Where the Famous Thousand Fought and Won
Francis II of Naples was standing out against Garibaldi's dream of a united Italy, but, as with all other obstacles to the realisation of his dreams, Garibaldi resolutely determined to remove this one, and with that end in view he took the field against Palermo, which Francis was holding in a state of siege.
The revolutionary committee at Genoa was in communication with the Sicilian Committee of Liberties, whose revolutionary ambitions were distinctly disliked by Francis. He instituted martial law in the city.
Yet the fire of insurrection burned none the less fiercely for being held in check, and at last the committee determined to be rid of the armed hand of the tyrant. But the plot failed at the last moment, and the tyrant hand still held sway.
On receiving information of the uprising, however, Francis took immediate and strong steps to have it put down, and in a short time thirteen thousand troops were massed in and around the city.
Meantime, in Genoa, Garibaldi was making active preparations to afford the patriots assistance, and on April l0th one of his messengers landed secretly at Messina. Escaping the vigilance of the Neapolitans, he visited the various villages at night, wrote his soul-stirring message on the walls, and departed.
"Viene Garibaldi! Viva Vittorio Emanuele!" ("Garibaldi is coming! Long live Victor Emmanuel!") flamed on the walls before the exultant gaze of the inhabitants on the morning following his visit, and at last the news filtered through to Palermo. Young and old felt the inspiration of the message, and if the grown-ups managed to hide their joy, the youngsters, safe in their helplessness, yelled after the sbirri (police), "Garibaldi is coming!"
Of course, Maniscalco, the chief of police, heard, heard too that on a set day all who were in sympathy with the revolution were to walk on the Via Maqueda promenade. The chief of police made arrangements against the demonstration, sending soldiers and sbirri to uphold the authority of Francis, killing the citizens as they gathered to make unarmed demonstration.
But the spirit of revolt was not dead, for that night men went round the city and blazoned their war-cry on every wall: "Viene Garibaldi!" and four days later the greater message came: "Garibaldi has landed at Marsala!"
Sure enough, on May 11th, Garibaldi and his Thousand volunteers landed in Sicily. Two steamers had brought them from the north, and from these, almost under the very nose of some Neapolitan vessels which lay off the island, the patriots disembarked with all munitions of war. If Garibaldi did not do as Cæsar did, burn his boats behind him, he left them at the mercy of the royalist ships; then, with the foe before him and retreat cut off behind, he began his march across the island.
At the telegraph office they found that the clerk had just wired the news of their coming: "My mistake—they are two of our own vessels"—the insurgents wired in amplification of the message!
At Salemi, on the 15th, Garibaldi proclaimed himself Dictator of Sicily in the name of King Victor, met the royal troops at Calatafini next day, and after a vigorous pitched battle—in which the brunt of the fighting fell on the Thousand—drove them back towards Palermo. As the royal army made its retreat, the picciotti, the native insurgents, perched on the hills overhanging the road, calmly picked off men as they hurried away in confusion. In revenge the soldiers pillaged the villages through which they passed.
Garibaldi's Thousand was now reduced to some seven hundred and fifty, though the picciotti still numbered two or three thousand. At the head of these he held on his way to Palermo, and on the 18th was on the hills and looking down on the city. That night they bivouacked in the drenching rain, rested the next day, and on the 10th the outposts advanced to within a mile of Monreale, five miles from Palermo.
Garibaldi now brought his strategy to bear. The way to Palermo lay through a plain on which the royal troops were massed; to pass through, even in the dead of night, would be impossible; nay, not impossible to the Patriot, but, rather, difficult and costly. He therefore decided to lead his volunteers round the mountains in a wide detour, leaving the picciotti on the hilltops to deceive the enemy into believing that the insurgents were all in one place.
Garibaldi was on the west, where the royal troops were encamped in force; he intended to get round to the south. Cannon were dismounted, taken up piece-meal by the men and carried on their backs, and, after a march of many hours through the darkness and a heavy rain, over rocks and bridle paths, the little band reached Parco, almost exhausted, but exultant at having so far outwitted the enemy, who seeing the camp fires gleaming on the hills in the west, little dreamt that the Terror was flying by night.
For hours on end, drenched to the skin, and toil-weary, the volunteers slaved at getting into position along the winding road leading up to Piana, six miles from Palermo. Then, when the evening of the 22nd fell, rest—well-earned and much-needed rest.
At daybreak Garibaldi and the Hungarian Turr, a fellow-spirit, looked down on Palermo; before them lay a panorama of armed forces: fifteen or twenty thousand men, with reinforcements arriving every hour. A sight to make the heart of many a brave man quail, even with a large force at his back. But Garibaldi, with only eight hundred men on whom he could rely he was compelled to regard the picciotti as broken reeds—quailed not; rather he determined to go on and win.
