Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 3/Last week (October 20, 1860)
THE BATTLE OF VOLTURNO.
The 1st of October will henceforward be a sacred day in the calendar of free Italy. On that day was fought a battle as hotly contested as any of the great battles of modern times. The combatants engaged were only inferior in number to those who fought at Magenta and Solferino, when the struggle for freedom had just begun. In valour, in fortitude, in daring, the men who held the field under Garibaldi’s orders, on the first day of the present month, had little to learn from the disciplined regiments of France, Austria, and Sardinia, which had been engaged in the crowning battles of the Lombard campaign. Three times were the positions of the patriots taken and retaken at the bayonet’s point, while the grape-shot swept down the combatants without pause. Little mercy was asked on either side, and less given. We are told by those who saw the facts that, as the wounded lay upon the ground, the pistol and the stiletto finished up the work which had been begun with the rifle and the bayonet. Strange to say—for we are speaking of a southern race, a quick, impulsive people—the Italians for once fought in silence. With pale cheeks, and clenched teeth, they carried through the matter in hand. On the 1st of October no man, save some Sicilians and the Neapolitans of the city of Naples, had time or breath for idle clamour. The story of the slaughtered prisoners is denied and disbelieved as far as the Garibaldians are concerned. The Royalists had been taught to believe that they would receive no quarter, and they gave none.
On the 30th of September the situation of the young King was far from desperate. Could he have succeeded in forcing his way through the hasty levies of Garibaldi, and reaching Naples before the Sardinians had crossed his frontier, the splendid throne of the Two Sicilies was not wholly lost. With what show of justice could the Lombards, or the Tuscans, or the Sardinians who invoke the principle of non-intervention on their own account, have interfered with armed force to thrust liberal institutions at the bayonet’s point down the throats of an independent and reluctant people? The two parties—the Royalists and the Liberals—had fought it out, and victory had remained with the King. That was the only test by which the will of the majority could be ascertained. It had been applied, and the result was that Francis II. was back in his capital. The prisons were gorged with patriots. The blood of Saint Januarius had given propitious omens. The Toledo was illuminated in an orderly way under the auspices of the police, and the King was preparing to stamp out the last embers of the insurrection. The people of the Two Sicilies liked Francis and his ways just as the Lombards and the Sardinians liked Victor Emmanuel and his ways. Why should they be balked of their humour, and be cursed with the gift of political freedom which they neither esteemed nor desired?
The king was separated from his capital and his loving subjects but by a vineyard. The country between Capua and Naples by way of Aversa is but a garden filled with vines. The distance between the two cities is but seventeen miles, and they are connected by a railroad. Imagine a battle to be fought on Epsom Downs, or at Slough, and no further obstacle between the conqueror and London. As far as mere distance is concerned this would represent accurately enough the position of the young King with reference to his capital on the 1st of October. Could he even have cut his way through the Garibaldians without inflicting upon them an actual defeat, it would have been enough to amend his political situation. The Sardinians then could not—without a signal infraction of the public law of Europe—have crossed the borders of an independent State, and levied war against a Sovereign who had given them no sufficient cause of offence. Had they done so, the principle upon which they justified their intervention might at no distant day have been invoked against themselves. This difficulty has not arisen, thanks to the valour of the hero and the men who fought the other day by the banks of the Vulturnus.
