The American Civil War and its Effect on 19th Century Italian Immigrants


By: Tom Frascella                                                                                                                          December 2015


 Generally in citing the statistical rendition of Italian immigration to what is now the U.S. it is estimated that approximately 10,000, mostly men, came to what would become the U.S. between 1492 and 1790. I say Italian peninsula because there was no unified Italy during this period. No secular State within Italy participated in the colonization of the Americas. Those that came did so in the employ or furthering the interests of other European countries. The people of Italy were often, themselves the subject of domination by other European powers during this time. Most of these individuals who came to America in the first three hundred years after Columbus were highly educated or possessed unique skills or training desirable in the European colonization of America. Of this number it is estimated that approximately half returned to Europe after their projects in America were finished. Approximately 5,000 men over this extend period of 300 years is a very small number indeed. A number that statistically is insignificant in the totals of immigration from colonizing nations and slaves forced to the Americas during that period. For example it is estimated that 350,000 slaves were brought to what would become the United States during the same period. Nevertheless because of these Italian born immigrants’ level of education and professional status these few men of the Italian peninsula made substantial contributions to the development of America. These contributions went far beyond what their small numbers would suggest. Among those contributions we note the work of the famous explorers, map makers, engineers, craftsmen, missionaries, educators, soldiers and political activists some of whom I profiled in earlier articles.

 Of those that remained in the European colonies of America most married women from the lands and cultures where they settled. By the second or third generation the descendants of these early “Italian” immigrants were totally merged and mixed, culturally and ethnically, in the mainstream of whichever colonial power they found themselves. So much so that identifying them as “Italian” loses meaning and is not a meaningful ethnic label.  It is likely also not a label that their descendants would have sought out or claimed themselves.

 Nevertheless we can also trace some of the American born descendants of early immigration from the Italian peninsula to the Colonies. Many of these individuals also are noted for making significant contributions to their colonial communities. The descendants of these few early arrivals continued to make the Americas stronger and many were notable contributors to the American Revolution.

 A second group of immigrants from the Italian peninsula, also numbering about 10,000, immigrated between 1790 and 1850. These individuals, mostly men, were different than those that preceded them in that a high percentage were seeking at least temporary political asylum in the newly established United States. Many of these individuals arrived having escaped the consequences of their involvement in failed attempts to establish a Republic on the Italian mainland. The United States represented the only example of success of a republican based revolution and government in the late 18th and early 19th century. As such the U.S. was a beacon of hope for these liberty loving individuals.

 Many of these immigrants, approximately half, continued to harbor the hope of triumph of republican ideals on the Italian peninsula and eventually repatriated back to Italy. The remaining individuals made new lives in the U.S. Like earlier Italian immigrants there were few ethnic Italian women among them and these men tended to marry outside of their ethnicity. The result was again that their American born descendants fully integrated into early U.S. society, ethnically and culturally, and probably also did not think of themselves as “Italians” as this was only a part of their ancestral heritage.

 By 1850 after roughly eighty years of the American experiment with democracy and the republican form of government severe political, social, economic and moral issues began to overwhelm the practical performance of the U.S. Republic. Specifically, tensions between States Rights versus Federal Supremacy, and the existence and continuation of Slavery caused major riffs in the fabric of American society.

 Also around 1850 thru 1860 a third group, mostly men, began to arrive in the U.S. from the Italian peninsula. These numbered between 10,000 and 12,000. Among these were a significant measure of individuals seeking political asylum as a result of the failed Republican revolts that sweep Italy and many European countries from 1848-1854. As a result of this unique circumstance in the history of U.S. immigration these immigrants regardless of the European country of origin are grouped together and called the 48ers or 1848ers in recognition of the politics that was behind their arrival. Again like their earlier political refugee brothers many were looking for only temporary asylum and hoped to return to their native regions. In fact it is estimated that prior to the start of the American Civil War anywhere from a third to half of these emigres had already returned to Italy.

