Giuseppe Garibaldi, General in Chief, U.S. Army?

by E. Chris Evans
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2005, All Rights Reserved

Is the idea of the great Italian revolutionary warrior Giuseppe Garibaldi trading in his famous red shirt for a Union officer’s blue frock coat incredible? Is the idea improbable, even impossible, especially since this man would be filling a position first held by General George Washington?

Giuseppe Garibaldi

One would think the answer would be “absolutely,” but, in reality, it was more than just an idle proposal. This great freedom fighter, who was born (appropriately enough) on the Fourth of July, 1807 and lived for a time in New York City, led some 1,000 men (all wearing red shirts) in the 1856 campaign that ultimately defeated the 130,000 man army of the Neapolitan kingdom, thus beginning the unification of Italy.

Look ahead some five years, to the summer of 1861. In the United States, a civil war was in its early months and many in the North were optimistic that there would be a quick end to the strife. The politicians of Washington City, their wives, and families loaded up their buggies and carriages and rode toward Manassas to watch the show, soon to unfold, that would undoubtedly end the unpleasantness. By the end of the day, however, thousands of mud-caked men in blue competed with the panicked civilian onlookers in a wild race to be the first back to the nation’s capital. The actions of a certain Col. William T. Sherman, on the field and during the retreat, earned him favorable notice and promotion to brigadier general of Volunteers.

Within days of the battlefield defeat, with the North still smarting from the disaster and Lincoln contending anew with the inexperience of his generals, one of the strangest diplomatic missions in American history was begun. At risk were relations with the Vatican (which still controlled large areas of Italy), other European kingdoms, and the revolutionary government still striving to unite all of Italy. The potential benefit of the mission was that the course of the war might be turned in the North’s favor, the emancipation of the Southern slaves hastened, and the bloodshed and bitterness of a protracted conflict averted.

James W. Quiggle

That mysterious mission was nothing less than an attempt to enlist in the Northern cause the aid of General Giuseppe Garibaldi, a living symbol of national unification and a man who already regarded himself as an honorary citizen of this country. For several weeks, the Italian newspapers had been speculating that Garibaldi would go to America and take up the fight for the black man. The United States consul at Antwerp, James W. Quiggle, without prior consultation or permission from the State Department or White House, wrote a letter to Gen. Garibaldi indicating that, if indeed he went to the United States to serve, there would be “thousands of Italians and Hungarians who will rush to your ranks, and thousands and tens of thousands who will glory to be under the command of the ‘Washington of Italy.’ “

Quiggle forwarded copies of his correspondence to Secretary of State William H. Seward. He then wrote to Garibaldi again, this time informing the Italian leader that he would soon receive a formal invitation to go to the United States “with the highest Army commission which is in the power of the President to confer.” At this point, Lincoln was probably unaware of Quiggle’s offer, but it must be assumed that Seward discussed the consul’s actions with Lincoln, while noting that Quiggle had overstepped his authority. Still, the idea of obtaining Garibaldi’s services was tantalizing, especially after the debacle of Bull Run.

Henry S. Sanford

Lincoln instructed Seward to begin direct communications with Garibaldi. The U.S. minister at Antwerp, Quiggle’s superior, Henry S. Sanford, was instructed to offer the red-shirt hero “a Major-General’s commission in the Army of the United States, with its appointments and the hearty welcome of the American people.” Hoping to forge a more intimate bond, Seward asked the general to consider him as not just a government official, “but an old and sincere personal friend.” To help coordinate efforts, U.S. diplomat George Perkins Marsh, the first American minister to the new kingdom of Italy, was also informed in Turin. Although Lincoln’s name was not mentioned in the correspondence, it was obvious that only he could authorize conferring the rank of major general. The closest Lincoln came to personal involvement was indicated in a confidential note from Seward to Sanford: “It has been a source of sincere satisfaction to the President that circumstances have rendered him able to extend to him [Garibaldi], if desired, an invitation which would enable him to add [to his already towering reputation] the glory of aiding in the preservation of the American Union.” Seward also notified Sanford that he could reveal that one thousand pounds sterling had been put aside for the “expenses” of Garibaldi and his retinue.

George Perkins Marsh

In September 1861, Sanford met with Marsh in Turin. They decided to proceed cautiously at first, talking to Garibaldi on a level below ministerial rank. If the general turned them down, it would appear to be only an exchange of diplomatic courtesies, rather than a damaging rebuff to the Lincoln Administration. After a positive response from the old freedom-fighter, Sanford went to meet Garibaldi himself. Garibaldi had some definite ideas as to the terms of his rallying to the Stars and Stripes, however. The conditions set forth by the general were outlined in Sanford’s report to Secretary Seward: “He [Garibaldi] said that the only way in which he could render real service, as he ardently desired to do, to the cause of the United States, was as Commander in Chief of its forces; that he would only go as such and with the additional contingent power – to be governed by events – of declaring the abolition of slavery.” Sanford also reported that he informed the general that he was only empowered to offer the two-star rank and could not go beyond it. Thus ended the first attempt to obtain Garibaldi’s services.

Some thirteen months later, in October 1862, Garibaldi wrote to Minister Marsh. He indicated that he no longer asked for supreme command and that a major generalship would suffice. However, he still insisted on freedom for the slaves as a condition of his service. By this time, soon after the Battle of Antietam, Lincoln had issued his preliminary Emancipation Proclamation. This satisfied Garibaldi’s condition of black freedom, but the war had progressed past the point where a hero from abroad was looked upon as a guarantor of victory.

The prestigious post of General in Chief of the armies of the United States was never taken up by Giuseppe Garibaldi. Interestingly, he had seen that emancipation was to be a core issue, and a result, of the war at a time when Lincoln was still pondering the thought. In the end, both men saw freedom for the black man achieved. The charismatic Italian general in the red shirt never became an American general in blue. But while the sixteenth President still lived, Garibaldi, in a remarkable gesture of respect and honor, saw to it that one of his grandsons was named Lincoln.

E. Chris Evans of Heath, Ohio, is a Civil War scholar, collector, and amateur historian who has been published in both Civil War Times Illustrated and Blue & Gray magazines. He is most familiar to our members in his role as General W.T. Sherman.