It was no unfitting spot for the closing act of such a struggle. The prize of victory—that fair city of Naples itself—was almost in sight of the combatants. Close at hand, and on one edge of the battle-field is the splendid palace of Caserta, in which the ancestors of the young King had held royal state for more than a century past. It is the masterpiece of Vanvitelli, and amongst the most magnificent of Royal residences in Europe. Those who have visited the spot will remember the gardens with the cascades, and how the cascades are so arranged as to represent quaint combinations of statues and mystical emblems. The forests of ilex behind the palace swarm with game, and herein it was that the ancestors of the young King—being themselves Kings of Naples—used to take their pastime, and divert themselves with the slaughter of wild animals, when the affairs of state no longer claimed their attention. Francis II. all but played his last throw for empire in his own park. The position of the respective forces during the battle will be best learnt from a glance at the map, and by a recollection of the position which each had occupied during the previous days. The front of the Royalists was protected by the windings of the Volturno. It is a stream of not very considerable breadth, but still one which would be a formidable obstacle to young troops in presence of a well-served artillery. The King held Capua and Gaeta—two out of the three military stations of the first-class in the kingdom. The modern Capua is not the town which in ages long gone past contended with Rome for supremacy in the Italian peninsula, and in an evil hour for itself cast in its lot with the Carthaginian chief. That famous old town was two miles distant from the modern Capua, out of which Francis II. recently marched out on a Monday morning, and lost a throne. Gaeta would be reckoned a strong place anywhere, and is certainly the strongest in the kingdom of Naples. Englishmen have not forgotten how, by the help of their fleet, it was held by the stout old Prince of Hesse-Philipstadt against Massena and an overwhelming French force. A curse, however, has ever rested upon this citadel and place of arms, the result, perhaps, of its strength. It is so strong that it has held out when resistance was overcome at every other point, and so has been surrendered as the prize of conquest into the victor’s hand, because it was idle to prolong the defence of a fortress against the force of a kingdom. Another incident of the like kind seems imminent at Gaeta just now.
The Royalists thus were in occupation of this district of the Two Fortresses (the quadrilateral, as it were, of Naples); they were masters of the whole course of the river, and had erected most formidable works upon its right bank. This is described as bristling with guns well masked. The bridges at Capua were their own, so that they could advance or retreat at their own pleasure from or back upon a position so strong by nature and so carefully fortified by art. In their rear ran the Garigliano, which could be used as a second line of defence if they were driven from the first. It was on the banks of this stream that Gonsalvo da Cordova fought his great battle, now well-nigh four centuries ago; and here it was that Bayard held a bridge, single-handed, against a mass of Spanish cavalry. It was in the swamps of the Garigliano—close by Minturnæ—that Marius hid himself in the rushes from the pursuit of Sylla’s followers. In the year of grace 1860, it might have been used as a second rampart by the last of the Neapolitan Bourbons against his people—and the position is a strong one. Unfortunately there was a little difficulty in the way. Lamoricière and his levies had been utterly crushed before Ancona. General Cialdini, at the head of the triumphant Sardinians, was advancing steadily, and southerly,—and in a few days would be on the left bank of the Garigliano. With Cialdini there, and Garibaldi on the hills on the right bank of the Volturno, in another week Francis II. would have been in a mere trap. He could not hope to make front against both enemies; and, no matter which one he attacked, the other would fall upon his defenceless rear. But the Sardinians had not yet hemmed him in. Naples was his own, if he could win the day against Garibaldi and his followers. On one side was a good chance of recovering a throne—on the other a certainty of shame and destruction.
Now the position of the Garibaldians was this,—but the map must be consulted by any one who would arrive at a clear idea of the situation. The left-wing rested upon Aversa, occupying the ground from Santa Maria to that town. The right-wing rested upon San Salvatore, stretching from Dentici to that spot. The head-quarters were at Caserta. The key of the position was Monte San Angelo. The Garibaldians occupied an irregular semi-circle. A line drawn through Santa Maria, Caserta, and Maddaloni, would have been the chord of that arc, as the positions were rectified upon the eve of the engagement. The defect of the position was that the left-flank by Santa Maria was somewhat exposed. The semicircle extends over about thirty miles of hill, along which the Garibaldians were posted, before they were concentrated for action at the points chiefly threatened. At about six a.m. on the first of October the king moved out from Capua. He had with him 16,000 men, of whom 5000 were cavalry under the command of General Palmieri, with five batteries commanded by General Nigri. General Ritucci was the Commander-in-Chief, and with him was the young king in plain clothes. At the same time a detachment 5000 strong was directed upon Maddaloni with the view of cutting off the retreat of the Garibaldians. This manœuvre at the outset of an engagement seems to be erroneous when Garibaldi is the leader on the other side. The Neapolitan troops had been collected in an open space before the fortress, and when they moved out they divided into two columns; the one moved from Capua upon Saint Angelo, the other, the right column, upon Santa Maria. The advance of the left column seems to have been conducted with the same caution and the same success as the advance of the Russian troops upon the British position at Inkermann. The mist was lying heavily upon the low land. The Neapolitans took every advantage of the broken ground, and surprised the defenders of a large barricade which had been erected to guard the position. This was carried, and the column opened out, and formed into line of battle in the open behind it. The other column was equally successful. The Garibaldians had been taken by surprise, but at the critical moment the great leader himself appeared upon the scene. Skirmishers were thrown out, some guns were brought into action, repeated bayonet charges were delivered, and after three or four hours hard fighting, the Neapolitans were driven from the position they had taken, and possession of the barricade was recovered.
