Crocco’s Retreat from the Mountains of Basilicata 1864


          By: Tom Frascella                                                                                                                         June 2017



                                                                                             Photograph of Carmine Crocco

 By the middle of 1864 the insurgent cause in rural southern Italy was under dynamic stress on all fronts by the Piedmont regime. Since 1862, the insurgents in Basilicata had loosely been affiliated and under the “command”, of rebel leader Carmine Crocco. Crocco, himself was a native Basilicatan/Lucanian. He had been born and raised in the region and so shared in the culture and identity of the people. At one point in 1862 the regular forces that Crocco could rely on numbered approximately 2,000 men. For the first two years these men, irregulars and of mixed political and social backgrounds, had given the Piedmont forces as much as they could handle. The insurgents were lightly armed but surprisingly mobile in the mountains of the region. Their rugged upbringing combined with an intimate knowledge of the terrain provided valuable tactical advantages. These advantages had allowed them to score small “victories” even when facing larger traditional Piedmont troops. However, even with these advantages over the course of those two years arrests, injuries, deaths and defections impacted the core insurgent numbers. By June of 1864 Crocco’s Basilicatan forces had been drastically reduced in number and in any hope of tactical victory.

 The Piedmont military beyond numerical and financial superiority was able to apply added psychological pressure through the use of laws such as Legge Pica. Although the so-called Legge Pica laws were originally designed to codify martial law already being applied in the south such laws allowed the Government to declare anyone “perceived” as helping or abetting the insurgent forces, enemies of the State.  As a result literally any accused of complicity then could be placed under arrest. The law further allowed the government to place under arrest family members of those suspected/accused of aiding or abetting insurgency. Therefore familial connection became a crime, this in a culture where family association was ancient and extremely important. No actual proof of guilt needed to be produced against a person so charged, so guilt was found summarily and by accusation alone. The object was to terrorize the population and to break the community and familial bounds so important in the culture of the region. This tactic by Piedmont eventually made it very difficult to replenish the dwindling manpower of the insurgents. People came to fear the arrests of family members, and even dedicated rebels felt the familial pressure to protect their loved ones from summary arrest and imprisonment.

 On the Piedmont side of the military equation, their determination was to wipe out the insurgent cause by extreme force and very public humiliation of the rebels. This was meant from the outset to be psychological warfare as much as physical warfare directed at the rural population of the south. A pervasive attitude of intellectual, moral and cultural superiority by northern Italians against those in the south began to emerge. Toward the end of crushing the insurgents and the rebellious attitude of southern Italians Piedmont continued to escalate the number of troops staged in the area. Originally after the fall of the Bourbon regime Piedmont had stationed approximately 70,000 “peacekeeper” troops in southern Italy. Their task “officially” to restore and maintain civil order even as Piedmont political administrators systematically looted and depleted the resources of the south. By 1864 the number of Italian troops staged in the south had grown to approximately 120,000 troops. These units were composed of largely central and northern Italian army “regulars” and foreign mercenaries. This represented about one-half of the entire Italian army. It also represented the only part of Italy subjected to largely non-regional military oversight. For the fledgling “republic this represented an extreme expenditure of military personnel tasked with subduing a relatively small insurgent force of probably no more than 2,000-4,000 men. It also represented an extreme cost and divergence of resources.

 The increasingly desperate insurgent situation in the south lead Crocco in the summer of 1864 to call for a meeting of his remaining Basilicatan insurgent leaders to discuss what to do next. By 1864 it was clear to the insurgents that those factions clinging to the hope of a Bourbon reinstatement could not rely on the Bourbons sending any additional aid or men to the cause. Effectively, these elements of the insurgency began to accept that they had been abandoned. It had been over a year since Bourbon General Borjes had been killed. Since that time the Bourbon’s in exile had not replaced Borjes or sent aid in the form of weapons or men to support the reinstatement cause. The capture of the La Galla brothers and their very public trial also made clear that no external help would be arriving. Many of the local rural landed nobility of the south who had enjoyed great prosperity under the Bourbons had since Borjes’ retreat and death and the La Galla trial started to shift allegiance to Piedmont.

