delay, I should fail in my duty and imperil the sacred cause of Italy. Allow me then, Sire, this time to disobey you. As soon as I shall have fulfilled what I have undertaken, by freeing the peoples from a hated yoke, I will lay down my sword at your feet and obey you for the rest of my life.”(“Garibaldi and the Making of Italy” page 102)
So by July 27th just after Garibaldi had signed the armistice with Marshal Clary in Messina, in reality the order to invade the mainland was being delivered and received.
Within several days of Garibaldi’s stated public intention to land on the mainland the majority of Marshall Clary’s 15,000 troops were removed to the mainland to bolster Naples’ defenses. Effectively, the withdrawal eliminated any military threat on Sicily to Piedmont’s forces. Garibaldi was free to pick the time, manner and place of his landing. Based on his character and past behavior his next move should not have been expected to be long in coming.
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