October 1975 | Volume 26, Issue 6
Would the great fighter come over for the Union? Italian freedom and lead troops Lincoln hoped so
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.
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.
In the middle of the last century the New York papers and Boston magazines launched ideas and set styles that had enormous influence. A long article had appeared in The North American Review for January, 1861, titled “Giuseppe Garibaldi.” It was written by Henry T. Tuckerman, author of Italian travel books, who had met the hero. The unsigned article in the Boston publication called Garibaldi “one of Nature’s noblemen” and quoted him in grand language: “I never despaired of Italy; he who despairs is a coward.”
When the article reached faraway Caprera, Garibaldi asked one of his closest friends, Colonel Augusto Vecchi, to write a letter of thanks on his behalf for the glowing tribute. Vecchi did so and enclosed a personal letter suggesting that Garibaldi ought to be invited to lend his generalship in behalf of the Union. Having thus exported the idea to America, Vecchi introduced it locally. One evening, sitting around the dinner table with Garibaldi and a few other exiled veterans of the Thousand who had conquered Sicily the year before, he made an open proposal. All eyes turned to Garibaldi, in hope and fear. He responded by thanking Vecchi for making the suggestion and revealed that he had been thinking of such a role for himself—and more besides. “North Americans are a proud people and would receive with bad grace foreign aid that was uninvited,” Garibaldi said. “But our undertaking would be a noble one and greater than you suppose. The battle will be brief, the enemy has been weakened by his vices, and disarmed by his conscience. From America we shall go on to the Antilles.” He envisioned campaigns to free men in bondage all over the Americas.
Rumors began to be reported on both sides of the Atlantic that Garibaldi contemplated going to the United States, this time in glory. Suddenly an informal offer was made by a self-seeking American consul in Antwerp named James W. Quiggle. Mr. Quiggle was a Pennsylvania lawyer and politician. He had been appointed by President Buchanan and now, like other Democratic Party officials, was being recalled and slowly winding up his affairs. Yet he was trying to hang on by engineering letters in his favor and touring European capitals to gain support. While in Italy, Quiggle and his wife, Cordelia, were introduced to General Garibaldi, and this became their ticket to temporary fame.
On June 8, 1861, Quiggle made the first pass in a letter from Antwerp to Caprera. “General Garibaldi,” he wrote:
Quiggle had nothing to lose by offering to resign, since he was already on the way out. But the general took him seriously enough to make a tentative reply and also to get to the heart of the matter so far as he was concerned: slavery.
“My dear friend,” Garibaldi wrote on June 27, 1861, “the news given in the journals that I am going to the United States is not exact. I have had, and still have, a great desire to go, but many causes prevent me. If, however, in writing to your Government, [you find that] they believe my service to be of some use, I would go to America, if I did not find myself occupied in the defense of my country.” And in a somewhat awkward but pointed sentence Garibaldi asked: “Tell me, also, whether this agitation is the emancipation of the negroes or not?”
Garibaldi concluded his letter by saying that he would be happy to be Quiggle’s companion in a war in which he would take part “by duty as well as sympathy.”
The matter of freedom for slaves was one that had occupied Garibaldi’s mind and sword arm for many years. When a young man he had fought as a revolutionary leader in South America; he had lived with and married a woman of mixed Indian and Portuguese blood and as a widower worshipped her memory. Released Negro slaves had served under his command in Brazil and Uruguay. On the subject of slavery he was as fiery as John Brown, whose actions he had admired, and his long-held attitude transcended race: “Every man is like myself. I am like every other man.”
Quiggle’s reply to Garibaldi, written without consulting his superiors in Washington, was ambiguous. “You propound the question whether the present war in the United States is to emancipate the negroes from slavery?” Quiggle wrote from Antwerp on July 4, 1861:
Quiggle forwarded copies of his correspondence with Garibaldi to Secretary of State Seward. But he did not stop at this point, even though he and his wife were packing to leave Antwerp. In another letter to Garibaldi he muddied the negotiations by saying that the Italian general would be receiving a formal invitation to go to the United States “with the highest Army Commission which it is in the power of the President to confer.” The implication of the top command was underscored with the false statement that President Lincoln had thanked Quiggle for initiating the offer.