 The loss of any Bourbon actual support also undermined any semblance of legitimate political affiliation the insurgent cause may have acquired in certain international quarters, including Austria. Further, although urged by Papal supporters and local bishops, to resist the Piedmont regime, which Church officials viewed as “anti-Papacy”, the pro-Papal supporters also had not sent any tangible aid to help the insurgent cause in the south since the early days of the fighting.

 For the many insurgents that had no particular loyalty or interest in the reinstatement of the Bourbons, the Bourbon lack of commitment to their own cause further confirmed that the Bourbons were no ally to the southern Italian people.

 Nevertheless on the practical day to day reality then in place in 1864 many of the insurgents slowly came to understand that they could not expect fair treatment or establishment of civil rights at the hands of the Bourbons, the Church or the House of Savoy. In essence their dream of a fair and equitable civil existence was not to be had in the Italy they knew, new or old. This then was the practical reality facing the depleted bands of insurgents as Crocco called them together.

 As previously mentioned and relying on Crocco’s own memoirs by June most of his Lucanian insurgent bands were under heavy assault by government troops and their numbers were greatly depleted.  In addition to the loss of men, betrayals and defections had resulted in Piedmont’s regular army troops being directed to the insurgent hideouts. These defections and betrayals began to deny the insurgents their safe-havens in the mountains. No single defection had caused more harm to Crocco’s Luncanian bands than that of Giuseppe Caruso, a former insurgent commander, now turncoat, who aligned himself with the Piedmont army in the winter of 1863-1864.

 In June 1864, by Crocco’s account, he was able to only gather about 340 insurgents. Even as the gathering was shaping up Crocco was almost captured twice, once at a cave hideout and once at Monte Caruso. Crocco only escaped capture at Monte Caruso by the sacrifice of his trusted captain Pio Masiello who dressed himself up in Crocco’s clothes. It was Masiello so dressed with a number of insurgent fighters that allowed Crocco to escape. Masiello purposely lead the Piedmont soldiers from Crocco’s position. While the plan accomplished its goal of allowing Crocco to escape Masiello and a number of his companions lost their lives.

 In Crocco’s telling of his escape from the Piedmont trap on Monte Caruso it should be noted that he suggests that he was the special target of both the Piedmont army and Caruso. No doubt this was true as his capture was considered a key element in Piedmont’s campaign to defeat the resistance, and more importantly demoralize the will of the people. “he (Caruso) follows me with his men up the mountain Caruso where he attacks us with the fire of their rifled guns, and when he is sure of having killed me and wants to pick up my body as a sign of victory, he realizes, but too late, that the dead man is not me, but my servant wearing my general clothes. And so on I escape from him on the Ofanto when he is in charge of thousands of soldiers and arrived safe in then Sassano woods”. “How I became a Bandit” page 99.

 Crocco indicated that it was Caruso’s betrayal and cooperation that allowed the Piedmont forces to find  his safe havens along the route.  Eventually in June he arrived at the Sassano Woods about 30 miles southwest of the city of Potenza. The meeting was on the Basilicatan-Campania border. This was a mountainous area of relative isolation, well off the regular routes of commerce in the mountains.  Therefore the area should have provided a measure of safety to the insurgents as few Piedmont troops regularly patrolled here. In addition, this area was area familiar to Crocco from his earlier campaigns. It was from this area that Crocco had alluded entrapment by Piedmont troops after the failure of the Borjes led Potenza campaign. Unfortunately it was also familiar to Caruso for the same reasons.

 From Crocco’s autobiography you can sense that at the time of the meeting he was feeling the pressure, weight and melancholy of the accumulated losses of so many men in his two year guerrilla war. He specifically notes in his memoirs that at the time of the meeting he had already lost many of his most trusted and best captains. Of course the reduction in his force from a high of 2,000 to this low of 340 shows the grueling punishment that his forces had endured over a two year period.

 While the location of the meeting should have been secure, it was once again betrayed by Caruso who, in addition to informing the Government about the meeting, helped guide a large contingent of Piedmont regulars to the area where the meeting was to take place. Caruso’s betrayal allowed the Piedmont forces including Hungarian mercenaries to surround the insurgent encampment. There was a violent collision of forces with the vastly and numerically superior Piedmont army getting the better of the roving battle.

 Crocco indicates that in the three encounters mentioned he lost 86 men captured, 16 killed. Roughly a third of his remaining force.  While over 203 men escaped 120 were so exhausted and demoralized that they voluntarily surrendered in the immediate aftermath of the battle.