While the two leaders looked out over the plain, some four thousand royal troops moved out of Palermo towards Monreale, intent on ousting the insurgent force. While they kept to the plains they were fairly safe, but as soon as they reached the hills, their difficulties increased, for the picciotti, ensconced behind rocks and bushes, were in their element, and did great damage to the advancing soldiers. All day and far into the night the conflict waged, and still General Lanza, in command of the Neapolitans, could not dislodge the rebels.
At last, finding it impossible to drive them out by direct movements, he decided upon surrounding them and sweeping them out of the vicinity. He therefore moved the corps on to Piana and Parco, having by this time discovered Garibaldi's ruse.
Garibaldi immediately sent Turr off to Piana, where, with carabineers and picciotti, he was to hold the enemy in check, and so save what few pieces of artillery they had with them, the General himself following as quickly as he could. Arrived at Piana, Turfs men were assailed by the royalists, who outnumbered them by three to one. The picciotti, fine men as they were in the guerilla warfare in the mountains, were no use to oppose a force in the open, and as soon as they were attacked, fled in disorder, leaving Turr and two small companies to hold the place.
While the skirmish was proceeding, Garibaldi was hurrying up with his whole force, and about half-past two arrived in Piana, where, late in the evening, he held a Council of War, suggested another stratagem which met with the approval of his companions, and proceeded to carry it out.
It was decided to make a feigned retreat. Colonel Orsini, with the baggage, artillery and fifty men, set out along the road to Corleone, many miles inland from Palermo, accompanied for half a mile by Garibaldi and the rest of the army. The ruse succeeded; vedettes instantly rode into the camp and reported that the enemy was in full retreat. General Lanza immediately sent a large body of troops after them under Von Mechel. Orsini kept on the march, drawing the pursuers after him farther and farther away from Palermo, while Garibaldi and the remainder of his little force, under shelter of the night, turned off into a path that led into Marineo.
By seven o'clock in the morning the insurgents were at Marineo, where they remained all day, setting out again at night, and reaching Misilmeri, a few miles east of the city, at ten o'clock. Here they met a few thousand picciotti and some of the Sicilian Committee of Liberties, who were sent into the city with the joyful news that Garibaldi would attack on the 27th, in the early morning.
The little army kept its secret well—so well that although the royal guards were almost within bugle call they did not dream that the patriots were anywhere in the vicinity. In the evening of the 26th the last stage of the march on Palermo began.
Thirty men, three from each company of the gallant Thousand, led the way, commanded by Captain Misori and Colonel Tukery; behind them the first corps of picciotti, supported by the first battalion of the volunteers under Colonel Bixio. Then Garibaldi and his staff, followed by the second battalion of the Thousand, the second corps of picciotti bringing up the rear.
Picture them: seven hundred and fifty heroes, backed up by an uncertain army of picciotti of say three thousand; before them, Palermo and eighteen thousand trained soldiers. And they were going to win through.
Almost as silent as the grave—for upon the suddenness of their descent depended the success of the venture—the little army made its way "down the side of the ravine which led to the valley opening on the highway. It was eleven o'clock when they arrived at this point. Tukery halted his men to see if order was being kept in the rear. The picciotti had completely disappeared. A false alarm on the mountainside had sent them flying. Two hours were needed to reform the line, when it was found that their numbers were now reduced to one thousand three hundred men. With all these delays, at half-past one in the morning they were still three miles from the city."
Still the royalists were unaware of their advance, and it was half-past three ere the patriots had reached the outposts, who immediately fired, and so gave the signal; and then fell back. It gave the alarm in the city, but it also played havoc with the nerves of the picciotti, the majority of whom took to their heels and fled into the mountains.
Garibaldi's vanguard immediately rushed for the Ponte dell' Ammiraglio over the Oreto, held by four hundred soldiers. Picking their way from tree to tree along the roadside, those thirty-two men poured in a running fire at the defenders, then, with bayonets fixed, dashed pell-mell at the bridge. A fierce fight raged, the defenders making a bold stand, so bold that Bixio had to hurry up with his first battalion, followed hard by Turr and the second battalion. With a rush they hurled themselves at the bridge, carried it at the bayonet point, and sent the defenders flying to the right, though Tukery fell wounded to the death.
"Forward!" cried Garibaldi, "into the heart of the city!" and on went the insurgents.
