The Battle of Volturno
By: Tom Frascella October 2015
As the dawn of what history calls the Battle of Volturno approached, the Bourbon forces held the superior tactical military position in northern Campania. The Bourbon forces numbered between 45,000 and 50,000 well trained and equipped men while the Garibaldi forces to their south were made up of between 18,000 and 20,000 men, a third of which were southern Italian irregulars. Most of the insurgent forces had little formal military training. By the latter part of September the Bourbon high command knew that their chance to win against the insurgents and regain the Capital was rapidly dwindling. King Victor Emanuel II was marching southward with approximately 35,000 Piedmont regulars and his arrival in Campania would end any possibility of Bourbon military superiority in the field. Further Victor Emmanuel’s victories in the Papal States were making Austrian intervention less and less likely.
The Bourbon high command in Gaeta decided that they needed to go on the offensive. The determined on a line of attack which initially focused on capturing Garibaldi’s command headquarters at the former Bourbon palace at Caserta. From there they would thrust to Naples and reclaim the Capital and throne. To accomplish this they decided on a plan that divided their force with the majority remaing under the command of General Ritucci. General Ritucci was in overall command of the field all field operations. Retucci’s force was to start their assault on Garibaldi’s defensive positions from the point at the Bourbon fortress at Capua on the north side of the Volturno River. However, 8,000 Bourbon troops were to be sent in a separate thrust under the command of General Von Michel. His force was to drive starting from Ducenta. The two Bourbon forces would then if successful reunite at Caserta.
Garibaldi had been hurriedly reinforcing his defensive position south of the Volturno River. Knowing that the Bourbon command was aware of Victor Emmanuel’s success he knew that a Bourbon offensive was imminent. From September 27th on Garibaldi began to transport artillery from the fortresses in Naples to hastily constructed defensive positions on the south side of the Volturno. In the placement and manning of the batteries Garibaldi received “unofficial” help from the British naval forces under Admiral Mundy which were at anchor in Naples harbor. It seems a number of British sailors and officers had “deserted” briefly to “help” out in manning and setting up the defensive artillery. By the 30th these foreigners were prepared and positioned to help direct fire at any advancing Bourbon force.
As a prelude to attack Ritucci directed his own artillery batteries at Capua to fire on Garibaldi’s forces entrenched south of the Volturno. The Bourbons kept this fire up for the better part of the 30th of September. In the evening of the 30th Garibaldi noted a signal fire lite on the Bourbon side which he correctly interpreted as the Bourbon signal for attack.
Nevertheless, the early morning of October 1 found a heavy fog affording the advancing Bourbons significant cover. This cover allowed the Bourbon forces to advance and penetrate Garibaldi’s lines at their weakest points near Sant’ Angelo relatively undetected. At the same time other Bourbon forces directed by Ritucci reached the town of Sant Agostino sweeping away the defenders there. This placed Retucci’s forces just before the town of Santa Maria. At Santa Maria Garibaldi’s forces began to stiffen their resistance with the help of some of Turr’s reserves that Garibaldi had sent up from Caserta. Realizing that he was outnumbered Garibaldi had devised a strategy of defense wherein reserves stationed at Caserta could be called up to rapidly plug weaknesses in his defense. However this strategy would essentially leave Caserta defenseless if all of the reserves were needed. If the Bourbons took Caserta it would be a relatively short strait run to Naples itself.
Once Garibaldi saw his defensive line begin to stiffen at Santa Maria he and his staff rode to Sant’Angelo to take charge there. This was the second point of developing weakness in his line. Throughout the day serious fighting continued on both sides near the two towns with repeated advances by the Bourbons and counter-attacks by Garibaldi’s forces. Heavy losses were sustained on both sides. It should be noted that King Francis, his two brothers and his uncle all of the royal house of Bourbon were seen at the front by their forces that day, giving the Bourbon forces additional encouragement.
In the meantime, the second prong of the Bourbon attack led by General Von Mechel and 8,000 men had also begun their assault with orders to first capture the town of Maddaloni and from there advance on Caserta. The first flaw in the Bourbon advance plan arose in that the division of Bourbon forces created a break of communications between Ritucci and Von Michel. Von Michel almost immediately began acting independently of the expected plan of attack and caused Retucci to lose track of Von Michel’s force.
