The Army of the Two Sicilies was the land forces of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, whose armed forces also included a navy. It was in existence from 1734 to 1861. It was also known as the Royal Army of His Majesty the King of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies (Reale esercito di Sua Maestà il Re del Regno delle Due Sicilie), the Bourbon Army (Esercito Borbonico) or the Neapolitan Army (Esercito Napoletano). Later many ex soldiers of this army joined Italian Royal Army.


Garibaldi was diverted from the escapade in Nice by news of a revolt in Sicily and pressure from a number of patriotic colleagues who begged him to lead an expedition in its support. In early April a Mazzinian plot in Palermo, which was quickly suppressed, had touched off a wider rebellion in the interior: bands of hostile and impoverished peasants spread across the island, killing or ejecting policemen and tax collectors and eliminating all form of local government. Many educated Sicilians approved of the rebellion against the Bourbons but were nervous of the other aims of an essentially social uprising. A few of them wanted independence and a few others hoped for union with the rest of Italy; Francesco Crispi, a lawyer and a future Italian prime minister, opted for union partly because he considered his fellow islanders incapable of ruling themselves. Most Sicilians were autonomists, however, who would have been content with a revival of the 1812 constitution and the distant sovereignty of the Bourbons. Their dislike of Naples was more vivid than their desire to join Italy.

Garibaldi was delighted by the tidings from Sicily and enthusiastic about the idea of an expedition there. He was an idealistic man with a simplistic ideology. Italy must be free and united, and its enemies – principally the pope, the Bourbons and the Austrians – must be overthrown. Although originally a republican, he now realized that the national cause was only likely to succeed under the leadership of Victor Emanuel.

The Sicilian uprising seemed to be faltering in mid-April, when Bourbon forces regained control of the coastal regions. Garibaldi was disheartened by the news and vacillated over his impending expedition. He had criticized Mazzini for irresponsible adventures and he did not wish to emulate Carlo Pisacane, the socialist patriot whose followers had been annihilated after landing three years earlier on the Neapolitan coast. Another problem was munitions. Garibaldi’s lieutenants had gone off to collect the money, arms and volunteers that were always available for any enterprise commanded by himself, but Azeglio, now the Governor of Milan, blocked a consignment of modern British rifles. ‘We could declare war on Naples,’ wrote the former prime minister, ‘but not have a diplomatic representative there and send rifles to the Sicilians.’14

At the end of the month, after further dispiriting news from Sicily, Garibaldi called the expedition off, but two days later, apparently convinced by Crispi that the rebellion was still active, decided to go ahead after all. As soon as one of his lieutenants had seized two steamships in the harbour of Genoa, he dressed himself up in the outfit he had picked up in South America – red shirt, pale poncho and silk handkerchief – and set off with his ‘Thousand’ volunteers across the Tyrrhenian Sea, a voyage that propelled him and them into legend and into comparisons with the ‘three hundred’ soldiers of Leonidas, the Spartan king who had held the pass of Thermopylae against the Persian army in 480 BC. It was indeed an heroic enterprise but it was also, incontrovertibly, illegal. Apart from stealing the two ships, Garibaldi was making an unprovoked attack on a recognized state with which his country, Piedmont-Sardinia, was not at war. History may have forgiven him for the deed, but it was an act of piracy all the same.

The Neapolitan king, Francesco II, did not at first take the expedition seriously. To him it seemed another adventure in the manner of Pisacane and the Bandiera brothers, a raid by a rabble of revolutionaries who would easily be defeated, despite the support of local rebels, by his troops on the island. Yet Garibaldi was a successful and charismatic guerrilla leader who enjoyed other advantages as well. King Ferdinand had died the previous year at Caserta after a reign of twenty-nine years, and his son, nicknamed Franceschiello, was young, timid and inexperienced. The Kingdom of the Two Sicilies had few allies except Austria, which was no longer in a position to help, and it had broken off diplomatic relations with Britain and France following their governments’ denunciations of Ferdinand’s ‘despotism’. The current Napoleon was unsympathetic to the Bourbons because he wanted their throne for his cousin Murat, and the British disliked them because Gladstone had convinced his colleagues that they presided over a uniquely awful regime. The hostility of France and Britain was fatal to the Bourbons because those nations had the means to decide whether ships might or might not reach their destinations in the Mediterranean. Had they wished to do so, their navies could have prevented Garibaldi from landing in Sicily in May and from crossing to Calabria in August.