Meanwhile, on the left of the patriots at Santa Maria, where General Milvitz commanded, precisely similar events had occurred. There had been a surprise, a rally, three or four hours fighting, at the end of which the Neapolitans were driven back. The battle here was exceeding hot; because Santa Maria is close to Capua, where the Neapolitan reserves lay. They kept on bringing up fresh troops, and again fresh troops, until the strength, if not the courage of the brave defenders of Santa Maria was well-nigh exhausted. Message after message was sent asking for reinforcements. None could be given, the little reserve was wanted elsewhere. The detachment of which mention has already been made had attacked General Bixio at Maddaloni. They were 5000 strong, concentrated for action. He had with him 2000, or 2500 men scattered over the hills which he must defend at all hazards. By noon, the Neapolitans at this point were driven back to the river; many threw themselves into the mountains between Caserta and Maddaloni.
But now the moment had arrived when Gabaldi’s defence was to be converted into an attack. Two brigades which had been much weakened, however, by detachments, had been held in reserve. They were marched up to the front—one of them was forwarded by rail—so here was an instance of the application of modern science to the fearful exigencies of a battle-field. The Piedmontese gunners, and the little body of Hungarian cavalry did their duty well by Santa Maria, and after some time, when General Türr had reached the ground with his infantry, the Neapolitans were driven back at the bayonet’s point, and their position fell into the hands of the Garibaldians, and was never retaken. It was, however, by Saint Angelo, where Garibaldi was commanding in person, that the most decisive events occurred. The Neapolitan general had come to the same conclusion as Garibaldi, that whoever remained master of Saint Angelo, had gained the day. The Royalists directed their chief efforts upon this point. A tremendous bombardment was opened on this position from the mortars in this fortress; at the same time batteries were brought into action against it. When, as it was supposed, the desired effect had been produced, the Neapolitans advanced in force, and succeeded in carrying this barricade once more. It should be remarked that this was antecedent in order of time to the success of General Türr, and his brave companions in arms, at Santa Maria, so that they could not assist their friends who were so hardly pressed. The Royalist Generals improved their success, and occupied the first houses leading to Saint Angelo. The Garibaldians were so far outnumbered that they began to lose heart, and wavered. Nothing, perhaps, but the presence of Garibaldi himself at this spot could have saved the day. The fight lasted hour after hour. At length, skirmishing lines were formed and thrown out to threaten either flank of the Royalists. Then a body of men were collected behind a house, who ran forward with a rush, and with the bayonet drove the Royalists back. The Royalist positions were carried at about 2 p.m. The chief now moved back upon Santa Maria, to see with his own eyes what was going on there, and to bring up reinforcements.
The Royalists made a last stand, about half a mile from Santa Maria, in a detached barrack lying on the verge of an open space. They had armed the barrack with guns, and had lined the woods with infantry. From this position, too, they were driven. The Garibaldians threw themselves into the woods, and drove the Royalists before them at the bayonet’s point, and pushed them to the very edge of the camps before Capua. By 4 p.m. the victory was decided along the whole line. That evening, Francis II. did not sleep at Naples. The Royalists were 30,000 strong—the Patriots had not half that number in hand.