 It is impossible to assess how many of these 120 men that surrendered did so from the pressure of combat, exhaustion or from the fear of reprisals that might be taken against their families. Either way only about 116 men were able to escape and position themselves to possibly continue to struggle against the Piedmont forces from the mountains. Among those who were able to escape and not surrender was Crocco. But it is unclear to this writer what the sentiment of the survivors was. Crocco states that “Miraculously escaped from Monte Caruso and the river Ofanto, after having lost the best brothers I could ever have had, I gathered the most faithful soldiers in the forest of Sassano to decide what to do. There were different opinions, and among those, the prevailing sense was that of fighting all together against Caruso to avenge our comrade Masiello. On the contrary, because of the difficulty of being all together, without continuously resorting to violence, I informed them that I would have retreated in Rome leaving each one of them free of doing what they wanted.” Page100.

 Reflecting years later in his memoirs he mentions with great remorse the deaths of his captains Ninco Nanco, Pio Masiello, Rocco Serra, Grippo and La Rocca who were all lost in the 1864 period. “Caruso triumphs. Ninco Nanco, Masiello, Rocco Serra, Grippo, La Rocca are dead, the others are prisoners, all that remains is death or jail!”. Again, relying on Crocco’s memoirs it appears that after this encounter Crocco himself was so demoralized that few options remained.” I realized, with deep sorrow, that my star was close to sunset; the threatening shadow of Caruso began to make me feel thoughtful; Melfi, that had been the scene of the fight and the strong fortress of the strenuous pursuit, had become an unsafe place to me; I could see in every person, also my companions, a traitor, a coward man able to sell my person in order to have his sentence mitigated; it must be added to all these events the energetic orders given by general Pallavicini to accelerate our capture, and it will not be hard to get an idea of my state of mind in those days.”. “How I Became a Bandit” page 100.

 Instead, as he stated above he appears to have resolved to continue the fight. Realizing that he no longer had the manpower to engage or survive in the mountains he hoped he could enlist with the forces of the Pope in the Vatican States. I would make the distinction here that Crocco was never a fan of the Bourbon’s and nothing in his writings suggests he had any intention of joining Bourbon forces such as they existed in exile in the Vatican States. In any event in late summer he made for the Papal States.


                                                                        The Pope and the Bandit


 To further demonstrate the depleted nature of his force he left with only eleven companions. Hardly an army and it is interesting that he notes that seven of his companions were sick. From his writings it appears that one of his objects was to get these seven men to safety and medical treatment as they were not fit to continue to fight. As he put it he allowed that they could surrender to local authorities once they were within the Papal State.

 It is a testament to his skill as a rebel leader and his knowledge of the mountains that although constrained by carrying and caring for sick and tired men he could successfully avoid capture. This knowing that literally tens of thousands of Piedmont troops were searching for him. Although he may have professed some fear of additional betrayals especially since there was a hefty reward on his head and extreme pressure being applied to the people of the region, no betrayal occurred during his journey northward to the Papal States. By August 1864 this little group somehow found itself “safely” across the border and “theoretically” beyond the reach of the Piedmont military in southern Italy.

 The date of his entry into the Papal States, I think, is of critical importance in terms of what follows, both as to Crocco and our Lucanian ancestors. As you will recall from the last article the April-July 1864 period is the time of the very public La Gala trials. It was the La Gala trial that Piedmont used as a showcase to promote their contention that the troubles of the south were the by-product of the evils of the Bourbon and more importantly the Vatican “anti-republican” efforts. The La Gallas, known southern Italian insurgents from Campania, were caught directly recruiting for the Bourbons. Further the case could easily be made that their efforts could not have occurred without the knowledge and support of the Vatican States’ authority, i.e. Pope Pius IX. This political view was widely supported in the “official” press of both France and England.

 By the time the trial “show” concluded both the Bourbons and the Vatican began to adopt a decidedly lower profile in terms of supporting their respective insurrection factions in the south. So by the time Crocco arrived in the Papal territory, being one of the highest profiled insurgents in southern Italy, his timing for support from the Pope could not have been worse.

 It is probably best to look at Crocco’s own view of what happened after he arrived safely in the Papal territory. “Of the twelve knights, seven fell sick on the way and tried the law of the government (surrendered to local authorities).” Page 101.

