Garibaldi’s Confederate Colonel
By: Tom Frascella January 2016
The election of Abraham Lincoln as the 16th President of the United States on November 6, 1860 had repercussions felt almost immediately in the U.S. but also felt well beyond U.S. borders. In the U.S. during the Presidential campaign of 1860 a number of State and Presidential candidates had suggested/warned that a Republican “win” would result in several States seeking separation from the Union. The concern was generated by a Republican platform that called for no more “new” States being admitted to the union as “Slave” States. This had been a concern to Southern States as the country expanded creating new States. The problem of “new” State admission had been exacerbated by the U.S. victory over Mexico in the late 1840’s which saw substantial new territory brought under U.S. control following the peace treaty with Mexico. Most southern “Slave” States viewed the position of no new slave States as shifting the balance of Power within the Federal Government wherein already only 15 of the existing 34 States were slave States. The Slave States suspected that such a total bar would eventually place them in such a political minority that it would ultimately be the first step toward outlawing slavery completely. They saw their way of life, their economy and their right to self-determine their social order as being taken from their control.
The possibility that States could or would secede from the Union was largely ignored or downplayed by the Republican Party, including Lincoln himself during the campaign. However, shortly after Lincoln’s election several States began internal political efforts to accomplish just such a declared separation. Lincoln positioned throughout his Presidential term that the U.S. Constitution prohibited de-unification.
The efforts of some southern States to secede were somewhat staggered in the months between the election, inauguration and even after for two reasons, first the legal/Legislative process for such action was unknown/untested within the States. Second many southern States held hope that the electoral-college might still result in a Lincoln/Republican defeat. The debates and legislative actions took place in the mid-19th century when the time between the Presidential election, Nov. 6, 1860 and the Presidential inauguration March 4, 1861 was somewhat prolonged due to slower communications and travel.
In terms of general popular sentiment at the time of Lincoln’s election there were 15 “slave” States, and Lincoln was an unpopular choice for President in each. Lincoln won none of the “slave” States by popular vote. In ten of those States Lincoln and the Republican Party were unsponsored. This meant that Lincoln’s name did not even appear on the ballot. Of the remaining five States He received only 1.1% of the popular vote in Virginia, he finished fourth in the popular balloting in Missouri, Kentucky and Maryland and third in Delaware.
After the election on November 6th Seven southern States would declare secession from the Union prior to the inauguration, South Carolina 12/20/1860, Mississippi 1/9/1861, Florida 1/10/1861, Alabama 1/11/1861, Georgia 1/19/1861 Louisiana 1/26/1861 and Texas 2/1/1861.
So on inauguration day Lincoln as a central point to his speech made the argument that the seceding States had no “Right” to such action. He made this point when he said;
“I hold that in contemplation of universal law and of the Constitution the Union of these States is perpetual. Perpetuity is implied, if not expressed, in the fundamental law of all national governments. It is safe to assert that no government proper ever had a provision in its organic law for its own termination. Continue to execute all express provisions of our National Constitution, and the Union will endure forever, it being impossible to destroy it except by some action not provided for in the instrument itself.
Again: If the United States be not a government proper, but an association of States in nature of a contract merely, can it, as a contract, be peaceably unmade by less than all the parties who made it? One party to a contract may violate it-break it, so to speak- but does it not require all to lawfully rescind it?
Descending from these general principles, we find the proposition that in legal contemplation the Union is perpetual confirmed by history of the Union itself. The Union is much older than the Constitution, It was formed, in fact, the Articles of Association in 1774. It was matured and continued by the Declaration of Independence in 1776. It was further matured, and the faith of all the then thirteen States expressly plighted and engaged that it should be perpetual, by the Articles of Confederation in 1778. And finally, in 1787, one of the declared objects for ordaining and establishing the Constitution was “to form a more perfect Union.”
But if destruction of the Union by one or by a part only of the States be lawfully possible, the Union is less perfect than before the Constitution, having lost the vital element of perpetuity.”
Lincoln then went on to assure in his speech, his intent to enforce the Union against all those who acted otherwise;
“I trust this will not be regarded as a menace, but only as the declared purpose of the Union that it will constitutionally defend and maintain itself.
In doing this there needs to be no bloodshed or violence, and there shall be none unless it be forced upon the national authority. The power confided to me will be used to hold, occupy, and possess the property and places belonging to the Government and to collect the duties and imposts; but beyond what may be necessary for these objects, there will be no invasion, no using of force against or among the people anywhere.”
Clearly, faced with seven southern States which had already seceded President Lincoln was issuing the strongest of warnings to the States which were following this course of action or were contemplating such action. Among the early States to secede was the State of Louisiana on 1/26/61, two months before the inauguration of Lincoln. Louisiana was important to the economy of the south and contained the major port on the Mississippi River.
Of note is that Jefferson Davis was sworn in as President of those seven seceding Confederate States two weeks before Lincoln’s inauguration. So conditions really had as a practical matter gone well beyond the warning phase even as Lincoln appeared to be seeking less violent confrontation.
As part of the States’ legislative acts leading to secession these States began to call up their militias to prevent Federal forces from attempting to control the State or Federal property and possessions within their borders.
As we have seen at about the same time as Lincoln was being elected in the U.S. the Piedmont Army under Victor Emmanuel II was assuming the active and dominant military role in defeating the remaining forces of Bourbon King Francis in Campania. By mid-November Garibaldi had unofficially removed himself from command of his southern Italian insurgent troops. Further by mid-November all southern Italian insurgent/irregular troops had been removed from the front line positions against the remaining Bourbon forces or had come under direct orders from the Piedmont high command. Essentially, for these men the war was over, a fact hidden from the average “volunteer” and known only by some of Garibaldi’s senior staff officers.
