- Historic Sites
Garibaldi And Lincoln
Would the great fighter come over for the Union? Italian freedom and lead troops Lincoln hoped so
October 1975 | Volume 26, Issue 6
The offer came at a moment in Garibaldi’s life when he lived in semi-exile—too little of a politician to scheme for personal advancement, too much of a national idol to be put behind bars on the Italian mainland. The hero of the movement for a unified Italy, he had led a spectacularly successful revolt against a reactionary regime in Sicily and in Naples—the so-called Two Sicilies—in 1860, but now he was in temporary retirement. On lonely Caprera, a wild, rocky island covered with juniper and myrtle and stunted olive trees, below La Maddalena off the northeastern corner of Sardinia, Garibaldi tended his vines and figs, built stone walls to fence in his goats, and looked out to the sea, dreaming. The conqueror of the kingdom of the Two Sicilies, in gray trousers and slouch hat, his red shirt and poncho flapping in the wind, refused all titles and honors for himself and sought only lenience for his followers. “How men are treated like oranges—squeezed dry and then cast aside!” he said. He had wanted to march on Rome, against the “myrmidons of Napoleon in,” supposedly there to protect the pope, and defeat the Bourbon troops. But Victor Emmanuel n, king of Sardinia and now of Sicily and Naples as well, decided that French help was needed to complete unification of Italy and called off Garibaldi’s advance. Going back to Caprera, Garibaldi leaned against the steamer rail and said to his legion of Red Shirts: “ Addio — a Roma! ”
On Caprera the brevetted farmer had time to nurse his battle wounds, plan his next moves for unification, and think of his own days on Staten Island while studying the news of the war in America. As a man with a strong sense of personal history he was not one to forget that he had been born on July 4, Independence Day in the country that had welcomed him from wandering exile. Pursued by the armies of France, Austria, and Spain after the fall of the newly proclaimed Roman republic in 1849, Garibaldi had escaped to Genoa and, successively, was denied a home in Tunis, Gibraltar, and Tangier. Finally he boarded an American vessel at Liverpool and sailed for New York. At quarantine in Tompkinsville on July 3o, 1850, the Italian flag was raised in greeting. In the New York Tribune Horace Greeley wrote: “Garibaldi [is] known the world over as the hero of Montevideo and the defender of the Roman Republic. He will be received by all who know him in a befitting manner as a man of character, and for his service in behalf of liberty.”
Declining the festivities, Garibaldi moved into the home of Antonio Meucci, a Tuscan-born scientist living in a pleasant two-story frame house in Clifton on Staten Island. Meucci tinkered with an early version of the telephone, which he later claimed to have perfected before Alexander Graham Bell, but his main activity was manufacturing candles in the house and back yard. Garibaldi hunted, fished, and made candles for a living here. He joined the social life of the neighborhood, took the first three degrees of Freemasonry in a local lodge, and declared his intention to become an American citizen.
While in New York, Garibaldi was spied upon by both the Sardinian and the Austrian governments. Messages crossed the ocean about his activities and supporters, inventing stories about his radical ideas. German and French socialists in New York, said one dispatch from the Sardinian minister in Washington to Turin, had to be dressed in red to be admitted to celebrations for Garibaldi. The Austrian minister passed on the word to the grand duke of Tuscany that Garibaldi was part of a plot to raise armed bands in the United States to invade Italy and support revolutionary movements. The Tuscan consulates in New York and London were told to keep an eye on Garibaldi and Giuseppe Mazzini, the exiled philosophical leader of Italian unification, and report their activities.
There was little enough to report about the beached hero in the red shirt. After a year he became restless for travel—he had started out as a sea captain from his native Nice and from Genoa—and a more active life. “I could speak a few words of English and went down to the docks where I had noticed trading ships along the wharves,” he wrote to a friend. “I went up to the first man I saw and asked to be engaged.” But he was turned down and went home to the Meucci house: “It is very fortunate for me that Meucci had the idea of manufacturing candles. We make very fine candles! I spend my time in threading wicks and kneading tallow!” When an old associate put into New York with a trading ship, Garibaldi was taken on “more as a travelling companion than as a business associate.” For the next three years he moved all over the world, once commanding a Peruvian vessel bound for Canton. He returned to New York for a brief final visit in 1853 and a year later steered a course for Europe again. Soon he was planning and fighting for Italian unification, and his exploits were widely reported in the American press.
It was against this background that the proposal was planted that Garibaldi might be persuaded to command President Lincoln’s army.