Battle of the Volturno, 1 October 1860

The battle of the Volturno (1 October 1860) was the last major clash during Garibaldi's invasion of the Kingdom of Naples, and saw him defeat a major Neapolitan counterattack that if successful would have forced him to abandon Naples and might have allowed Francis II to save his throne.

At the end of the first phase of the Second War of Italian Independence the Kingdom of Naples, or of the Two Sicilies, had remained an independent power, ruled by the new but somewhat reactionary Bourbon monarch Francis II. The veteran revolutionary Garibaldi came under a great deal of pressure to support an uprising in Sicily that might lead to the removal of the Bourbons and the unification of southern and northern Italy, and in 1860, with secret support from Piedmont, he landed on Sicily at the head of the Thousand. Palermo fell soon after the landing, and within two months Garibaldi was master of Sicily. His next target was to cross to the mainland and capture Naples. 

Garibaldi had crossed from Sicily to the mainland on the night of 18-19 August. Reggio fell on the night of 20-21 August after a brief fight, and the Neapolitan force facing the Straits of Messina surrendered on 23 August. Garibaldi then began the long march towards Naples. 10,000 Royalist troops under General Ghio surrendered on 30 August. Caldarelli and another 3,000 men surrendered on 5 September near Padula. On the same day Francis II decided not to try and defend Naples. The garrison of Salerno was ordered to retreat, and on 6 September Francis II and his queen left Naples for the last time, on their way to the fortress of Gaeta. The Royal army followed, heading towards Capua.

This left Naples without a clear government, although the King's liberal ministers remained in post. They wanted Garibaldi to enter the city as soon as possible, and despite being some way ahead of his nearest troops Garibaldi agreed to enter Naples on 7 September. After a military campaign that could have taken place at any time in the previous few centuries, Garibaldi entered the modern Victorian world at this stage. He rode from Salerno to Vietri, where he boarded a special train and travelled to Naples along one of the only two railways in the Kingdom of Naples. At 1.30pm Garibaldi arrived what was then the main station in Naples, where he was greeted by the chief minister, the National Guard, and ever increasing crowds.

The King had left troops in the four castles of Naples, but with orders not to open fire. Within three days all four castles had been handed over to Garibaldi, and their garrisons marched out to join the main Royal army. Very few, if any, of these troops deserted to Garibaldi's men, an indication that the Neapolitan Army was not yet defeated, and that it would fight on despite the loss of Naples. Garibaldi was also starting to reach areas where the local population largely supported the Bourbons and were opposed to the ideals of Liberalism or to a union with Piedmont.

The Royalists were given time to regroup as a result of political uncertainty in Naples. Garibaldi confidently expected that his expedition would end with an invasion of the Papal States, but many of his international supporters realised that this would almost certainly drag the French into the war. Garibaldi argued with Cavour during this period, unaware that Cavour had managed to convince Napoleon III to let him invade the eastern parts of the Papal States.

Francis II was now in quite a strong position. He still commanded around 40,000-50,000 men, and he was able to abandon his earlier concessions to his Liberal opponents. Any officers whose loyalty was in doubt were dismissed or had slipped away, the private soldiers were fiercely loyal, and the Neapolitan army would finally perform with some spirit. Francis II's presence on the battlefield also played a part in this, helping raise the morale and determination of his men. 

The Royal army held a position along the Volturno River, a deep river that could only be forded at a limited number of places. Francis II held the northern bank and the strongly fortified city of Capua, which straddled the river. Capua had been fortified by Vauban and modernised in 1855, so was well beyond Garibaldi's abilities to capture. The Papal States weren't far to the north, and there were even some attempts to bring the Papal army into Naples. These came to an end when Piedmont invaded the Papal States from the north.

By late September Garibaldi had around 20,000 men at his disposal. About 6,000 of them were southern volunteers, half from the mainland and half from Sicily. The other 14,000 were volunteers from northern Italy. He was well aware that he wasn't strong enough to attack Capua, and instead attempted to distract the Royalists by sending a small raiding party into the area behind their lines. On 16 September Garibaldi had to return to Sicily for a few days, leaving Türr, one of his Hungarian supports, in temporary command. Türr decided to try and take Cajazzo, a town on the north bank of the river, but a preliminary reconnaissance in force towards Capua on 19 September ended in a repulse. Cajazzo was indeed taken, but it fell again on 21 September.

These preliminary movements alerted Garibaldi to the possibility of an attack, and gave him the time he needed to build a number of gun batteries. All of the main batteries were posted on Garibaldi's left, facing towards Capua. One was at Santa Maria, a village about half way between Capua and Caserta. Another was in the village of Sant' Angelo, north of Santa Maria and near the river. A third was on the road between Sant' Angelo and Capua and a fourth on the heights of San Jorio, from where they could fire over the river.

These minor clashes greatly encouraged the Royalists, who now began to plan a more ambitious counterattack. The Royal advisors eventually decided to launch a pincer attack on Garibaldi's position. His headquarters were at Caserta, just over six miles to the east/ south-east of Capua and four and half miles south of the Volturno. General Ritucci was to attack from the area of Capua and advance via Santa Maria and Sant' Angelo. General Von Mechel, a Swiss officer who had performed badly on Sicily, was to attack on the left, advancing from Ducenta (or Dugenta) towards Maddaloni, and then towards Caserta. This plan contained the seeds of Garibaldi's eventually victory. Ritucci and Von Mechel didn't cooperate well, so the two attacks wouldn’t be coordinated. It also allowed Garibaldi to use the second railway in Naples, which at this point ran across the battlefield from Maddaloni to Caserta to Santa Maria.

