On the other side were the French—also with about 7,000 fully-equipped troops (a rearguard was left behind to protect Oudinot’s communications), confident that with the first cannonade and charge by the best army in the world, Rome’s defenses would melt like so much butter. Indeed, so confident were the invaders that they brought field artillery but no heavyweight siege-guns or scaling ladders. Their plan was to enter by the Porta Pertusa, unaware that that gate no longer existed (some recent scholarship suggests that the French attack had focused on the Porta Cavalleggieri all along). Garibaldi, meantime, had been zealous in setting up his defenses. He saw that, due to the height of the ground outside the walls, batteries set up there could easily bombard defenders below to shreds. So he set up his men outside the crucial San Pancrazio gate, on the high ground of the Villa Corsini and the Pamfili Villa and gardens behind it. Thus, when General Oudinot’s forces reached the non-existent Pertusa gate, they had to change plans and attack the Porta Cavalleggieri further south. This meant they had to move down a hill and over a thousand yards of open country—easily fired upon by National Guard troops on the wall and Roman batteries near St. Peter’s. By around noon, the initial French attack was stalled, though not yet driven away.
Now it was Garibaldi’s turn. Watching from his high position at the Corsini Villa, he never hesitated, but took the offensive to turn the initial rebuff of the French into a defeat in the open field. To do so, however, his soldiers had to charge down from the Pamfili Gardens and cross a walled lane connecting the Porta San Pancrazio with the main road to Civitavecchia. Unfortunately, coming up this lane were about 1,000 French infantry. Garibaldi’s students and artists suddenly found themselves fighting at close quarters with an army of veterans, and soon had to retreat. Some of Garibaldi’s Legion, under the artist Nino Costa, managed to set up a defense nearby and stalled the French advance. But the situation was perilous: both Corsini and Pamfili were being overrun, and their loss would be devastating. Garibaldi sent for reinforcements—about 800 volunteers under Colonel Galletti, still smarting from the previous year’s defeat in Lombardy. This time, however, the odds were better and, led by Garibaldi and Galletti, the Italian Legion charged the French to recapture the Corsini Villa and Pamfili Gardens. Here is how Trevelyan describes it:
Swarming over the Corsini hill, and across the little stream and valley that divide it from the Pamfili grounds, the Legionaries came crashing through the groves. The Garibaldian officers, ‘the tigers of Montevideo,’ with long beards, and hair that curled over their shoulders, were singled out to the enemy’s marksmen by red blouses, falling almost to the knees. This was the day that they had waited for so long in exile, this the place towards which they had sailed so far across the ocean. Behind them Italy came following on. And above the tide of shouting youths, drunk with their first hot draught of war, rose Garibaldi on his horse, majestic and calm as he always looked, but most of all in the fury of battle, the folds of his white American poncho floating off his shoulders for a flag of onset. (132)
The Italians managed to relieve Costa as he was about to be overrun, and soon pushed the French off the two hill positions, pursued them down into nearby vineyards, and “after fierce struggling, body to body, with guns, and hands, and bayonets, put the French to flight.” Nor was that all. The main body of the French was so slow in retreating that nearly 400 were taken prisoner. Coupled with the 500 French soldiers killed that day, this capture of prisoners made the rout—Oudinot and his ‘invincible’ army were fleeing rapidly towards Civitavecchia—both complete and sweet. And the people of Rome knew it:
That night the city was illuminated, the streets were filled with shouting and triumphant crowds, and there was scarcely a window in the poorest and narrowest alley of the mediaeval slums that did not show its candle. It was no vulgar conquest which they celebrated. After long centuries of disgrace, this people had recovered its self-respect, and from the highest to the lowest ranks men felt, “We are again Romans.” (Trevelyan, 134)
Sadly, Garibaldi’s superiors did not understand, or did not wish to understand the situation he had presented them with. The French were in full retreat, on unfamiliar ground. They must be pursued, he argued, and driven into the sea; the whole of Italy could be aroused. But Mazzini gave greater weight to two considerations. First, imposing a total defeat on the French might be satisfying, but it would probably further alienate Louis Napoleon, and Mazzini still hoped that the French would come to their senses and aid a fellow republic fighting for liberty. Second, Rome’s leaders worried about the other armies closing in on them—King Ferdinand’s Neapolitan army advancing from the south, and the Austrian forces driving down from the north. If Garibaldi were to march forty miles to Civitavecchia, and get caught there in a drawn-out battle, Rome would be left without her most capable defender. It was the first, but not the last quarrel that would divide the two titans of Italian unification. In the end, the soldier had to yield to the statesman. And to demonstrate their difference from the despots ruling elsewhere, the Roman leaders ordered that their French prisoners get medical care and a tour of the city before being released. In response, the French reluctantly released some of their prisoners, including the priest, Ugo Bassi, who had been captured administering the last rites to fallen Romans.
