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Expedition of the Thousand – The Mille expedition by Garibaldi

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In the summer and autumn of 1859, when Cavour’s policy was at an impasse, Mazzini began to call for revolutionary action in the papal possessions, in order to liberate Rome. Among the Mazzinist democrats, an idea was born to send an armed detachment to Sicily to overthrow the Bourbons, who, after the bloody suppression of the 1849 revolution, found themselves in political isolation. The long-accumulated hatred of the majority of Sicilians against the royal authorities resulted in the April of 1860 in the Palermo uprising, prepared by the Democrats. Having failed in the city, it spread to the rural areas, where the peasants’ unrest began.


When the news of the uprising reached Piedmont, the Sicilian revolutionaries who were here in exile turned to Garibaldi with the proposal to head an armed detachment to Sicily to help the rebels. Garibaldi gave his consent, warning that the slogan of the expedition would be the unification of Italy headed by Victor Emmanuel, that is, the slogan of the “National Society”.

In Genoa, the Democrats launched feverish training. To arm the volunteers who were rushing into the battle and put them on ships, they had to overcome the strong opposition of the moderate and Cavour, who was caught by the Democrats initiative by surprise. He could not openly forbid this patriotic undertaking for fear of discrediting himself in the eyes of the participants in the national movement. However, Cavour tried to disrupt the expedition, creating for her various obstacles. The authorities refused to give out to the volunteers modern weapons, acquired for patriotic donations. Garibaldi’s detachment managed to get only a thousand old, almost useless guns. Despite all the obstacles, on the morning of May 6, more than a thousand people, led by Garibaldi, sailed on two ships from Genoa. The “Thousand” was composed of volunteers from all regions of Italy. Among the Garibaldians, about half were artisans and workers, many were in the detachment of intellectuals and small urban bourgeois.

First Conflict

On May 11, the detachment landed in Sicily. The legendary Garibaldi epic began. Garibaldi faced a difficult task: having 1,100 fighters, prepare to fight against the 25,000-strong royal army stationed on the island, led by experienced generals. Much depended on the outcome of the first battle. It occurred at Calatafimi 4 days after the landing. Garibaldi, dressed like their leader, in red shirts, with a fierce bayonet attack, threw back a three-thousand-strong detachment of Bourbon troops. Then Garibaldi made a skillful hidden maneuver through the mountains, suddenly approached Palermo and burst into it together with 3,000 armed peasants who joined him. In Palermo, an uprising began. After 3 days of fierce fighting, the Bourbon commander was forced to conclude a truce, and then left Palermo. After this, the uprising swept through many cities in Sicily.

The campaign of Garibaldi coincided with the broad popular movement that was unfolding on the island. The peasants rose to fight in the rear of the royal troops, facilitating the offensive of Garibaldi. In the liberated areas, the new authorities, in order to attract the peasants under the Garibaldi banners, abolished taxes on grinding grain and on imported foodstuffs and promised to all the communal or royal land that had joined the liberation struggle. However, these measures were not enough to provide Garibaldi with solid support of the peasant masses. In summer, the movement in the village, originally sharpened against the Bourbon authorities, began to grow into a social struggle with landowners. The peasants and farm laborers wanted to regain those communal lands that had previously been captured by the nobility and the bourgeoisie. The national guard, hastily created by the landowners, also resorted to punitive measures. As a result, the initial enthusiasm of the rural masses, caused by the arrival of Garibaldi, weakened, the peasants retreated from his army, replenished mainly at the expense of the townspeople and the influx of volunteers from the north. Relying on them, Garibaldi liberated Sicily and landed on the mainland in Calabria on 19 August.

The campaign of Garibaldi revealed a deep crisis, ripening in the kingdom of Naples. After the Garibaldians smashed the shields against them, the King’s soldiers began to surrender. The organized resistance ceased. Even before the landing of Garibaldi in the southern regions of the kingdom there were revolts of townspeople and peasants who shattered the Bourbon orders and contributed to the demoralization of government troops. Seeing the impotence of the monarchy and fearing the expansion of popular speeches, the bourgeoisie and the nobles used the onslaught of the lower strata and began to seize power in the localities in their own hands. The Bourbon regime collapsed, and this allowed Garibaldi with just a few associates, ahead of his army, to make a swift roll to Naples. On the way, the population gave him a warm welcome. The king considered it best to leave Naples in the fortress of Gae.


Now the revolutionary commander intended to go to Rome, and then liberate Venice. His army numbered  50,000 fighters, most of them volunteers from the northern and central regions of the country. Among them were many convinced Republicans. Leading Democrats gathered in Naples, including Mazzini. Garibaldi wanted to postpone the annexation of the South to Piedmont until the complete liberation of all Italian lands, and the Republicans hoped that this would enable them to strengthen their positions, convene the Constituent Assembly and give the emerging Italian state a more democratic character. However, the liberals tried to frustrate the implementation of these plans of the Democrats. They feared that further successes of the Garibaldi army would cause the strengthening of revolutionary and republican forces in the country and would jeopardize the existence of the Piedmont monarchy.In addition, Cavour believed that an attempt to eliminate the secular authority of the pope would lead to foreign interference , primarily of Napoleon III, in Italian affairs.

The opposition of the liberal monarchists and democrats resulted in an acute conflict between Cavour and Garibaldi. After the liberation of Sicily, Cavour admitted that “Garibaldi has rendered Italy the greatest services that only a man can render to his homeland”; when Garibaldi refused to immediately join Sicily to Piedmont, Cavour accused him of closing in with the “people of the revolution” and “sowing disorder and anarchy in his path.” To prevent the March of Garibaldi in Central Italy and the further strengthening of the Democrats, Cavour, to whom the downfall of the Bourbons gave courage and made him believe in the possibility of an early unification of Italy, decided to get ahead of the Democrats and partially carry out the tasks they put forward. He convinced Napoleon III of the need for quick action to prevent a revolution in the Papal States. With the consent of the French emperor, the Piedmontese troops three days after Garibaldi’s entry into Naples invaded the papal possessions and occupied most of them. In October, after Garibaldi defeated the Bourbon troops from Volturno, the Piedmontese army entered the Neapolitan territory, barring Garibaldi’s way to Rome.

By this time the situation in the Neapolitan village had become more complicated. Here, as in Sicily, the rural masses interpreted Garibaldi’s arrival and the overthrow of the Bourbon orders in their own way: they considered that the long-awaited hour of the decision in their favor for the question of land had come. Initially, these hopes strengthened the decree of Garibaldi on the transfer to the free use of the communal lands for the peasants of Calabria. In different regions of the South, peasants began to spontaneously share communal lands, and there were also instances of an attempt on the property of the masters. Ownership classes in the village strongly opposed the transition of communal lands to peasants. On the expansion of the peasant movement, they responded with repression. The resulting bitterness of the rural masses found a way out in the massacres of liberals and the national guard.

In such a situation, the propertied classes of the South began to demand the early merging of Naples with Piedmont, seeing now in the Savoy monarchy the only guarantor of their landed property, which was threatened by the flared up peasant movement. Relying on their support, the Cavourists gained the upper hand in the struggle against the Democrats. Garibaldi’s request to transfer to him for a year the supreme administration of South Italy was rejected by King Victor Emmanuel. The dictatorship of Garibaldi was abolished, the decrees issued by him were abolished, and his army was dissolved. Abandoning all awards, Garibaldi went to his small island Caprera.


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