Garibaldi’s Redshirts Land in Sicily Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The landing of Giuseppe Garibaldi’s famous “thousand” Redshirts in Sicily provoked an uprising that continued the process of Italian unification begun by Count Cavour and elevated Garibaldi’s own status in the movement.

Summary of Event

During May of 1860, Giuseppe Garibaldi departed for Sicily with an army of one thousand Italian patriot volunteers called Redshirts, leaving behind a chaotic Italy. The defensive alliance between the French emperor Napoleon III and Count Cavour, the prime minister of Sardinia-Piedmont Sardinia-Piedmont , had caused a war with Austria that lasted from April to July. Lombardy had been brought into the northern kingdom of Victor Emmanuel II, Victor Emmanuel II the king of Sardinia-Piedmont, but Napoleon was fearful of a strong kingdom in northern Italy and dared not go against French Roman Catholic opinion at home. Consequently, he brought the war to an abrupt halt, and Venetia Venetia;and Austria[Austria] Austria;and Italy[Italy] remained within the Austrian Empire. Garibaldi, Giuseppe [p]Garibaldi, Giuseppe;and Redshirts[Redshirts] Sicily;and Giuseppe Garibaldi[Garibaldi] Italian unification movement;and Giuseppe Garibaldi[Garibaldi] Cavour, Count [p]Cavour, Count;and Italian unification[Italian unification] Redshirts, Garibaldi’s [kw]Garibaldi’s Redshirts Land in Sicily (May-July, 1860) [kw]Redshirts Land in Sicily, Garibaldi’s (May-July, 1860) [kw]Land in Sicily, Garibaldi’s Redshirts (May-July, 1860) [kw]Sicily, Garibaldi’s Redshirts Land in (May-July, 1860) Garibaldi, Giuseppe [p]Garibaldi, Giuseppe;and Redshirts[Redshirts] Sicily;and Giuseppe Garibaldi[Garibaldi] Italian unification movement;and Giuseppe Garibaldi[Garibaldi] Cavour, Count [p]Cavour, Count;and Italian unification[Italian unification] Redshirts, Garibaldi’s [g]Italy;May-July, 1860: Garibaldi’s Redshirts Land in Sicily[3390] [g]Mediterranean;May-July, 1860: Garibaldi’s Redshirts Land in Sicily[3390] [c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;May-July, 1860: Garibaldi’s Redshirts Land in Sicily[3390] Crispi, Francesco Napoleon III [p]Napoleon III[Napoleon 03];and Italy[Italy] Victor Emmanuel II

Nevertheless, the war inspired revolutions in the duchies of central Italy and in the Papal States Papal States , where the National Society had been active in promoting unity under the leadership of Victor Emmanuel II. On May 22, 1860, Ferdinand II, Ferdinand II Kingdom of the Two Sicilies;Bourbon Dynasty Bourbon dynasties;Sicilian the Bourbon monarch of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, Kingdom of the Two Sicilies died and left his throne to his weak son Francis II Francis II (Sicily) , who refused to join the war against Austria. Three main forces opposed Bourbon rule in Sicily: republicans who followed Giuseppe Mazzini Mazzini, Giuseppe , the founder of the revolutionary Young Italy movement; followers of Lucien Murat; and members of the National Society. In the spring of 1860, Italy appeared to be heading toward political unity, although no one could foretell how events would unfold in view of widespread confusion.

Napoleon III Napoleon III [p]Napoleon III[Napoleon 03];and Italy[Italy] envisioned Italy as a loose confederation under the presidency of the pope. Cavour was willing to accept unification under Victor Emmanuel Victor Emmanuel II but was not sure how it could happen. Cavour had made a bargain with France in the Treaty of Turin of March 24, 1860, which secured for France the region of Savoy Savoy and Nice. This bargain spurred Giuseppe Garibaldi to organize an army of volunteers to defend those Italian provinces against the French. Garibaldi simultaneously initiated preparations to free Venetia Venetia from Austria and to expel the French forces from Rome. These activities concerned Cavour because they might move the Austrian Empire to take action against the small kingdom of Sardinia. Sardinia-Piedmont

To divert Garibaldi from northern Italy, Cavour secretly contrived to have him take his volunteer army to Sicily in support of an imminent revolt against Francis II Francis II (Sicily) . Garibaldi was persuaded to lead the invasion by Giuseppe La Farina, the Sicilian leader of the National Society, and Francesco Crispi Crispi, Francesco and Nicola Fabrigi Fabrigi, Nicola , Mazzinian republicans. On April 29, news of a violent insurrection in Sicily reached Garibaldi in Genoa, where he was organizing volunteers. On May 5, the steamships Piemonte and Lombardo sailed out of Quarto, a small harbor near Genoa, carrying 1,089 Redshirts. The so-called “Thousand” included only five regular army officers. The bulk of them were businessmen, tradesmen, workingmen, students, artists, and vagabonds—all with little or no battle experience.

Garibaldi’s plan called for a landing near Palermo. However, because the Sicilian capital was guarded by twenty thousand Neapolitan troops, he instead chose to land further west, so he could join with Sicilian insurrectionists. The exact point of landing was to be determined by the position of the Neapolitan fleet that had been warned of the invasion. After slipping by the enemy fleet, on the advice of the captain of the Piemonte he decided to land at Marsala. Because Bourbon ships were patrolling those waters, this was a daring move. Fortunately for Garibaldi, however, two British ships happened to be harbored at Marsala. While the Redshirt ships were landing, the Bourbon ships spotted them but mistook them for British ships. By the time the enemy realized their mistake, it was too late. The Redshirts had landed and a Bourbon bombardment of Marsala would have meant an attack upon the British, who were there for the purpose of protecting their investments.

