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main index    index for this series  © Jeff Matthews  entry February 2011


Garibaldi's defeat and capture at the
Battle of Aspromonte


Through the Eyes of...


The New York Times, 1862.  [Introduction. NYT excerpts, below: items 1 & 2.]
and D.H. Lawrence, Sea & Sardinia, item 3.]

If you have studied a bit of Italian history, you know that the most important military episode in the unification of the modern Italian nation was the invasion and conquest of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies by Giuseppe Garibaldi. He handed his conquests over to the new rulers of Italy such that the Kingdom of Italy was proclaimed in early 1861.

Garibaldi's work was not quite done.
He was, like many Italians, obsessed with the idea that Rome should be the capital of the new nation. (That did not happen until 1871; in the 1860s, Rome was still a seperate state, what was left of the Papal States and not part of the Italian nation.) In August, 1862, Garibaldi tried to repeat his success of 1861; he landed again in the south, this time with the intent of marching on Rome.

This time, however, the circumstances were different; the new national Italian government was not amenable to a private army passing up the peninsula.The regular army and Garibaldi's forces clashed in the brief battle of Aspromonte in Calabria near the very tip of the toe of the Italian "boot." Garibaldi was wounded, captured and briefly imprisoned; he was then sent off under house arrest to his estate on the isle of Caprera in Sicily and threatened with charges of treason and insurrection.


After his capture, foreign commentators were almost unanimous in their view that Garibaldi was washed up, a tired and old has-been. These writers for the NYT were sure of it.  (These excerpts have been abbreviated for reasons of space).
[See postscript at end.]


1.

GARIBALDI; His Fall and His History. The Objects at Which he Aimed.

Published: September 21, 1862

TURIN, Tuesday, Sept. 2, 1862.

GARIBALDI is on the ground, never again to rise. Whatever events the future may have in store for Italy, GARIBALDI'S game is played out. He is old, prematurely old, broken in health, worn by fits of excessive activity; still more wasted by long periods of involuntary repose. The gout tortures and paralyzes his limbs, sorrow will soon gnaw into his very soul.

The lion is down; there will be no lack of ignoble animals eager to administer the last kick. But GARIBALDI belongs to history; justice must be done to a name which cannot pass away. It is not enough for his enemies to descant on his lack of prudence, on his overweening self-conceit, his ignorance, his obstinacy; they even impugn his veracity, his self-denial, his boundless generosity, his consistency, his singleness of mind and purpose...

As it is, if he is brought before he Senate of Turin, before a council of war, or before any civil or military Court, silence beseems him as the most efficient defence. Like the great Roman of old, he may ask his Judges to follow him to the Temple of the gods. 'On such a day I gave Italy her Southern provinces and achieved her unity; let us give thanks to the Almighty!' It would be mere cavil and chicane to inquire by whom the conquest of the Two Sicilies and their annexation were achieved. The initiative of the enterprise belongs to GARIBALDI; it could belong to him alone...Whether or not GARIBALDI be prosecuted and tried for high treason, it is not from an official tribunal that he awaits condemnation or acquittal. The world will judge him by the light of his own conscience...

[...]he was made to believe that the signal had been given...he was allowed to sail for Sicily; was welcomed at Palermo by the Royal Princes at his landing; sat at table on the right hand of the heir of the throne, at the post of honor; received the homage of all the civil and military authorities in the island. He thought he was acting for the King, in the King's name, at the King's bidding...The encounter at Aspromonte dispelled the illusion.

[...]Most assuredly GARIBALDI is guilty of insanity, He was determined to march upon Rome; he declared war against France, and in the meantime waged war against Italy. He was too sure he could shun civil strife; he reckoned too much upon the enthusiasm of the people, on the eventual cooperation of the national army...Add to this that GARIBALDI had hardly ever failed in any of his former enterprises, he felt sure that success could never forsake him; he was conscious he had performed miracles, and was sure of his power to achieve any prodigy. He had seen multitudes kneeling at his feet; the world's incense had intoxicated him; he was, indeed, superior to idle vanity; he shunned plaudits and ovations so far as he was himself concerned; but if he could turn all this power -- all this prestige -- to the benefit of his country, would it not have been meanness, would it not have been madness on his part to shrink from the task which popular enthusiasm designated him to accomplish, to shirk an enterprise to which the world's cheers urged him?

Such were GARIBALDI's reasonings, such his motives and actions. His countrymen... may well pause before they sit in judgment against him. His life all of a piece -- consistent from beginning to end. The men who applauded GARIBALDI in 1849, who worshipped him in 1860, have no right to condemn him in 1862. He acted without an afterthought or a selfish motive. His was a great error -- a sublime misconception.


