Garibaldi And Lincoln

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In the summer of 1861, when the newspaper generals in New York clamored for a clash of arms to put down the Confederate rebellion, the battle and the recriminations came sooner than expected. The people of Washington loaded up picnic baskets in buggies and carriages and drove across the bridges of the Potomac to watch the fun. Under the southern sunlight the sabers of the Union cavalry glistened, and the hope of a quick and punishing victory was in the smoking air. Suddenly, out of a dawn rain, came retreat from a little creek in Virginia called Bull Run: wagons swarming with mud-caked men in blue, hundreds killed, and thousands wounded and missing. Johnny Reb had proved more than a match for Billy Yank. Both sides had been bloodied, and there was no longer any prospect for compromise without casualties. The general commanding the fortunes of the United States was Winfield Scott, a veteran of the War of 1812, old and bloated and literally asleep at the telegraph that carried the bad news. The Army of the Potomac was, as Carl Sandburg would put it later, “a cub of an army.”

In Washington, Secretary of State William Seward pondered the consequences. “Tell no one,” he said. “The battle is lost.” It was important to put up a good front in the eyes of the world, especially Europe, wavering between the two sides. But the word was out, and in the worst possible forum, the influential London Times, whose dispatches were picked up and reprinted as gospel—even in the American press. Its correspondent, William Howard Russell, who was not an eyewitness but saw the battle’s aftermath, exaggerated the significance for all to read in England, on the Continent, and in the Confederate States, as well as in the United States. “As I crossed the Long Bridge into Washington there was scarce a sound to dispute the possession of its echoes with my horses’ hoofs,” wrote the correspondent who thereafter would be referred to by the derogatory name “Bull Run” Russell and denied a military pass. “Little did I conceive the greatness of the defeat, the magnitude of the disaster which it had entailed upon the United States or the interval that would elapse before another army set out from the banks of the Potomac onward to Richmond.”

President Lincoln, whose last rank held was that of a private in the Black Hawk Indian skirmishes of his youth, now found himself serving as Commander in Chief in more than Constitutional name. When he had been a congressman, he had jokingly deprecated his own military prowess in order to underscore his opposition to American involvement in the Mexican War. Now, with men returning from the front under reddened blankets, with war across the Potomac instead of the Rio Grande, there was no time for comedy and no time to lose. The only words of consolation Lincoln could muster for one of his retreating generals were “You are green, it is true, but they are green also.” There was a real war on, Washington itself could come within the artillery sights of the swift-moving, confident Confederates, and arms, privateers, and possible diplomatic recognition were threatened from across the Atlantic for the Cotton States. President Lincoln and his self-appointed prime minister, Secretary of State Seward, needed a bold and proven general to lead the Union army and save the United States.

A few days after the defeat at Bull Run one of the strangest and most adventurous diplomatic missions in American history was put into motion. It involved risks that could affect relations with the Vatican, the kingly chancelleries of Europe, and emerging revolutionary governments abroad. And yet if it could be pulled off, the course of the war might turn in the Union’s favor, the emancipation of the southern slaves be hastened, the bloodshed and the bitterness of a long war between the states be minimized.

The mysterious mission sought nothing less than to obtain the services in Mr. Lincoln’s army of the greatest guerrilla fighter and symbol of national unification of the time on both shores of the Atlantic, the liberator of the enslaved and oppressed, the revolutionary warrior in the red shirt who regarded himself already as an honorary citizen of the United States and who, indeed, had once lived on Staten Island and captained a ship out of New York Harbor carrying an American passport—General Giuseppe Garibaldi.

It was not simply speculation around the campfires—or a wild scheme proposed to the Commander in Chief who was considered so malleable on military matters—but a genuine offer of a command in the Union army, carrying with it the rank of major general. This equalled the two stars worn by General George McClellan, who, President Lincoln cracked, had “the slows” because he preened and drilled but did not lead the Army of the Potomac into combat. The offer was considered so delicate a matter that the dispatches between Washington and its concerned ministers in Europe were excluded from the twenty-volume Diplomatic Correspondence of the War published by Congress long afterward. The almost casual manner in which the offer originated, the clash of interests in Italy, the dismissal of an official for renewing the offer a second time, the diplomatic posture of the United States in the negotiations for the services of a foreign general, were nothing to boast about officially.