Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Garibaldi and the American Civil War

I remembered hearing somewhere that Lincoln had wanted Giuseppe Garibaldi to be a Union general, but I was rather skeptical of this whole thing and then forgot about it.

But as part of its Civil War series this year, the New York Times has an article that in fact confirms that Garibaldi was approached on the island of Caprera in the summer of 1861, after the rout of the North at the First Battle of Bull Run. He was tempted, but apparently wanted reassurance that the war was fought to liberate slaves, and that it was not "merely" a war to maintain national unification. Although he evidently thought that unification was reason enough to fight for Italy, which reached that goal precisely in 1861. Maintaining the Union was something that at best foreigners were indifferent to, and at worst hostile to, because of the implications for the balance of power worldwide- an enormous, rich, and strong country was not what they wanted (but it is what we, and they, got in the end). Lincoln may have wanted Garibaldi's participation as much as a public relations feat as a real military boost to his Army, due to the great popularity of Garibaldi.

Obviously Garibaldi did not join the Union ranks, but his vacillation points out the ambiguity in our own motivations. Was the war a war fought for power and supremacy? Did Lincoln finally sign the Emancipation Proclamation mostly as a strategic move to destabilize the South (and to get some black troops)? I tend to think that the dichotomy of "preserving the Union" and "liberating the slaves" is a false one. The country envisioned by our Founding Fathers was not one that could countenance an entire "civilization" within its borders based on grievous social injustice, backwardness, and feudal privilege. Garibaldi should have joined.

(in the photo, Garibaldi, not with a blue jacket)