At this point Secretary Seward undoubtedly discussed the Quiggle correspondence with President Lincoln. They were aware that the departing Quiggle had overreached his authority as a consul, yet were tantalized by the possibility of obtaining the services of the famed Italian camicia rossa , the red-shirted general, especially after the scare at Bull Run. Now Quiggle had to be pushed out of the picture and the offer tendered and negotiated by more professional diplomats. Through channels—Quiggle’s next above, the minister to Belgium, Henry Shelton Sanford—the consul in Antwerp was summoned to Brussels. Sanford politely thanked Quiggle on behalf of Seward and, at the same time, warned him to keep his mouth closed thereafter. As Sanford reported back to Seward, he informed Quiggle that he should behave “with strict injunctions of reserve.” The actual offer was entrusted to two experienced diplomats—George Perkins Marsh, first American minister to the new kingdom of Italy, and Sanford himself. Both were highly intelligent. Marsh, one of the great scholars in American diplomatic history, was a linguist who could handle Icelandic as easily as Italian. Between posts he lectured on philology and etymology at Columbia University and the Lowell Institute, and his book, The Earth as Modified by Human Action , is still regarded as a fountainhead of the conservation movement. While a Whig congressman from Vermont he shared a common bond with Congressman Lincoln of Illinois: both had opposed the Mexican War. He had been around the Mediterranean for many years, serving in Turkey and Greece before being appointed by President Lincoln to the capital in Turin.
As for Sanford, he had started out as an attaché at St. Petersburg, moved up in Frankfurt, and served as chargé d’affaires in Paris until deciding to resign because a new American minister wanted him to dress more formally on the job. As the minister in Brussels he proved valuable in keeping an eye on Confederate agents and purchasing military supplies for the Union. Marsh and Sanford were men whom the Secretary of State could expect to carry out a delicate mission.
Now came the specific authorization from Washington. On July 27, 1861, Secretary of State Seward sent written instructions to Minister Sanford, enclosing a copy of the correspondence between Garibaldi and Quiggle. At the same time Seward forwarded his instructions to Minister Marsh in Turin so that they could coordinate their efforts to obtain Garibaldi’s services. The key passages in Seward’s instructions went:
President Lincoln’s name was not mentioned in the instructions, even though (later evidence proved) he had been consulted by Secretary Seward; only the President could confer the rank of major general. Nor would the wise Lincoln, weighing the nuances in the tangled field of foreign relations, communicate in writing with Garibaldi. The closest Lincoln came to personal involvement in the offer was indicated in a confidential communication from Secretary Seward to Sanford:
And Seward informed Sanford that one thousand pounds sterling was put aside for the payment of General Garibaldi’s “expenses” for himself and his suite, adding that Sanford could enlarge his line of credit with banking houses in England and on the Continent, if necessary, to get Garibaldi.
Before leaving for a strategy session with Minister Marsh in Turin, Minister Sanford unwisely clued in Consul Quiggle, who again saw himself at the center of events. He wrote to Garibaldi, giving him the impression that he would run the Union show. Diplomatic silence was not one of Quiggle’s strong instincts. The press already smelled that an offer was in the wind; its main sources of information were Garibaldi’s aides, whose knowledge stemmed from Quiggle’s flamboyance as a letter writer. Sanford, who later called Quiggle “a low besotted Pennsylvania politician with an eye to money-making and political capital,” managed to sideline Quiggle in the negotiations.
On August ao, 1861, Marsh conferred with Sanford in Turin, and they decided to proceed cautiously at first, talking to Garibaldi on a level below ministerial rank. If Garibaldi turned down an intermediary, the incident could be viewed merely as a sounding out instead of a rebuff to the prestige of the Lincoln administration. The cat’s-paw was Giuseppe Artomi, an Italian-American who was Marsh’s secretary of legation. He was briefed and given a letter from Sanford addressed to the general on Caprera. The letter was written not in the name of Lincoln or Seward—that would be going out on a limb too soon—but of the government of the United States. It took note of the Quiggle correspondence, threw out a few high-sounding phrases about preserving the “Unity and Liberty of the American people,” and avoided mention of slavery and emancipation. Sanford said that he would stand by in Genoa and await a response; he added that he was ready for a personal talk. Meantime Artomi was so beguiled by Garibaldi that he assured the general President Lincoln was ready to make him commander in chief.
