Siege of Gaeta, 3 November 1860-13 February 1861

The siege of Gaeta (3 November 1860-13 February 1861) was the last stand of Francis II, Bourbon King of Naples. After a siege that lasted 100 days he was forced to surrender, but by then his kingdom had already voted to join with Piedmont.

Francis's downfall had been triggered by Garibaldi's invasion of Sicily in May 1860. At the head of a band of 1,000 volunteers Garibaldi had captured Palermo (27 May 1860). Reinforcements had then arrived, and by the end of July he held almost the entire island. The Citadel of Messina held out, but offered no active resistance. This allowed Garibaldi to cross to the mainland. Neapolitan resistance crumbled, and on 6 September 1860 Francis II fled from Naples. Garibaldi made a triumphal entrance on 7 September, but the war was not yet won. Francis had only retreated a few miles to the north, and now held Capua and the line of the Volturno River. The worst elements of his army had deserted or been captured and he was now left with a capable force. After a few minor successes the king decided to launch a counterattack and try and retake Naples. The resulting battle of the Volturno (1 October 1860) was a hard fought victory for Garibaldi, but Francis still held Capua, and Garibaldi didn’t have a siege train.

The stalemate was broken by the army of Piedmont. Cavour, Prime Minister of Piedmont, had managed to convince Napoleon III, the protector of the Papal States, that the only way to protect them against a radical takeover was for Piedmont to invade the eastern states. The Papal army was defeated at Castelfidardo (18 September 1860) and the survivors besieged in Ancona (to 29 September 1860). The Piedmontese army then moved south towards the Neapolitan border. King Victor Emmanuel II joined his army, and they crossed the border on 15 October. A few days later he was greeted by Garibaldi, who handed command of his army over to the Piedmontese and prepared to go into temporary retirement. The Piedmontese army was fully equipped with a siege train, and so it took over the reduction of Francis's last strongholds. Capua fell on 2 November after a single day of bombardment. Other parts of the Neapolitan army were captured or chased into internment in the remaining part of the Papal States. This only left Gaeta, where Francis II and his Bavaria queen Maria Sophia had taken refuge.

Gaeta was a very strong defensive position. In 1861 the town was built on some flatter ground at the eastern tip of a peninsula. To the west of the town was the 167m high Mount Orlando, which filled the western side of the peninsula. The port was guarded by a fortress on the southern side of the town, while the northern shore and the western slopes of Mount Orlando were fortified. The Citadal of Gaeta was built on top of the mountain. There was a small suburb on the coastline north of the peninsula. Since then the town has expanded to the west, and now fills the plains outside the fortifications. The Neapolitans also held some outposts further away from the town, including a strong position on the Garigliano River, ten miles to the east. The garrison was 12,000 strong, so the town was well defended against any attempt to storm it.

The attack on Gaeta was carried out by the new Italian army, led by General Enrico Cialdini (This was essentially the old Piedmontese army, soon to be renamed after the formation of the Kingdom of Italy). On 29 October they were repulsed on the Garigliano, but this was followed a day or two later by a more careful attack, and the Neapolitans retreated. On 2 November the Piedmontese won another combat at Mola di Gaeta (now part of Formia, three and a half miles to the northeast of Gaeta). This opened up the coastal route to Gaeta, and allowed the Piedmontese to begin a proper siege.

The first siege lines were positioned along the edge of some higher ground to the west of the plain outside Gaeta. The town was very difficult to attack from the land, and the siege made little progress over the winter of 1860-61. The most effective tactic would have been a naval bombardment, but Napoleon III hadn't entirely abandoned Francis II. The French fleet spent the first months of the siege anchored off Gaeta, protecting the besieged town from the sea.

The formal start of the siege came on 12 November and it lasted for 100 days. During this period the Italians fired 55,000 rounds against the fortress, but their attack couldn't be effective while the French fleet remained nearby.

The stalemate was finally broken in January 1861 when the French fleet was withdrawn. This finally allowed the Italians to bring their fleet into action and to tighten the blockade. This was the final straw for Francis II, and on 13 February Gaeta surrendered. Francis II abdicated and went into exile, although his last message to his former subjects asked them not to abandon the Bourbon cause. A couple of fortresses held until into March, but the fall of Gaeta marked the real end of the Second War of Italian Independence

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]
cover cover cover
How to cite this article: Rickard, J (5 March 2013), Siege of Gaeta, 3 November 1860-13 February 1861 , http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/siege_gaeta_1860.html

Help - F.A.Q. - Contact Us - Search - Recent - About Us -  Subscribe in a reader - Join our Google Group - Cookies