Giuseppe Garibaldi

The Italian soldier Giuseppe Garibaldi (1807-1882) was the key military figure in the creation of the kingdom of Italy. An unflagging foe of all tyranny, he devoted his life to fighting oppression.

For the greater part of his life most of the native land of Giuseppe Garibaldi was under the control of foreigners. In the north Lombardy was held by Austria, and to the south of the States of the Church the kingdom of Naples was in the hands of the stagnant feudal regime of the Bourbons. Garibaldi was the embodiment of the Italian brand of 19th-century nationalism, which was impelled by the twin desires for unity and freedom.

Giuseppe Garibaldi was born on July 4, 1807, at Nice, which was at that time a French town. His father, Domenico, was a fisherman and modest tradesman, a fact that helped determine Giuseppe's early choice for a life at sea. At 17 he was already a sailor, journeying in the Mediterranean and Black seas, and in 1832 he earned certification as a merchant captain.

Garibaldi entered the Piedmontese navy and in 1833 joined Young Italy, the revolutionary organization of Giuseppe Mazzini, another Italian irredentist and patriot. As part of a larger republican plot of Mazzini, he became involved in a mutiny, attempting to seize his ship and take over the arsenal of Genoa. The plan failed and Garibaldi fled, taking refuge in France. He was condemned to death by default on June 3, 1834.

In 1836 Garibaldi sailed for Rio de Janeiro from Marseilles. For the next 4 years he fought as a soldier and naval officer and sometimes as a pirate for the province of Rio Grande in its attempt to free itself from Brazil. He then entered the service of Uruguay, becoming commander of the new Italian Legion at Montevideo in 1843. His victories at Cerro and Sant'Antonio in 1846 did much to ensure the liberty of Uruguay. Garibaldi's years in South America taught him the skills of war and steeled him for the Herculean tasks to come.

Revolt of 1848

His heart quickened by news of the uprising against Austria, Garibaldi returned to Italy with 80 men of his legion, landing at Nice on June 24, 1848. He offered his services in July to Charles Albert, King of the Piedmont, and in August was in command of a volunteer army at Milan. The following year, when the war was going badly for the revolutionaries and the Pope was away from Rome, Garibaldi was elected deputy of the Roman Assembly and worked for the creation of a Roman republic. Thus, against a French army aiding in the suppression of the general revolt, he defended the ephemeral republic, winning a brilliant victory at the San Pancrazio gate on April 30, 1849.

Garibaldi labored mightily during the next few months, inflicting defeats on Neapolitan and French armies. Only when it became clear that no power on earth could preserve the revolutionary movement from the superior forces of reaction did Garibaldi lead a handful of men on a retreat through central Italy. This movement was itself a masterpiece of military skill. He escaped to the Piedmont and in 1850 turned up in America, where he took a job making candles. He never intended to reside there permanently, and within the year he traveled to Peru, where he captained a ship under the flag of that country. In 1855 he returned to Italy and bought part of the island of Caprera, north of Sardinia, where he built a home.

War of Liberation

In 1858 a fateful meeting took place at Turin between Garibaldi and Camillo di Cavour, the prime minister of the Piedmontese kingdom. The count, looking forward eagerly to another war with Austria, asked the now-renowned soldier to form an army of volunteers. Cavour believed that this time, with boldness and planning, Austrian control could be broken. Garibaldi set himself to the task and was made a general in the Piedmontese army. In April 1859 he formed his corps, the Cacciatori delle Alpi, and in the same month war broke out. A rapid series of victories in May drove the Austrians out of northern Italy, all the way to the Tirol.

Dazzling as these accomplishments were, his greatest military feat lay yet before him. When the French, this time allies of the Piedmont, pulled out of the war in July 1859, Garibaldi shared Cavour's disappointment. But soldier and statesman were soon at odds with each other. Garibaldi was not permitted to attack the papal states in November and bitterly returned to civil life. He was quickly elected to the Piedmontese Parliament, and in April 1860, he publicly attacked Cavour for ceding Nice to France. Meanwhile he was planning, with British encouragement, the invasion of Sicily. Neither he nor Cavour had given up on the national movement, even though the Piedmont had felt compelled to follow the lead of France and sign an armistice with Austria.

On May 11, 1860, Garibaldi landed at Marsala with a thousand men and on May 15, crushed an undisciplined Neapolitan army at Calatafimi. By May 25, Palermo, the capital of Sicily, was in his hands. Then, moving with remarkable speed and agility, his forces crossed the Straits of Messina, slipping past a formidable Neapolitan navy. On September 7, Garibaldi triumphantly entered Naples and proclaimed himself dictator of the Two Sicilies. A last major battle was fought a month later on the Volturno, a struggle that put an end to the Bourbon capacity for resistance. Garibaldi then punctuated these victories by holding plebiscites in Sicily and Naples.