Garibaldi responded with a squeeze play, its main aim being the conquest and unification of Italy. With an American letter in hand he could move from strength.
“I should be very happy to be able to serve a country for which I have so much affection and of which I am an adoptive citizen,” Garibaldi replied to Sanford, who had holed up at a “bathing place” in Genoa. He added that “if I do not reply affirmatively and immediately to the honorable proposition which your government through your agency has made to me, it is because I do not feel myself entirely free, because of my duties toward Italy.
“Nevertheless if His Majesty, Victor Emmanuel, believes he has no need of my services, then, provided that the conditions upon which the American government intends to accept me are those which your messenger has verbally indicated to me, you will have me immediately at your disposal.” And he wrote that he was delegating Colonel Caspare Trecchi, a devoted follower who had been with him in Sicily and also served as an aide-de-camp to the king, to get a reply quickly.
The answer came through on September 6, 1861, politely but clearly: Garibaldi was free to go to the United States. The king told Trecchi that his government was not about to embark on a military expedition, commanded by Garibaldi or anyone else, against the papal territories. The pressure had not worked. These facts were conveyed by Trecchi to Sanford; it now seemed that the Union command could become a face-saving device for Garibaldi. After consulting with Minister Marsh and bringing him up to date Minister Sanford decided to move swiftly and confront the general himself.
On September 7, 1861, Sanford went down to the Genoa waterfront and—using an assumed name to preserve the secrecy of his mission—chartered a small steamer named the Dante to carry him to La Maddalena and thence to Caprera. Taking the regular steamer across the churning Ligurian Sea to the Sardinian off-island would have meant a ten-day delay, and there was no time to lose. The Dante hauled anchor from Genoa and, on the evening of September 8, 1861, appeared on the horizon and hove into view of the general’s telescope above the harsh bluffs of Caprera. After walking across the rock-strewn pathways through fields of geraniums and over fenced goat pastures, the American minister sat down with the Italian general to discuss details of the offer from the embattled United States.
In a letter marked “confidential” Sanford reported to Secretary of State Seward what had happened; it is not unreasonable to assume that the letter was shown to or at least its contents summarized for President Lincoln when it arrived at the State Department early in October of 1861. After mentioning Garibaldi’s convalescence following several months of rheumatism, Sanford got to the heart of the matter—that is, the hero’s conditions for serving:
Sanford explained that he was only empowered to offer the two-star generalship as set forth by Secretary Seward, and he could not go beyond it. He reported that Garibaldi was “flattered by the evidence of appreciation and grateful for the friendly sentiments manifested by the President and yourself” but refused to take service except as commander in chief. Sanford then said that he had made the suggestion of a visit to the United States to see conditions for himself and the character of the struggle, offering to underwrite such a trip for the general and his aides. But to this Garibaldi responded by saying that he would not dare to make such a visit because, as “an adopted citizen” of the United States, once on American soil “he could not be able to resist the temptation to throw himself in the foremost ranks, even as a private soldier.”
At his legation in Turin, Marsh consoled Sanfbrd and said that he had carried out his assignment with prudence and skill, even though Garibaldi’s services had not been obtained. To Secretary Seward he wrote that Sanford could not offer terms beyond his authorization and anyway the American government would not be inclined to give Garibaldi total command of all armed forces. And he added an abolitionist point—which may also have been shown to President Lincoln—about Garibaldi’s stand:
The ubiquitous Quiggle, hearing of the failure of the Sanford mission, now tried to fix blame and protect his original idea. “I did not accompany Mr. Sanford on his mission to Caprera,” he wrote to Secretary Seward, implying that he should have. “I am sure that if secrecy had been maintained, as it should have been, Garibaldi would now be on his way to the United States.” Secrecy was difficult if not impossible when even Mrs. Quiggle was writing polite billets-doux to Garibaldi, and aides to all the concerned parties were lending advice and looking out for their own interests.
Garibaldi’s talkative comrades on Gaprera shared their knowledge of the offer with the press in Italy and France, and soon the London and New York newspapers reported the rumors with fair accuracy. The general’s followers felt that news of the American offer would push the Turin government into military action toward battles of unification—led by Garibaldi.