While the expedition enjoyed the support of the small number of southern patriots, it also had backing, equivocal and confusing though this often was, from inside the Piedmontese establishment. Even those who opposed it did so halfheartedly. Cavour tried to dissuade the Thousand from embarking but he did not threaten force to deter them. Later he dispatched the Piedmontese navy to intercept the stolen ships, to prevent reinforcements from reaching Sicily and to delay Garibaldi’s crossing of the Straits of Messina. But the navy’s failure to achieve any of these objectives was not entirely the fault of the commander, the inept Count of Persano. Without some degree of official connivance, it is difficult to see how steamships could have been seized in Piedmont’s principal port, how the expedition could have managed to reach its destinations, and how so many soldiers ‘on leave’ from the Piedmontese army could have enlisted with the volunteers.

Garibaldi was lucky with his landing at Marsala on Sicily’s west coast on 11 May. The Bourbon garrison had just marched off to Trapani, and Neapolitan ships protecting the town had just sailed off to the south; later, when one of these vessels returned, it delayed firing at the red-shirted volunteers who were in the process of disembarking for fear of hitting two British ships in the harbour. The garibaldini had expected a welcome from islanders pining for liberation and were thus surprised to find a complete absence of enthusiasm for their arrival; also disconcerting was the invisibility of the revolt they had come to support. A few days later, however, the Thousand defeated a badly led Neapolitan force at Calatafimi and attracted a small number of Sicilians to their ranks. After the battle Garibaldi marched eastwards, capturing Palermo in June and Milazzo in July, landing on the Calabrian mainland in August and reaching Naples in September, four months after he had set forth from the Ligurian coast. In Palermo, where he established a government with himself as interim dictator and Crispi a secretary of state, he demonstrated his radical zeal by abolishing the grist tax and promising land reform for the peasants. Yet he could not go as far as he wished in this direction since he could not afford to alienate those landowners whose support was crucial for the achievement of political union with the north.

Although Garibaldi displayed courage and military skill in his campaign, the heroics were not quite on the scale that legend suggests. He did not defeat the 25,000 Neapolitan troops on the island with the thousand men he had arrived with at Marsala; over the summer, reinforcements from the north brought his own forces to more than 21,000. Nor was outrageous valour always required to overcome an enemy that, while well equipped, was poorly commanded and widely scattered. The young king was encumbered both with octogenarian ministers and with septuagenarian generals, one of whom had fought at Waterloo. These officers were not only old but also cowardly, incompetent and in some cases treacherous. At Calatafimi the Bourbon forces were positioned on a hilltop, inflicting casualties on the garibaldini attacking up the slope, when they were inexplicably ordered to retreat. One general foolishly suggested a truce which allowed Garibaldi to re-arm and take control of Palermo, another withdrew his troops unnecessarily from Catania to Messina, and officers from both the army and the navy deserted and took bribes. Some of these individuals were subsequently sent to the island of Ischia in the Bay of Naples, where the guilty ones were lightly demoted.

In Calabria Garibaldi found the opposition even feebler than in Sicily. Although the Neapolitan generals had 16,000 soldiers in the toe of Italy, they put up little resistance and sometimes submitted without firing a shot; one battalion surrendered to six wandering garibaldini who had got lost. Reggio was handed over with hardly a fight, and so was Cosenza. In Naples the minister for war announced in the mornings that he was departing for Calabria to defeat Garibaldi but then changed his mind in the afternoons because he considered his presence in the capital was essential to prevent disorder. Well did he and the other generals deserve a dismissive line in Richard Strauss’s opera, Der Rosenkavalier: when the Marschallin thinks she is about to be surprised with her lover, she decides to confront her husband, the field marshal: ‘Ich bin kein napolitanischer General: wo ich steh’ steh’ ich.’ (‘I am not a Neapolitan general: where I stand I stand.’)

On 7 September Garibaldi entered Naples by train, in advance of his army, where he was welcomed by Bourbon officials: the minister of police had already sycophantically told him that the city was waiting ‘with the greatest impatience … to greet the redeemer of Italy and to place in his hands the power and destiny of the state’. King Francesco had left the city the previous day, intending to carry on the war from Gaeta, the coastal fortress town near the border with the Papal States in the north. For all his limitations, he was a conscientious and honourable monarch who realized that a siege of Italy’s largest and most densely populated city would cause terrible carnage. But he did not shirk or run away like the dukes of central Italy had done a year before. He left garrisons in the castles of Naples and marched out, leaving nearly all his money and his personal possessions in his capital. He expected to return.

