Battle of Milazzo, 20 July 1860

The battle of Milazzo (20 July 1860) was a victory won by Garibaldi over a strong detachment of Neapolitan troops based in a fortress town west of Messina, and that opened up the road to the straits of Messina, and cleared his way to cross to the Italian mainland (Second Italian War of Independence).

In the aftermath of their defeat at Palermo the Neapolitans withdrew from most of Sicily. By the second half of June they had 18,000 men at Messina, 2,000 at Syracuse, 1,000 at Milazzo and 500 in Augusta. General Clary, one of the few effective Neapolitan commanders on the island, was promoted to Marshall and given command of the garrison of Messina. Clary drew up a plan for a counteroffensive that would recapture Catania and then Palermo. This plan was approved, and then almost immediately cancelled by the confused government at Naples, but Clary still made one offensive move, shifting 3,000 of his best troops, under Colonel Bosco, west along the north coast towards Milazzo. He was ordered to post his men in the villages outside Milazzo to prevent the garrison from being besieged.

While the Neapolitan leaders were trying to decided what to do next, Garibaldi split his army into three columns and prepared to occupy most of Sicily. Bixio was given the southern column, which crossed the island and then advanced along the south coast towards Syracuse. Cosenz was sent along the inland roads towards Catania. Giacomo Medici was given the northern column and was ordered to move along the road towards Messina.

Bosco and Medici inevitably clashed. Medici was already at the village of Barcellona, west of Milazzo, when Bosco left Messina. The two armies first met on 15 July. Medici, with around 2,000 men, decided to offer battle and took up a position at Meri. Bosco, with the 3,000 men from Messina, marched towards them, but then decided not to fighter and instead turned north and marked towards Milazzo. Bosco's orders didn't allow him to instigate a battle, but only to defend himself it attacks, and it was clear that Medici's outnumbered men wouldn't have left their defensive positions.

A period of skirmished now followed. Bosco was based in Milazzo town, and was reinforced by the garrison. Medici occupied a number of outposts nearer the town, including the hamlets of Archi and Coriolo. Bosco had orders to occupy Archi, and he interpreted them as allowing him to attack in this case. On 17 July he sent four companies of infantry under Major Maringh, supported by cavalry and artillery, to take Archi. Maringh won a minor skirmish but then withdrew. He was arrested for his failure and later on the same day a second column, under Lieutenant-Colonel Marra, was sent to attack Coriolo. This time Medici's men had the better of the fighting, but Archi was lost. That night Bosco, believing he was outnumbered, withdrew back into the town. The end result of the day's action was that Bosco was isolated in Milazzo, which was now placed under the exact blockade that he had been sent out to prevent.  

Garibaldi and Clary responded very differently to the news from Milazzo. Clary refused to send any help, but did sent excuses. In contract Garibaldi ordered Cosenz to reinforce Medici, and then left Palermo on a steamship and dashed to the front. Bosco was more active than his commander, and decided to make a stand on the peninsula that linked Milazzo to the mainland. This narrow area was filled with scattered hamlets, cornfield and vineyards, many of which were surrounded by strong walls or thick cactus hedges. Bosco created a strong defensive position here, turning the walls into firing positions by cutting loopholes in them. The only weaknesses in the defensive lines were the beaches to its east and west and the straight roads that led into the town.

Bosco deployed 2,500 of his best men in this defensive line, supported by eight guns and a cavalry squadron. The garrison of 1,000 remained in the castle, where they had forty guns. Finally 400 men were posted on the head of the peninsula to the north of the town to guard against any landings there.

Garibaldi probably had slightly more men by the time all of his reinforcements had joined Medici's 2,000, but they started the day with two cannons, neither of which played much part in the fighting. There was no cavalry, and many of the newer troops had little or no military experience of training. They did have better weapons than earlier in the campaign, their old muskets having been replaced with Enfield rifles.

The battle began soon after dawn on 20 July. Garibaldi's men attacked all along the line. They captured S. Pietro in the centre of the line without any fighting, while on the right a force of Lombards pressed along the eastern beach. On the left a force of Tuscan volunteers under Malenchini ran into the Neapolitan guns and was driven off. Bosco ordered a pursuit, and his right wing advanced almost a mile.

Garibaldi sent Cosenz deal with this crisis, while he took part in the attack on the right. Cosenz was able to rally the Tuscans and partly restore the situation, but was unable to advance.

