Battle of Palermo, 27-30 May 1860

The battle of Palermo (27-30 May 1860) was the most important moment in Garibaldi and The Thousand's conquest of Bourbon Sicily, and saw them seize the island's capital despite being massively outnumbered by the garrison.

Garibaldi's Thousand had landed at Marsala on 11 May and advanced straight towards Palermo. Governor Castelcicala had dispatched a small force under General Landi west from Palermo, and on 15 May that force clashed with Garibaldi's smaller army at Calatafimi (15 May 1860). Despite having the larger army, the better equipment and a strong defensive force the Neapolitans were beaten. They suffered more losses during the retreat to Palermo, and when they reached the city on 17 May they looked beaten. This lowered the morale of the defenders, which was already suffering because of Garibaldi's reputation and a fear that the Sicilians would rise against them.

Landi returned to Palermo on the day after the arrival of a new governor, Ferdinando Lanza. Lanza had a confused mission, and at the same time as he prepared to defend Palermo he also wanted to retreat east to Messina. This was despite his having 21,000 men under his command, supported by artillery and by the Neapolitan fleet. Garibaldi in contrast had just over 3,300 men.

Garibaldi decided to take a calculated gamble. He would move his men through the mountains south of Palermo and attack from an unexpected direction. Once inside the city he expected the people to join the revolt, restoring the balance of numbers. His success after that would depend on the resolve of the Neapolitan garrison.

Garibaldi's first move was to move along the road that leads to Monreale and then onto Palermo. He camped at the pass of Renda, and prepared to force the Neapolitans out of Monreale. For once the Neapolitan's took the initiative, and a lively attack early on 21 May dispersed the local rebels and forced Garibaldi to move further east, onto the read that led from Corleone (south of Palermo) to Palermo. He took up a new position on a mountain above Parco (Altofonto). His hope now was that the Neapolitans would attack from Palermo, allowing his troops on the coast to attack them in the flank, but this plan had to be abandoned when the lively troops at Monreale threatened to get above his position. Garibaldi moved east to Piana degli Albanesi (an Albanian community, Piana dei Greci in some sources).

Garibaldi's next move was to send his cannon, sick and wounded up along the road south to Corleone. This column moved on the afternoon of 24 May and was visible from the plains around Palermo. The Neapolitans assumed that Garibaldi was going to retreat south away from the city. That evening the Thousand moved south, but under cover of darkness they turned east and slipped way, reaching Marineo on 25 May and Misilmeri, south-east of Palermo just before midnight on the same day. In the meantime the Neapolitan troops from Monreale turned south and headed towards Corleone in a vain attempt to find Garibaldi.

On 26 May Garibaldi joined up with a large force of Sicilian rebels who had been raised in the area east of Palermo. His plan now was to attack Palermo from the south east, while a diversionary force approached from the west (this force arrived a day late). Lanza, in Palermo, now believed that he was safe and that Garibaldi was retreating south, so the attack caught him unprepared. Bizarrely Garibaldi was discovered by three British naval officers on 26 May, who visited his headquarters after chancing upon his men, and two officers of the US Navy. International attention was clearly now focused on Palermo.

Messengers from within Palermo also arrived with news of the garrison. Most of the Neapolitan troops were to be found in the west and north of the city. The ancient heart of Palermo was undefended, and the south-eastern gates were only weakly held. Garibaldi decided to attack the Porta Termini

Garibaldi now had around 750 of his original Thousand, still armed with their poor muskets and bayonets. They were supported by up to 3,000 local rebels, armed with a mix of weapons. Against them Lanza had around at least 17,000 men (with 4,000 on their way south to Corleone). However Lanza appears to have been one of the few people in the city not to know exactly when Garibaldi would attack!

At the time of the battle Palermo was still a fairly compact city, built on a north-easterly coast. The city was split by two major roads built by the Spanish, meeting at the centre of the city. The east-west road (the Toledo) linked the harbour in the east with the Royal Palace in the west. The old harbour was just to the north of this road, and the Castellammare was to the north of the harbour.

The Battle

In the darkness early on 27 May Garibaldi and his men made their way down a steep path from the hills east of Palermo onto the plains around the city.

The first part of the attack began badly. Garibaldi had to force his way across the Ponte dell' Ammiraglio, a major bridge over the Oreto River. His army was badly organised, with a small advance guard from the Thousand, followed by the Sicilian force, with the main part of the Thousand at the back. The defenders of the bridge opened fire as this column approached them and the Sicilians dispersed into the fields beside the road. This left the advance guard isolated and under heavy fire, but Garibaldi was able to get the rest of his men into the battle quickly enough to rescue the situation. A second bridge was passed more easily.