 There are many examples, some of which I have again mentioned in earlier articles, of Italians or descendants of Italians who participated in the defense of the U.S. from the American Revolution thru all of the conflicts that the U.S. engaged in up to the Civil War. However I wish in this article to begin to focus on only those Italians/Italian-Americans in the U.S. who were born in Italy and took up residence in this country between, 1850-1865. As the American Civil War began to take shape in 1860 there were only about 5,000-8,000 individuals living in the U.S. who had been born on the Italian peninsula.

 This is a very small pool of men, scattered throughout the U.S. with the largest cluster in New York State. New York State was a cluster point for Italians because it happened to be the major port of entry at the time. However there were still many who had settled throughout the U.S as far as California. Of these 5,000 to 8,000 men approximately 90% lived in what would become pro-Union States. This is important because many of the combatants served in State units which reflected loyalty to neighbors rather than a political agenda.

 In terms of service in the upcoming Civil War between the States the low numbers of Italian born men in the population of the country would obviously not generate many participating combatants. However, estimates of the number of men born on the Italian peninsula that took part in combat during the American Civil War is estimated to be between 7,000 and 9,000.

 This would appear to be a statistical oddity, as more may have served than were here during the period 1850-1860. The discrepancy is the result of an additional 6,000 to 8,000 men who arrived in the U.S. from Italy between 1860 and 1865. So immigrants from the Italian peninsula continued arriving as the Civil War was actually taking place. These men, were also seeking political asylum in the U.S. however many had come as a consequence of the Second War of Italian Unification and its aftermath. So they are distinct in that they were fleeing the policies of the newly formed Italian unified government not the suppression of foreign powers who held colonial power over regions of Italy like the 48ers.

 While Italian born men arriving both before and after the start of the American Civil War served in the conflict I think it is more productive to analyze their service as if they represent two distinct groups. The group that I would like to write about in this article are those that had arrived in the U.S. before the outbreak of American hostilities. These 1850’s arrivals which we historically call the 48ers had the advantage of having lived in the U.S. for a number of years and therefore understood customs and more importantly the language. In all it is estimated that approximately 3,500 to 4,000 of these men served in the war. As said, about 90% of these Italian men lived in States that remained in the Union. As a result 90% of those of this group served in units within the ranks of the northern forces and about 10% in the ranks of southern forces.

 Of these Italian born immigrants about 95% came from central or northern Italy. As I discussed in previous articles the Carbonari revolt of the 1840’s was quite successful for a while in central and northern Italy until foreign powers intervened. Faced with armies from France and Austria the 48ers’ in Italy eventually collapsed creating many exposed supporters who had to flee into exile. The southern revolt In the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies was quashed before it really ever got started when British intelligence let the Bourbon government know of Mazzini’s plans to embark a landing force of revolutionaries. Since the rebellion was put down so quickly the identities of the sympathizers with the revolt within the Kingdom were harder to find. This resulted in fewer southern Italians going into exile than their northern counterparts.

 Allowing that many of the 5,000-8,000 48ers living in the U.S. before 1860 were too old or ill to serve in combat by the start of the war and that some did not want to serve the estimate that about 3,500 to 4,000 of these men did serve shows a remarkably high enlistment rate of approximately 50%.

 I say enlistment because many of these men, like many that served in the Civil War volunteered or enlisted for service. As such when you research these men and their service they are identified in army units by their State of origin.  Because most of the 48ers had sufficient time to learn English when they enlisted, they enlisted in integrated units with other men often from the communities in which they currently lived. In this way they were not discriminated against by placement because they were “Italian”. However, many suffered discrimination in the form of being passed over for advancement in these units. This may have been the result of prejudices held by senior officers because of either the Italians primarily Catholic religion or foreign birth rather than ethnicity. Military and civilian authority in the U.S was heavily dominated by English speaking white, Protestants.