On the right Garibaldi's men slowly forced the Neapolitans to advance, but at heavy cost. Eventually, by the early afternoon, Bosco had been forced back to his last position outside Milazzo. This was at the point where the main road along the eastern beach crossed a bridge over a culvert leading to the sea, and was close to a Tunny pickling factory on the shore. Bosco had posted two of his eight guns here, but Garibaldi was able to call on some last reserves and managed to take the position. One gun was captured and one was withdrawn into the town.

At this point Garibaldi's habit of putting himself in the front line almost caused a disaster. Bosco ordered his cavalry to retake the lost gun. They charged along the road out of the town and scattered Garibaldi's men. The cavalry then found itself dangerously isolated amongst scattered enemies, and was forced to retire, loses several men on the way. As they retreated they found Garibaldi and one of his aides alone in the road, and a fierce melee followed. Garibaldi and his aide Missori managed to fight off this last attack, and the cavalry retreated into the town.

At this point the front line had rotated anti-clockwise. Bosco's men had advanced in the west but been forced to retreat in the east. Garibaldi's men were holding their positions on both flanks, but the troops on the right suffered heavy losses as they came under small arms fire from the town gate and cannon fire from the castle above the town. Garibaldi ordered most of his men to take shelter in the tunny factory, while others kept up a harassing fire against the garrison. This pause in the east lasted for about two hours.

While his men were sheltering on the right Garibaldi moved to the left. He now had a small navy, made up of the Tüköry, a ten-gun paddle steamer that had deserted from the Neapolitan navy. This ship arrived off the coast at Milazzo on the afternoon of the battle. Garibaldi was rowed out to his warship and ordered it to open fire on the victorious Neapolitan right wing. This naval bombardment, combined with news from their left, forced the Neapolitans to retreat, and Garibaldi's men were able to advance up to the town.

After eight hours of hard fighting Bosco had been forced out of all of his defensive positions and was now under siege in the town. He reported his losses in this fighting at 150 men, but his army was now badly demoralised. He decided not to try and hold the town and instead moved his entire army into the castle.

At about 4pm Garibaldi's men attempted to enter the town and found that it was undefended. They moved into the town, built barricades to guard against any sortie from the castle, and prepared for a blockage. Bosco still held a strong position, for Garibaldi lacked any siege guns, but there were few supplies in the castle, and the morale of his men began to crumble. Clary, at Messina, had more than enough men to come to Bosco's aid and the arrival of a significant force from his garrison of 15,000 fresh troops might have turned the tables on Garibaldi, but no such effort was made. Clary and Bosco were able to communicate by semaphore, and passed discouraging messages between themselves, all intercepted by Garibaldi's men.

The government in Naples also briefly considered sending a relief force, but the Navy refused to cooperate and instead they sent a transport fleet with orders to evacuate the garrison. This fleet arrived on 23 July, and a capitulation was quickly negotiated. The garrison marched out with their arms and half of their mules, while the cannons in the castle, their ammunition, all of their horses and their remaining mules were left behind. The garrison marched out of the castle on 25 July and was shipped away to Messina.

Garibaldi's men followed close behind. They entered Messina without facing any opposition, despite still being outnumbered by the garrison. On 28 July Clary signed an armistice in which he agreed to restrict his men to the castle and not to open fire on Garibaldi's men or ships. This removed the last major obstacle on Sicily to Garibaldi's crossing to the mainland. There was a risk that Britain and France would combine to prevent the crossing, but this was averted by Cavour's diplomacy, and on the night of 18-19 August Garibaldi slipped past the Neapolitan navy and crossed to the mainland.

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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Solferino 1859: The Battle for Italy's Freedom, Richard Brooks. The battle of Solferino was the main event in the Franco-Austrian War of 1859, a key moment in the unification of Italy, and the first battle to be decided at least partly by the extensive use of the railway and steamships and rifled artillery. It also led directly to the foundation of the Red Cross, but despite these claims to fame it has since been overshadowed by the American Civil War and Franco-Prussian War. Brooks' volume is an excellent single-volume account of the entire campaign, and will be of value to anyone with an interest in nineteenth century warfare [see more].
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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (14 February 2013), Battle of Milazzo, 20 July 1860 , http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/battles_milazzo.html

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