General Von Mechel’s force of 8,000 men were made up of two elements, 3,000 German/Swiss infantry and 5,000 southern Italian Bourbon soldiers. He faced 5,600 Garibaldian forces holding a strong defensive position in front of Maddaloni. Von Michel decided on his own initiative to split his force, keeping with him the 3,000 German troops and sending the 5,000 Italian troops under the command of General Ruiz, on an end run around the flank of the Maddaloni defenders. He envisioned that he would employ his troops in a frontal assault while General Ruiz came up behind. The problem once again was that he lost contact with General Ruiz and had no way of knowing how his progress was going along a route that contained much more difficult mountainous terrain. As a result Von Michel got into position and proceeded to attack Bixio’s position without allowing Ruiz sufficient time to attain his flanking position. Creating a field situation where his Von Michel’s inferior force was assaulting uphill and unsupported against a numerically larger entrenched force.
In the six hours of battle which ended around 1 p.m. Von Michel’s troops performed professionally and almost took the day despite their smaller numbers. Both sides lost about 200 men each, including Von Michel’s own son. However, as Ruiz never made it to the battle zone during the pendency of the battle Von Michel eventually pulled back to the town of Ducenta. It should be noted that the advancing Swiss element of Von Michel’s force advanced very close to their objective. It was only at the very last moment that they were turned back by troops composed primarily of southern Italian insurgent irregulars commanded by Dezza and Garibaldi’s son Menotti.
During the early hours of October 1 General Ruiz and his 5,000 Bourbon troops continued forward with clear orders only to join in the assault on Maddaloni and to proceed to Old Caserta. At dawn on the 1st of October Ruiz’ force quickly reached the town of Limatola where they encountered and drove out a few hundred Garibaldians. From there they headed toward the mountain summit guarded by the ruins of Castle Morrone which was occupied by about 300 Garibaldians under Captain Pilade Bronzetti. Bronzetti’s men were a unit carved from Consenz’s brigade and were veterans of the campaign. Ruiz’s assault, which started around 9 a.m., on the entrenched position lasted four hours as the Garibaldians continued to resist until out of ammunition they fought hand to hand. The entire Garibaldian force was either killed or forced to surrender. However, the resistance of the Garibaldian defenders had delayed Ruiz’s advance. During his assault on Morrone Ruiz could hear the battles taking place at Santa Maria and Maddaloni. By delaying the capture of this position at castle Morrone until the mid-afternoon meant that General Ruiz could hear the battle at Maddaloni had quieted down. In fact the capture of Castle Morrone did not occur until two hours after Von Michel’s force had abandoned its assault on Maddaloni. As a result Ruiz’s force was never in a position to support Von Michel’s force in the battle for Maddaloni. In fairness to General Ruiz while he had no way of knowing the outcome of Von Michel assault he continued on with the plan and headed toward Caserta where he presumed he would meet up with General Von Michel’s forces.
His forces began to reach the outskirts of the town of Old Caserta around mid-afternoon. In an interesting turn of events Garibaldi had ordered General Turr and the last of the reserves in Caserta to advance in support of Santa Maria. General Turr understood that by advancing he was leaving Caserta undefended, nevertheless he followed his orders. As it turns out General Turr’s force left Caserta about an hour before General Ruiz’s Bourbon force arrived and the two forces never met. Had Ruiz’s forces arrived a little earlier it would have forced a confrontation between the two forces and stopped Turr’s support for Santa Maria.
When Ruiz and his force of 5,000 reached Old Caserta they found it undefended and occupied it very quickly. However, as his orders did not specifically tell him to occupy Caserta itself, also undefended, he held his men back at old Caserta awaiting developments or orders from General Von Michel. In the meantime Turr arrived in Santa Maria to find the defenders very near collapse from Retucci’s pressure. His fresh reserves arrived and greatly reinforced the Garibaldian position at a critical time.
Shortly after Turr’s arrival Garibaldi himself arrived at Santa Maria. Garibaldi realized that the arrival of fresh reinforcements created an opportunity as both sides were exhausted from hours of heated battle. Garibaldi rallied the defenders positioned at Santa Maria and using the fresh reserves started a counter attack on the Bourbons which succeeded in dislodging them from their positions.