 The remaining troop consisting of Crocco and four companions went on reaching the outskirts of Rome itself without being detected. Apparently, Crocco had in his possession a letter of introduction to the Vatican/Pope Pius IX, authored by a southern landed nobleman who he thought would be able to recommend him on to the Pope. “From the seven hills, I sent to a diplomat from a letter received from a southern lord, who I do not mention so as not to offend his memory. And he answered me, advising me to go to the governor of the Pope, which I did very quickly.”. Page 101.

 It is also of note in his memoirs that as part of preparations for leaving he had brought considerable money reserves with him. As to how much each of his twelve companions had available Crocco does not state but as to himself he indicates that he had 20,000 lire.  In August 1864 as he prepared to place himself at the service and mercy of the Pope, Crocco was 34 years old.

 What happens next, as Crocco was a well-known figure is of critical importance in understanding how the actions and attitudes of our early San Felese/Lucanian ancestors would decide to make their immigration plans. Of most immediate impact were the next two and a half years. I raise this because my sense of the impact of how Crocco was treated by the Vatican influenced our ancestors’ perceived number of choices going forward with their own lives and therefore encouraged many to immigrate to the Americas.



                                                                                          Photograph of Pope Pious the IX



 So the most famous insurgent in all of southern Italy delivered himself to the Pope’s chief administrator, placing himself at the disposal of the Pope. Crocco then explains, “What did the great Pope Pio IX do? He buried us in the new prisons of Rome, and afterwards we were transferred to the prison of San Michele a Ripa always locked in solitary confinement”. Page 101. He was arrested. I think that as to any future insurgent looking to the Papal State as an ally or as a safe haven all hope of this route being a viable alternative was removed.

 Given the time frame and the intense effort of Piedmont to paint the Vatican and the Bourbons as supporters of the “extreme Cruelty and degraded behavior of the insurgents, Crocco’s arrival at this precise time must have been as they say today “bad optics” for the Pope and Bourbon King Francis. So Crocco and his companions were buried in prison, without charge, without hearing and having committed no crime within the Vatican territory.

 In fact his treatment was apparently so bad in the Vatican prisons that he actually asked the Papal authorities to be surrendered to the Piedmont government, knowing full well that he faced the very real possibility of execution. Again in Crocco’s own words, “There was never a reply to my many and repeated entreaties to be delivered to the government of Italy”. Page 101.

 It does seem according to Crocco that there was a number of attempts by the Pope to turn Crocco over to the Piedmont regime during this two and a half year period. However, I believe that Piedmont determined that Crocco’s presence in the Vatican territory served their narrative of a Papal/Bourbon insurgent complicity better. Allowing a transfer of Crocco to Piedmont control would make it appear that the Pope was not an insurgent participant but rather supporting the Piedmont authority in southern Italy. The Pope did attempt to extricate himself from this very public perception problem. Crocco writes, “The Holy Father after receiving me in his kingdom had to say: “you touched my clothes, you kissed my slipper, your sins are forgiven”; he had to write this way to S. M. Vittorio Emanuele, King of Italy: “Dearest son. A great sinner arrived here, Carmine Donatelli Crocco. I as the father of Christian children have forgiven his sins so that he will not go to hell forever, and you, my son, as a Christian King, punish him but leave him alive so that in prison he has the opportunity to regain his moral principles and ask God for the forgiveness of the wrong things done on earth, and so with my and your virtue we will send him as a penitent to the final judgment”. Page 101 and 102.

 But the King did not take the offer/offers and so after two and a half years a second plan had to be devised by the Pope and the Bourbon King who continued to try to distance themselves from the prisoner. As Crocco states it; “After 31 months of rigorous imprisonment fed with a pound of bread a day and a vegetable soup, I was sent to France”. Page 102. So in March 1867 Crocco now age 37 was sent to France with the hope that Napoleon III would deal with him. One suggestion from the Bourbon King to napoleon III was that the French Emperor exile Crocco to Algeria. This too was rejected and napoleon sent Crocco back to the Vatican and back to the Vatican prisons.

 I would note that in the roughly two and one half years that Crocco initially languished in Vatican prisons without charges or trial the political world of Europe changed significantly. These political changes would have profound effect on what happened next.


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