The Garibaldi Revolutionary Navy’s American Admiral
By: Tom Frascella May 2015
On the occasion of many past articles I have written about Italians or Italian-Americans who have had an influence on the early events, formation and development the United States as a Republic. As it turns out there were two Americans who played significant roles in Garibaldi’s military campaign in southern Italy from 1860-1862. Their roles in the early formation and events of the Kingdom of Italy are equally worth discussion. I have alluded to one of these individuals as the person entrusted to purchase, under American flag, several transports to be used in ferrying Garibaldi’s men to the south. As an American this individual was of critical importance to the Savoy regime in maintaining the illusion that the Garibaldi expedition was not Savoy based and supported. Rather the intent was to construct the public illusion that Garibaldi was acting independently of the House of Savoy. The first American I will profile was named Admiral William (Dahlgren) De Rohan.
Admiral William Theodore (Dahlgren) De Rohan (1820-1891)
The tale of Admiral De Rohan’s life is one of foreign and domestic adventure and accomplishment tinged with brash outbursts and occasional self-destructive tendencies. To start the researcher trying to follow De Rohan story is struck by a number of inconsistencies in his record. The first involves his lineage. What we do know is that he was born in Philadelphia to Bernard Ulric Dahlgren, Swedish Consul to the United States and a successful American banker. Consul positions in those days being non-paying or modestly paying appointments were often accepted by ordinary business people who were available in the host countries by virtue of their commercial work. Consuls were therefore generally engaged in other activities to support themselves. His mother Martha’s last name was either Rowan, which would make her of Irish descent or De Rohan which is of French origin. His mother’s ancestry therefore being confused in the historic record, but some biographers insist she was of “noble” French stock. He had at least two older brothers John and Charles and one sister Martha who lead prominent lives in 19th century America. The family was wealthy by the standards of the day and enjoyed participation in the upper class society of Philadelphia. The three brothers each went off to early U.S. military careers, two brothers John and William, in naval careers starting when they were in their mid-teens. At the time training in the navy was in the British style of on-board apprenticeship. The U.S. Naval Academy was not established until 1844. Charles also had early military training although it is unclear in what branch of service.
Charles eventually dropped out of service to follow a successful banking career as well as a number of other commercial enterprises. Charles eventually became an officer of the Bank of the United States at Natchez, Mississippi.
The two remaining brothers, John and William, remained in naval service and developed specialties in artillery design and shipboard armaments. John would develop and patent a number of gun designs one of which bears his name the “Dahlgren gun” which was an important weapon and innovation for military forces in the Civil War. The gun shape had a bottle like aspect which took into account the explosive forces during discharge. Artillery pieces prior to this design frequently were subject to failure often killing the loading crew when they ruptured. Dahlgren’s designed greatly reduced the failure rate.
William also seems to have generated several patents on gun design and ship armament as well. He is recognized during his short U.S. career as an early innovator in iron clad ship design.
What the three brothers seem to have most in common, however, was an aggressive temperament and strong will. That temperament lead to a falling out between the oldest brother John and young William. Apparently John, a naval Lieutenant at the time dressed down his younger brother for some perceived offense and a heated argument ensued. The argument escalated to a physical confrontation which resulted in William knocking out his older brother. At the time of the fight John was in uniform and there was a law in Baltimore which made it an offense to strike an officer in uniform. John pressed charges. At the hearing John insisted on an apology in order to drop the charges which William refused and was fined $100. Despite the best efforts of friends and family an irreparable rift between the brothers occurred. William was so incensed that he changed his last name to De Rohan, his mother’s maiden name, so as not to be associated with his brother John. He also resigned his commission so as not to be subject to his brother’s command and left the country. He never spoke to his older brother again.
William as a young man from a wealthy family had sufficient personal wealth to travel to Europe where he used his family connections and shopped his seafaring/naval skills. At some point he appears to have sailed for Texas and eventually landed a commission in the Argentine navy. The Argentine, Brazil and Uruguay were then in an internal conflict for independence.
It is there in South America that De Rohan met Garibaldi and the two struck up a friendship. Garibaldi liked individuals who demonstrated the aggressive character traits that young William seemed to possess. Garibaldi cultivated a number of young officers that exhibited the bold aggressive call to action that is generally attributed to Garibaldi himself. In the South American campaign Garibaldi became famous for leading a regiment of Italian ex patriots who wore as a uniform a distinctive “redshirt”. In the actions which involved sea transport, De Rohan seems to have been the naval captain who directed the transport ships for Garibaldi and his men during his famous campaign.
