I am delighted to be asked by the Volokh Conspiracy to share with you some of my favorite stories from my book, Invisible Armies: an Epic History of Guerrilla Warfare from Ancient Times to the Modern Day, involving some of the most colorful characters from the modern history of insurgency and counter-insurgency. We begin today with Giuseppe Garibaldi, the great champion of Italian unification in the 19th century:
After trying unsuccessfully to pursue commercial enterprises such as selling macaroni, Garibaldi decided he was “destined for greater things.” In 1837 he found his true calling as a soldier when he enlisted on behalf of Rio Grande do Sul, a province trying to break away from Brazil.
In 1842 he joined another war in neighboring Uruguay. He would spend the next six years defending its liberal government against an Argentinean dictator and his local allies.
With his seafaring background, it was natural that Garibaldi would be employed at first as a privateer preying on enemy shipping—a guerrilla of the sea. But he also commanded forces on land. Armies were so small and distances so vast in Latin America that Garibaldi frequently campaigned with a few men in the wilderness.
Often he was pursued by superior forces, but he seldom hesitated to attack even when badly outnumbered, and his audacity usually carried the day. He exhibited preternatural resilience by marching and riding for long periods, notwithstanding illness, wounds, and supply shortages.
Even while combating ruthless enemies who once captured and tortured him, he always observed a “chivalrous” code. If he lacked detention facilities, as he usually did, he would release prisoners rather than kill them, even if he knew they would report his position, and he took care to prevent his soldiers from abusing civilians.
His most notable exploits came in hit-and-run raids at the head of the 800-man Italian Legion, which he organized from among his fellow immigrants in Uruguay—the “brave sons of Columbus,” he called them with his typically florid rhetoric. Their uniform became the red shirt after the government discovered a stockpile of these garments, which had been intended for use in slaughterhouses, where the red color would not show blood.
Stocky, bearded, and long-haired, with a serene expression and “eyes [that] were steadfast and piercing,” wearing a red tunic, black felt hat, and “gaudy handkerchief” around his collar, a cavalry sword dangling from his waist and a pair of pistols in a saddle holster—Garibaldi was, in the words of a British naval officer, “the beau ideal of a chief of irregular troops.”
Among those enraptured with him was Anna Maria Ribeiro da Silva, a young Brazilian woman whose husband, a shoemaker, was away from home performing his army service. She was living in the town of Laguna when Garibaldi’s ship anchored in the harbor. The year was 1839. He was thirty-three, she eighteen.
He claimed, perhaps with romantic hindsight, to have first spotted her with a telescope from his quarterdeck while she was standing outside her hilltop home. He immediately disembarked in search of her. His very first words upon meeting her: “Thou oughtest to be mine.” Instead of slapping him, she found his “insolence . . . magnetic.”
Garibaldi could not have been accused of falling for just another pretty face. The homely Anita was never known as a great beauty; she was described by one of Garibaldi’s biographers as “a big-busted peasant wench.” But, pretty or not, Garibaldi was instantly smitten with her, and she with him. They proverbially sailed away together but were not married until 1842, which, as another biographer notes, was “two years after the birth of their first child.”
Anita traveled and fought alongside Garibaldi, sharing the dangers and discomforts of a soldier’s life for the next decade while giving birth to four children in all. Their romance, which flew in the face of social convention, added to Garibaldi’s growing reputation as a rebel.