Battle of Calatafimi, 15 May 1860

The battle of Calatafimi (15 May 1860) was the first of Garibaldi's victory during his invasion of Sicily in 1860 and saw his 'Thousand' defeat a somewhat larger Neapolitan army that had been sent from Palermo to block the roads to the Sicilian capital.

The Bourbon response to Garibaldi's expedition was rather confused. A military force under General Letizia had been sent to Marsala to restore order after an uprising in early April. This expedition reached Marsala on 6 May, and on the same day a second force, under General Landi, was ordered to move overland from Palermo towards Marsala. On 9-10 May Letizia's force was shipped back from Marsala to Palermo, leaving the port undefended. There were two warships based there, but on the morning of 11 May they sailed south. A little later in the day two British warships arrived off Marsala, to protect the English wine making colony. Finally Garibaldi's two steamers appeared on the scene. The smaller vessel entered the harbour safely, but the larger Lombardo ran aground outside the mole. As Garibaldi's men rushed to disembark the two Neapolitan warships turned aback.

The steamer Stromboli¸ commanded by Captain Acton, arrived off Marsala while three-quarters of its passengers were still on the Lombardo, as was much of the expedition's ammunition and their cannon. Captain Acton had a chance to end Garibaldi's expedition in a single blow, but he was intimidated by the presence of the British warships. Instead of closing with the Lombardo and opening fire he wasted time arranging a meeting with the British captains. They didn’t raise any objections to his opening fire, but even when Acton did finally act his men's aim was poor. Garibaldi's men were able to march along the mole and into safety in Marsala and only suffered one minor injury.

From Marsala Garibaldi decided to march straight for Palermo. On the night of 12 May he reached Rampagallo, and on 13 May his force was at Salemi. The original Thousand were now joined by the first if the squadre, bands of armed peasants who had been in revolt since April. On the same day the Neapolitan force under General Landi reached Calatafimi.

Garibaldi spent 13-14 May at Salemi, organising his force. The Thousand had been joined by around 700-1,000 squadre. Garibaldi split his army into two battalions, one commanded by his second in command Nino Bixio and the other by Colonel Carini. On 15 May around 200 of the squadre took part in the battle, while the rest were spectators.

Landi had three infantry battalions (1/10th Line, 8th Cacciatori and 2nd Carabinieri), with around 2,500-3,000 men. He also had a force of cavalry and some artillery. He arrived at Calatafimi early on 13 May, and didn't dare advance any further, instead waiting to defend his position. When he learnt that Garibaldi was marching towards him on 15 May Landi spread his troops around, posting the 8th Cacciatori on a hill called Pianto dei Romani.

Garibaldi's men left Salemi on the morning of 15 May and late in the morning reached Monte Pietrolunga, on the opposite side of a steep valley from the 8th Cacciatori. Garibaldi planned to attack the Neapolitan position, but he was pre-empted by Major Sforza, commander of the 8th Cacciatori. Sforza decided to attack the ragged band he saw on the opposite hillside and ordered his men to advance down into the valley.

The battle thus began as a clash between the advancing 8th Cacciatori and Garibaldi's skirmish line. Garibaldi's leading companies then charged into the battle (without direct orders to do so). The Neapolitan skirmishes pulled back to join the rest of their battalion, and took up a strong defensive position on the terraced hillside. At first the Neapolitans were outnumbered, but as the battle developed Landi sent fourteen of his twenty companies into action, keeping six to guard against a surprise attack. The Neapolitans were better armed than Garibaldi's men, with modern rifles. The battle thus turned into a series of bayonet charges by the Thousand, with the Neapolitans retreating to the next terrace if a charge got too close to their position.

After several hours of fighting the Neapolitans were pushed back to the top of the hill and Garibaldi's men captured a cannon on the left of the Neapolitan line. As Garibaldi prepared for a last desperate attack on the enemy line it became clear that the Neapolitans were running short of ammunition. Encouraged by this Garibaldi led a final charge, and the Neapolitans were forced into a retreat.

The battle of Calatafimi was crucial for Garibaldi. It encouraged the Sicilians to join his cause, and demoralised the Neapolitans. The road to Palermo was open. After a march through the mountains Garibaldi attacked Palermo (27-30 May 1860) and despite being badly outnumbered successfully captured the city.

Both sides suffered similar losses at Calatafimi. Garibaldi lost 30 dead, 100 seriously wounded and around 50 more lightly wounded but able to stay with the army. The Neapolitan losses were probably similar in scale. They suffered more losses during their retreat, arriving at Palermo on 17 May in a terrible state.

The Second War of Italian Unification 1859-61, Frederick C. Schneid. Focuses on the three separate conflicts that made up the Second War of Italian Unification (the Franco-Austrian War, Garibaldi's invasion of the kingdom of Naples and the invasion of the Papal State), the conflict that saw the creation of the Kingdom of Italy. [read full review]
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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (1 February 2013), Battle of Calatafimi, 15 May 1860 , http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/battles_calatafimi.html

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