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  • James Houser

October 1, 1860 - Giuseppe Garibaldi and the Expedition of the Thousand

Updated: Jun 13, 2021

October 1, 1860. Five months ago, the revolutionary leader Giuseppe Garibaldi landed on the shores of Sicily with only a thousand men. Now he has liberated all of southern Italy in the name of Italian unification, triumphing over armies many times his size. Today he stands off against the last foe in his path at the Volturnus River. This is the tale of how Italy came back together again.


When the 1800s dawned, Italy was divided – and had been ever since the fall of the Roman Empire. In the north, the Austrian Empire held the cities of Milan and Venice as part of its domain. The other petty princes – the Duke of Parma, the Grand Duke of Tuscany, the King of Naples – were Austrian vassal rulers. The Pope, of course, ruled most of central Italy in the Papal States and depended on the Austrians for protection. Italian nationalists and liberals alike hated the Austrian autocracy and dreamed of expelling them from the peninsula.


The only remaining state that was not part of this giant Austrian power bloc was the Kingdom of Piedmont-Sardinia in the northwest corner of Italy. Its kings ruled from Turin and had substantial military and financial power compared to their weaker brethren. This made the Kings of Sardinia an obvious focus for those who dreamed of a united Italian people, however reluctant the kings themselves were. It was obvious that even if Piedmont-Sardinia was the strongest independent Italian state, they were still not strong enough to fight Austria unaided if they wanted to reunify Italy under their rule.


Who wanted to unify Italy, anyway? Italian unification had been a whisper of a dream in the years before the 1800s, largely because Italy was divided by more than just borders. Even before the Roman Empire, the Italian peninsula had been a complex patchwork of peoples, and that had never stopped being the case. A Sicilian was not a Neapolitan was not a Lombard was not a Venetian was not a Roman. Not only had the cultures become vastly different, but the languages were and are different to this day. Southern Italy and Sicily especially are culturally, ethnically, and linguistically distinct from the dominant culture of Northern Italy.


The men who did dream of a unified Italy were largely just that…dreamers. Romantics, sentimentalists, men who looked back to the glory days of the Roman Republic and yearned for an enlightened past (that to be honest had never really existed.) Nevertheless, they were a major force in Italian politics throughout the 19th Century. They even invented their own word for Italian unification: “Risorgimento,” which meant “Resurgence.”


One of the key leaders in the Italian independence movement was today’s hero, Giuseppe Garibaldi. Garibaldi, a native of Genoa, was arrested and exiled after a failed anti-monarchy revolution in 1834. He traveled to South America as a soldier of fortune, where he fought in several wars and learned the arts of guerrilla warfare – but always with Italy in the back of his mind.


Then 1848 happened. When various cities broke out in open revolt against the Austrians and their puppet rulers, many Italian nationalists saw their chance and urged King Charles Albert I of Piedmont-Sardinia to take the fight to the Austrians. Well, Charles Albert DID what they wanted, and the result was the First War of Italian Independence. The Sardinian Army got curb-stomped in two battles against the Austrians at Custoza in 1848 and Novara in 1849. He was forced to abdicate the throne in favor of his son Victor Emmanuel II. Most of the Italian republicans, more concerned with their local movements and not super psyched about some king taking over, did not come to Charles Albert’s aid. Among the few who DID, surprisingly, was Garibaldi, who led a partisan resistance movement in support of the king who exiled him.


This massive defeat, of course, hurt morale among Italian patriots – but did not destroy the dream. The failed Revolutions of 1848 and 1849 had taught them many important lessons, such as the need to unify behind a single cause and to enlist the support of a major power. With this in mind, the reformist liberal Count Cavour took up the cause on the down-low. Instead of just another revolutionary like Garibaldi, though, Cavour was a high-ranking noble; from 1852 on he was King Victor Emmanuel II’s Prime Minister. Cavour’s Sardinian government was one of the most efficient and modern administrations in Europe, but he always had his eye on the prize of unifying Italy – under the King, of course. Cavour, then, didn’t just look out for Italy’s long-term interests, but the future of the monarchy he served as well.


With this in mind, Cavour decided to start *another* war with Austria, but this time he had help. He offered to trade some minor Italian territories on the border with France and exchange for French assistance in defeating the Austrians. Napoleon III of France, always a sucker for military glory, was happy to oblige. The Second War of Italian Independence began in 1859 and ended with the total defeat of the Austrians at Solferino on June 24, 1859. As the large armies were fighting near Milan, the northern Alpine regions were won by a force known as the Hunters of the Alps, led by none other than the irrepressible revolutionary Garibaldi.