In the north of the kingdom the Bourbon army was transformed. Loyal regiments from Naples and other provinces of the mainland fought valiantly and were victorious in several skirmishes against the redshirts near Capua. Yet once again the generalship was defective, too slow, too cautious, too lacking in imagination. An urgent and vigorous counter-attack might have defeated the smaller enemy force; but when the advance eventually came, Garibaldi halted it on the River Volturno, a dogged defensive action in which he lost more men than his opponents. Even then the Neapolitans might have remained undefeated if the contest had been limited to themselves and the volunteers.

As soon as Cavour realized that Garibaldi would conquer Sicily, he was eager to annex the island to Piedmont. He had always detested home-grown revolutionaries more than he disliked Bourbons and Austrians, and the last thing he wanted was to see Sicily and possibly Naples in the hands of democrats and other radicals. Once the redshirts had reached Palermo, he therefore sent his representative, La Farina, who arrived in early June with posters proclaiming ‘We want annexation’. It was a strange appointment because La Farina was an insensitive individual and a well-known antagonist of both Garibaldi and Crispi. So much of his time in Sicily was spent intriguing and causing friction among members of the new government that after a month Garibaldi had him arrested and sent back north.

In Naples Cavour chose to employ a tactic similar to that which La Farina had failed with the previous year in the Po Valley: arranging a ‘spontaneous’ uprising in the city – and doing so before Garibaldi arrived. He duly sent Persano to the Bay of Naples with money in his pockets to bribe officials, and soldiers hidden on his ships ready to rush to the aid of the conspirators on land. In the city the Piedmontese ambassador duly gave the signal for revolt but, as so often with these Cavourian schemes, nothing happened. The Neapolitans were sensibly waiting to see which side was likely to win before committing themselves to the conflict.


Few Europeans mourned the fall of the Bourbons. Nor did later Neapolitans greatly regret the passing of a dynasty that had provided them with five kings over a century and a quarter – longer than the rule of either the Tudors or the Stuarts in England. Sentimental attachment was subdued perhaps by distant memories of earlier dynasties and by the presence of so many monuments of previous ages. The family had indeed produced no outstanding monarch but nor – despite what propaganda said – had it supplied a very bad one. In any case, was the general standard any lower than those of their cousins in Spain, the Savoia in Piedmont or the Hanoverians in Great Britain? The victors and their international supporters claimed that the Bourbon exit was an inevitable episode on the road to Italian unity, a necessary consequence of a war of liberation, the conflict having been simply a logical stage in the process of nation-building, a way of absorbing natural national territory – as Wessex had ingested Mercia or France had taken in Provence. Few people outside the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies saw it for what it ultimately was, a war of expansion conducted by one Italian state against another. The unusual feature of the contest was that it was a three-sided one, two sides playing the recognized parts of protagonist (the garibaldini) and antagonist (the Bourbons) while the third (the Piedmontese) took on a more subtle role, pretending to be a friend of the others but in reality being the enemy (and eventual conqueror) of both.

Moral and historical justifications for the conquest of Naples are perplexing. According to G. M. Trevelyan, the doyen of British eulogists of the Risorgimento, unification was necessary because of ‘the utter failure of the Neapolitans to maintain their own freedom when left to themselves in 1848’. Yet other people have failed in similar fashion without needing or deserving conquest. Another argument, still favoured by certain Neapolitan historians, is that the rapid collapse of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies in 1860 proved that it was rotten and required elimination. Again, other regimes have collapsed before a sudden onslaught only to be resuscitated later by their allies. A distinguished historian of Naples, an elderly man whose great-grandparents were all Neapolitans, insists that his country could not have become a modern nation by itself after 1860, that it needed the partnership of Piedmont to give it the apparatus of a modern state. His argument does not convince. Piedmont was undoubtedly a richer and more liberal state than the Two Sicilies in 1860, but for most of the eighteenth century Naples had possessed a more enlightened regime than Turin, and only a generation before union it had had more industry and more progressive codes of law. The belief that Naples, unlike other countries in western Europe, was incapable of evolving by itself is simply illogical, an example of that southern inferiority complex which was engendered by the triumphalism of the Risorgimento and reinforced by much subsequent talk, northern and condescending, about ‘the southern question’ and ‘the problem of the mezzogiorno’.



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