 Admittedly, Italian born U.S. soldiers were few in number and became part of an immense conflict. It is estimated that approximately 3 million men served in the American Civil War, about 2 million on the Union side and about one million on the Confederate side. Over 600,000 combatants lost their lives, with hundreds of thousand wounded. Nevertheless, Italian born soldiers in the conflict served with distinction with many reaching the officer ranks. Frequently, references to these men take note that they were reliable and dependable soldiers who took their duties seriously and avoided distractions and dereliction of duty. Name changes and poor records make it difficult to say with certainty but it is believed that 6 to 12 of these men earned the Congressional Medal of Honor during the War. It should also be noted that statistically soldiers that served on either side of the conflict from its inception were very likely to have been among the casualties of the war by war’s end. The battles of the American Civil War were among the most bloody in the history of warfare. Those that served the longest were least likely to survive. This is true of the early Italian born volunteers, most died, were wounded or were captured during the course of conflict.

 By way of illustrating the service and character of these Italian born 48ers I have chosen to briefly identify and profile three who served, Luigi Palma di Cesnola, Carlo De Rudio and Giovanni Garibaldi. I think that their profiles and experiences will serve to help understand some of what Italians faced. I am also including some brief remarks about Enrico Fardella as well because of his close decade long military relationship with Cesnola.

                                                              Luigi Palma di Cesnola  (1832-1904)



                                                                                                      Picture of Cesnola



 Luigi Palma di Cesnola was born near Turin Italy on July 29, 1832. He was the second son of a local Count, who was a career military officer in the Piedmont Sardinian army. At age 15 Luigi joined the army of Piedmont-Sardinia in 1848 and took part in the Carbonari based uprisings of the period.  He served the losing Piedmont cause for unification of northern Italian provinces and independence against Austria in the First Italian War of Independence. During the major Piedmont vs. Austrian battle of Novara in 1849 he was decorated for bravery and promoted to the rank of second lieutenant at age 16. After his commission in 1849 and at the cessation of hostilities with Austria, Cesnola continued his military career by attending the Royal Military Academy at Cherasco, graduating in 1851 at the age of 19. Around this same time in the Kingdom of Piedmont-Sardinia there began the political intrigues and machinations of the young King Victor Emmanuel and his Prime Minister Cavour. In the mid 1850’s we see the young Piedmont officer Cesnola, without explanation, being dismissed from the Piedmont army in 1854, at age 22. However, what he does next in his military career may be an indication of his involvement in Piedmont’s greater international interests and designs.

 Shortly after his dismissal from Piedmont’s military, Cesnola can be found as aide de Camp to Sicilian Carbonari military hero General Enrico Fardella in the British army. Fardella joined the British Army in the mid 1850’s after the collapse of the Sicilian Carbonari revolt that sweep Sicily. Exiled from the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, Farsdella volunteered for service with England in the Crimean War.

 It is difficult not to notice the unusual connection of an exiled Sicilian General with a young brash northern Italian officer and both given high rank in the British army. Further that both go off to fight in a war between England and Russia where they would seem to have no national, political or personal stake.

 This is the same Crimean War that Piedmont-Sardinia eventually in 1856 sends 15,000 troops to support French and British troops engaged there. So I think it entirely possible that fardella and Cesnola, among others, were implanted with the British in advance of Piedmont intended alliance with England and France in the war. The Crimean War was the war where Piedmont secured the secret alliance of the British and French for the later Second War of Independence or Unification. Cresnola and Fardella served with distinction in the war and were present with British forces at the famous battle of Balaclava and the siege of Sevastopol. After the conclusion of the Crimean War Fardella returned to the Carbonari/Young Italia movement in Italy, but not in his Homeland of Sicily. Instead he focused his involvement in northern Italy, in the territories of Piedmont-Sardinia. There he quickly became associated with and served under Giuseppe Garibaldi both in the Second War between Austria and Piedmont which Piedmont with the help of the French won in 1858 and as part of the 1,000 that accompanied Garibaldi to Sicily landing in Sicily in May 1860.

