Garibaldi And Lincoln


I am a prisoner and severely wounded; in consequence it is impossible for me to dispose of myself. However, I believe that, if I am set at liberty and if my wounds heal, the favorable opportunity will have arrived in which I shall be able to satisfy my desire to serve the great American Republic, of which I am a citizen, and which today combats for universal liberty.

Just at this time Minister Marsh in Turin saw a chance to accomplish the same end by playing a double game. Through an intermediary, Baron Carlo Poerio, a Neapolitan patriot also in and out of prison and exile, he proposed that Garibaldi be freed and sent with his followers to fight for the Union. This would remove the embarrassment, he argued, of keeping the heroic Red Shirt a prisoner of the king and, incidentally, help the United States “without prejudice to the interests of Italy.” He underscored that he was not making an official offer and told the baron to please keep his letter out of the press.

Garibaldi got the message and again expressed a willingness to fight for America. Nevertheless he was tenacious about one condition: freeing the slaves. By now he was no longer asking for supreme command of the Union army. In another letter from Varignano, on October 5, 1862, Garibaldi wrote to Marsh:”… it would be necessary to proclaim … the principle which animates us—the enfranchisement of the slaves, the triumph of universal reason.”

Suddenly Seward found himself having to deal with two more informal offers to Garibaldi. Marsh had managed to keep his secret; Canisius had rather proudly leaked his to the press. But instead of getting a pat on the back from President Lincoln by the next steamer’s mail, Canisius got his walking papers because he had embarrassed the American government.

“I am directed by the President to inform you that your proceeding in writing that letter is disapproved,” Secretary Seward wrote to Canisius. He explained that he had exceeded his authority by performing a diplomatic act reserved for ministers receiving special instructions from the State Department. He reprimanded Canisius for praising General Garibaldi’s recent military maneuver as a great patriotic work when it had been prohibited by the king’s government. “The policy of the United States in regard to Italy is absolute abstinence from all intervention in its domestic affairs,” Seward wrote, and the same applied to other European nations. “Upon these grounds your commission as Consul at Vienna is withdrawn.”

The message was clearly intended to calm Victor Emmanuel in Turin. Its authority over the wounded Garibaldi having been recognized, the Italian government responded magnanimously. The secretary general of the Italian cabinet noted that Canisius had “acted only impulsively” and that “it would please us” to have the United States overlook the indiscretion and reinstate Canisius in his post. This pleased Secretary Seward, who replied that President Lincoln acknowledged the generous attitude of His Majesty’s government and “acceded to its request by restoring Mr. Canisius to his consulate.” So ended the abortive Canisius bid for Garibaldi.

In the correspondence between Seward and Canisius, however, there was one most revealing piece of information—that President Lincoln was fully aware of all the dealings to enlist Garibaldi in the Union cause. Seward’s dismissal letter to Canisius of October 10, 1862, declares flatly what Lincoln never put in writing himself about the original offer of a Union army command: “That invitation was given by the President’s direct authority.”

At the time of the second offer President Lincoln had issued his preliminary Emancipation Proclamation. Presumably that satisfied Garibaldi’s condition that freedom for the slaves had to be the banner under which he would fight. But the war had moved past the point where the presence of an inspirational hero from abroad looked like a realistic approach to victory. The final communication on the matter, from Secretary Seward to Minister Marsh, on December 26, 1862, was a brushoff:

The Secretary of War still retains under consideration the offer of General Garibaldi. It involves some considerations upon which the convenience of that Department must necessarily be consulted. It is a source of high satisfaction to know that the General has been so far relieved of his painful wound as to justify a hope of his rapid convalescence.

There were now considerations far removed from the guerrilla war and fixed battles on the two fronts in the South and West. “Of all the insurgent menaces which lowered upon us so thickly,” Secretary Seward wrote in his diary, “there is only one that now gives us anxiety, and that is the invasion by ironclad vessels, which are being built for the insurgents by their sympathizers in England.” There were enemies to watch abroad and a growing diplomatic sophistication at home.