Interesting Facts Related to Italian Service in the Grand Army of the Republic


By: Tom Frascella                                                                                                                                              January 2016



 As previously written it is estimated that between 7,000 and 9,000 men born in Italy served in units that took part in the American Civil War. Of that number between 5,000 and 7,000 fought on the Union side. These men served at all levels within the military as well as all branches of service. Between six and twelve Italian born individuals received the Congressional Medal of Honor during the conflict. Most who served enlisted and were integrated into predominately non-Italian units. Precise statistics are difficult to acquire as many individuals anglicized their names and war records are incomplete especially on the southern side. 

 Many people are surprised to learn that President Lincoln offered Garibaldi a generalship in the Union Army, if he would raise a brigade of Italian “volunteers”. Garibaldi who at the time had temporarily retired from the fight for unification, declined Lincoln’s offer. Those familiar with the offer and declination attribute two reasons given by Garibaldi. First he could not participate nor could he ask his fellow Italians to participate unless the War made the freedom of all slaves in the U.S a priority and the abolishment of slavery its goal. In addition, Garibaldi felt that many of his Italian “volunteers” would be needed later in Italy to continue the struggle for complete unification of the Italian Peninsula. Garibaldi continued to view the elimination of the Papal State and the elimination of Papal secular authority as vital to a strong and unified nation of Italy. Garibaldi’s belief that many Italians living in the U.S. at the time would return to Italy to support unification is consistent with the U.S. characterization of Italian immigrants of the period as “political refugees”. Refugees are not immigrants looking to necessarily settle permanently in a country. Refugees seek temporary sanctuary often with the hope of returning to their homelands with the passing of whatever danger they are escaping.

 It should be noted that bestowing the rank of General was pretty much standard for any individual that could raise a brigade strength unit of volunteers during the Civil War. Thus Lincoln’s offer was not unusual in that regard. In fact two Italian born Americans, although the number is sometimes reported as four or five, in fact did raise and equip units of volunteers, usually of mixed nationalities, for service in the Union cause and were rewarded with the rank of General. The five that are usually listed as “generals” in the Union army are Enrico Fardella, who we previously wrote about as well as Luigi Palma di Cesnola.

 Di Cesnola actually only received the rank of Colonel although he should have been a Brigadier General as he did lead a Brigade in several battles. For reasons unknown Congress failed to award him the rank his service should have entitled him to.

 Also included in the rank of General in many of the writings were Luigi Tinelli, Francis Spinola and Edward Ferrero.

 Luigi Tinelli was an Italian-American industrialist/silk merchant and former Piedmont consul to Portugal. In 1861 at the beginning of the Civil War Tinelli recruited a New York based volunteer unit that became known as the Hancock Rifles. He was placed in charge of the unit with the rank of Major. The unit was eventually merged with another New York based unit known as McCellan’s Rifles. This unit was part of the 90th New York Volunteer Infantry Unit. Tinelli was promoted to Lt. Colonel in the 90th New York. Tenilli while in service contracted malaria and was discharged in 1863. Tinelli died in Key West Florida in 1873. Of additional note, two of Luigi Tinelli’s sons also served in the American Civil War, Francis who enlisted as a private in his father’s regiment but was later discharged to accept a commission as a lieutenant in the 13th Heavy Artillery and Joseph Tinelli who reached the rank of Acting Master in the Union Navy.


                                                                                                General Francis Spinola

 Francis Spinola is interesting in part because he is frequently listed among the Italian born. He was actually American born not Italian. Spinola was born on March 19, 1821 in Old Field near Stony Brook Long Island. He was the son of a prosperous Long Island farmer and oysterman. His father was born in Portugal, although the family was originally from northern Italy. His mother was from old New York American stock and her family included direct ancestors who had served as army officers in the American Revolution.

 General Spinola was educated in New York private schools, and was admitted to the New York Bar as an attorney, beginning his practice in Brooklyn. He soon entered politics and was elected a democratic Alderman in Brooklyn serving in that capacity in 1846 & 47. He was re-elected in 1849.  He was elected and served as a New York State assemblyman in 1856. Subsequently he was elected and served in the New York State Senate from 1858-1861. During that time he was also a delegate to the National Democratic convention of 1860.