Von Mechel had already been detached from the main army and ordered to deal with Garibaldi's diversionary raid. He then moved to the southern side of the Volturno. On 26 September he advanced from Amorosi, through Ducenta and as far as Cantinella. His infantry stopped there, while his cavalry continued on to the south and found Bixio, with Garibaldi's right wing, around Maddaloni. After this brief foray south Von Mechel pulled back to Amorosi.

On the morning of 1 October Garibaldi's right was commanded by Bixio, and was at Maddaloni. His left, at Santa Maria, was commanded by Milbitz. The centre-left, at Sant' Angelo and M. Tifata was commanded by Medici. Türr commanded the reserves at Caserta. There was something of a gap between Medici and Milbitz

The Royalist attack began before dawn on 1 October. Their movements were hidden by a thick fog, and one force took advantage of the fog and some sunken lanes to get into the gap between Santa Maria and Sant' Angelo. Another column, under Tabacchi, captured San Tammaro (just over a mile and a half to the west of Santa Maria). The Royalists moved some cannon up to their advanced position and began a long artillery duel with two of Garibaldi's guns, positioned under a Roman archway at Santa Maria. Garibaldi was at Santa Maria as the fighting developed, and ordered some of his reserves to move to the village. He then moved north towards the sound of gunfire coming from Sant' Angelo.

This brought him right into the middle of the Royalist troops in the gap, and for a moment Garibaldi was in real danger. Two of his small party were killed and he was only saved by troops from Sant' Angelo. This village was now under pressure from the west. The gun battery on the road to Capua had fallen early, and a large Neapolitan force, under the command of General Afan de Rivera, made repeated attacks on Sant' Angelo itself. Garibaldi responded with a series of bayonet charges, each designed to repulse a particular Royalist attack.

By mid-afternoon Garibaldi's men still held both villages, but the Royalists held much of the ground between them, and the villages were almost under siege. Garibaldi decided to use his last reserves to launch an attack north from Santa Maria towards Sant' Angelo. This was the decisive moment on the western part of the battlefield. Garibaldi's bayonet charges broke a series of Royalist units. After clearing the way between the two villages he then turned left and attacked the Royalist troops west of Santa Maria. This attack lifted the pressure off the defenders of both villages and they joined in a general offensive. The Royalists, who had made little progress after a long day in the field, finally abandoned their efforts and retreated back into Capua. By dusk the Royalist attack from Capua had been defeated.

In the east Von Mechel managed to waste his own numerical advantage. He split his force of 8,000 into two columns. He led 3,000 German speaking troops down the road from Ducenta to Maddaloni, while his 5,000 Neapolitan troops were sent on a long flanking march which was meant to bring them out on Bixio's left-rear. Unfortunately his orders to the commander of this column didn't make that at all clear, and so Von Mechel had to fight with 3,000 men instead of 8,000. The flanking force did reach Old Caserta, where it caused a panic at Garibaldi's headquarters, but came no further. Von Mechel's one advantage was that at least half of his troops were excellent Swiss soldiers who had carried out exercises in the same area.

Bixio had 5,600 men in a good defensive position at Maddaloni. The valley that Von Mechel was advancing down narrowed into a gorge just to the north of Maddaloni. At this point it was crossed by the impressive 'Arches of the Valley' aqueduct, which had been built to bring water to the Royal palace at Caserta. Bixio was able to use the viaduct on top of this massive structure to link the two flanks of his force. Despite some limited successes Von Mechel's attack was defeated, and he was forced to retreat.

Although the main battle was fought on 1 October, part of Von Mechel's lost flanking column made a desperate attack on Caserta early on 2 October. Garibaldi was able to rally enough troops to repulse this attack, amongst them some Piedmontese regulars who had arrived from Naples.

Garibaldi had won a narrow victory on the Volturno. He lost 306 killed, 1,328 wounded and 389 missing over the two days - fifty on the second day, around 500 on his right and the remaining 1,400 at Santa Maria and Sant' Angelo. The Royalists lost 260 killed, 731 wounded and 74 prisoners on that part of the battlefield, 200 on their left facing Bixio and 2,089 prisoners during the fighting on 2 October. 

The battle of the Volturno was Garibaldi's last major contribution to the fighting in 1860. Although the Royalist counterattack had been defeated, Francis II still had strong garrisons in Capua and Gaeta. This meant that Garibaldi was forced to abandon his plans to march of Rome, and instead had to wait for the arrival of Victor Emmanuel II and the Piedmontese army, which had just conquered the eastern part of the Papal States.

By the time Victor Emmanuel reached the south it was in the process of deciding to join his kingdom. A plebiscite was held on 21 October, and decided in favour of union with Piedmont by over 1,700,000 votes to 11,000 (the margin of victory was almost certainly inflated by the open voting, but there is no doubt that the majority supported union). Victor Emmanuel, at the head of his army, crossed into Neapolitan territory on 15 October.

On 26 October Garibaldi and Victor Emmanuel met and shook hands. Garibaldi had acknowledged Victor Emmanuel as king, defusing any last threat of a radical takeover in the south. The Royal army took over the sieges of Capua and Gaeta, and after a short handover period Garibaldi retired to his island home.

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 (18 February 2013), Battle of the Volturno, 1 October 1860 , http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/battles_volturno.html

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