When the dust settled and the peace treaties were signed, Piedmont-Sardinia had annexed almost all of Austrian-ruled northern Italy, and in a few months peacefully annexed almost all the smaller Italian states, though Venice was still left in Austrian hands. Sardinia had won its victories diplomatically rather than on the battlefield, essentially by bringing France in as a big brother to beat up Austria. Napoleon III, though, made it clear that he would not assist Victor Emmanuel and Count Cavour in any more annexations. From this point on, they were on their own.


By early 1860, then, only five states remained on Italian soil: the now greatly expanded Kingdom of Piedmont-Sardinia, which controlled most of central and northern Italy; the Papal States, which still held Rome; the Austrians, who still held Venice; finally, the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, which had ruled the southern half of Italy and Sicily since the 1200s AD. (Oh, and San Marino, a tiny city-state on a rock that had been there since 301 AD and is still there to this day. Talk about survival skills.) Since the Papal States were backed by the French, and the French weren’t about to back Cavour in a new fight against the Austrians, there was only one real target to go after. It was time to bring southern Italy into the Kingdom.


King Francis II of the Two Sicilies had a large and well-organized army of 150,000 men, but his kingdom was fiercely divided and its population was largely hostile to his rule. Francis II was a freaking Bourbon (yes, the old French dynasty, they’re still around) and had almost been overthrown numerous times, but the Austrians had always saved him. Well, the Austrians weren’t in much shape to save anybody right now, but it wasn’t like Sardinia could just go declaring war willy-nilly. They needed to do something sneakier. And Count Cavour had just the man for the job.


Giuseppe Garibaldi is one of the people in history I always want to learn more about. He was something like a “revolutionary for hire,” foreshadowing Che Guevara in the 20th Century; he always went where the action was. He fought in struggles across South America and was a major figure in Uruguay’s struggle for independence before returning to Italy to help reunify the country. Throughout 1848 he had gone from one revolution to another, always escaping before each one fell apart. He was such a famous figure that he even offered to lead the Union forces in the American Civil War (which was briefly but seriously considered) and led French forces against the Prussians during the 1871 war. If there was a fight, Garibaldi was there.


But in early 1860 he began to plan the most daring and ambitious campaign of his life. He got Cavour on board for an “under-the-table” mission that would lead a ragtag force of volunteers down to Sicily by boat and…just overthrow the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies and kick the Bourbons out. No broader plan. Just…go in and win. How many troops did Garibaldi raise? Well, he only took volunteers, and they could not be regular Sardinian soldiers to give Cavour and King Victor Emmanuel plausible deniability.


Garibaldi ended up with 1,089 men in his army of liberation. 1,089…against 150,000. Some of them weren’t even Italians; the Revolutions of 1848 had produced many “revolutionaries for hire” much like Garibaldi, so he had a bunch of Hungarians and Germans along for the ride. The volunteers were all armed with muskets, and as a uniform, they only wore a red shirt and gray pants – giving them the nickname “The Redshirts.” (They hadn’t seen Star Trek, so they weren’t as nervous about that name as we would be.) History, though, remembers them as The Thousand (or, in Italian, the Mille).


As I mentioned, Cavour could not officially sanction Garibaldi’s expedition – even if he gave him money, supplies, and weapons, and looked the other way when the Mille “stole” two steamships in the harbor of Genoa. By May 5, the convoy had set out for Sicily, and on May 11 landed at Marsala on the western tip of the triangular island. Just after their disembarkation, though, Garibaldi’s troops lost one ship sunk and one ship captured by the Bourbon Navy. They were trapped now, facing much larger armies and without any official protection. The Mille only had two options: conquer or die. There would be no escape.


This plan really should not have worked. Really, it doesn’t make a lot of sense. Garibaldi had a thousand barely trained volunteers with no hope of outside support, and they were in a kingdom that was VERY aware of their presence and whose troops outnumbered them 150 to 1. What Garibaldi did have, though, was confidence, competence, and the support of the local population. The Sicilians and southern Italians HATED the Bourbons, hated them with every fiber of their being, so as the Mille moved on they started to gather volunteers. Like a snowball rolling downhill, what started small grew big very fast.


First, though, Garibaldi had to prove he could win – and he just started *winning.* Four days after his landing, Garibaldi and his Redshirts shattered a Bourbon army twice their size at Calatafirmi on May 15. This was both a massive boost to the Redshirts’ morale and a deadly blow to the Bourbon army. The soldiers of the Sicilian army were often abused and neglected by their corrupt officers, and soon desertion became an epidemic. In contrast, Garibaldi’s ranks were swelled by local recruits, and he laid siege to Palermo with the assistance of a local uprising. By May 28, a local uprising within the city forced the garrison into a desperate situation, and on May 29 they surrendered. This was a garrison of literally 16,000 men – who had just fallen into the hands of a force that started as a Thousand.