Although he achieved considerable military success in South America Garibaldi returned to Italy during the 1848 Carbonari Revolt. De Rohan stayed in South America where he briefly was commissioned an Admiral in Chile’s Navy. He eventually followed Garibaldi to Italy where De Rohan organized Rome’s artillery in Garibaldi’s ill-fated Carbonari republic’s defense of Rome. Following the collapse of the Carbonari revolt in Rome most of the “revolutionaries” were hunted in Italy. Garibaldi fled Rome. De Rohan claimed that he commanded the ship that transported Garibaldi to the Americas on his second trip here. It is during Garibaldi’s second American visit where he applied for U. S. citizenship.
There is a gap in De Rohan’s known activities during the time Garibaldi was in the U.S., and the subsequent period of Garibaldi’s return to Italy. De Rohan also is not mentioned during the Piedmont war with Austria. De Rohan resurfaces in Northern Italy in 1859 around the time of the conclusion of the Piedmont war with Austria.
As already discussed stealth and deception were key elements in the Piedmont-Sardinia ruse to disguise Garibaldi’s mission to Sicily as an independently launched revolutionary campaign against the Bourbon monarchy. De Rohan became a key figure in this deception. He was already known to Italians as a comrade of Garibaldi who had been among the “redshirts” in South America. Further, he was known as the trusted Captain that had transported Garibaldi to his victories against Brazil. So it made sense that as Garibaldi made preparations for his “Revolutionary” expedition he would call upon his old comrade in arms for similar help.
As Garibaldi had no transport vessels for his 1,000 “volunteers” and Piedmont could not afford initially to be detected as providing them some other source needed to be found. Here again, De Rohan played a pivotal part in the expedition. As a person from a wealthy background it was arranged that transport vessels would be purchased from French agents through De Rohan’s personal resources. As a result some historic references to De Rohan refer to him as “an Admiral without a fleet”. However that problem in Garibaldi/Piedmont’s plan was soon overcome. Again historic sources are in disagreement as to how many ships De Rohan “personally” purchased for the mission. Much misinformation was being put out by the Piedmont regime in the weeks before the launch of Garibaldi’s expedition. It is likely that the full story of the purchases, by design, will remain hidden from conclusive historic inspection.
In addition to not knowing how many transport ships were involved/purchased in the operation it is not accurately known how many trips and cargo were transported to Sicily and southern Italy. Most sources confirm that De Rohan personally purchased at least three transport ships, the French steamships Franklin, formerly the Amsterdam, the Oregon, formerly the Belzance and his flagship the Washington, formerly Helvetze. Each of these three purchases was done very publicly, contracts of purchase were executed at the American Consul’s office in Northern Italy and each ship was registered as an American vessel. So these we know were bought outright by De Rohan and bear the characteristic name change and country of ownership ruse that is seen frequently in this adventure. Although De Rohan was wealthy the purchase of a number of ships was well beyond his finances and secretly Piedmont guaranteed the purchase price to the French agents.
It is also clear from other associated records that many other ships were used in transporting men and material support in the early Sicilian campaign. First among these additional vessels were the Lombardo and the Piedmonte which transported the initial 1,000 and Garibaldi to Sicily. The Piedmonte was captured and the Lombardo run aground after the Landing at Marsala and so did not factor in the remaining aspects of the campaign in Southern Italy.
But there are documents confirming transport of troops and supplies by vessels named the Utsle, the Charles and Jane, Madeah, Provence, Saumon, Isere, City of Aberdeen, Amazon, Citta di Torino, Bizantine, Generale Garibaldi, R.D. Shepard, Weasel, Sidney Hall, Fabo, and S. Nicola.
As an aside the Utsle has the distinction of being the only transport vessel captured by the Bourbon navy at sea with its cargo of 1,000 soldiers on board. This capture occurred well after the fall of Palermo and the Piedmont soldiers/Garibaldi volunteers aboard the Utsle were interned in a prison near Gaeta for the remainder of the Campaign. Given the complete lack of effective coastal patrol by the Bourbon navy, the largest in Italy one has to question if that Bourbon naval commander on the day the Utsle was captured was good or simply didn’t get the memo to ignore the continuing Piedmont invasion.
One notable absence of data involves the almost total lack of records relating to ships carrying war supplies, only. This may be because many small vessels were used for this purpose. Unfortunately, the lack of information further clouds the scope of the Piedmont operation. Among those few cargo ships that the Piedmont government recorded are the Queen of England, aka Anita, the Independence, Ferret, Badger, Spedizione, and Colonello Sacchi. Many of the vessels used, as mentioned, were renamed in order to disguise their country of origin and to make tracing the money trail and supplies back to Piedmont more difficult.