Garibaldi was now about a mile from the Porta Termini, but he was able to cross this gap without any problems. The gate itself was defended by a barricade but very few soldiers, and the Thousand came under fire from the Ponta S. Antonino while they attempted to get past the barricade. Once they were through Garibaldi left them to the Fiera Vecchia, an ancient market place, while some of his men attempted to convince the Sicilian rebels to enter the city.

From the market the Thousand were sent out into the city to try and raise a revolt. After a cautious start large parts of the population came out to join Garibaldi, but they lacked any real weapons and Garibaldi had none to offer them.

Lanza's response was to bombard the city, using guns at the Palace and on the Fleet. A more effective plan would have been to send his strong infantry force against Garibaldi, who was still very badly outnumbered. After a couple of hours even this bombardment stopped, and the rebels were given the time they needed to seize key points and build barricades. By midday the Neapolitans only controlled the area around the Palace, the Castellamare and the nearby Mint. They also controlled large barracks that were built on the northern side of some quays outside the original city, as well as the Quattro Venti suburb a little further to the west.

On the afternoon of 27 May Lanza decided to concentrate most of his troops at the palace, and ordered the troops at the Quattro Venti to move to the Palace, while the troops heading south were also recalled. The Neapolitans finally began to fight in the streets, and attempted to push east along the Toledo.

On 28 May Lanza realised he had isolated himself at the Palace. He could still communicate via semaphore with the Castellamare, and he used those messages to ask Admiral Mundy, commander of the British fleet off Palermo, for his permission to use the cover of the British flag to hold a conference of his senior officers on HMS Hannibal. Mundy refused to allow this, but did send an emissary to Garibaldi, who gave permission for Lanza to send his men to the harbour. Lanza refused to take advantage of this opportunity simply because the safe conduct would have come from Garibaldi.

On 29 May Garibaldi's men made some real progress. The Cathedral was captured, and the Neapolitans were forced to abandon the Archbishop's Palace. Garibaldi's men now controlled several buildings facing onto the square outside the Royal Palace, but this was only a temporary success. The Neapolitans launched a determined counterattack, and the front line stabilised at the eastern end of the cathedral.

Both sides were starting to run out of supplies - Lanza's decision to concentrate most of his men at the Palace meant they were running out of food, while Garibaldi's men were beginning to run out of ammunition. He had even attempted to plead for supplies from a Piedmontese naval vessel moored in the harbour, but without success. In later years several of Garibaldi's senior officers admitted that they were on the verge of defeat, but they were saved once again by Lanza, and by the Royal Navy.

Admiral Mundy had offered his flagship as a venue for possible peace negotiations. Lanza seems to have read this as a threat to intervene to protect British citizens in Palermo, and his morale was in any case already rather shaken. On the morning of 39 May he sent a letter to Garibaldi offering to arrange for negotiations and for a ceasefire. Hardly surprisingly Garibaldi agreed to this offer, and a armistice was arranged, to begin at noon.

The peace negotiations were nearly sabotaged by Von Mechel, the commander of the detachment that had been recalled from the road south. He had some of the best troops in the Neapolitan army, and had already scored some successes. Just after noon on 30 May he attempted to fight his way into the city through the Porta Termini, the same gate only recently used by Garibaldi. Von Mechel's men were only convinced to stop fighting by the combined efforts of a British Naval officer and two Neapolitan officers on their way to Garibaldi.

The negotiations took place on HMS Hannibal, and involved Generals Letizia and Chretien for the Neapolitans and Garibaldi himself. They were observed by the commanders of the British, French, American and Piedmontese ships. After some stormy scenes a 24 hour armistice was agreed. During the armistice Garibaldi managed to buy some gunpowder from a Greek trader, and stronger barricades were built around the Neapolitan positions. At the same time the Neapolitans began to plan for an all out attack on the rebel positions, to be carried out at noon on the following day, but the plans were cancelled on the morning of 31 May.

The armistice was extended by three days, and messengers were sent to the Court at Naples. The court didn't provide any encouragement, and on 6 June Lanza signed a surrender document. On the following day the garrison marched out of the city, leaving a small force at the Castellamare. The evacuation took a little longer, but the last Neapolitan troops sailed away on 19 June.

On the previous day Garibaldi had receiving reinforcements. A second expedition of 2,500 volunteers had been dispatched from Piedmont, this time with the tacit protection of a Piedmontese warship - Cavour was increasingly willing to associate himself with the successful expedition. The Royal Navy caused a scare on the night of 18-19 June by carrying out gunnery practice off the coast, but western Sicily was now secure. More reinforcements arrived for Garibaldi, and the scene of conflict moved to eastern Sicily, where the target was Messina and passage 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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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (1 February 2013), Battle of Palermo, 27-30 May 1860, http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/battles_palermo_1860.html

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