 Luigi Cesnola instead of returning to northern Italy after the Crimean War journeyed to the United States in 1858. There he briefly occupied himself by teaching Italian and French in New York City. It was while so employed that he met and married Mary Isabel Ried, which may explain why he did not participate in Piedmont’s Second War with Austria and the Garibaldi invasion of the 1,000 1858-1860. In addition to getting married, in 1860 he founded a military school for officers in New York City. His military experience giving him quite a resume and making him highly qualified to teach tactics. The school produced over 700 officers that would serve the Union cause.

 Of interesting note, after the successful defeat of the Bourbons in the south of Italy, General Enrico Fardella, the hero of Trapani came to the U.S. in 1861. As we have discussed in the last article King Victor Emmanuel II basically moved Garibaldi and his forces to the rear after he arrived in the south. Since Garibaldi’s forces were no longer engaged many of the officers began to seek other opportunities/causes in which they could employ their military expertise.

 By 1861 the American Civil War had already started in the U.S. At Fardella’s own expense he organized a brigade of volunteers, which after forming became known as the 101 New York regiment. He was commissioned a Colonel in the unit and thus began his involvement on the Union side in the American Civil War. It should be further noted that at about the same time that Fardella and Cesnola worked together and helped establish the New York 39th Infantry Regiment. This unit was commissioned in May 1861. The unit came to be known as the Garibaldi Guard.

 As part of their efforts in forming the New York 39th Cesnola and Fardella helped in the recruitment of recently arrived immigrants, including Italians, many of whom had Carbonari links, for service in the American Civil War.

 The Garibaldi regiment or as it was officially called the N.Y. 39th saw substantial action during the war including a dramatic stand at Gettysburg. It was unique as one of the most internationally diverse units in the Union army. When it was originally created the regiment consisted of eleven companies, three German, three Hungarian, one Swiss, one Italian, one French, one Spanish and one Portuguese. The officer corp. of the regiment also was unique in reflecting the diversity of its units. A number of the young officers had studied under Cesnola at his military academy.



                                                                    Picture of Union General Enrico Fardella (1821-1882)


 In 1862 Cesnola began his own direct involvement in the American Civil War. Using his own resources he recruited and outfitted a regiment that would be commissioned the 4th New York Calvary Regiment. As part of the process of raising a volunteer unit he was commissioned a Colonel in that regiment.

 As to the actions that the regiments that Fardella and Cesnola recruited and fought with I can give the following brief account;


                                                                                           101st Infantry Regiment


 This unit was active between September 1861 and February 1862. It was commanded by Colonel Fardella. In June it was assigned to Kearny’s Division and took part in the Seven Days Battle of early summer 1862 and the Second Battle of Bull Run in August. In all the unit lost two officers and 73 enlisted men killed. At the Second Battle of Bull Run it suffered its greatest casualties with 6 killed, 17 missing and 124 wounded. Only two other union Regiments suffered percentage heavier losses in a single battle in the course of the war. The decimated remnants of the 101St were shortly thereafter rolled over into the 37th New York. Where Fardella served until the three year enlistment of his volunteers ran.

 Remnants of the Garibaldi regiment would also be rolled into the New York 37th by the last year of the war as well. This is an example that as casualties mounted the surviving troopers would often be merged into other units to replenish these veteran corps.

 In 1863 Colonel Fardella helped organize a new volunteer regiment the 85th New York which was created from upstate New York volunteers. He technically served with this unit from June 26, 1863 thru May 15, 1865. In battle of Plymouth North Carolina the 85th Regiment was part of a larger union force that became surrounded and trapped by the Confederate Navy and ground forces. Being surrounded  forced the Union ground forces into a fortress. Surrounded and unable to be supplied the Union forces commanded by General Wessels surrendered. Fardella as well as about 20 officers and almost 600 enlisted men surrendered from the 85 New York. Colonel Fardella became a prisoner of war and was sent to Andersonville where he remained for the rest of the war. For his bravery in battle it is my understanding that President Lincoln bestowed the rank of Brigadier General on Enrico Fardella.


