Destiny toys with us all, but Anita Garibaldi is a force to be reckoned with. Forced into marriage at a young age, Anita feels trapped in a union she does not want. But when she meets the leader of the Brazilian resistance, Giuseppe Garibaldi, in 1839, everything changes.
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For the sake of efficiency, the plan was to recruit as we made our way south to Rome, staying west of Milan and the Austrian forces that still encircled the city. Little white puffs of dandelion seed floated on the lazy summer air that drifted between the people who congregated outside another abandoned castle, of which only the frame remained. Our location sat on a great hill that overlooked an expansive lush valley below. Brilliant hues of green shimmered in the warm sunlight.
A hundred people from the town had shown up to hear what we had to say. They packed in around us with picnic baskets and blankets. Families gathered to see us. I gulped and turned to José.
“Are you sure you want me to speak? These are your people. Won’t they understand you better than
“Tesoro mio, you will be fine,” José said, putting his hands on my shoulders. “The people will love you
just like I do.” Tenderly, he kissed my forehead.
“Sir! Sir!” José and I turned to the messenger who was running up to us. “I come with news from Rome.”
He paused, trying to catch his breath. “The French have landed. They are in Ostia.”
José cursed. “How many?”
“Seven thousand,” the messenger responded.
“Why?” I asked, looking from José to Paolo. “Why would the French do this?”
“The pope put out a call to all the Catholic nations for assistance,” Paolo answered.
“You know this is only the first wave,” Medici whispered to José. “There are going to be more.”
“This is preposterous!” José began pacing like a caged lion, ignoring everyone around him. “This cannot happen. It has to be the whole peninsula or nothing. We cannot be a country that stands on its own with one of our legs torn out from under us.”
“Do we call it off?” Paolo asked, watching José with uncertainty. “We’ve missed our window. If we attack now, we won’t have enough men. It’s impossible.”
“No. We can’t let the French get a foothold. How many do we have now?” José asked.
“One thousand,” Medici responded. “We’re outnumbered. There is no way we can do this.”
“Then we get more men,” I said, walking to the podium.
A warm breeze rustled through the trees that surrounded us as the sun set in the distance. My eyes scanned the people gathered on the common. They were families in their cleanest clothes, reserved for mass and special occasions, spending their day waiting to hear us speak . . . to hear me speak.
I cleared my throat. “Buona sera.” I tried to smile. There were twice as many people here as there had been at the café in Genoa.
A small group of children had been playing in front of the stage. When I started to speak, they froze in place, their ball slipping from a boy’s fingers. I leaned down and picked it up.
As the ball passed from my fingertips to the boy, I thought of my own little ones back in Nizza and the future we were building for them. The small child grinned up at me before running back to his family. I smiled. “He is a good, strong boy,” I said to his parents. “Perhaps one day he will play with my children. Maybe they will call each other friends, yes? By the time they meet it won’t matter that your son is from Lombardy and mine is from Piedmont, because by the time they meet we will all be one. We will be Italy.
“My son’s namesake, Ciro Menotti, dared to dream that. He dared to stand up to the Austrians and tell them that they could not oppress us any longer. That there would be an Italy and it would be glorious. But Ciro Menotti paid dearly for that dream. The Austrians killed him, all because he wanted a free fatherland.
“We are on the brink of seeing that dream come true. We are the lucky few who can stand here today and bear witness to the creation of a country. If you are lucky enough to see the hairs on your head go white or for your bones to creak, you can sit with your grandchildren on your knee and you can tell them you were here. You can tell them that you did something that mattered, that because of you they have a future. A future that is full of hope. A future that is free.”
The crowd erupted into loud cheers. “Will you stand by and watch while others bear the burden of history, or will you rise up so that your children can go forth with pride, so that they can say, ‘This is who I am. This is where I come from.’ So that they can say, ‘I am an Italian.’”
“Viva Italia!” The crowd erupted. “Viva Italia!”
I walked back to José and the other men. “You’re welcome.” I kissed José on the cheek as he took my place at the podium.
