Italian History

Italian History at a Glance

In the island of Sardinia inside a rustic house, amid an array of barrels, saddles and crude furnishings, lived   the “Hero of Two Worlds,” Giuseppe Garibaldi.

For months the European and American press had been alive with rumors that Garibaldi, the celebrated champion of Italian unification, and his Red Shirt army were coming to lead the struggle for America’s reunification. Since June a series of contradictory reports and denials and stony silence from Union officials left the world in suspense. “Garibaldi Coming to America!” “Bully for Garibaldi … He Has Accepted,” the headlines exclaimed. “Garibaldi Not Coming,” another newspaper announced with equal certainty. Now Sanford had arrived with an offer, authorized by President Lincoln and Secretary of State William H. Seward, inviting him to serve as major general in the Union Army.

Lincoln and Seward knew that, whatever value an aging Italian general who spoke no English might offer militarily, Garibaldi’s mere “presence” and “gallantry,” as Seward put it, would prove “eminently useful” to the Union cause.

The conversation began promisingly. “I will be very happy to serve a country for which I have so much affection,” Garibaldi replied to preliminary inquiries. He had lived in exile in New York and considered himself a citizen of what he fondly referred to as his “second country.” But what he wanted to hear, and what Sanford could not tell him, was that this would be a war against slavery.

Library of Congress: Giuseppe Garibaldi

In Garibaldi’s mind, victory over the Southern slaveholders would come swiftly; “the enemy is weakened by his vices and disarmed by his conscience,” he told his comrades. From there they would go on to vanquish the slaveholders of the Caribbean and Brazil, where millions of “miserable slaves will lift their heads and be free citizens.”

Garibaldi’s question first arose when James W. Quiggle, outgoing American consul in Antwerp, Belgium, seized a chance at glory by writing an unofficial letter to him in June 1861. “The papers report that you are going to the United States to join the Army of the North in the conflict of my country,” he wrote. “If you do, the name of La Fayette will not surpass yours. There are thousands of Italians and Hungarians who will rush to join your ranks and there are thousands and tens of thousands of Americans who will glory to be under the command of ‘the Washington of Italy.’” Quiggle offered to join their ranks himself.

Garibaldi responded, “I have had, and I have still, great desire to go … if your government would find my services of some use.” But while willing to fight for America, he was not sure exactly what it was fighting for. “Tell me,” he asked pointedly, “if this agitation is regarding the emancipation of the Negroes or not.”

Quiggle sent his correspondence with Garibaldi to Seward on July 5, which should have arrived in Washington just before the First Battle of Bull Run on July 21, 1861. It was a day of humiliating defeat for the Union, marked by poor leadership and disorderly (some said cowardly) retreat by Union soldiers.

Earlier, Quiggle’s idea of bringing an Italian general to lead a Union Army might have been dismissed as a harebrained scheme, but after Bull Run Seward feared Britain or France might declare support for the Confederacy. He saw in Garibaldi an international hero whose charisma and leadership were desperately needed. After consulting with Lincoln, on July 27 Seward sent instructions to Sanford to meet with “the distinguished Soldier of Freedom” and enlist “his services in the present contest for the unity and liberty of the American People.” “Tell him,” he instructed Sanford, “that the fall of the American Union … would be a disastrous blow to the cause of Human Freedom equally here, in Europe, and throughout the world.”

Garibaldi had fascinated journalists ever since the 1830s, when he was in exile in South America fighting for the independence of southern Brazil and Uruguay. When the Revolutions of 1848 broke out across Europe, he returned to Italy and led a heroic defense of the Republic of Rome against French and papal forces. He was again exiled, to New York, but later returned to live in isolation on Caprera. Then, in 1860, he led a ragtag army of volunteers known as “The Thousand” in an invasion of Sicily to overthrow its Bourbon rulers. The whole world followed Garibaldi’s Red Shirts as they vanquished a large professional army, swept across southern Italy and entered Naples in triumph, all within four months. Precisely as the United States was coming apart, Italy proclaimed its new existence as a united nation. Garibaldi had made Italy; perhaps this remarkable general could help remake the United States.

Garibaldi was reviled by the pope and many crowned heads of Europe, but he enjoyed remarkable popularity among republicans and liberals everywhere. Women adored him; they wore dresses and blouses that imitated the Red Shirt regalia of the Garibaldini. Journalists celebrated the Garibaldi legend in print, shared intimate details of his personal life, and made his image, with his gray beard and mesmerizing gaze, familiar to everyone.

One night throngs of people in the streets of Genoa were shouting “Viva Garibaldi!” and singing the Garibaldi hymn. On the main square there was a wax effigy of their hero “mounted on a kind of altar surrounded by flags at which people are bringing candles by the hundreds to burn, as you have seen in the churches of patron saints.” It was the first anniversary of Garibaldi’s triumphant entry into Naples, and all across Italy there were similar demonstrations.

** Garibaldi wanted to know more about the purpose of the war and expected to be offered supreme command of all armed forces. He explained that, like the captain of a ship, he must have complete control and “would be of little use as a subordinate.” This may have been lost in translation.

But it was the purpose of the war that seemed to concern Garibaldi most. “Could slavery not be abolished?” If it was not being fought to emancipate the slaves,, “the war would appear to be like any civil war in which the world at large could have little interest or sympathy.”

Europeans expected this to be a war of liberation, without which they would as soon see the nation fall apart. But to Garibaldi’s question the only explanation was Lincoln’s legalistic apology for the federal government’s limited constitutional power to interfere with slavery in the states.

For weeks the story continued to play in the international press, and even a year later rumors revived that Garibaldi might yet come to America. Eventually the story faded from the news, and from historical memory, resurfacing from time to time as little more than a bizarre curiosity of Civil War history.

It was much more than that, for Garibaldi’s question anticipated a fundamental problem the Union confronted in trying to explain its cause to a puzzled world. Was this only a civil war, a purely domestic conflict in a quarrelsome democracy? Was the Union’s goal nothing more than to put down rebellion and protect its sovereignty? Or was there something of real consequence to the world at large? The Union would have to find answers before other powers of the world decided to include the South among the family of nations.