As far as I can determine from my readings the bulk of the irregulars from southern Italy including Basilicata, were engaged in the defense and the counter attack at Santa Maria. As the counter attack issued out from Santa Maria it was soon joined by a counter attack from the Garibaldi forces defending Sant Angelo as well. Both counter attacks achieved their goals. As a result by dusk of October 1st all of the advance positions of the Bourbon’s on the south side of the Volturno River had been retaken by Garibaldi’s forces. The one exception to this was General Ruiz’s position in Old Caserta. Having been pushed back to the north side of the Volturno General Ritucci ordered his main Bourbon force to retreat in force back to the fortress at Capua. Von Michel, upon hearing that news retreated to the fortress at Capua as well.
General Ruiz learned of the defeats of both Retucci’s advance and Von Michel’s on the morning of October 2. He further learned of both forces retreat back to Capua. This left him and his 5,000 men isolated on the south side of the Volturno with no support available from the main Bourbon army. With that news he gave orders to his 5,000 to retreat back across the Volturno to rejoin the main Bourbon army at Capua. He recognized that there was a narrow window in which he could bring his force across the river before Garibaldi’s forces could regroup. It is at this point that an interesting thing happens, 2,000 of Ruiz’s men refused the order to retreat and assembled on their own with their own officiers to attack the lightly defended Caserta.
Photograph of the Bourbon Palace at Caserta
It has been suggested that the motivation for this was the opportunity to plunder the Bourbon Palace at Caserta however, I do not believe that to be true. First, there are no other examples of pillaging actions as a driving force among Bourbon forces at any other stage in the conflict. Second, they were literally surrounded by enemy forces, hardly the time to go off seeking plunder. I think it more likely that these soldiers simply wanted to continue to advance on Naples and were frustrated by the repeated failures of their commanders.
At any rate isolated and without support it was not long on the 2nd before Garibaldi brought up sufficient manpower to surround this small isolated Bourbon force. A number of skirmishes resulted but eventually the majority of this element of the Bourbon force trapped by overwhelming numbers had to surrender.
Accurate numbers regarding casualties from these two days of fighting are difficult to obtain. Garibaldi reported between 1,800 and 2,000 of his forces were either killed, wounded or missing in the two days of fighting. Making this the most costly engagement for garibaldi’s forces in the entire southern campaign. This casualty figure would be about 10% of his entire force in Campania. Nevertheless he still had considerable manpower to maintain his defensive line.
On the Bourbon side, exclusive of the Caserta action the Bourbon’s reported between 1,300 and 1,500 killed, wounded or missing. In addition, the fighting had resulted in the capture of between 2,000 and 2,200 Bourbon soldiers and officers mostly at Caserta. Interestingly, when looking at just those killed, wounded or missing, Garibaldi lost 10% of his force to 3% losses on the Bourbon side during the actual two days of fighting. Even when counting the captured the Bourbon losses are only 10% of their total force and they too remained a potent military force.
As a result assessment of the battle in terms of winners and losers in mixed. At the end of the day the Bourbons still had the numerically superior fighting force and their original defensive positions in northern Campania. For his side Garibaldi retained his original defensive position, having stopped the Bourbon advance in its tracks.
Again it appears that Garibaldi’s objective during the battle was simply continuity of his defensive line. This was achieved. Garibaldi knew that the Piedmont force under King Victor Emmanuel II was on its way. Further he knew that Victor Emmanuel had to be on site and leading the final thrust against the Bourbon regime in order to solidify his position of authority bovver the south.
One interesting fact that comes out of this battle is that the battle represents the first time in Garibaldi’s campaign in the south in which large numbers of Bourbon soldiers were taken prisoner. Up until this point Garibaldi’s policy had been to release surrendering soldiers who then largely deserted. This policy had actually aided Garibaldi’s cause by encouraging Bourbon troops to surrender as they knew they would be sent home without repercussions. However, Garibaldi knew that the troops that remained and against whom he now fought were loyalists to the Bourbon crown and if released would simply rejoin those fighting against him. Therefore his former policy was no longer an effective tool. Once taken prisoner however, the fate of those prisoners of this battle actually sets off a very interesting and, unexpected tale which I will write about in a couple of upcoming articles.
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