The above partial list of vessels makes it clear that the invasion of Sicily was not a small operation. This is further highlighted by the fact that all of these vessels could make the roundtrip from northern Italy to Sicily in far less than a week and were involved in numerous trips during the operation. Throughout the operation De Rohan seems to have been the designated Admiral of the fleet and at least personally responsible for the financial risk to some of the ships. I would note that during Garibaldi’s campaign in the south at least four of these vessels were captured two after running aground one at Marsala and the other during the landing on the mainland.
What we know now is that in addition to transporting at least 30,000 Piedmont “volunteers” and supplies to Sicily, these ships also transported at least 10,000 men and supplies to the mainland from Sicily and 3,500 men from Genoa at the start of the second phase of Garibaldi’s operation.
I think it is apparent from the above that De Rohan played an important role in the success of the campaign. This was a large scale complex operation which by and large was pulled off without a hitch. De Rohan apparently was a competent and dedicated officer fully capable of marshalling the men and materials at hand. One would therefore expect that he would have gotten significant recognition for his part in the expedition by the Savoy government. He was after all officially recognized by Victor Emmanuel II as the “Admiral” of Garibaldi’s “Revolutionary” fleet. However the fame that one would expect has largely alluded him. In fact there are essentially no streets or monuments commemorating his contributions to Italian Unification in Italy.
There appear to be several reasons for this lack of recognition which are worth discussion. First, Piedmont carefully constructed and disguised the operation and created the myth that the operation was much smaller “Garibaldi’s 1,000” and more reliant on the local “peoples” uprising in Sicily and the Mainland than it was. Therefore, downplaying the scope of the transport operation fit in nicely with the myth of Garibaldi’s small force. De Rohan as Admiral without a fleet, fit the needs of the Piedmont regime. Garibaldi and the campaign of 30,000 doesn’t have quite the same feel and legend potential. It would have leant truth to the fact that the Piedmont regime invaded the south in an undeclared but very real war of conquest.
Second, and maybe more importantly, the unification occurred and was aided by a great deal of bribery and corruption. The Piedmont regime bribed officials in the Bourbon government and the armed forces in order to enlist their cooperation or inaction in the conflict. They also bribed those who were key figures in the “peoples’ revolt to enlist or divert the revolt into a call for “unification”. Many of these officials were rewarded for their cooperation with both gold and benefits in the land distribution in the south which followed unification. Clearly De Rohan expected compensation for the money he had fronted. This apparently did not occur to his satisfaction. It is clear that De Rohan did receive some land grants and some Sulphur mining rights in Sicily from the new Kingdom of Italy. However, his position after unification was that the Piedmont government had shortchanged him to the tune of $250,000. I assume that his losses can be traced to losses associated with either depreciation of the vessels or their actual loss during the campaign. I have not come across an itemization of his losses in my research. He was however quite vocal in pressing his demands with the Italian Government which went largely unheeded by the Victor Emmanuel regime.
History again gets fuzzy regarding De Rohan’s activities in Italy as he pressed his claims against the Kingdom of Italy between 1862 and 1865. Some information exists in the historic record concerning two of the ships that we now know he purchased and used in the transport operation. There is a brief but interesting footnote on the activity of the Franklin and Washington after the surrender of Naples to Garibaldi. This interesting footnote also includes three other transport vessels used in the campaign in southern Italy. So five vessels in all were authorized by garibaldi for a mission completely unrelated to the “Unification” campaign. But that story is something that relates to Garibaldi’s second American comrade and takes us far from Italy. This not much publicized mission will be discussed at some length in a later article.
De Rohan, however resurfaces in the U.S. in New York after the Civil War in 1865. It is documented that there he met with General Grant. According to accounts he tried to get Grant’s support in pressing the Andrew Johnson White House and U.S. Government foreign office to press his international claim against the Kingdom of Italy for his $250,000 claim. Neither the Government nor General Grant appear to have provided more than curtesy support and hearing for his cause.
It is during this visit that De Rohan maintained that he had rendered intelligence to the Union side during the American Civil War. That for most of the conflict he had been in England and while there had supplied valuable information to the Union on British activities and interests that were pro Southern States. He also maintained that while he would have volunteered for service in the Union navy the fact that his brother John was an Admiral prohibited him from such service. He could not bring himself to have to follow orders from his brother.