 He was commissioned a brigadier General on October 2, 1862 after recruiting and organizing a brigade of four regiments known as Spinola’s Empire Brigade. Later in the War after Gettysburg he assumed command of the New York “Excelsior Brigade”. He was honorably discharged from service in 1865 at the conclusion of the war.

 After the war Spinola became a successful business man engaging in banking and insurance in New York. During this time he became an influential figure within the growing Italian immigrant community in New York City. This is an early example of how earlier immigrants and first generation Americans helped newly arriving immigrants. Partly based on his support within the slowly emerging Italian immigrant community he was elected to the New York State Assembly in 1877, 1881 and 1883.

 In 1887 he ran for and was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. He served as New York’s Congressman from the 10th District from 1887 thru April 14, 1891. He died in office. He is considered the “first” Italian-American elected to the U.S. Congress and as such holds a unique place in Italian-American history.



                                                                            Photograph of Francis Barretto Spinola  (1821-1891)




                                                                                   Photograph of Edward Ferrero (1831-1899)



 The final man on the list of European born Italian-American Union Generals is Edward Ferrero. Edward was actually born in Spain of northern Italian parents in 1831. His parents were apparently in transit at the time of his birth and renewed their journey to the U.S. about thirteen months after Edward’s birth. Edward’s father was a noted professional dancer and personal friend of Giuseppe Garibaldi. Shortly after their arrival in the U.S. the elder Ferrero opened a dance academy in New York City. Upon his father’s retirement the young Ferrero took over the dance academy.

 The Ferrero dance academy catered to the wealthy elite of New York society and the young Edward was a favorite among the socialites. He is credited with creating a number of new dances and was considered a leading expert in the art of dance in the U.S. while still only in his twenties. He also was hired to teach dancing instruction at the U.S. Military Academy. In 1859 he published a book called the Art of Dancing.

 While this background might seem a bit odd as a resume for a Union General there is obviously more to his background than just dance. As stated the Ferrero family were well acquainted with the revolutionary activities taking place in northern Italy. Although Edward’s branch of the family choose to emigrate to the U.S. his father’s uncle remained behind and was an active participant in the events arising in northern Italy especially in the Piedmont. Eventually Edward’s uncle attained the rank of Colonel in the Piedmont army and participated in Piedmont’s actions during the Crimean War.

 Edward himself had a keen interest in military service and while still in his twenties attained the rank of Lt. Colonel in the 11th New York Militia Regiment where he served for six years before the outbreak of the American Civil War. At the outbreak of the Civil War he raised and equipped the 51st New York Regiment and was installed as their commander with the rank of Colonel. He then took on the responsibility of training the regiment.

 Subsequently he was put in command of three regiments, a brigade, under General Ambrose Burnside and led those troops in the Roanoke Island Campaign. He was not given the rank of Brigadier General during that engagement although brigade command would warrant such rank. During the Roanoke campaign his brigade captured a Confederate fortified redoubt and is recognized as the first capture of a Confederate fortified position in the War. Subsequent to this action he commanded a brigade, without the rank, at New Bern under union General Jesse L. Reno. Reno who would later be killed in action came from a family of French origin originally known as Renault. Reno, Nevada is named for the fallen war hero.

 Colonel Ferrero participated in the battles of Northern Virginia campaign, including the second battle of Manassas. He further participated in the battle of South Mountain and Antietam. It was at Antietam that he was finally promoted for bravery to the rank of brigadier General in September 1862.

 He continued service throughout the war participating in a number of other campaigns. Of most interesting note General Ferrero was eventually put in command of an all-Black Division at the siege of Petersburg. That division was trained and prepared by Ferrero to lead the Union attack at what was to become known as the charge on the Crater. The plan of battle was that Union engineers would dig a long tunnel under the Confederate fortification and detonate ordinance under one of the walls causing a breach. In the surprise explosion the Black Division was to circle around above the collapsed tunnel and breach the wall leading the Union assault on the City. At the last minute General Burnside’s immediate superior General Meade ordered the Black Division back replaced by an untrained white unit. It is believed that General Meade lacked confidence in the training and bravery of the Black troops. Burnside protested to Meade’s superior General Grant. Historians speculate that Grant did not agree with Meade’s assessment of the Black Division but was concerned that if they failed it would have political ramifications so he allowed Meade to pull the Black Division from the lead position.