At the same instant a strong body of royalists came out against them on the left. They were met by thirty volunteers, who held them in check while their comrades rushed by with bayonets fixed, carrying everything before them, and passing the Ponte delle Teste, and so crossing the Oreto.
They were now on the road to the city, which was separated from them by suburban houses and gardens, and down this road the Thousand—or what was left of them—raced. Garibaldi stayed for a while to rally the picciotti, who had fled into the gardens for shelter; at last they were got together again, and were persuaded to face citywards.
The Porta Termini was the point for which the patriots were making, and arrived there, they found that although the gate itself had been pulled down some time before, the royalists had erected a strong barricade, commanded by two guns in the Via Sant' Antonino, and that behind it were a crowd of troops.
Then Garibaldi arrived.
"Into the heart of the city!" he cried again.
The insurgents threw themselves at the barricade, heedless of the gun fire, heedless of the rifle fire sent in amongst them. With fierce stubbornness they tore the barricade to pieces, sent the defenders flying, and the Thousand rushed through.
The picciotti, however, were scared to death, and it needed the urging of a raw youth to make them brave the guns. The youngster seized a chair, rushed with it into the zone of fire, and showed the picciotti what pluck was, showed them what bad marksmen the Neapolitans were! Seating himself in the chair, and waving the tricolour flag, he called his comrades to come on.
The picciotti were shamed; at last they gained courage, and by ones and twos, threes and fours, they raced into the zone of fire, and tore through the breach in the barricade, following hard upon the heels of the Thousand.
Garibaldi went through the city into the old market, sent out about two hundred of his men to rally the citizens round him, and then began work.
The citizens hailed him with enthusiasm; they came in their scores, armed with knives, swords, iron bars, and anything that would serve as a weapon pending the arrival of rifles. The tocsins were sounded, and more people gathered round the Liberator, who had meanwhile sent out men to erect barricades. Mattresses, paving-stones wrenched up from the roadsides, all things handy, were heaped on the barricades, from behind which the patriots fired upon the royalists, who had not been slow in attacking them.
The story of the next three days is one of street fights, in which the patriots, despite the bombardment of the town by the ships in the harbour—many houses were set on fire—were always victorious, until at last the royalists were forced into the district round the royal palace. Round this barricades were erected, the stones and bricks from the wrecked houses being of much value for the purpose.
General Lanza had managed to get all his troops into this district, but before they had left their camping place outside the city they had been attacked by a large force of picciotti who had arrived on the scene from another direction. They were braver this time, and they did a great deal of damage, and reports ran through the city that far from having only a small body of men, Garibaldi had a large army with him. Which did not in the least help Lanza.
The bishop's palace was attacked, and the royalists compelled to evacuate it; the prisoners broke out of gaol, and joined forces with the insurgents; yet through all this turmoil Garibaldi, who had created a Provisional Government, kept law.
On the 29th the palace itself was attacked; but the royalists were in great numbers, and better armed, and drove the attackers off. For a while it seemed as though the Liberator's efforts were going to be in vain. A messenger hurried to Garibaldi with the news.
"I must go myself!" he cried, and with a handful of men—fifty only—he dashed off to the scene of conflict.
His appearance gave new courage to his men, who, rallying themselves for a last great stand, held out against the royalists, then charged down upon them with such reckless courage that the soldiers were compelled to fall back upon the palace.
Lanza was now feeling the pinch of hunger; the insurgents had invested him so closely that he could get no provisions. He opened negotiations with Garibaldi, and an armistice was arranged to last one day—which was a good thing for Garibaldi, who was in dire need of ammunition.
While this was in progress Von Mechel returned from the false chase of Garibaldi. He was furious at finding that he had been deceived, and arriving at the gate through which the Liberator had entered the city, he found it in possession of insurgents. He immediately fell to; the patriots held their post with tenacity. Presently an officer arrived to inquire the reason of the tumult, seeing that an armistice was in force. Von Mechel was angry, and for a long time refused to obey orders and desist from fighting. As a matter of fact, had he managed to break through the barricade, and had Lanza broken his word with Garibaldi, the rebellion might have been quelled. But to his honour be it said, Lanza held to his word, and after a great deal of persuasion Von Mechel called his men off; and for a time quietness reigned once more.
Garibaldi took advantage of the lull in the fighting to manufacture ammunition and to strengthen his position, while Lanza, when the day's armistice expired, conferred again with the Liberator, and the armistice was extended to four days, at the end of which time the royalists agreed to evacuate the town, on condition that the garrison in the forts might depart with all the honours of war. This was agreed to.
And Garibaldi had won Palermo, while he had less than five hundred muskets left!