2.

The Capture of Garibaldi and the Downfall of his Projects.
Published: September 9, 1862

Few, we imagine, will read without emotion the telegraphic words that tell of the defeat and capture of GARIBALDI, and his confinement, wounded, in the prison of Spezzia. To this tragic finale has come the mad, mistaken enterprise into which the Italian Liberator was betrayed, and which, but a moment ago, threatened to compromise the destiny of Italy. The movement, and all it potentially contained of weal or of woe for Italy and for Europe, is brought to naught; and the spark is quenched which might have kindled a conflagration throughout a Continent.

The telegraphic dispatch...gives no details of the engagement or even of its locality. We presume, however, that it took place at Reggio, in Naples, on the extreme southwestern point of Italy, and directly opposite Sicily. GARIBALDI and his followers, after taking possession of several towns in the island, had effected a landing at this point. Previous advices mentioned that the Government had sent a large number of Royal troops to Reggio to seek out and defeat GARIBALDI. In this mission they now appear to have been successful, compelling GARIBALDI, after a sharp contest, to surrender; and the latest advices inform us that he was conveyed, in an Italian frigate, wounded and a prisoner, to Spezzia.

In judging this brief episode...we find nothing to shake, but everything to strengthen the condemnatory sentence we were forced to pass upon it at the start. Lofty though the sentiment was which animated GARIBALDI in desiring to make Italy completely one and free by driving the French from Rome and the Austrians from Venice -- a sentiment shared by every lover of Italy -- yet as a practical scheme it is impossible to imagine a more wild or fatuitous course than that which GARIBALDI took to realize it. "Rome or death" was the watchword with which the popular chief sought to rouse the Italian population: but "Rome or the death of Italy" was the tragic reality lurking under the glittering antithesis. It was certainly not an auspicious harbinger of his enterprise that all the enemies of Italy united in pushing him on. Strange to say -- and yet not so strange -- both the Revolutionists and the Reactionists, both the Mazzini party and the Bourbon-priest party, favored, either secretly or openly, the scheme of GARIBALDI. That which united these opposing extremes was the intense desire that the Unity of the Italian Kingdom should be broken up. Each hoped that if the elements were once more thrown into solution, they might be crystalized according to its mould. While the revolutionists saw in such an event the opportunity for a Red Republic of the Mazzini type, the Bourbon and Priest party held their breath over the renewed prospect afforded for the restoration of the Duchies, the reinstatement of [Francis II] on the throne of the Sicilies, and the rehabilitation, with new prestige, of the Papal and despot rule.

[...] Nothing resembling the uprising of '59 took place; he was able, at the best, and after months of effort, to surround himself with but three or four thousand followers; and the defeat of GARIBALDI at Reggio, and the death-blow there given his scheme, is significant, not so much in a military as in a political or moral sense. It proves that the instinct, sense and judgment of the nation were against him...Then was seen that tragic antagonism which we had hoped never to have beheld; the man who had done more than all others to make Italy what it is, arrayed against its constitutional King! There is in history few more sad careers than the recent career of GARIBALDI. No late mistakes can take away the admiration which his lofty and heroic life inspires, or deprive him of the sympathy which consecrates a noble though misguided cause. His career, from first to last, has been marvelous and exceptional, and its end is full of matter wherewith  'To point a moral or adorn a tale'."

3.  from Sea and Sardinia by D.H. Lawrence                                           added July 2011

Aspromonte! Garibaldi! I could always cover my face when I see it, Aspromonte. I wish Garibaldi had been prouder. Why did he go off so humbly, with his bag of seed-corn and a flea in his ear, when His Majesty King Victor Emmanuel arrived with his little short legs on the scene. Poor Garibaldi! He wanted to be a hero and a dictator of free Sicily. Well, one can't be a dictator and humble at the same time. One must be a hero, which he was, and proud, which he wasn't. Besides people don't nowadays choose proud heroes for governors. Anything but. They prefer constitutional monarchs, who are paid servants and who know it. That is democracy. Democracy admires its own servants and nothing else. And you couldn't make a real servant even of Garibaldi. Only of His Majesty King Victor Emmanuel. So Italy chose Victor Emmanuel, and Garibaldi went off with a corn bag and a whack on the behind like a humble ass.


Postscript with hindsight:

Garibaldi lived until 1882, and, given his activities in the last 20 years of his life, I am reminded of Mark Twain's comment that "...that reports of my death are greatly exaggerated." Garibaldi again marched on Rome with his private army in 1867 and was defeated at the Battle of Mentana by French forces defending the Vatican. He remained active to the end in the struggle for the complete unification of Italy. He died as Italy's greatest patriotic hero and remains so today.


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