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Victory for the Papal Zouaves: November 3, 1867

This text comes from our book, Light to the Nations II: The Making of the Modern World. It continues our account of Garibaldi’s invasion of the Papal States.


… But Garibaldi received his first check when six thousand of his Redshirts attacked several hundred members of the Legion of Antibes at the fortified town of Monte Rotondo, about 17 miles northeast of Rome. Greatly outnumbered, the hard-fighting French legionaries held off the Redshirts for 27 hours but at last were forced to retreat. The Redshirts moved in and ransacked the town, plundered and defiled the church, and terrorized the people. So great was the destruction in Monte Rotondo that Garibaldi himself rebuked his men with the sternest words. But it was no use; the “Liberator of Italy” could not control the many desperate men (bandits and other criminals) who served in his army.



Though a victory for Garibaldi, the Battle of Monte Rotondo benefited the papal army. The legionaries had so badly bruised the Redshirts that Garibaldi hesitated several days before making his final push against Rome.


In the meantime, about two thousand French troops had arrived at the papal port of Civitavecchia and joined General Kanzler’s papal forces in Rome. (When it learned of Garibaldi’s invasion, the French government had forced Napoleon III to send a force to Rome to aid the pope.) By November 2, Kanzler had an effective force of 5,000 men: 1,500 Papal Zouaves, another 1,500 Papal regulars, and 2,000 French troops under Baron de Polhès. With these forces, Kanzler planned to march against the enemy’s army of about 10,000 men.


gloire Roussel, a Papal Zouave, ca 1869

The sun had not yet risen on November 3, 1867, when Kanzler, Polhès, and their five thousand men marched out from Rome. They were moving against Monte Rotondo, a six hours’ march away. Their road, the ancient Roman Via Nomentana, passed through rugged, hilly country dotted with vineyards and orchards. Along the road, between the papal army and Monte Rotondo, lay the hilltop town of Mentana, where the Redshirts had their first outposts and where Garibaldi himself was in command.


But the next morning brought no battle. That night, Garibaldi had abandoned his men in Mentana and fled to Monte Rotondo; from there, he and what remained of his army escaped across the border. Discovering Garibaldi’s flight, the Italian army withdrew from the border. By late morning of November 4, it was clear that the invasion had ended. The Papal States had been saved for the pope.


Those Redshirts in Mentana who surrendered that morning of November 4, 1867, doubtless feared revenge from the papal army. What they discovered to their surprise was field hospitals set up to tend not only the wounded of the papal troops, but the wounded of the enemy as well. The Redshirts received not revenge, but mercy.


The Battle of Mentana, a lithograph by Archimede Tranzi, about 1880

More surprised were the wounded Redshirts taken to the Castel Sant’Angelo in Rome, when one day they received an unexpected visitor—the pope himself. “Behold me, my friends!” said Pius. “You see before you the ‘Vampire of Italy,’ of whom your general has spoken. What! All of you have taken up arms against me, and you find only a poor old man.” Pius promised to send each one, with clothing and shoes, back to his home, but only on one condition—that “you will make a spiritual retreat for my sake. It is the pope who asks this of you,” he said.


In the coming days and weeks, Pope Pius extended a general amnesty to all who had taken part in the invasion. Only the two men who had destroyed the Zouave barracks were held for trial. After a year, both were condemned and executed—a deed for which the Italian government and Liberal opinion throughout Europe criticized the pope.


King Vittorio Emanuele’s government might well complain, but not about the execution, for it had lost a golden opportunity to make Rome the capital of Italy. Not only had the invasion failed, but in France, citizens were demanding that the French army remain in Rome to guard the pope. On December 4, 1867, the French Legislative Body commanded Napoleon III to send more troops to Rome, and the emperor complied.


Thus, by the beginning of 1868, French troops were again stationed in Rome, protecting the pope. Besides the French army, volunteers from France, Germany, Belgium, Hungary, and Canada came to Rome to join the pope’s volunteer forces. It thus appeared that, with such an army at his disposal, the pope’s kingdom would remain secure for years to come.


A Song of the Papal Zouaves

The Papal Zouaves were true soldiers, and like soldiers of their time and ages before, would march to war in song. This is one of their songs, sung in French: En avant, marchons.







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