Wednesday, February 9, 2011

The Roman Republic of 1849 (3: The Siege Begins, June 3)

Oudinot began his siege with deception. He wrote General Roselli on June 1 that though the armistice was over, he was deferring the attack on ‘the place’ (‘piazza’) until Monday, June 4. The gullible Roselli believed him, and, countering Garibaldi’s plans to fortify the outer defenses to high alert, toured the outposts of the Villa Pamfili assuring the troops that they could relax until Monday morning. With Garibaldi too ill on the night of June 2-3 (he had been wounded in the side on April 30 but swore his doctor to secret, private treatment) to urge vigilance, the defenders manning the Pamfili/Corsini outposts slept that night, the main point Oudinot targeted. At 3 AM, therefore, French troops penetrated the walls of the two villas with hardly a fight, and by the time Italian sentries fired their muskets, were pouring, wave after wave, into the Pamfili grounds. Half the 400 Italians there were captured quickly, while the other half tried to set a defense at Villa Corsini, closer to Rome’s walls. Reinforcements from the city helped them hold on, but French artillery and superior numbers soon drove the defenders down the hill to the Vascello, a villa shaped like the prow of a ship. By morning light on June 3rd, the critical Villa Corsini, without which Rome could barely be defended, was in enemy hands.

When he heard that Rome was under attack, Garibaldi rushed from his sick bed with his several officers—many in their twenties, most to lose their lives that day— to join his troops. Gathering his forces in the Piazza of St. Peter’s, he led them to the Porta Cavalleggieri, contemplating where, with Corsini now swarming with French, he could make a stand. All the bells of Rome were clanging the alarm, soldiers and their equipment flying everywhere, most headed for the Janiculum. Garibaldi with his Legion made it to the Porta San Pancrazio about five-thirty in the morning. Inside the walls, the Italian regiments were gathering to prepare for the attack; outside the walls, and opposite San Pancrazio stood the key to the entire battle—the Villa Corsini, four stories high, perched like a fortress commanding the entrance to the city—now in possession of the French. Garibaldi judged that it had to be retaken, no matter what the cost. The cost would be great that day, June 3, when so many martyrs of the siege of Rome would die. This was due in part to the way in which the Corsini had to be attacked—through a narrow gate and uphill 300 yards to a long staircase that allowed only a few soldiers at a time to run, and during which they were open targets for French sharpshooters. Even if the French had to yield the Corsini Villa, as they did several times that day, they could retire to the Pamfili grounds where a hollow provided cover for a new attack. With a force approaching 30,000 troops, they had ample reserves to do so. The Italian defenders under Colonel Galletti, meantime, had possession of the Vascello, at the bottom of the hill. They also had a battery at the Casa Merluzzo, left of the San Pancrazio gate, from which they could shell the Villa Corsini.

This became the crux of the battle on June 3, 1849. The Corsini windows, balconies and walls sprouted French soldiers firing at detachment after detachment of Garibaldi’s legionnaires dashing for the narrow, deadly entrance gate, filing through, and rushing up the narrow way to the villa. Then, the survivors of that deadly fire, if any,

would storm up the double staircase, gain the balcony, bayonet the French in the drawing-room, and stand for a few minutes masters of the villa. Often the charge failed half-way up, from sheer want of numbers. But several times the Corsini was carried, and held for awhile, against the concentrated fire of a whole army in the woods of the Pamfili beyond. On one of these occasions the Garibaldians piled up their dead comrades in the open loggias on the west side of the villa, and repulsed the French attacks from behind that barricade. (Trevelyan,175)

At 7:30 that morning, Garibaldi made his first announcement of several that day that the Corsini had been retaken. But it was soon lost again, and a new attack would begin. The losses on the Italian side were terrible: Garibaldi’s chief of staff, Daverio, was killed early. Angelo Masina was wounded and refused to go to the hospital until Garibaldi ordered him to; he was back in an hour with his arm bound in bandages. When the 900 Lombard Beraglieri finally arrived (they had been held, against Garibaldi’s plea for assistance, inside Rome by an order from the feckless General Roselli), Garibaldi sent one company to occupy the nearby Casa Giacometti, from which they could fire into the Corsini villa. Then he ordered most of the rest to capture the Corsini. Led by Luciano Manara and Enrico Dandolo, the Bersaglieri stormed the villa, only to be mowed down by the French firing from inside windows and behind protective walls. Rather than retreat, they took up positions and sought to trade fire in what was becoming a massacre. Enrico Dandolo was among the first to be killed. When Manara saw how hopeless his situation was, he ordered the retreat, but that turned out to be more fatal than the attack. As the Swiss volunteer Gustav Hoffstetter later recorded it:

And now as these defenceless men poured out of the garden, the deadly harvest began in earnest. At first I imagined that the numbers of men falling on their faces had merely stumbled in their haste over the roots of the vines. But their motionless bodies soon showed me the truth….(quoted in Trevelyan, 179)

Having lost some of his best soldiers, Garibaldi probably should have fallen back for an artillery bombardment (indeed, many commentators have criticized him for not having softened the French position before ordering the Bersaglieri to attack). In part he did. But then he indulged in what has been called a ‘piece of madness.’ Finding a reserve of Bersaglieri inside the walls, he asked for a small party to engage in a “difficult undertaking.” Though Emilio Dandolo, in charge, had just heard a rumor that his brother had been slain, he volunteered to lead the undertaking. He later wrote:

“Go,” said Garibaldi to me, “with twenty of your bravest men, and take Villa Corsini at the point of the bayonet.” Involuntarily I remained transfixed with astonishment — with twenty men to hurry forward to attack a position which two of our companies and the whole of Garibaldi's Legion, after unheard-of exertions, had failed to carry. . . .