Now the Roman forces had to turn to the threat from the south. King Ferdinand, with an army of 10,000 men, was camped a mere 20 miles from Rome near two cities in the Alban Hills, Frascati and Albano. Still fearing an attack from the French, Rome’s military leadership under General Avezzana decided it could only spare some 2300 soldiers, mostly Garibaldi’s Legion, some students and assorted volunteers, and one experienced troop, Luciano Manara’s Lombard Bersaglieri. The latter had fought the previous year in the famous “five days” of Milan, endured the subsequent loss to the Austrians, and had then headed to Rome; stopped at Civitavecchia by the French, they were only able to gain passage by promising not to engage in the fight. Though they honored their pledge by staying out of the April 30 battle, they were now eager to show what they were made of.
Garibaldi quickly saw that it was foolhardy to make a frontal attack on such a large force, so he chose to employ his guerrilla tactics—to so harass Ferdinand’s army that it could not move on Rome. Marching at night, Garibaldi on May 4 and 5 feinted north from Tivoli, before he turned south to his real target, Palestrina, where he set up headquarters on May 7. By now aware of what they were faced with, the Neapolitans sent General Lanza and Colonel Novi to dislodge the “bandit” hampering their advance. But from his high observation point, the guerrilla leader saw the columns advancing on him, and rather than waiting to be attacked, sent Manara’s Bersaglieri and another troop to attack first. So shocked were the Neapolitans by Garibaldi’s offensive that the battle was over in three hours, with the enemy in full flight—Lanza’s right wing abandoning towns right and left and not stopping till they got near enough to Ferdinand’s headquarters on the Alban lake to feel safe; Novi’s left wing retreating first to Colonna and then to Frascati. Captured prisoners made it clear that Garibaldi’s reputation as a “devil” had preceded him; the prisoners begged for their lives, and in despair over the lack of protection given them on their papal crusade, “cried out in their dialect, ‘Managgia Pio Nono.’” (Trevelyan, 144)
Once again, however, Rome’s leaders stopped Garibaldi’s advance and recalled him to Rome, fearing a new move by General Oudinot. They were mistaken. Oudinot was awaiting reinforcements that would swell his army to 40,000 men. To disguise this intention, Louis Napoleon sent Ferdinand de Lesseps (of later Suez Canal fame) as an envoy, allegedly to try to arrange a peace between Roman leaders and Pius IX. On May 17, the Assembly and the Triumvirate agreed to halt hostilities to give de Lesseps time to fashion such an agreement. But what they really did was give the French time—first for Oudinot to get his reinforcements; and then for Louis Napoleon to await elections that would increase the power of French Catholics in Paris necessary to overwhelm objections from the Left. Both would prove fatal to the Roman Republic’s survival.
For the moment, though, a truce reigned and Garibaldi took advantage of it by ordering red shirts for all of his legionnaires (previously, only his officers had them). It was a master stroke in the long run for the red shirt became not only a symbol of the sacred cause of Italian unification, but also a moral symbol of camaraderie for those who took part in apparently hopeless battles. The triumvirate also took advantage of the truce to renew their attempt to try to drive King Bomba’s army out of Roman territory. Though they made Garibaldi a General of Division commanding part of the army, they still kept him subservient to the Roman, General Roselli, who became Commander-in-Chief. This, too, would have nearly disastrous consequences because Roselli, though decent, was a wholly conventional, timid commander. Thus the Roman army moving south now combined conventional and guerrilla forces that never quite jelled. As Trevelyan describes it:
The army moved with the uncomfortable and jerky motion of a man with an excitable dog on a leash; Garibaldi dashed about in front locating and engaging the enemy, and then was forced to wait till Roselli came sulkily lumbering up with the bulk of the troops. (153)
The upshot was that though he had a force five times the one Garibaldi had led earlier, Roselli chose to avoid a direct attack, and harass the enemy flanks once again.
