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Giuseppe Garibaldi, Italy's Revolutionary Hero

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Giuseppe Garibaldi

Giuseppe Garibaldi, circa 1860

Library of Congress

Early life of the Man Who Unified Italy:

Giuseppe Garibaldi was born in Nice on July 4, 1807. His father was a fisherman and also piloted trading vessels along the Mediterranean coast.

When Garibaldi was a child, Nice, which had been ruled by Napoleonic France, came under the control of the Italian kingdom of Piedmont Sardinia. It's likely that Garibaldi's great desire to unite Italy was rooted in his childhood experience of essentially seeing the nationality of his hometown being changed.

Resisting his mother's wish that he join the priesthood, Garibaldi went to sea at the age of 15.

From Sea Captain to Rebel and Fugitive:

Garibaldi was certified as a sea captain by the age of 25, and in the early 1830s he became involved in the "Young Italy" movement led by Giuseppe Mazzini. The party was devoted to the liberation and unification of Italy, large parts of which were then ruled by Austria or the Papacy.

A plot to overthrow the Piedmontese government failed, and Garibaldi, who was involved, was forced to flee. The government sentenced him to death in absentia. Unable to return to Italy, he sailed to South America.

Guerrilla Fighter and Rebel in South America:

For more than a dozen years Garibaldi lived in exile, making a living at first as a sailor and a trader. He was drawn to rebel movements in South America, and fought in Brazil and Uruguay.

Garibaldi led forces that were victorious over the Uruguayan dictator, and he was credited with ensuring the liberation of Uruguay.

Exhibiting a keen sense of the dramatic, Garibaldi adopted the red shirts worn by South American gauchos as a personal trademark. In later years his billowing red shirts would be a prominent part of his public image.

Return to Italy:

While Garibaldi was in South America he stayed in touch with his revolutionary colleague Mazzini, who was living in exile in London. Mazzini continually promoted Garibaldi, seeing him as a rallying point for Italian nationalists.

As revolutions broke out in Europe in 1848, Garibaldi returned from South America. He landed in Nice, along with his "Italian Legion," which consisted of about 60 loyal fighters.

As war and rebellions broke roiled Italy, Garibaldi commanded troops in Milan before having to flee to Switzerland.

Hailed as an Italian Military Hero:

Garibaldi intended to go to Sicily, to join a rebellion there, but was drawn into a conflict at Rome. In 1849 Garibaldi, taking the side of a newly formed revolutionary government, led Italian forces battling French troops who were loyal to the Pope. After addressing the Roman assembly following a brutal battle, while still carrying a bloody sword, Garibaldi was encouraged to flee the city.

Garibaldi's South American born wife, Anita, who had fought alongside him, died during the perilous retreat from Rome. Garibaldi himself escaped to Tuscany, and eventually to Nice.

Exiled to Staten Island:

The authorities in Nice forced him back into exile, and he crossed the Atlantic yet again. For a time he lived quietly in Staten Island, a borough of New York City, as a guest of Italian-American inventor Antonio Meucci.

In the early 1850s Garibaldi also returned to seafaring, at on point serving as captain of a ship that sailed to the Pacific and back.

Military Hero Returns to Italy:

In the mid-1850s Garibaldi visited Mazzini in London, and was eventually allowed to return to Italy. He was able to obtain funds to buy an estate on a small island off the coast of Sardinia, and devoted himself to farming.

Never far from his mind, of course, was political movement to unify Italy. This movement was popularly known as the risorgimento, literally "the resurrection" in Italian.

The "Thousand Red Shirts":

Political upheaval again led Garibaldi into battle. In May 1860 he landed in Sicily with his followers, who came to be known as the "Thousand Red Shirts." Garibaldi defeated the Neapolitan troops, essentially conquering the island, and then crossed the Straits of Messina to the Italian mainland.

After matching northward, Garibaldi reached Naples and made a triumphant entry into the undefended city on September 7, 1860. He declared himself dictator. Seeking a peaceful unification of Italy, Garibaldi turned over his southern conquests to the Piedmontese king, and returned to his island farm.

Garibaldi Unifies Italy:

The eventual unification of Italy took more than a decade. Garibaldi made several attempts to seize Rome in the mid-1860s, and was captured three times and sent back to his farm. In the Franco-Prussian War, Garibaldi, out of sympathy for the newly formed French Republic, briefly fought against the Prussians.

As a result of the Franco-Prussian War, the Italian government took control of Rome, and Italy was essentially united. Garibaldi was eventually voted a pension by the Italian government, and he was considered a national hero until his death on June 2, 1882.

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