                                                                        The 4th New York Calvary


 This was the unit that Col. Cesnola helped organize, equip and eventually fought with as a colonel in the unit. This regiment like many of the army Calvary units in the Civil War was split up and served as supporting units, scouts and other quick moving functions for infantry units. Colonel Cesnola was well respected by his men. On June 17, 1863 at Aldie, Virginia his unit encountered Confederate forces under Jeb Stuart in what was part of the Gettysburg campaign. On that day Col. Cesnola won the Congressional Medal of Honor for his bravery on the field. However, as the Medal citation suggests there is an interesting story behind his actions that day. Therefore I will include the citation here;

“At the start of the Battle at Aldie, Cesnola was placed under arrest by his superior officer for protesting the promotion of a less experienced officer to brigadier General. He was stripped of his saber and sidearm. (Also confined to his tent). Without Cesnola the Fourth New York Calvary balked repeatedly when asked to charge a hillside gun battery. The new commanding general knew Cesnola was needed to rally the unit. He said, “Colonel, you are a brave man. You are released from arrest. Here is my own sword. Take it and bring it back to me covered in the enemy’s blood.” When he entered the battle “the regiment arrived on the scene of conflict, and by a gallant charge, turned apparent defeat into glorious victory for our arms, completely routing the enemy and cutting off nearly 100 men, all of whom were captured.”

 As the day of battle progressed, Col. Cesnola became separated from his men when he was wounded and had his horse shot out from under him. Unfortunately, Col. Cesnola was captured by Confederate forces who found him pinned beneath his dead mount, wounded by a rifle bullet to the arm and a saber slash to the head. He was imprisoned for a time in the Confederate Libby prison until he was exchanged in early 1864. After his release from prison camp he returned to active duty. Col. Cesnola command a full Calvary brigade in the battles of the Wilderness and Petersburg.

 It should be noted that command of a brigade usually results in the rank of Brigadier General. While Col. Cesnola served with distinction as a brigade commander for over a year and in two major battles the expected promotion never materialized. He was nominated for the rank of General by the army, but for reason unknown Congress never approved the nomination and the rank was never officially bestowed. Following the war, during a life of continued service and distinction in the United States he petitioned to have his rank upgraded in retirement. Although this was commonly done, Congress again never acted to reward this “Italian” Medal of Honor Winner. Cesnola was not the only American with Italian or Italian American heritage that Congress failed to respect and to promote to the rank their service would normally dictate, as it is for example a part of Captain Louis Sartori’s story as well. While at one point he commanded a fleet he was never given the rank of Admiral and his post service request for reconsideration were also ignored by Congress.


                                                                                              Carlo De Rudio (1832-1910)


 I have previously written about Carlo De Rudio in an article titled (Italian) Boots on the Plains, dated May 2013. The article focused on the post military career of De Rudio specifically his involvement as an officer in the 7th Calvary at the Battle of the Little Big Horn. I am including him here because he also was a 48er. In fact, the son of an Italian Count, as a teenager he dropped out of Austrian military school due to frequent fights with his Austrian classmates. According to his biographies the Austrians thought themselves superior and shunned the young De Rudio as beneath them in class status and race. Because of his “olive” complexion and thick black hair some of his classmates he was of African ancestry, a remark meant to cause insult. This lead to frequent fights and duels with his classmates with injury to many of them. Apparently the commandant of the academy did not approve of the sons of Austrian nobility being scarred and injured by De Rudio in saber duels. After his discharge he became associated with the Carbonari cause. In the revolt of 1848 De Rudio served on the general staff of Giuseppe Garibaldi. Again, even barely out of his teens he was an aggressive, and courageous soldier under fire. After the collapse of the Roman Republic and the intervention of France on the side of the Papacy he fled Italy and went into exile in England.  In England he met and married an English woman. In continued his revolutionary actions and he became involved in the 1850’s with an Italian based Carbonari plot to assassinate Napoleon III. The plot failed and De Rudio was sentenced to life in prison at Devils Island. He escaped and returned to England where he was considered a political liability to the British. He was encouraged to immigrate to the U.S. where it was felt that he could achieve a measure of anonymity.