Garibaldi expected to be enthusiastically welcomed as a liberator in Sicily but was disappointed with his reception. Nevertheless, Marsala surrendered to him because the Neapolitan troops had left to reinforce Palermo. The next day, May 12, brought some encouragement as the first band of Sicilian armed peasants joined Garibaldi’s Redshirts on the road to Palermo. Later that day at Salemi, Garibaldi proclaimed himself dictator and nominated his political aide Francesco Crispi Crispi, Francesco , who later became prime minister of Italy, as prodictator in the name of Victor Emmanuel. Victor Emmanuel II

May 15 brought the first major battle at Calatafimi. Although outnumbered two to one by the Bourbon troops under Sforza, Garibaldi brought his troops to victory. The Sicilians, who at first had been aloof, were now eager to embrace the cause of liberation. Garibaldi appeared as a folk hero, a noble warrior sent to Sicily to deliver the island from the chains of oppression.

Giuseppe Garibaldi.

(Library of Congress)

The Redshirts were almost within sight of the Sicilian capital when they received reports of a heavy blockade of the western road into Palermo. This development forced Garibaldi to swing northward to Gibilrossa, where he met three thousand Sicilians under General LaMasa, a military leader whose reputation was made by his talent for eluding the enemy and striking with guerrilla tactics. Garibaldi took the combined forces of Redshirts and Sicilians through the mountains and made a surprise attack on the eastern side of the city. After this successful thrust to the city’s center, where the populace joined in building barricades, Bourbon forces bombarded the city from land and sea. On May 30, after three days of fighting, the Bourbon general asked for an armistice. Within a few days, the Bourbon troops evacuated the city, and Palermo was in the hands of Garibaldi.

On June 6, the Sardinian fleet arrived with fresh supplies and reinforcements. In order to consolidate control, Garibaldi sent flying columns throughout the countryside. Success led to success and thousands of volunteers and deserters from the Neapolitan army joined his forces. Garibaldi’s personality and his promises of land and tax reforms transformed Sicilian peasants into enthusiastic followers. Widespread unrest among the peasants made Garibaldi’s job easier. Peasant bands had terrorized the countryside and immobilized local government. The property owners supported him because he represented the only chance of reestablishing law and order.

The last battle took place at Milazzo on July 20. Considering the rapid success of the Garibaldini, or Redshirts, it is not surprising that the story of “the Thousand” volunteers who conquered twenty thousand Neapolitan regulars became a legend in its own time.


The exploits of Garibaldi did not end in Sicily. His next move was to march to Naples, Naples then invade the Papal States Papal States , and, after driving the French from Rome, present the gift of a united Italian kingdom to Victor Emmanuel Victor Emmanuel II . Garibaldi, the warrior, and Cavour, the diplomat, had different designs. Actually, the two men never really trusted each other. A liberal, Cavour was afraid that Garibaldi’s popularity would be seized on by the republicans and turned against Victor Emmanuel. Cavour shuddered at the thought of Garibaldi’s proposed attack upon Rome, which would have meant war with France. As a native of Nice, Garibaldi never forgave Cavour for trading Nice and Savoy Savoy for France’s friendship.

Cavour’s role in the invasion is heavy with controversy. Although Victor Emmanuel supported Garibaldi, Cavour’s position appears vague. As soon as the invasion appeared successful, he attempted to exploit Garibaldi’s success. Cavour had dominated the first phase of Italian unification as he merged central Italy with the northern kingdom of Victor Emmanuel. The second phase belonged to Garibaldi as he bravely and charismatically led the Redshirts to victory in Sicily. The third phase began with a struggle as Garibaldi invaded the mainland and Cavour invaded the Papal States Papal States . Ostensibly both were in the service of Victor Emmanuel II, and the struggle ended with the Sardinian king being declared monarch of a united kingdom of Italy.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Beales, Derek, and Eugenio Biagini. The Risorgimento and the Unification of Italy. Rev. 2d ed. Harlow, England: Longman, 2002. Comprehensive study of the Italian national movement that led to the unification of Italy.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Davis, John A., ed. Italy in the Nineteenth Century: 1796-1900. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000. Collection of essays on nineteenth century Italian history, several of which offer fresh insights on Garibaldi’s contributions to Italian reunification.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">DiScala, Spencer M. Italy from Revolution to Republic: 1700 to the Present. 3d ed. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 2004. Part 3 of this history of Italy focuses on the Risorgimento, including Garibaldi and the Thousand. Other references to Garibaldi throughout the book are listed in the index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hilbert, Christopher. Garibaldi and His Enemies: The Clash of Arms and Personalities in the Making of Italy. Boston: Little, Brown, 1966. From his non-Italian perspective, Hilbert also sees Garibaldi’s contribution to Italian unification as essential and unique, although his profile of Garibaldi is somewhat less than flattering.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Mack Smith, Denis. Cavour and Garibaldi, 1860: A Study in Political Conflict. 1954. Reprint. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1985. Seminal work based on archival material, this study clarifies the complex events of 1860 and demonstrates the conflicts among Italian leaders of the period. This 1985 reprint edition includes Mack Smith’s reflections on the controversy generated by the book’s original edition.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Riall, Lucy. The Italian Risorgimento: State, Society, and National Unification. London: Routledge, 1994. History of the Risorgimento unification movement that places Cavour’s and Garibaldi’s roles in the broad perspective of Italian unification.

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