BATTLE OF VOLTURNO
1-2 October 1860
Probably no military leader was so admired and lionized in his own day as the commander of the famous ‘Thousand’ redshirts, Giuseppe Garibaldi. His inspirational leadership was acclaimed by those volunteers who flocked to his call to create a united Italy, but feared and vilified by politicians and monarchists who understood the revolutionary potential of Garibaldi’s ‘people’s army’.
The story of the expedition of the Thousand to free Sicily and southern Italy from the rule of their authoritarian Bourbon monarchy is one packed with drama, but nothing was more dramatic than the first and only major defensive battle fought by the Garibaldini along the south bank of the River Volturno, north of Naples.
The campaign that ended with Volturno had begun on 11 May 1860, when the Piemonte and Lombardo, two ships appropriated by Garibaldi in Genoa, arrived at the Sicilian port of Marsala with 1,217 patriots, revolutionaries and students on board. His force faced a Bourbon army numbering 140,000, of whom 25,000 were in Sicily. The odds meant little to Garibaldi. Supported by a flood of volunteers and Sicilians hostile to Bourbon rule, the Thousand had turned by August into a motley force of 20,000.
Among them were British and Hungarian veterans keen to support the aspirations for a united Italy and hostile to those great powers, principally the Austrian and Russian empires, which sought to shore up conservative monarchy.
The Bourbon king, Francis II, had mixed loyalty from his Neapolitan army, many of whom threw in their lot with Garibaldi over the course of the year. Sicily was overrun and on 19 August, Garibaldi crossed to the mainland at Melito in two old steamers, Torino and Franklin, the latter flying an American flag. He brought 4,200 with him to start a campaign against 17,200 Neapolitan soldiers and 32 cannon.
The expedition was not approved by any of the European powers except Britain. Even the northern Italians, now unified under Victor Emmanuel II thanks to the help of the French army, were wary of Garibaldi and hoped that his ships might founder or sink. Instead, the numbers flocking to join the Garibaldini grew rapidly, though out of the 50,000 in the south no more than half constituted a real fighting force. The Neapolitan army was quickly cleared from Calabria and Garibaldi marched on Naples, the Bourbon capital.
As enemy soldiers surrendered, so the rifles and cannon fell into the hands of what was now called the Army of the South, organized like a regular army in divisions and brigades, but reliant for its supply on what it could capture or the money and equipment sent by romantic supporters of Italian freedom. As the Garibaldini moved north, Victor Emmanuel moved his army south through central Italy in the hope that he could prevent Garibaldi from provoking republican revolution. Francis II was caught between the two, but it was the irregulars of Garibaldi who defeated him and made unification possible.
Francis abandoned Naples and moved a little further north to the strongly fortified centres at Capua and Gaeta, where he determined to make a stand. He still commanded 50,000 men with 42 cannon and a body of cavalry, but only half were sent to the front line established along the River Volturno under the command of Marshal Giosuè Ritucci.
Garibaldi’s army began to arrive on the south side of the river, and thinking there would be the same uncontested advances seen in Calabria and much of Sicily, István Türr, Garibaldi’s Hungarian commander, launched premature attacks towards Capua. Here and at Caiazzo the Garibaldini were driven back with heavy losses. Francis and Ritucci decided their army was now in a strong enough state to mount a general offensive.
The Neapolitan plan was to attack across the river from three different directions, one division from the northwest and two from different points to the east, in the hope that they could surround and annihilate Garibaldi’s army. Garibaldi and his senior commander, Giuseppe Sirtori, were forced to spread out their defensive system to avoid being outflanked. What followed were three different contests that eventually merged into a single battle.
Both sides fought, according to observers, with a ferocity and desperation that had been lacking in many of the earlier engagements. Much rose and fell on the outcome. The end of Bourbon rule was certain in the event of a defeat, but a victory for Francis would destroy the momentum for unification and postpone it, perhaps for years. The attack began at dawn on 1 October with a frontal assault on the two major outposts of the Garibaldini at Sant’Angelo and the village of Santa Maria. Good progress was made at first and Garibaldi, who exposed himself time and again to the greatest danger, hurried to Sant’Angelo to try to stem the tide.
He was surrounded by the enemy, but rescued almost at once by a group of his own men. He rallied some of the retreating units and with banners flying and sword in hand, if the later images are to be believed, Garibaldi led the counter-attack, smashing the Neapolitan lines. He then rushed to Santa Maria where Giacomo Medici was leading a desperate defence against determined enemy assaults. Again Garibaldi saved the day. He ordered the reserve under Türr to come by train the few miles to the village. Led by the ferocious charge of the Hungarian Hussars, they drove the Bourbon army back to the walls of Capua.
The other axes of advance also went the way of the Neapolitans to begin with. Two columns from the east swept towards Caserta, the main city and road junction. On the right of the line of Garibaldini, a division commanded by Nino Bixio first absorbed the attack, then drove the enemy back in disorder.
The central column was more successful and soon reached and occupied Caserta Vecchia. After hours of fighting, the exhausted Neapolitans, unaware of the defeats elsewhere, slept in and around the small town.
Sirtori ordered those units that had seen the least fighting to assemble during the night for an attack on the unwary Neapolitans. Early in the morning they woke to gunfire and the sound of the approaching enemy. The 3,000 men were surrounded and either killed or captured. The battle was over. Garibaldi and his thousands had made possible the creation of a new Italy, for the death or injury of 1,634 of his men against the 1,128 casualties and 2,160 prisoners suffered by his enemy.
Garibaldi was essential to the victory, not only for his capacity to outthink the professional officers he opposed, but for his courageous and conspicuous presence at all points of a wide and dangerous battlefield. Nevertheless, Victor Emmanuel refused on his arrival to review the Garibaldini, unable to embrace the idea that patriotic irregulars and foreign volunteers alone could have secured victory.
Disillusioned, Garibaldi abandoned his army and departed for his home at Caprera carrying, it is alleged, a year’s supply of macaroni. ‘You have done much,’ he told his men, ‘with scant means in a short time’ – a fitting epitaph for an unpredictable adventure against seemingly invincible odds, and a modest assessment of his own charismatic contribution.