 Because of a secret alliance between Piedmont and the British and French De Rudio which would play out during the Piedmont second war with Austria and Garibaldi’s Sicilian campaign De Rudio was persona non grata in Italy.  There was no possibility that he could not return to Italy and participate in the War of Unification as Napoleon was a needed ally of Piedmont.

 Upon his arrival in the U.S. in 1863 he sought employment to support himself and his wife. Finding little work available he enlisted as a private in the New York 79th Volunteers, known as the “Highlanders” in 1864.




                                                                                               Photograph of Carlo De Rudio


 The original “Highlanders” were mustered out in late 1863 when their enlistment ended. De Rudio was part of the reconstituted regiment that included only two companies of veterans. De Rudio, no stranger to battle, distinguished himself in several battles, including Petersburg and was highly decorated. In November 1864 he received a battlefield commission to 2nd Lieutenant.

 In part because of his political past, De Rudio was reassigned after his promotion, removed from the NY Highlanders. His new assignment was with the 2nd Regiment U.S.C.T. which stands for United States Colored Troops. The unit was transferred to Florida where De Rudio would spend the better part of the next five years with the unit. This assignment of a white officer to “Negro” troops was generally regarded as a career ending assignment. Often the officers so assigned were considered non-“conforming” and in the years following the end of the Civil War these segregated troops were often the first to be cut as the army shrank in size. The 2nd however survived the cuts and in 1869 was moved to the Great Plains of the U.S. where through their service they became known as the Buffalo Soldiers. De Rudio however did not follow them west. Instead he was promoted 1st Lt and reassigned to the 7th Calvary also heading out to the Plains.



                                                                                 Giovanni (John) Garibaldi (1831-1914)


 Not all Italian immigrants to the U.S. served on the Union side. One notable example is Giovanni (John) Garibaldi, probably no relation to Giuseppe. Giovanni was born in Genoa in 1831 came to the U.S in his late teens and settled in Virginia. There he met and would eventually marry a local girl named Sarah. When the Civil War broke out he enlisted as a private in a State unit with many of his Virginia neighbors. The Virginia unit that he was a part of eventually became part of the Army of Northern Virginia commanded by fellow Virginian General Robert E. Lee. As such this unit was the main component of the eastern Confederate force and saw a horrific amount of action during the war.

 We know of John’s service because 38 letters he wrote from the front to his young wife Sarah have survived and been reprinted. The letters give a unique picture of the difficult life at the front for a young enlisted man on the Confederate side. In the early part of the War John served in the 27th Virginia under General Thomas (Stonewall) Jackson which was part of the Taliafero Div. commanded by General Taliafero. It is my understanding that the Virginia Taliaferos’ date back to early Colonial America and were originally of Italian descent. The family had a long history of service to the Virginia Colony and later revolutionary Virginia. This service included several members who were officers in the Revolution some serving under General Washington on his staff.

 Among John Garibaldi’s accounts is a letter describing the wounding and death of General Jackson by friendly fire. In fact John reports that he was originally selected as part of a 260 man honor guard to escort General Jackson’s body back from the front. Due to a mix up the train left prior to the arrival of the honor guard.

 Of interesting note John initially was a private in the unit. However, very quickly the officers of the company recognized John’s attention to orders and dependability to carrying out tasks. A number of the original noncommissioned officers of the unit proved to be less dependable with many episodes of poor performance, being AWOL, fighting and excessive drinking. John displayed none of these characteristics and soon began to move up in rank. He also, which can be seen in his letters, was calm under fire and displayed a high degree of concern for his men both when under fire and in camp.

 Also from his letters you read the genuine affection he held for his wife and the concern that he had for her care during his absence. Several of the letters show that he made consistent attempts to send money home from his pay to support his wife.

 John actually survived the war and returned home to his wife. In Virginia after the war he became a farmer and school teacher.





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