These months of fevered and brilliant activity by Garibaldi in the south found their echo in the rest of Italy, as the foundations of tyranny were undermined. It was with jubilation that Italians greeted Victor Emmanuel, King of the Piedmont, as he traveled south through the country to meet Garibaldi near Naples. On Nov. 7, 1860, in one of the most generous acts in Western history, the soldier formally gave to Victor Emmanuel all of southern Italy and proclaimed him king of a united land.

All the problems had not been solved. Austria still possessed the Trentino, and the territory of the Church, protected by the French, still lay as an obstacle across central Italy. But Garibaldi withdrew to Caprera and once again entered politics. In April 1861, he castigated Cavour in Parliament because of the prime minister's failure to take his volunteers into the regular army. The bitterness between the two men was never fully assuaged, and it was only under Ricasoli, Cavour's successor, that Garibaldi's soldiers received satisfaction in the matter. By this time the fame of the great soldier had spread so far that Abraham Lincoln saw fit to offer him a command in the American Civil War. This he politely refused, preferring to remain as close as possible to events in Italy.

In the summer of 1862, at odds with the official position of the Italian government, Garibaldi began a march on Rome, only to be wounded in Calabria and taken prisoner. Moved by the general sympathy for the soldier and by the magnitude of his contribution to his country, the King granted him an amnesty. Garibaldi then returned to Caprera and in the following year resigned from Parliament over the issue of martial law in Sicily.

War of 1866

After traveling in 1864 to England, where he was given a hero's reception, Garibaldi formed another volunteer army with which to do battle once again with the Austrians. And again his army seemed invincible. He won battle after battle until, when about to attack the Trentino, he was ordered by his superior, Gen. Lamarmora, to withdraw. The order came on July 21, 1866, and Garibaldi's answer, "Ubbidisco" (I obey), has often been called a marvelous example of a soldier's subordination of his own wishes to the command of a superior, no matter how unpopular the command. This acquiescence should not be exaggerated since Garibaldi had already been told that Austria, because of Prussian pressure, could not under any circumstances yield the Trentino to Italy. Therefore no matter what his soldiers did, they would eventually be forced to withdraw for diplomacy's sake. The brief war ended with the cession of Venice to the new Italian kingdom.

Garibaldi returned to Caprera but not merely to savor the delights of victory. As the result of an agreement in 1864 between the French and Italian governments, French troops had been removed from Rome. Therefore he thought the time was right for another attack on the papal territory. Before he could put his plan into operation, he was once again arrested by the Italian government and brought back to Caprera. Almost at once he succeeded in escaping and went to Florence.

In spite of the government's official unwillingness to seize Rome by force, some members of the executive branch were fully in sympathy with Garibaldi's goals, and they furthered a second military effort. He was once again stopped, however, shortly after entering papal territory in October. It was ironic that when, in 1870, the Italian kingdom finally absorbed the remainder of the States of the Church, the great condottiere was not directly involved. He spent that year fighting for the French in the Franco-Prussian War.

Deputy for Rome

The last decade of Garibaldi's life was no less stormy than the earlier years. After the final humiliation of France by the Prussians he was elected to the Versailles Assembly; but he felt insulted by the French, mostly because they seemed unwilling to recognize the extent of his contribution to their war effort. He had, after all, won victories over the Germans at Châtillon and Dijon. He resigned his position in anger and returned to Caprera. In 1874 he was elected to Parliament as deputy for Rome. Garibaldi relished his position but was generally unhappy with the conservative cast of the government; when the ministry sought to confer upon him a large gift of money and an annual pension, he refused. It is revealing that when a government more oriented to the left took over and made the same offer, he accepted it gratefully. The generous gift was a recognition of the enormous debt owed by the new Italian kingdom to its greatest soldier.

Garibaldi, a handsome man with long hair, a full beard, and burning eyes, often disagreed violently with the government he had worked so hard to bring into existence. He was not an easy man to work with and his decisions were often rash, leading to the mercurial changes of his fortunes. But Giuseppe Garibaldi's contribution to Italy was of lasting significance, and when he died on June 2, 1882, his fellow citizens felt his passing deeply.

Further Reading on Giuseppe Garibaldi

The two greatest authorities writing in English on Garibaldi are Denis Mack Smith and George M. Trevelyan. Smith's Cavour and Garibaldi, 1860: A Study in Political Conflict (1954) is an illuminating account of the character and historical significance of the two men and their strained relations with one another. A short biography by Smith is Garibaldi: A Great Life in Brief (1956). The three volumes by Trevelyan are very thorough: Garibaldi and the Thousand (1948); Garibaldi and the Making of Italy (1948); and Garibaldi's Defence of the Roman Republic, 1848-9 (1949). The dates given for Trevelyan's books represent the latest of many editions.