Tuesday, May 12, 2020

Commander of the Union Army: Giuseppe Garibaldi?

Giuseppe Garibaldi as a Union General? Could it have happened?
While sorting through a gigantic pile of my deceased father's old papers, I found a newspaper clipping with the title: How Lincoln tried to enlist Garibaldi.


I had never heard this tale before, so I immediately stopped to read the brief article. It began as follows:
An argument which has raged for more than a century over rumors that a hard-pressed Abraham Lincoln appealed to Giuseppe Garibaldi to save the Union in the American Civil War appears to have been settled after the discovery of documentary proof in Garibaldi's own handwriting.
The article then goes on to say that the proof was a small postcard which was found among the royal papers of the exiled House of Savoy which were donated to the state archives in Turin. The postcard was addressed from Garibaldi to Victor Emmanuel II, King of Piedmont-Sardinia, and later King of the united Italy. In it, Garibaldi sought permission to accept the offer to command the American armies. I did a little digging and found the translated text of the postcard here:
Sire, the President of the United States is offering me the command of that army. I find myself obliged to accept this mission for a country of which I am a citizen. Nevertheless before making my decision I thought it was my duty to inform Your Majesty, and to know if you think that I might have the honor of serving him. I have the honor to say that I am the most devoted servant of your Majesty. [Taken from: Garibaldi: Democracy and Civil Rights, p. 47]
And Victor Emmanuel responded as follows:
Do what you are inspired to do by your conscience, which is always your sole guide in affairs of such grave portent, and whatever decision you take, I am certain that you will not forget the dear Italian patria which is always utmost in your own and my thoughts. [Taken from: Garibaldi: Democracy and Civil Rights, p. 47]
Now, there are numerous things going on here of which I was not aware before I began venturing down this rabbit-hole. It seems that Garibaldi had indeed visited America from July 1850 through April 1851, spending most of his time in New York City and working in a candle factory. He even managed to get himself arrested for violating a local hunting ordinance while there. So he did have at least a brief history in the US.

Whether Garibaldi became a US citizen while visiting New York is a matter of dispute. He certainly did join a Masonic lodge while in the States, which is not surprising given his hostility to the Catholic Church. Also, it seems clear that many Americans looked fondly upon Garibaldi as the liberator of Italy and as an inveterate opponent of "Romanism", given that the nation was in the throes of a violent anti-Catholic movement in the 1850s.

What remains unclear is whether Garibaldi had any serious intention of leading Union armies in battle, or whether he was simply seeking to use the offer as leverage to convince Victor Emmanuel to call him out of retirement.

The story of how Garibaldi came to be considered as leader of the Union army is an involved one, the details of which may be found in this article—"Lincoln's Offer of a Command to Garibaldi" in The Century Illustrated Monthly Magazine, November 1907 issue. In brief, admirers of Garibaldi, when discussing the outbreak of war in America, suggested that his intervention as a military commander might help bring the war to a rapid conclusion. One man, J. W. Quiggle, suggested that Garibaldi might even surpass Lafayette in the annals of American history should he assume such a role.

These ideas, it seems, eventually made their way Washington. Writing immediately after the Union disaster at First Bull Run in July of 1861, Secretary of State William Seward sent a letter to Henry Sanford, American minister in Brussels that read, in part:
I wish to proceed at once and enter into communication with the distinguished soldier of freedom [Garibaldi]. Say to him that this government believes his services in the present contest for the unity and liberty of the American People, would be exceedingly useful, and that, therefore, they are earnestly desired and invited. Tell him that this government believes he will, if possible, accept this call, because it is too certain that the fall of the American Union, if indeed it were possible, would be a disastrous blow to the cause of Human Freedom equally here, in Europe, and throughout the world. 
Tell him that he will receive a Major-General’s commission in the army of the United States, with its appointments, with the hearty welcome of the American People. [Taken from Lincoln's Offer of a Command to Garibaldi]
Negotiations proceeded from this point, and by September 9, 1861, Sanford was dispatched to speak with Garibaldi in person about accepting the commission. Sanford found out that the "distinguished soldier of freedom" had higher expectations than his superiors in Washington had anticipated:
[Garibaldi] said that the only way in which he could render service, as he ardently desired to do, to the cause of the United States was as Commander-in-chief of its forces, that he would only go as such, and with the additional contingent power—to be governed by events—of declaring the abolition of slavery—that he would be of little use without the first, and without the second it would appear like a civil war in which the world at large could have little interest or sympathy. [Taken from Lincoln's Offer of a Command to Garibaldi]
Clearly, Garibaldi had no intention of coming to the United States to serve under men like McDowell, McClellan, Hooker, Burnside, or Pope. He wanted full authority—even executive authority—that may have been possible in rather disorganized places like mid-19th century Italy or South America, but was impossible in the United States, even with a widespread insurrection raging. Whether or not the crafty Garibaldi knew that his terms were a poison pill is a matter for further discussion.

By September 14, Sanford had written to Seward of his failure to enlist General Garibaldi to the Union cause. Thus ended any semi-official negotiations with Washington, though various American ministers in Europe continued to correspond with Garibaldi on the idea for at least another year.

In August 1863, less than a year after the promulgation of the Emancipation Proclamation, and a month after the Battle of Gettysburg, Garibaldi and other "Italian liberals" wrote a letter to Lincoln that appeared in the New York Times. In this letter, he said:
If in the midst of the danger of your titanic strife, our voices may also mingle, O Lincoln, let us the free Sons of Columbus send a message of augury and of admiration of the great work you have initiated. Heir of the thought of Christ and of [John] Brown, you will pass to posterity with the name of Emancipator—more enviable than any crown or any human treasure. [Taken from: Holzer: Dear Mr. Lincoln, p. 129-130]
It should be pointed out that Catholic historians have quite another view of Garibaldi that throws the entirety of this incident into quite a different light. These writers most often portray Garibaldi as a brigand leading brigands; a double-dealing traitor whose word could not be trusted; a radical who attained his goals by force-of-arms; a reckless anarchist and thoughtless destroyer of art, culture and civilization. In other words, they show him to be a proto-socialist radical of the type which would fill the next century with blood and fire.

Later in his life, Garibaldi would write in support of unifying Freemasons, rationalists, workers' societies, etc. into a socialist block. He called for the abolition of the Papacy. In his biography of Pope Pius IX, Alexius J. M. Mills described Garibaldi as follows:
[A] man who from earliest youth, sworn to the secret societies, has passed through every form of wickedness and every scene of desperation—the very evil genius of his unfortunate countrymen. Our readers will perceive at once that we are referring to Joseph Garibaldi—smuggler, pirate, bandit, and chief tool of modern assassins. [Taken from Mills, The Life of Pope Pius IX, p. 115]
Given all this, it is probably for the best that Lincoln's cabinet members listened to the better angels of their nature and left off attempting to provide such a man with an army corps, let alone with command of the entire Union Army. One can only imagine the chaos such a general might have caused, not to mention the jealously and resentment he would have engendered among the native officers.


Unknown said...

One of my ancestors fought along side Garabaldi, that they were prfessional soldiers and willing to fight anywhere there was a cause. They did fight in South America. My ancestor was a Palermo, my great gradnmother's brother.

Cato Renasci said...

There may haves been some professional soldiers (or soldiers of fortune....), but most were not. My great-grandfather - from an old noble Milanese family - was probably more typical: he ran away from home and was a drummer boy with the Thousand in 1860, and he fought again (and was decorated for valor) in Garibaldi’s regiment in the war against the Austrians in 1866.

Catholic Legal Beagle said...

Fascinating piece of history I had no idea about, thanks for posting.