Soon all of Sicily was breaking out in revolt in support of Garibaldi’s advance. The Bourbons began to evacuate the island, and Garibaldi proclaimed himself temporary dictator of Sicily until the campaign was over. Panicking and trying to wiggle out of his predicament, King Francis II of the Two Sicilies issued a constitution to his people – but the Bourbons had had their chance to do THAT in 1848. It was too little, too late; the people of southern Italy had freedom in their sights.


Garibaldi spent a couple of months recruiting Sicilian volunteers and strengthening his army – and putting down revolts, surprisingly. Some Sicilians desired complete independence; they not only wanted to be free of the Bourbons but also hated the idea of unification with mainland Italy. With regret, Garibaldi crushed these uprisings; after 1848, he understood what disunion could do to a revolutionary movement. He could not afford to leave fires in his rear to distract him from the fire in his front.


On July 20, though, the Mille (now much more than a Mille) was moving again. By July 25, they had surrounded Messina and captured the critical seaport of eastern Sicily, expelling the final significant Bourbon garrison on the island. Now the way was open for Garibaldi’s Redshirts to cross over to mainland Italy.


At this time, a dispute broke out between Garibaldi and his backers in Piedmont-Sardinia. Cavour was concerned by the pace of Garibaldi’s advance and was trying to get ahead of the situation. He was not only concerned that Garibaldi would take too large a risk by invading mainland Italy, possibly triggering the Austrians – he wanted to keep the King in control of events. Garibaldi refused all Cavour’s warnings not to cross into mainland Italy. On August 19, the Redshirts made landfall on the toe of the Italian boot, and Cavour had no choice but to play along. He could not let Garibaldi go alone, though, and started sending the Sardinian army south.


Garibaldi plunged north into the mountains of southern Italy, following the same route the Allies would take in 1943. As he advanced, he faced some resistance and fought multiple battles – but in many cases, the Bourbon units disbanded spontaneously or even joined him. King Francis’ army was melting away, and as Garibaldi pushed north, seemingly unstoppable, the Bourbon King faced the inevitable. He abandoned his capital at Naples and withdrew behind the Volturnus River. On September 7, Garibaldi entered Naples, hailed as a liberator – at the same time that the Sardinian Army was marching south. After gathering yet more volunteers and restocking his supplies, Garibaldi moved north once again to face the Bourbon armies.


On October 1, 1860, Garibaldi’s force of now 20,000 men collided with the King of the Two Sicilies along the Volturnus River. This would be the hardest and largest fight of the campaign. The unorganized volunteers attacked with enormous enthusiasm, but the Sicilian armies were bolstered by the presence of their King and repulsed the first and second attacks. Swirling battles of musketry, sword, and bayonet swayed back and forth on this river, quite close to Monte Cassino – the future site of World War II nightmares. When the fight finally ended, it was a bloody stalemate. The Thousand and their volunteers did not have the discipline or staying power needed to overthrow the Sicilian army in a standup fight, and they had suffered high losses as a result.


But even if he had not won the Battle of the Volturnus, Garibaldi had won the campaign. With the Sicilian army focused on him, they were unable to stop the advancing Sardinian army of Cavour coming from the north. Within a few days after the battle, the Redshirts and the Sardinian Army joined hands and forced the Sicilians to retreat to their fortress at Gaeta.


On October 26, Victor Emmanuel and Garibaldi met face-to-face at Teano. Whatever passed between them remains somewhat of a mystery, but at the end of the negotiations, they came out in agreement on the future of Italy. A quickly held vote by the citizens of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies confirmed its annexation into Sardinia, and King Victor Emmanuel led a triumphant entrance into Naples. Though King Francis of Sicily would not surrender until February 1861, the victory was complete.


With most of Italy now united under the crown of Sardinia, Victor Emmanuel and Cavour decided it was time to make the project a reality. Though they did not yet possess Venice or Rome – those would come within the next decade, but not yet – Victor Emmanuel officially proclaimed the Kingdom of Italy on March 17, 1861. Unification was not complete, but it was now inevitable.


Garibaldi, though, would not get to enjoy the fruits of victory. Sidelined by the victorious king and the jealous Cavour, he went into quiet retirement and refused to accept any reward for his services. He had much to be proud of. With only a thousand brave volunteers, he had conquered half of Italy and brought it into union with the nation. Even if he could not make his peace with the Kings of Sardinia, he could make his peace with his country’s liberation.


Garibaldi’s adventures would continue; he would be involved in the future Italian wars that brought Venice (1866) and Rome (1870) into the fold, but he was a wandering soul. He would even fight in the Paris Commune of 1871. Finally retired (for real this time), Garibaldi died in 1880 in peaceful solitude in the country he had made free.


Giuseppe Garibaldi, the international revolutionary and freedom fighter: Italy was never enough for him, but he was enough for Italy.


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