I listened to José as he rode on the energy of the crowd. For a while, he chanted with them. “Viva Italia! Viva Italia!” He grinned like he had on the day Menotti was born. He held up his hand and immediately the crowd stilled. “My compagni, wasn’t my wife something? You can see why I stole her from Brazil, yes? As she so eloquently stated, we need unification.” He looked around the crowd. “But France has determined that Rome should be its own country. That they shall not take part in our dream of Italy. How can we be unified when we have a country within a country? If your son is missing, do you not search for him? Do you not bring him back into the fold of the family hearth?
“While in exile I prayed, nay, implored God that I would see Rome one more time. The cradle of our civilization. The birthplace of everything we are. Everything we hope to be is controlled by a man who dares elevate himself to the level of sainthood. Who calls himself pope.” Gasps rippled through the crowd. “Yes, I said it. The pope is only a man. For how can he call himself the voice of God when he does not want equality for every Italian, regardless of the color of their skin, their gender, or their religion? Pope Pius seeks to stifle us. Every day he passes edicts that restrict the Romans’ freedom. That creates inequality. Join me! Together we will march on Rome and say, ‘No more!’ We are one people united by our devotion to justice! To freedom! To Italy! Together we will tell the world that we will no longer stand for other countries interfering in the business of this peninsula!”
The crowd cheered. Every able-bodied man signed up for José’s war effort. Together, new recruits blended in with our soldiers. As a great mass we marched south, stopping to speak in more cities. Bringing more people with us. Until we found ourselves at the doorstep of Rome, a great horde ready to take back the heart of our country.
On the morning before we left on our campaign for Rome, José pulled me aside. “I should tell you that it would be a good idea for you to go back to Nizza to be with the children.”
“And I should tell you, you are a fool to think that after all this time I would actually listen to an order like that.”
José snorted. “I know, but I thought I would try anyway. I don’t know how we are going to get you in the ranks.”
“You’re the general; they have to listen to you.”
At this point my husband openly laughed. “Not in this matter they won’t. You are a woman; they won’t accept you.” He kissed me on the forehead. “I have to inspect the munitions. I’ll see you this afternoon.”
I absentmindedly stroked my loose hair as I watched my husband leave. As my fingers slipped through the strands a thought occurred to me. I searched through the supplies for a pair of scissors. Finding one, I took a deep breath and cut.
That afternoon I slipped into the stables while the men loaded provisions for the battle. My hair was cut short and I wore men’s clothing. None of the soldiers looked twice at me. “Boy, can you pick up . . . ” José paused and looked at me, his eyebrows furrowed. “Anita?”
I saluted him. “Private Garibaldi at your service.”
“I know.” I beamed. “None of the soldiers even noticed me.”
He led me outside by my elbow. “You didn’t have to do this.”
“I had to, if I wanted to come with you. I’m not going back to Nizza. I was thinking I could have a medical station.”
He wiped a tired hand over his face. “All right.”
As we progressed toward Rome we picked up every able-bodied person we could, but it still wasn’t enough. Our numbers, all dressed in red, totaled only 6,300.
“It’s not enough,” Medici warned as we prepared to leave for the city. “The French still have seven thousand plus a full battalion of field guns. I know the French general, Oudinot, will take advantage of every opportunity he can.”
“Oudinot is cocky,” José said. “He believes the Italians can’t fight, and that’s where he’s wrong. We’ll surprise him with our strength.”
Medici opened his mouth to argue, but a young man spoke up. “Perhaps I can be of assistance.”
José and Medici turned to this boy, who stood before them in an old blue coat that was too long in the
arms. He pushed back the sandy blond hair that fell over his face. “And who are you?” José asked with
his hand on his sword.
“Angelo Puglisi. I’m the commander of the student brigade.”
“Commander?” Medici let out a burst of a laugh. “You have barely left your mother’s breast. How old
Puglisi stiffened. “Eighteen, sir.”
“Eighteen,” Medici repeated. “This is not a game, child. Go back to your toy soldiers.”
“We weren’t treated like children when we rebelled against King Ferdinand. Trust me, Lieutenant Colonel Medici, this is not the first war we’ve seen,” Puglisi insisted. “I brought with me one thousand lancers. We are all students from Sicily.”
José grinned as he clapped Medici on the back. “Rome is going to be ours.”
My small garrison, made up of Redshirts who had followed us to Italy from Montevideo, made its way to Rome to set up our makeshift hospital. We crested the hill, and I saw Rome spread out before me.