 The tunnel explosion worked flawlessly and the Confederate wall collapsed killing hundreds of Confederate infantrymen. Unfortunately, the untrained white units did not know what to do after the explosion and failed to charge the breach for about ten minutes giving the Confederate forces time to start to recover. When the troops did charge they charged down into the collapsed gulley created by the tunnel collapse instead of around and above it as the Black soldiers had been trained to do. The result was that the union forces were caught like fish in a barrel.

 As the slaughter commenced General Burnside then made matters worse by sending the Black Division into the crater in support of the trapped white soldiers. The resulting slaughter of both white and black union soldiers was horrific. The slaughter was made worse by the Confederate order not to take black prisoners of war. The resulting execution of surrendering or wounded black soldiers violated all codes of conduct in war. After this action the conduct of war for both Union and Confederate soldiers toward prisoners and surrendering troops deteriorated on both sides. The policy of prisoner exchange basically stopped and horrific P.O.W camps came into being.

 Ferrero who usually led from the front and had demonstrated conspicuous bravery at several battles was for some reason not at the forefront of the charge at the crater. It may be that he was absent as a result of his men being initially pulled back and was therefore out of position when the tide of battle quickly shifted toward disaster. At any rate pretty much all of the senior officers, Burnside, Meade and Ferrero were reprimanded for the horrific failed outcome. As a result of this failure the siege of Petersburg continued for another long and bloody eight months.

 General Ferrero career rebounded shortly afterward as his behavior at Petersburg was not held to be responsible for the disaster. He was promoted in December 1864 to breveted major General and served out his duties as a line officer through to the Appomattox campaign in 1865.

 After the war he returned to his interests in dance as well as engaging in the political workings of Tammany Hall’s democratic politics in New York City.

 As a separate topic that is appropriate to mention is the Civil war service of Alfredo Emanuel Ferraro, as far as is known no relation to General Ferrero. Alfredo was born in New York City to an Italian born immigrant father and German born immigrant mother. He enlisted in the Union cause as a private and served throughout the war in a New York regiment. So Alfredo is an American born of half Italian and half German descent. There is nothing exceptional in Alfredo’s military service and after the war he returned to New York City and continued his life as a freight mover who eventually prospered purchasing two teams of horses and wagons and starting his own freight moving company. He also married a woman who was an Irish immigrant and started a family.

 For business purposes Alfredo anglicized his name as a way to avoid the growing backlash against Catholics and “foreigners’ from the Nativists movement in the 1870’s. The name he chose was Alfred E. Smith. His oldest son then named Alfred E. Smith Jr. The young Alfred became the man of the house at 13 when his father died. He soon developed a talent for politics and was well like within the Tammany hall organization. He successfully ran for governor of New York State. That success was followed by an unsuccessful run for President as the Democratic Nominee in 1928. Although most notably known as the first Irish catholic to run for President of the U.S. endorsed by a major party his family’s Italian roots are largely ignored.


                                                 The Garibaldi Guards, 39th New York Volunteers


 As mentioned in several articles the Union Army early on in the Civil War also had a unit known as the Garibaldi Guards. Like its counterpart in the South the unit in fact was largely made up of immigrant soldiers deriving from a host of European sources. Also like its southern counterpart it had about a company of men who were actually Italian born. However, that is where the similarity of the two units stops. The Italians who enlisted in the Garibaldi Guards of the Union Army were primarily from northern and central Italy and primarily pro Italian unification/pro-Garibaldi. Many had actually served with him or in pro unification campaigns before coming to the U.S.

 What I find most interesting about the history of the unit is that in many ways because of its diversity it reflected the urban population dynamics that New York City would become known for at the beginning of the 21st century. That diversity also resulted in early manifestations of the difficulties of merging different cultures and languages into an effective organization. As well as the difficulties that prejudices and anti “foreign” sentiment caused the unit in its mission.

