Who’s for Garibaldi Day?

Whenever this time of year rolls around, I can’t help wondering how things might have been different if Italian-Americans had chosen someone other than Christopher Columbus to honor on their annual cultural day; someone like Guiseppe Garibaldi.

Garibaldi was born in Nice (then still a part of Italy) on July 4, 1807. His father was a merchant and ship owner, so from an early age Garibaldi was drawn to the sea. As a young man he traveled the Mediterranean fighting pirates and once encountered a group of Saint Simonian socialists. “Apostles of a new religion,” he called them.

Garibaldi was soon drawn into the Risorgimento, the struggle for Italian unification, the overthrow of Austrian imperial domination in the North and the reactionary regimes of the Papal States and southern Kingdom of Naples, also known as the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. In 1833 he is purported to have first met Guiseppe Mazzini (1805–1872), founder of the Young Italy movement, which favored the creation of a united, liberal democratic Italian republic. At the behest of his Young Italy comrades, Garibaldi joined the navy of the northern Italian kingdom of Sardinia-Piedmont with the intent of fomenting revolution. An 1834 attempt at insurrection failed miserably and Garibaldi was sentenced to death in absentia, as he fled across the border to Marseilles.

From there, Garibaldi sailed to South America where he took up the cause of the province of Rio Grande do Sul in its ultimately failed attempt to gain independence from Brazil. It was there that he met the love of his life, Anita Ribeiro da Silva. A skilled horsewoman who often fought beside him, Anita is said to have taught Garibaldi about the gaucho culture of southern Brazil and Uruguay. Around this time, he adopted his trademark clothing — a red shirt, poncho and sombrero.

Garibaldi then became involved in the Uruguayan Civil War (1839–51) taking the side of the liberal Colorados Party against the right-wing Blancos (both parties still exist today!). He took command of the Colorados’ fleet and raised an “Italian Legion” from among the Italian immigrant population of Uruguay, also known as “Red Shirts” for the bright, red blouse-type shirts they wore into battle. Between 1842 to 1848, Garibaldi defended Montevideo against Blanco forces.

Through all of this, the fate of his homeland still weighed on Garibaldi’s mind. The election of Pope Pius IX in 1846 and his initial liberal reforms in the Papal States raised the hopes of Italian patriots at home and abroad that “Pio Nono,” as he was popularly known, would lead the unification of Italy. Garibaldi himself wrote to offer his services to the new pope.

Then, in 1848 a wave of revolutions hit Europe, including parts of Italy. Garibaldi and some of his Italian Legion soon left Montevideo to join the fight. He offered his services to King Charles Albert of Sardinia-Piedmont. Charles displayed some liberal inclinations but was decidedly cool towards the Mazzinian who had once tried to overthrow him. Garibaldi and his followers crossed into Lombardy where they offered their services to the provisional government of Milan, which had rebelled against Austrian occupation. Garibaldi led his legion to two minor victories at Luino and Morazzone.

After the Austrian’s crushing defeat of the Piedmontese at Novara on March 23, 1849, Garibaldi went Rome to support the republican forces that had overthrown Pio Nono and sent him packing into the arms of King Ferdinand II of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. Ferdinand would later acquire the sobriquet “Re Bomba” (King Bomb) after shelling the city of Messina for eight hours after its rebel defenders had already surrendered.

The Constitutional Assembly of the Roman Republic proclaimed a Triumvirate with Mazzini at its head. Mazzini in turn, was instrumental in creating one of the most secular, democratic states of the time. He confiscated church lands and distributed them to peasants, inaugurated prison and asylum reforms, established a free press, secular education and full emancipation for Jews and other non-Catholics. Garibaldi was elected as an assembly delegate but was soon appointed by Mazzini to command the defense of Rome.

In France, the newly elected President Louis Napoleon (the nephew of Napoleon I) had been an ally of the Italian revolutionaries as a young man. But he came under enormous pressure from ultramontane (extremely conservative pro-papal) Catholics, who had voted overwhelmingly for him, to restore Pio Nono to power. He soon dispatched a French army under General Charles Oudinot (the eldest son of Napoleon I’s Marshal Nicholas Oudinot) to accomplish the task.

The Republicans under Garibaldi fought bravely but the end was never in doubt. The battle for the city was over by July 1, 1849. Garibaldi left with 4,000 troops. Hunted by Austrian, French, Spanish and Neapolitan troops the Garibaldians fled north trying to reach Venice, which was still resisting an Austrian siege. After an epic march, Garibaldi took refuge in the tiny independent republic of San Marino with only 250 men remaining with him. Anita, who was carrying their fifth child died on the retreat. Garibaldi had also lost his long-time aide de camp, a Uruguayan of African descent named, Aguyar on June 30th.

Heartbroken and distraught, Garibaldi ended up in New York where he stayed at the home of Antonio Meucci on Staten Island, which still stands and is now a museum on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places. For a while, Garibaldi spent his time employed in Meucci’s candle factory.

By 1854 Garibaldi was back in Italy. In 1859, a second war for Italian unification and independence broke out. This time Garibaldi abandoned Mazzini’s vision of a democratic republican Italy and threw in his lot with the Piedmontese monarchy, believing it was the only force capable of defeating the Austrians and uniting Italy.

The climax of Garibaldi’s long career came in April 1860, when Sicily erupted in revolt. He raised an army of a thousand volunteers clad in those trademark red shirts, went off to aid the rebels and conquered the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies before the year was out, though he received crucial assistance from the Piedmontese Army at the final battle of the Volturno on September 30, 1860. Garibaldi chose to hand over all of the territory he had conquered to King Victor Emmanuel II. Their meeting at the town of Teano on October 26 is often looked at as the most important date in modern Italian history. On March 17, 1861, the new Italian Parliament, convening in the Piedmontese capital of Turin, proclaimed Victor Emanuel King of Italy and on March 27 declared that Rome was its capital, even though it would remain under the pope’s control for another nine years.

When the U.S. Civil War broke out, Garibaldi offered his services to President Lincoln. He was offered a major general’s commission in the U.S. Army but turned it down on the grounds that he would only accept full command of U.S. armed forces with the additional authority to abolish slavery in any territory he conquered. After the Emancipation Proclamation had been issued, Garibaldi wrote the following to Lincoln, “Posterity will call you the great emancipator, a more enviable title than any crown would be and greater than any mere mundane treasure.”

Continuing to fight well into his 60s, against the Austrians and later the Prussians on behalf of France, Garibaldi finally retired to his home on the small island of Caprera, off the northern coast of Sardinia. When near death, he asked that his bed be moved to where he could gaze at the emerald and sapphire Sardinian sea. He passed on June 2, 1882.

Al Ronzoni is a writer, historian and political activist based in New York City

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