Part of the reason we know when the visit took place in 1865 is because of an entirely unrelated matter. At the time De Rohan was in New York in 1865 one of the major attractions in the City was the P.T. Barnum Museum. Apparently while he was in the city a fire broke out in the museum. Fire apparatus was somewhat limited at the time and the destructive fire soon got out of hand and threatened many of the nearby buildings. One of those buildings threatened was Trinity Chapel. De Rohan is credited with organizing a bucket brigade and effectively saving the chapel from destruction.
Hoping he had garnered some U.S. government support for his claims against the Kingdom of Italy he found his financial position steadily worsening and he returned to Europe and Italy. He tried to capitalize on his mining interests in Sicily but lacked the resources to make a go of it. It appears that he again returned to the U.S. in about 1871 attempting to press the Grant administration to follow up on his Italian claim for compensation. At that time it became apparent that the U.S. had not followed up on his initial plea and would not be of any assistance.
He returned once again to Europe and through British contacts acquired employment briefly as a naval officer under Admiral Hobart, late of the British navy, and serving as Admiral of the Turkish Fleet in the Mediterranean. Admiral Hobart as a result of his service to the Turkish Sultan is sometimes referred to as Admiral Hobart Pasha. Lastly, De Rohan spent several years in England where he was given a commission as a commander by the British Naval Office. He was involved in England in the formation and workings of the British naval reserve.
He returned to the U.S. almost in his seventies in declining health and almost destitute. He was desperate enough to appeal to Trinity Chapel for retroactive compensation for his efforts in saving the Chapel structure in 1865. Feeling obliged, a small compensation of several thousand dollars was granted by the Chapel to De Rohan in recognition of his efforts. He lived his later life mostly off of the charity of friends and relatives. By this time both of his brothers had pre-deceased him. Eventually late in life he suffered a paralyzing stroke and died. A sad ending to a man who certainly led an adventurous and active life.
In fact all three of the Dahlgren brothers John, Charles and William led interesting lives which are worth brief mention here. In addition John’s son Ulric also holds a unique place in American history. From the events of their lives it is obvious that for a time the family held a prestigious position in American society and are a lasting part of American and In the case of William Italian history.
Admiral John A. Dahlgren (1809-1870)
Photograph of Admiral John Dahlgren
As stated the oldest brother John Dalhgren eventually reached the rank of rear Admiral in the Union Navy. He served with distinction throughout the American Civil War. His naval ordinance accomplishments were widely honored during and after his service in the U.S. navy. One of John Dahlgren’s sons Ulric Dahlgren also reached a measure of fame during the American Civil War. However, unlike his father and uncles he gravitated to a career in the Union Calvary rising quickly up the command ranks. Biographers are quick to liken the young Ulric to another young Civil War Calvary officer who apparently shared many personal characteristics, George Armstrong Custer.
Photograph of Col. Ulric Dahlgren
Col. Ulric was a Union Army Cavalry officer and hero at the battle of Gettysburg. Shortly after Gettysburg Col. Dahlgren was wounded in the leg in a skirmish with Confederate soldiers. He was sent home to Washington to recover but unfortunately an infection required the amputation of his lower leg. The family was of sufficient stature that Col. Dalhgren was visited at his home by President Lincoln during His convalescence. Undaunted by the loss of his leg he was fitted with a wooden prosthetic and returned to active cavalry duty. In 1864 he led a raid on Richmond the Confederate Capital. Officially the purpose of the raid was to free captured Union soldiers being held there. During the mission his forces were discovered and fired upon. Col. Dehlgren was killed. When his body was recovered and searched by Confederate forces his actual orders were found on his person signed by his commanding General. Apparently, he was on a mission to seek out President Jefferson Davis and his cabinet and assassinate them. This was quite a scandal at the time and its authorization was denied by the Lincoln White House. Some historians believe that this mission was partly responsible for the subsequent successful assassination of President Lincoln by Southern sympathizers the following year.
General Charles G. Dahlgren C.S.A. (1811-1888)
Photograph of General Charles Dahlgren.
Charles Dahlgren became a successful Banker and businessman in Natchez, Mississippi. At the start of the American Civil War he used his considerable resources to raise and equip two regiments of State sponsored volunteer infantry the 3rd and 7th Mississippi. As was common during this period he took command of the Mississippi 3rd with the rank of brigadier General. When the Confederacy “nationalized” the State corps in 1862 general Dahlgren lost his command. This lead to a family rift between his family and that of President Davis which continued until both men’s death. Following the loss of his infantry command General Dahlgren was appointed as a commissioner in the Mississippi coast guard charged with protecting and equipping the river gunboats on the upper reaches of the Mississippi River. General Dahlgren was twice married and fathered sixteen children. The American Civil War as is demonstrated in the family tale above was truly a brother against brother conflict.
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