 There are several detailed books on the history of the unit as well as the social dynamics of the men who served. Among those that I would recommend are “Lincoln’s Foreign Legion” by Mike Bacarella and a paper from the New York State Military Museum and Veterans research Center titled “The Thorny Rose”.

 My shortened version of what I find most interesting is not the combat history, although that is quite extensive, but rather the unique issues the unit dealt with and its solutions to those issues. Those issues pop up almost immediately in the formation of the unit.

 Italian born men living in America were quick to answer the call to enlist in the American Civil War. Since the largest concentration of Italian born men in the country in 1860 was in New York City that is where the greatest effort to organize Italian based army companies was made. There were a number of socially prominent and successful Italians living in New York at the start of the war and they lent their efforts to the recruitment. The five that bear mentioning are Enrico Fardella, Luigi di Palma Cesnola, Luigi Tinelli, Fransesco Casale and Alexander Repetti.

 Fardella, Cesnola and Tinelli I have already written about. All three of these men leant their encouragement to the project of forming the Garibaldi Guard although only Luigi Tinelli originally planned on enlisting in the unit. A great deal of the credit for encouraging the formation of this unit as well as the Italian Legion must be acknowledged in the efforts of Fransesco Secchi de Casale. Therefore a brief profile of this very noteworthy Italian American is in order.

 Fransesco Casale was an Italian political activist who came from a Carbonari/Young Italia background. He was among those Italian activists that fled to the U.S. following the failed Italian/European republican uprisings of 1848. These men were thought of by U.S. officials as political refugees coming from many European countries and collectively known in the U.S. as 48 ers. Casale found refuge among the Italian/Mazzini/International ex-pat community in New York City.

 As in any such political community in exile, communication within the community and from their homeland overseas is critical to the function of the community. Casale from personal funds founded a publication in New York City called “L’Europee-Americano”. The publication was the first of its kind published in the U.S. in both Italian and English. Its purpose was to keep people in the ex-pat community informed of events in both Italy and Europe and to continue the revolutionary “republican” dialogue of the Mazzini inspired movement of the 1830-1850’s. Interestingly as an Italian “Young Italia” supporter a part of that dialogue was criticism of the Italian secular Roman Catholic Church as it existed in Italy. This aspect of his “politics” did not go over well, and caused him support, in the American Catholic Church which was dominated by Irish and non-Italian members who had not experienced the same type of intertwined politics of the Vatican State as had Italians. His initial publication subsequently failed.

 Undeterred Casale pawned some of his wife’s jewelry and started a second weekly publication strictly in Italian called “L’Eco d’Italia” in 1850. This publication is regarded as the first important weekly Italian newspaper in the U.S. This publication remained a weekly until 1881 at which time it began to be published as a daily. It remained an important resource until the paper stopped publication in 1896.

 As the publisher of the primary Italian based newspaper with strong Mazzinian leanings Casale’s support in the recruitment of Italians to the Union cause was essential. However, as a Mazzinian it is not surprising that the recruitment soon took on an international flavor. In fact the majority of the unit soon attracted immigrants from many countries. Ultimately the Garibaldi Guard was comprised of three companies of Germans, three companies of Hungarians, one company of Swiss, one company of Italians, one company of French and one company made up of Spanish and Portuguese.

 As the unit was multi-national in background and language leadership soon fell to Frederick George D’Utassy who was installed as Colonel. D’Utassy was Hungarian by birth and had served in the Austrian army but had supported the rebellion of 1848. He was fluent in English as well as in all of the languages of the various companies. D’Utassy and Tinelli clashed at the outset causing Tinelli to withdraw and to recruit four companies independently which became part of the New York 90th. Alexander Repetti remained with the 39th serving with the rank of Lt. Colonel.

 The unit mustered in on May 28, 1861 about a month after the attack on Fort Sumter. Controversy, almost immediately arose when the unit was issued old and poorly made rifles. Many in the unit felt this was because they were considered a “foreign” unit but probably had more to do with the rapid deployment of so many men, the shortage of adequate supplies and general war profiteering which was rampant from the start of the conflict.

