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Garibaldi in Sicily[302]

Frederick Engels

After a variety of the most contradictory information, we receive, at last, something like trustworthy news of the details of Garibaldi's wonderful march from Marsala to Palermo. It is, indeed, one of the most astonishing military feats of the century, and it would be almost unaccountable were it not for the prestige preceding the march of a triumphant revolutionary general. The success of Garibaldi proves that the Royalist troops of Naples still hold in terror the man who has borne high the flag of Italian revolution in the face of French, Neapolitan, and Austrian battalions, and that the people of Sicily have not lost their faith in him, or in the national cause.

On the 6th of May, two steamers leave the coast of Genoa with about 1,400 armed men, organized in seven companies, each of them, evidently, destined to become the nucleus of a battalion to be recruited among the insurgents. On the 8th, they land at Talamone on the Tuscan coast, and persuade the commander of the fort there, by some sort of argument or other, to furnish them with coal, ammunition, and four field pieces. On the 10th, they enter the harbor of Marsala, at the extreme western end of Sicily, and disembark with all their material, in spite of the arrival of two Neapolitan men-of-war, who are powerless, at the right moment, to prevent them; the story about British interference in favor of the invaders has proved false, and is now abandoned even by the Neapolitans themselves. On the 12th, the small band had marched to Salemi, 18 miles distant in the interior, and on the road toward Palermo. Here the chief men of the revolutionary party appear to have met Garibaldi, to have consulted with him, and collected insurrectionary reenforcements amounting to some 4,000 men; while these were being organized, the insurrection, repressed but not quelled a few weeks before, was kindled afresh all over the mountains of Western Sicily, and, as was proved on the 16th, not without effect. On the 15th, Garibaldi, with his 1,400 organized volunteers and 4,000 armed peasantry, advances northward across the hills upon Calatafimi, where the country road from Marsala joins the high road from Trapani to Marsala. The defiles leading to Calatafimi, across a spur of the lofty Monte Cerrara, called the Monte di Pianto Romano, were defended by three battalions of Royal troops, with cavalry and artillery, under Gen. Landi. Garibaldi at once attacked this position, which was at first obstinately defended; but although in this attack Garibaldi could not have employed against the 3,000 or 3,500 Neapolitans more than his volunteers and a very small portion of the Sicilian insurgents, the Royalists were successively driven out of five strong positions, with the loss of one mountain-gun and numerous killed and wounded. The loss of the Garibaldians is stated by themselves at 18 killed and 128 wounded. The Neapolitans profess to have conquered one of Garibaldi's flags in this engagement, but, as they found a flag left behind on board one of the abandoned steamers at Marsala, they are quite capable of having exhibited this same flag at Naples as a proof of their pretended victory. Their defeat at Calatafimi, however, did not compel them to abandon that town - the same evening. They left it on the following morning only, and after that they appear not to have offered any further resistance to Garibaldi until they reached Palermo. They did reach it, but in a terrible state of dissolution and disorder. The certainty of having succumbed to mere "filibusters and armed rabble" reproduced in their minds all at once the terrible image of that Garibaldi, who, while defending Rome against the French, could yet find time to march to Velletri and send to the right-about the advanced guard of the whole Neapolitan army, and who had since conquered, on the slopes of the Alps, warriors of a far superior mettle to any that Naples produces[303], The hurried retreat, without a show even of further resistance, must have still increased their despondency and the tendency to desertion which already existed in their ranks; and when all at once they found themselves surrounded and harassed by that insurrection which had been prepared at the meeting at Salemi, their cohesion was utterly lost; of Landi's brigade nothing but a disorderly and dispirited mob, greatly reduced in numbers, reentered Palermo in small successive bands.

Garibaldi entered Calatafimi on the day that Landi had left it—on the 16th; marched on the 17th to Alcamo (10 miles); on the 18th to Partinico (10 miles), and beyond that place toward Palermo. On the 19th, incessant torrents of rain prevented the troops from moving.

In the mean time, Garibaldi had ascertained that the Neapolitans were throwing up intrenchments around Palermo, and strengthening the old, decayed ramparts of the town on the side facing the Partinico road. They were still at least 22,000 strong, and thus far superior to any forces that he could bring against them. But they were dispirited; their discipline was loosened; many of them began to think of passing over to the insurgents; while their generals were known, both to their own soldiers and to their enemy, to be imbeciles. The only trustworthy troops among them were the two foreign battalions. As matters stood, Garibaldi could not have ventured upon a direct front attack upon the town, while the Neapolitans could not undertake anything decisive against him, even if their troops were fit for it, as they must always leave a strong garrison in the town and never move too far away from it. With a General of the common stamp in the place of Garibaldi, this state of things would have led to a series of desultory and undecisive engagements, in which he might have trained a portion of his levies to warfare, but in which also the Royal troops would very soon have recovered a good deal of their lost confidence and discipline, for they could not help being successful in some of them. But such a kind of warfare would neither suit an insurrection nor a Garibaldi. A bold offensive was the only system of tactics permitted to a revolution; a striking success, such as the deliverance of Palermo, became a necessity as soon as the insurgents had arrived in sight of the city.