It is very difficult for an unprofessional reader to acquire a distinct notion of how a battle was fought, from mere narration. A good plan of the ground and careful notation of the position and movements of the bodies of troops engaged, are the almost indispensable conditions of a correct appreciation of the facts. But, in this case, of the battle which was so hotly contested, and so nobly won, the other day, a very slight explanation may perhaps serve to give a rough notion of what took place. Consider Capua as the apex of a triangle—Santa Maria and Saint Angelo as being situated at the other angles. The Royalists moved from the apex upon each of these angles. As they did so, the two corps set in motion were naturally more and more separated from each other, every step they advanced from their base of operations. In the reverse sense, when the Patriots, after successfully resisting the attacks at the two angles, proceeded to drive the enemy before them,—every step they took they drew nearer to each other; until, at last, they were in immediate co-operation. Independently of this simple form of attack, as has been already mentioned, a force was detached upon Maddaloni, with the object—as it has since been stated—of cutting off the retreat of the Garibaldians when they had been crushed at the two points in front. This was done by what military men term a flank movement—a dangerous operation at all times, but peculiarly so in presence of a desperate enemy, and a consummate general, for surely Joseph Garibaldi has now fairly earned that name. There was, however, a technical justification for this step, beyond the mere braggart’s plea which was at first put in. Until the attack at Maddaloni had been repulsed, the Garibaldian reserves were in great measure paralysed at Caserta. Had the Royalist attack upon this point been delivered in greater force, or with a happier event, it might have gone ill with the exhausted corps in front, which were not more than holding their own at the time when the Royalist movement upon Maddaloni ended in discomfiture. The reserves were then liberated, and speedily brought up to the front. The Royalists were routed, and fled back upon Capua in confusion, the Patriots being in attendance upon them, to within half a mile of the fortress itself, when of course further advance was checked by the guns in position. Such seems the history of the battle of the Volturno, which will be understood at a glance by reference to the map.
The loss is said to have been very heavy on both sides; but probably the Garibaldians suffered most, as far as that day was concerned. It was not until the next morning that they reaped tangible fruits of their victory. We must not lose sight of the Royalist detachment, which had been thrown upon Maddaloni on the 1st of October, and which was discomfited about noon of that day. The bulk of the men fled in disorder into the mountains, but were rallied in the night.
In a hollow on the top of one of these mountains, on the night of the first of October, the shattered remains of the column which had been repulsed by General Bixio at Maddaloni gathered together, and talked over the events of the day. Some way, or another, a whisper passed amongst them that the Patriots had been entirely crushed at Santa Maria and Saint Angelo. They had been told in the morning, before they started from the camps before Capua, that the Austrians were already in Naples. Why should they stand shivering there amongst the hills. Information was taken, and a council of war was held, when it appeared, that the only obstacle which separated them from their victorious friends was the obstinacy and perversity of two old Hungarian fire-eating generals who would still hold out at Caserta. The Royalists acting upon this accurate intelligence moved down in the early morning upon Caserta, and contrived to take some houses and a barrack at one end of the town. Garibaldi, who, after the day’s work was over, had retired to seek a few moments’ rest in the house of the parish-priest at Saint Angelo, had been informed that the Royalists had been seen in the hills above Caserta. They were in the park; they were lying just above the great cascade; they were about everywhere in that direction. He started up, and looked about for men. He had not many to spare, for each man under his command was called upon to do the work of two or three. There were some Genoese carabineers, there were a couple of hundred men of the Brigade Spanzare. He could pick up some troops as he marched upon Caserta; he would find some there. The order was given to stand ready for two a.m.—sharp.