With the story largely out in the open, commentators reacted freely both in Europe and in America. In Italy scores of petitions were published in newspapers urging Garibaldi not to leave. If Garibaldi and his staff went to America, wondered L’Armonia of Turin, “what would become of Italy?” L’Unita Italiana of Milan addressed an open letter to Garibaldi:
In England, with its Confederate sympathizers, the American minister, Charles Francis Adams, was troubled by the strange and unprofessional manner of the negotiations. In his diary he noted that “the King [Victor Emmanuel] is too wary to be drawn into the trap” and “Garibaldi is mortified at the failure of his scheme.” The plan faltered, in Adams’ private opinion, because Garibaldi could not think of going to America “without having the power of a Dictator.” As for his superior in Washington, he wrote in his diary that Secretary Seward betrayed two flaws of personality in conducting the negotiations: “One, a want of systematic and dignified operation in the opinion of the world—the other, an admixture of that earthly taint which comes from early training in the school of New York politics.” The more proper Bostonian considered the impossible conditions erected by Garibaldi “a lucky escape” for the Lincoln administration.
In the British press there was sarcasm and disdain. Cartoons in Punch by John Tenniel (who calmed down later when illustrating Alice in Wonderland ) ridiculed the President as a juggler and pool player with his military forces. The Times of London declared:
President Lincoln and Secretary Seward—not to mention the stalled American generals along the Potomac—read these British comments because they were widely reprinted in the United States. Meanwhile the New York papers had their say: the World was enthusiastic at the thought that Garibaldi might come to help the Union cause; the Herald took the opposite stance, while the New York Times , assuming a posture occasionally taken since on other issues, played it down the middle: “… we trust the war will not continue long enough to render his coming necessary.”
But the war and the search for a fighting general went on; a year after Bull Run there still were no bulletins of victory issued by the United States. Princes and adventurers sought entry into the Union ranks. Secretary Seward, responding to Marsh in Italy, encouraged foreign “friends of freedom” to cross the Atlantic and join compatriots in Blue. A regiment of Americans of Italian descent, recruited in New York, called itself the “Garibaldi Guard” and included “all the organ grinders of the city,” according to a laudatory editorial in the New York Herald . They went marching off with haversacks stuffed with cheese, wine, and Bologna sausages, paraded on the double-quick in front of the White House, and crossed the Long Bridge to do battle in Virginia.
Now came a second pass at General Garibaldi, again from a faraway consulate and again without permission from President Lincoln and Secretary Seward.
This time it originated not with a politician trying to hang on to his post in Antwerp but with an old friend of Lincoln’s from Illinois. Theodore Canisius, the American consul in Vienna, was in fact more than a friend: he had been the Springfield lawyer’s secret partner in the ownership of a newspaper. Canisius had been the editor of a German-language newspaper in Alton which was operating at a loss. He moved it to Springfield, where it became the Illinois Staats-Anzeiger . A contract between Lincoln and Canisius called for the paper to print articles in German and English that followed the Republican party line; otherwise Lincoln could at his own option take possession of the press and type. Canisius carried out the bargain, helped to obtain German votes in Illinois, and received full ownership after Lincoln was elected President. He was rewarded with the job of consul in Vienna, Lincoln telling Seward that “the place is but $1,000, and not much sought.”
On September 1, 1862, Consul Canisius wrote to General Garibaldi:
When Garibaldi received this letter, he was carrying a bullet in his foot, the result of an abortive new attempt to march on Rome. He had been stopped by the king’s men after a skirmish, and arrested. From a fort at Varignano he replied to Canisius two weeks later with a half-encouraging letter:
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:
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.
Isolated on wind-wrenched Caprera, yet firm to his own vision of freedom, General Garibaldi kept up a drumfire of encouragement to the embattled United States even after the time had passed for his personal participation in the Civil War. When President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, Garibaldi called him the “pilot of liberty” and wrote a letter of appreciation to him: “Heir of the thought of Christ and of [John] Brown, you will pass down to posterity under the name of the Emancipator, more enviable than any crown and any human treasure.” No reply by the President has ever come to light.
The offer did not altogether lack significance; Garibaldi had made the point that emancipation was at the moral core of the Civil War at a time when Lincoln pondered the consequences for the Union. Both men saw freedom proclaimed. And while the Emancipator still lived the would-be Union army major general in the red shirt named one of his grandsons Lincoln.