The picture was of a lumbering army moving slowly across the plain, with Garibaldi racing ahead to see what the enemy were up to. It turned out that, intimidated by an army as large as his own, King Bomba was in full retreat. To Garibaldi, the only danger was that the enemy would escape. Taking the initiative, he decided to try to cut off the King’s retreat by attacking him with an advance guard, simultaneously calling for Roselli to rush up quickly to finish the job. It was a breach of discipline, but absolutely justified in his mind. With 2000 soldiers, many of them his trusted legionnaires, he could disrupt the enemy’s retreat and, once joined by the main force, strike a decisive blow for Rome, and possibly for all of Italy.
Garibaldi placed his advance force outside Velletri. The main engagement there demonstrated his courage and will under any conditions. A troop of Angelo Masina’s mounted lancers, pursuing enemy soldiers ahead of them, suddenly ran into a large column of enemy cavalry. With Masina absent at another post, his young cavaliers turned and raced back towards where Garibaldi was watching, with the enemy in hot pursuit. So angered was the General by this retreat that he, alongside the giant Aguiar, sat on horseback like a statue, blocking the road. Unable to halt or turn their own horses, the cavaliers smashed into the two immovable objects, and all went down in a jumble, Garibaldi at the bottom. Fortunately, a group of young Legionnaires were fighting nearby, and rescued their chief. Suddenly, Ferdinand's troops realized that they were in the middle of the “red devil’s” position, caught in opposing fire. They fled, leaving thirty prisoners, and with Masina's lancers in pursuit, were driven up into the town of Velletri. Before even the first of Roselli’s lumbering reinforcements began to appear, Garibaldi’s men were entrenched, laying siege to the town.
When the Commander-in-Chief arrived, however, far from rejoicing in Garibaldi’s courage and valor, he focused on his subordinate’s breach of discipline in beginning the battle without him. Sulking, he refused to attack that evening, or position troops, as Garibaldi suggested, to stop the enemy retreat. Ferdinand’s army was thus able to take advantage of the night, steal out of the southern gate of Velletri, and retreat down the road towards safety. When, early next morning, some of the Roman forces climbed into the town to reconnoiter, they found the streets empty, until the townspeople emerged, overjoyed at their deliverance.
Garibaldi now sensed that King Ferdinand’s rule would not survive an invasion and urged his superiors to authorize an all-out attack. It was a repeat of the French situation. Mazzini, worried about the Austrians, who had just seized Bologna and were advancing towards Rome, recalled Roselli and half the army, allowing Garibaldi, undermanned, to pursue Ferdinand as far as he could. Garibaldi’s troops were welcomed in town after town as deliverers until they crossed into Neapolitan territory at a town called Rocca d’Arce. The townspeople had all fled, the village empty. Instead of pillaging, however, Garibaldi ordered his forces to sit down in the square and rest. Emilio Dandolo was in that group (Count Dandolo was a member of the Lombard Bersaglieri and wrote a seminal account of his experiences later) and described it as follows:
“..when the terrified inhabitants observed from the surrounding heights this admirable spirit of order and self-restraint, they hurried down to welcome us, threw open their houses and shops, and in a few minutes the whole village had regained its accustomed activity. They then related to us how many superstitious fables the Neapolitans had spread among them; according to which we were so many ogres let loose by the devil, to devour children and burn down houses…” (Dandolo, quoted in Trevelyan, 158)
Instead of allowing their Achilles to pursue his advantage and possibly bring the whole of southern Italy into the uprising (Garibaldi always believed this would have happened), however, the Triumvirs once again recalled him to Rome to fend off the attack by the Austrians they feared was imminent. With no choice but to obey, Garibaldi re-entered Rome at the end of May, followed by his exhausted troops between May 30 and June 2. With Rome secure, all hoped they would get a long-deserved rest, but it was not to be. Neither was the strategy Garibaldi favored: guerrilla war in the mountains and valleys throughout the country. As Trevelyan puts it:
Mazzini’s dream was to be realized instead—the fiery martyrdom of the Republic in one supreme scene of defiance and death. (160)
For General Oudinot’s reinforcements had now arrived, and the treacherous siege of Rome by 30,000 French regulars was about to begin (treacherous, because on the very day de Lesseps had signed a treaty with the Triumvirs agreeing that the French would protect Rome from Austria and Naples, Oudinot was outside Rome beginning his siege.)