The Royalists, as it has been said, had gained possession of a part of Caserta early in the morning. Surprised and delighted at this new success, they had dispersed themselves through the town partly to look out for the two wary-headed old Hungarian generals—partly to plunder. While they were so engaged, Garibaldi came upon them, and in a very short time they were driven into the open, and back into the arms of Bixio at Maddaloni, or otherwise accounted for. General Saulis, with a brigade, now appeared upon the scene. Garibaldi in person led them on up the hills, and straight to Caserta Vecchia, where the survivors of the column which had threatened Maddaloni the day before, now attempted to make a last stand. Four or five hundred prisoners were taken on the spot, and then a coursing match began. Two battalions ran straight into the centre of General Saulis’ position, and were made prisoners in a body. They were chased up hill and down hill—a novel form of field sport in those grounds sacred to the Diana of the Bourbons. Some were caught about the cascades—many in the park—but the upshot was that before evening closed in, about 2500 officers and men were brought into the court-yards of the palace, and found accommodation for the night in the former residence of their Royal Master. It is calculated that this column is entirely accounted for, and that with some insignificant exceptions it is wholly lost to the King. About 3000 were made prisoners on the previous day in the affair at this point.
About 1500 were killed or wounded, and nine guns were taken. It is no exaggeration to say that the battle of the Volturno, with its consequences, must have cost Francis II. the loss of 10,000 fighting men, the great bulk of whom are prisoners-of-war. The Royalists seem to have been convinced by this trial, that any further attempt against the Patriots in front is not to be thought of. From more recent intelligence we hear that the movements of the royal generals seem to give indication of an intention to give up Capua altogether. They are moving men, provisions, and munitions of war out of Capua, and directing them upon Gaeta. Capua, very probably, by the time this number of Once a Week is published will be in the hands of Garibaldi and his followers, or of the Sardinians. Nothing, however, has been more remarkable about Garibaldi’s system of tactics since he first landed in Sicily than his apparent appreciation of the value of the instruments at his disposal. He never attacked the citadel of Messina; he has not given evidence of any intention to commence regular siege operations against Capua. Like a good workman he puts each tool to its right use. He neither attempts to plane planks with a saw, nor to saw them with a plane. Had he attempted any thing like a regular siege, the enthusiasm of his followers would soon have grown cold. It requires the fortitude and fidelity of disciplined soldiers to lie for weeks and months in trenches exposed to privations, to the inclemency of the weather, and to the enduring fire of the foe. In such a position troops know their own losses but too well—they cannot see the damage which they inflict upon the enemy. The three great fortresses of the kingdom of the Two Sicilies, namely, Messina, Capua, and Gaeta, will, in all probability, be surrendered, if not without a blow, at least without the tedium and danger of a regular siege. In a few days Francis II. will.be called upon to make his choice between casting in his lot with the defenders à l’outrance of Gaeta, or making his escape by sea, whilst the sea is still open. The King once gone, the fortress will soon be surrendered.
Meanwhile events are thickening in the Italian peninsula. At the latter end of last week a report was about in London that the Austrians were making fresh preparations for crossing the Mincio, and staking the fortunes of the Empire once more upon the hazard of the game of war. Louis Napoleon has despatched large reinforcements to Rome, and to the patrimony of St. Peter. The presence of the French troops in such force is a fact from which we must draw our own inferences, for little faith can be given to the assertions of any of the parties concerned. If we attempt to form our judgment on the future from the past, the probability would seem to be, that the French Emperor is well disposed to assist Victor Emmanuel to the crown of Italy, but upon the condition that he will make a fresh cession of territory to France.
It is hinted that the price to be paid this time is the Island of Sardinia. If this be given up, and if the Great Powers of Europe did not interfere to put an end to such a bargain and sale of an island so important from its geographical position, it is likely enough that the French would hold the Austrians in check, whilst Victor Emmanuel was consolidating his power throughout the Peninsula. If this be not done, and the resistance will more probably come from the Great Powers, than either from Count Cavour or his master, it is hard indeed to venture a suggestion at the course which will be taken by the silent man, whose decisions are now of such enormous importance to the world. One of the leading points of his policy, has ever been to establish French supremacy in the Mediterranean; and he would no doubt look with great jealousy on the establishment and consolidation of a power, which would soon take rank amongst the great maritime powers of Europe, and which might not always be the obedient satellite of France.
On the whole, it may be asserted, without much fear of error, either that Louis Napoleon will have his price, or that he will not give a hearty and honest support to the consolidation of the Italian kingdom. There is one man who has never ceased to express his distrust of Louis Napoleon on this point, and his name is Joseph Garibaldi.