Over the years I had heard a number of stories about this city from José. He called it the most beautiful place in all the world, and from our vantage point I could see why. New buildings pressed in on ancient ruins while giant domes rose above the clatter of the chaos.
For thousands of years people had built Rome, stone by stone. How many beads of sweat and blood had soaked into its foundations?
To look upon Rome was to know that this city belonged to no one. Not the French. Not the church. Not even us. She was from this land, as natural as the mountains that rose in the north. We were only usurpers destined to be here for a short time. Long after we were gone this city would remain.
I finally understood. If José had to choose—his life or the freedom of Rome—he would choose Rome. As I rode forward with my contingent of medical aides, I knew too that I would make the same choice.
We took up residence in a nearby monastery. Once the home of a martyred saint, it was a simple structure that dated back to ancient Roman times. The monks begged and pleaded for us to go anywhere else. They were a church, not a hospital.
Stepping closer, I placed my hand on the hilt of my sword. “Do you mean to tell me that you would turn
away dying people because they don’t bow down to your pope?
The head monk’s beady eyes narrowed as he took in my baggy, worn out red shirt tucked into my black pants. “I know who you are,” he whispered. “You’re the woman posing as Giuseppe Garibaldi’s wife. You can’t be here.”
He pulled against the soldiers who gripped his arms. “Please, she can’t be here. She is a blasphemer, a bigamist. The sanctity of this church is compromised by her presence.”
My second-in-command, Orgini, was a broad man who had been with the legion since Montevideo. “Lock the monks in the basement,” he ordered. “We’ll trade them for prisoners of war when this is all over. Oh, and bring up the wine and whatever else you can find. We have a long night ahead of us.”
The pleas of the monks echoed in the distance as they were hauled away. “To speak of the dust in another’s eye while ignoring the plank in your own,” Orgini said to no one in particular. “And they wonder why the new republic doesn’t embrace the church.”
“Come, we have work to do,” I said, leaving our new prisoners to their fates.
As rain poured down around us, we opened every window we could in a vain attempt to dissipate the thick humid air that clung to us. Throughout the night the war raged in the distance, and the bodies kept coming. By the break of dawn, all of my men were walking around with glazed eyes, trying not to trip over their own feet. “By the look of things, I would think that we are losing,” one of them grumbled.
“The battles are not over yet,” I corrected him, even though I shared his sentiment.
The morning sun had fully risen when José entered the sick tent, greeting the injured men who had not yet departed from this plane. I watched as he passed from bed to bed. He was blood-splattered and covered in mud. My insides clenched with fear. I couldn’t tell if he was putting on a brave front for the sake of morale.
I noticed the slight limp in his walk as he approached. “We won,” he whispered.
“You did? We have so many injured, I didn’t think—” José put a finger to my lips.
“They were vicious, but we proved to be the better force.”
I grabbed a rag and began to wipe the blood off him. “Are you wounded?”
“Nothing to concern yourself with.” His gaze passed over me to the injured that filled the sanctuary. “Take care of our men for now. I have business to attend to, but be ready to move. We are going to occupy a fortress.” His hand cupped my cheek. “Once we have settled in, we’ll have some time for ourselves.” He turned back to the men and clapped his hands. “Tonight we celebrate, for Rome is ours!”
Soldiers soon arrived to help my company move the patients and their things. Initially, I stayed close, supervising the course of action, but soon I became more of a hindrance than a help. I found my horse and made my way to the fortress.
I found José wiping his neck with a damp towel as he gave orders to the men around him, who were busy moving boxes onto carts.
“Tesoro mio, you have escaped!” he exclaimed with a broad smile. The blood that had covered his face was gone. He wore an old white shirt that hung loosely on his large frame. The bloody edge of a bandage poked out from underneath.
“José,” I scolded, pulling him to me and lifting up his shirt, “you are injured.”
“It’s merely a flesh wound.” His hands went to my belly. “Has he moved much lately?”
“Not really,” I said. “But I get a reassuring kick here and there. He lets me know he’s still with us.”
“Good.” José smiled. “Good.”
Excerpted from The Woman in Red by Diana Giovinazzo. Copyright © 2020 by Diana Giovinazzo Tierney. Reprinted with permission of Grand Central Publishing. All rights reserved.