But how was this to be done? Here it was that Garibaldi brilliantly proved himself a General, fit not for petty partisan warfare only, but also for more important operations.

On the 20th and succeeding days, Garibaldi attacked the Neapolitan outposts and positions in the neighborhood of Monreale and Parco, on the roads leading to Palermo from Trapani and Corleone, thus making the enemy believe that his attack would take place chiefly against the south-western face of the town, and that here his main forces were concentrated. By a skillful combination of attacks and feigned retreats, he induced the Neapolitan General to send more and more troops out of the town in this direction, until, on the 24th, some 10,000 Neapolitans appeared outside the town, toward Parco. This was what Garibaldi intended. He at once engaged them with part of his forces, slowly' retreated before them so as to draw them further and further away from the town, and when he had got them as far as Piana[a], across the main range of hills, which run across Sicily, and here divide the Conca d'Oro (the golden shell, the Valley of Palermo) from the Valley of Corleone, he at once threw the main body of his troops across another part of the same ridge, into the Valley of Misilmeri, which opens out to the sea, close to Palermo. On the 25th he took up his headquarters at Misilmeri, eight miles from the capital. What he further did with the 10,000 men entangled on a single line of bad road in the mountains, we are not informed, but we may be sure that he kept them well occupied with some fresh apparent victories, so as to make sure they would not come back too soon to Palermo. Having thus reduced the defenders of the town by nearly one-half, and transferred his line of attack from the Trapani road to the Catania road, he could proceed to the grand attack. Whether the insurrection in the town preceded Garibaldi's assault, or whether it was produced by his knocking at the gates, the conflicting dispatches leave unsettled; but certain it is, that on the morning of the 27th, all Palermo rose in arms and Garibaldi thundered at the Porta Termini, on the south-east face of the town, where no Neapolitan expected him. The remainder is known—the gradual clearing of the town, with the exception of the batteries, the citadel, and the Royal palace, from the troops; the subsequent bombardment, the armistice,. the capitulation. Authentic details of all these proceedings are still wanting; but the main facts are pretty certain.

In the mean time, we must declare that Garibaldi's maneuvers preparatory to the attack on Palermo at once stamp him as a General of a very high order. Hitherto we knew him as a very skillful and very lucky guerrilla-chief only; even in the siege of Rome his mode of defending the town by constant sallies gave him scarcely an opportunity of rising above that level. But here we have him on fair strategic ground, and he comes from the trial a proven master of his art. His manner of enticing the Neapolitan commander into the blunder of sending one-half of his troops out of reach, his sudden flank-march and reappearance before Palermo, on the side where he was least expected, and his energetic attack while the garrison was weakened, are operations far more imprinted with the stamp of military genius than anything that occurred during the Italian war of 1859. The Sicilian insurrection has found a first-rate military chief; let us hope that the politician Garibaldi, who will soon have to appear on the stage, may keep unsullied the glory of the General.

Written about June 7, 1860
First published in the New-York Daily Tribune, No. 5979, June 22, 1860 as a leading article;
reprinted in the New-York Semi-Weekly Tribune, No. 1573, June 22, 1860


[a] Piana dei Greci.—Ed.

[302] The subject of this article was suggested by Marx who wrote to Engels on June 2, 1860 asking him to write a small article about "the Garibaldi's affair" (see present edition, Vol. 41).

[303] A reference to the defence of the Roman Republic which was virtually directed by Garibaldi from April to July 1849. In April 1849, President Louis Bonaparte and the French Government sent an expeditionary corps to Italy under General Oudinot to intervene against the Roman Republic proclaimed on February 9, 1849, and to restore the secular power of the Pope. On April 30, 1849, the French troops were driven back from Rome. The main blow was dealt by Garibaldi's volunteer corps. Oudinot violated the terms of the armistice signed by the French, however, and on June 3 started a new offensive against the Roman Republic, which had just completed a military campaign against Neapolitan troops in the south and was engaged in rebuffing the Austrians in the north. After a month of heroic defence, Rome was captured by the interventionists and the Roman Republic ceased to exist.

Source: Marx and Engels Collected Works, Volume 17 (pp.386-390), Progress Publishers, Moscow 1980
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