 Although the unit participated in a number of assignments and campaigns between May 1861 and September 1862 it did not see actual combat. Some of the men of the unit believed that they were held back from combat because regular American born troops considered them unreliable because of their “foreign” origins. That changed in the disastrous battle of Harper’s Ferry in 1862. During the battle the 39th New York was part of the larger 115th Regiment of New York Volunteers.

 The battle of Harper’s Ferry took place between September 12 and September 15 1862. The battle of Harper’s Ferry was part of the larger Maryland Campaign initiated by General Robert E. Lee. Union General McClellan marshalled out to meet Lee with a force of roughly twice as many as Lee commanded. Lee considered Harper’s Ferry to be strategically important to capture and took the unusual tactic of dividing his already smaller force. He sent half of his troops to take Harper’s Ferry under the command of Thomas Stonewall Jackson. The union forces at Harper’s Ferry were commanded by General Mills and numbered about 13,000-15,000. Mills concentrated his forces on the low ground in and around the town. Three of the four strategic heights overlooking the town were left undefended and only on fortified artillery battery was set up. Jackson quickly recognized the military error committed and attacked the fortified height. The Union forces initially held off several attacks but began to waiver. About 900 reinforcements including the 115th were sent up to support the position but their advance was then ordered stopped by General Mills. The result was that the battery and the heights were captured by the Confederates.

 Colonel D’Utassy to his credit begged General Mills to allow the 115th to recapture the artillery position, those numerous requests were denied. Frustrated and without orders on the 13th D’Utassy led a small band of men from the 39th through Confederate lines retaking the position without firing a shot. However, he could do little more than recapture the artillery pieces and return to his lines which he successfully did. Once Jackson had secured all of the strategic artillery positions the bombardment of the Union forces now caught in a trap began.

 General Mills began discussing the need to surrender on the 14th which initially was objected to by many of the senior officers, including D’Utassy, who expected reinforcements from McClellan. By the 15th Mills made the decision to surrender, D’Utassy argued against it to the end. A number of union cavalry units made the independent decision after surrender was decided on to break out and successfully did in the early morning hours of the 15th. General Mills order to surrender was intensely unpopular with his men. He did not survive very long after the order was given as he was wounded by an artillery shot. It is suspected that the shot came from a Union not Confederate battery. Wounded and dying, his staff had trouble getting any of his men to carry him to the medical station.

 In all over 12,000 Union officers and men were surrendered at the Battle of Harper’s Ferry. This included 530 from the Garibaldi Guard.  It would be the largest surrender of Union forces during the entire war. Jackson’s casualties numbered fewer than 500 killed and wounded.

 The battle and surrender created an interesting meeting between the Union Garibaldi force and the Confederate Garibaldi force. Jackson had with him some of the Bourbon soldiers that had come over with Major Wheat. It appears that one of these men had been positioned as a Captain. Jackson asked Captain Santini to access the foreign troops, possibly to determine if they could be recruited to the Confederate cause. Of course the only thing the two units had in common was the Garibaldi name. The Confederate unit were former Bourbon soldiers from the south who hated Garibaldi, the Union unit was made up of actual Garibaldino. Santini’s assessment was that the Italians in the union army were cowards, unfit and poor soldiers inferior in every way to his men and not worth recruiting. So apparently no attempt to do so was initiated.

 Just as an aide, generally at this stage of the American Civil War captured troops were put in P.O.W. camps until they could be exchanged. However, as here there were too many and the Confederate forces could not afford to guard and feed them. When this occurred the opposing forces would use an honor system of exchange. The unit officers on behalf of their men would swear an oath that none of them would fight again until exchanges even things out. They were then sent back to their lines. In the case of the 39th they marched after surrender to Baltimore and were then sent by rail to Chicago were they waited for the exchange clearance which occurred in December of 1862. After reinstatement they took part in several other campaigns the bloodiest being Gettysburg. By the time Gettysburg concluded only 100, the equivalent of one company, of the original unit were left.

 As the units original enlistment period came to an end its “volunteers” depleted by casualties were replaced with new members after 1864. The unit however remained largely a “foreign” unit. At the end of the war it should be noted that several of its troopers were Black, serving in a White unit. In addition, the unit voted to give women who had been serving as field nurses equal shares in the units pay, in effect considering them “soldiers of the unit.



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