But the 19-year-old Dandolo obeyed the order and charged towards the Corsini Villa. By the time his little band reached the entrance, only twelve men remained. His account continues:

.would twelve men do against a place occupied by several hundreds of the enemy ? I had nothing left but to stoop to that which more numerous forces had already done — give the signal to fire, and then retreat. When we had got half-way down the road, S and I were both struck in the thigh by the same ball. We returned to the Vascello, six in number, in a deplorable condition, and with the conviction that the really extraordinary courage which had just been so conspicuously and recklessly displayed would have no effect, beyond that of showing the French that Italians were still capable of fighting with temerity, whatever the fortune of war might be.

Dandolo, severely wounded and out of action, dragged himself from post to post that afternoon, seeking his older brother. No one had the courage to tell him the truth until he entered the Casa Giacometti and found Manara and Hoffstetter beside the dead body of his brother, Enrico. Hoffstetter stepped away, while the Colonel grasped Emilio’s hand:

“Do not seek your brother any more—it is now too late; I will be a brother to you.” The young man, sick with wounds and grief, fell fainting against Manara, who carried him out of the room in his arms. (Trevelyan, 181-82)

The afternoon then proceeded with a fierce cannonade by the Italians from the Casa Merluzzo and the walls. The effect was to make an absolute ruin of the Villa Corsini, its floors collapsing, the French trying to hold on. When fire from the French side slowed, Garibaldi ordered his last attack, with Masina’s lancers in the vanguard, followed by now-General Galletti and Masina himself with bandaged arm. The horsemen made it up the slope and followed Masina galloping up the steps of the Corsini. Behind them, Manara and Garibaldi led the infantry in clearing the last of the French from the Villa, and occupied it. Cheers erupted at the gate below, and a mad rush by citizens, artists, gunners, and stray infantrymen charged the villa in a race to glory. A defense was hastily prepared in expectation of the inevitable French counterattack, which was not long in coming. And though the mob defended the Villa with tenacity and courage, before long the overwhelming numbers of French broke through the defenses, and the retreat was called. The Villa Corsini could be taken by the Italians, but it could not be held. The most bitter casualty of that attack was Angelo Masina himself, abandoned in the confused retreat. His body, left lying a few yards from the steps he had charged on horseback, would remain there, his bleached, unburied bones to be recovered only after Rome fell.

Another renowned warrior would fall late that day: Goffredo Mameli, the 21-year-old poet of Genoa and author of the most famous hymn of the Risorgimento, Fratelli d’Italia (music by Michele Novaro). He was wounded in one last desperate charge against the Corsini ordered by Garibaldi, one which Mameli, who had served till then as adjutant, begged to join. He did, and was wounded in the knee, lay for a month trying to recover, and died from the gangrene that had set in. That last attack also failed, leaving the French in possession of the high ground outside the walls, and Garibaldi’s men in possession of the Casa Giacometti and the Vascello. Without the high ground, as everyone knew, Rome’s fate was sealed.

About 1,000 Italians lost their lives in that fierce opening battle, 30 officers and 200 soldiers from Garibaldi’s legion alone. Manara’s Lombard Bersaglieri, often called the flower of northern Italy, also estimated their losses at 200. And though many conceded that Garibaldi himself had made several mistakes (he should have prepared his attacks with more cannon fire), he emerged from the June 3rd battle more revered than ever. He had given Italians a lesson in heroism, had inspired them to a day of martyrdom that would bear fruit, if not in 1849, then in the next decade. As Alfonso Scirocco notes, that heroic defense astonished Europe, turning “June 3 into the first of several events that made it increasingly difficult to reverse the momentum toward national unification” (Garibaldi, 165). It was this that Mazzini understood, and in the month of fighting that followed, as more Italians lost their lives in what all knew was a noble but futile defense of the indefensible, the inspiration they gave to the rest of Italy would prove to be enduring, invaluable. As Trevelyan notes:

Some patriots, indeed, regretted that the defence of Rome was ever made since it was so spendthrift of Italy's treasure; yet the treasure was profitably spent. Because men remembered and told with pride and anguish the story of the uncalculating devotion of those young lives in this hopeless struggle, there grew up, as the years went by, an unconquer-
able purpose in the whole nation to have their capital: there rose that wild cry of the heart — Roma, o Morte!— (192)

Lawrence DiStasi

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