Among Garibaldi’s forces and officers were a number of men drawn from several nations including Hungary, France, England and the U.S. By mid-November these adventurers and soldiers of fortune had essentially lost any role in the continuing conflict. I assume that it was relatively clear especially to the officers that they would not be a part of the army of the new Italy.
With events in motion, the war ending in Italy and beginning in America, an odd convergence with regard to Italian participation in the American Civil War was about to begin. It is a story which history has left shrouded in mystery. Part of the problem in relating the early participation of southern Italians in the American Civil War is that southern Italy was in governmental “transition”. You had loosely connected provincial governments reporting to Garibaldi, a Bourbon Government under siege at Gaeta and a Piedmont Government not yet ready to assume administrative control. Record keeping was therefore understandably unreliable in late 1860.
On the American side immigration records, including ships manifests and military volunteer lists of the southern States were mostly lost during the war. However enough information has survived that southern Italian participation in the southern cause deserves some attention be paid here as well as an explanation of how it arose.
As I have previously written it is estimated that a total of between 7,000 and 9,000 men born in Italy were combatants in the American Civil War. This is the estimated number and combines both sides of the conflict. Many of these men were recruited by highly respected leaders in the Italian ex-patriot community of America who had either participated in the 1848 Carbonari uprisings or in the Second War of Italian of Unification in 1860. These men resided primarily in the northern States, principally New York State. As a result most of the recruitment involving Italian born centered in New York and the creation of New York regiments.
I have previously profiled men like Col. Cesnola, and General Fardella who personally raised and outfitted companies of soldiers from their own funds for the Union cause. There were other prominent Italians who did so as well, they too raised or encouraged Italians residing in the U.S to join the Union cause as early as the spring of 1861. Many of these men, as was the custom of the time, received commissions in the State units that they helped create. If you look at the dates that Cesnola and Fardella active recruitment such early involvement is remarkable as the shooting war only started with the southern attack on Fort Sumter which occurred in April of 1861. So the recruitment of Italian born into the northern ranks begins almost immediately at the onset of the military engagement between the States.
What is not widely known, if the historical references are correct, is that a largely unheralded group of Italian born men were recruited under very unique circumstances for service in the army of the Confederacy. In fact of the total number of Italian born combatants the largest single recruitment class of men, between 15% and 30% of all those that fought, were recruited at a single attempt. Further they were recruited before a single State had declared secession, a single shot had been fired, or Lincoln had been inaugurated. They were recruited in November of 1860, five months before the attack on Fort Sumter.
What is even more interesting is that these men were at the time of their recruitment not living in America, were not immigrants to America, and in fact had never been to America. They were recruited on the Italian mainland, Campania as a matter of fact. Further, this group of recruits was different in that they were recruited for the southern cause in the rebellion before a southern cause had even been declared.
Who were these men? The vast majority of Italian immigrants that served in the American Civil War were from northern or central Italy, these men were all from southern Italy, the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. How did they come to fight in America, for a cause they didn’t share and probably even understood?
To understand and answer that question we have to recognize that there were two Americans who held important roles in Garibaldi’s insurgent force and contributed to the success of Garibaldi’s campaign in southern Italy. The first I have previously profiled as the “Admiral” of Garibaldi’s insurgent fleet William (Dahlgren) De Rohan. I have already discussed how he commanded a fleet of private vessels, some purchased with his own money that transported and supplied Garibaldi in the southern Italian campaign. Although he is a part of this recruitment story I will not address his post-Unification actions at this time in this article. The American I do want to profile is Chatham Roberdeau Wheat. Wheat served as an officer in Garibaldi’s English brigade during the southern Italian campaign. In Garibaldi’s service he was considered an aggressive and competent officer who had the respect of Garibaldi and whom the Dictator considered a friend and comrade in arms. Based on Wheat’s close association with Garibaldi, his unique personal history resulted in his key role in the recruitment of southern Italians for the Confederate cause.
Therefore in order to help explain how the recruitment came to be it is necessary to give some background on the life of Chatham Wheat. It is a profile of an extremely active individual and will probably fall short of adequately explaining the man. Hopefully however it will set the stage for the story of recruitment that follows. I will follow the profile in this article with what I believe was the story of those men who were recruited.
Major Chatham Roberdeau Wheat U.S.C.A. (1826-1862)
Photograph of Major Wheat
Wheat was born in Virginia, the son of an Episcopal minister from a prominent Maryland family, he moved with his family as a young boy and was raised in a number of Southern States as he followed his father’s ministry. At 15 he was sent to study for the ministry in Alexandria, Virginia with the Reverend William Pendleton, a West Point graduate, who would later go on to fame as General Robert E. Lee’s artillery commander with the Army of Northern Virginia. In 1842 he moved to Tennessee where he graduated from the University of Nashville in 1845. He then studied Law for a year in Memphis. So Chatham Wheat could properly be described as southern born and bred having spent parts of his childhood and young adult life in Maryland, Virginia, Ohio, Louisiana and Tennessee.
When the War with Mexico started the 19 year old Wheat joined the 1st Tennessee Mounted Volunteer Regiment. The 1st Tennessee Volunteers were viewed as a somewhat undisciplined, irregular group of soldiers and they would eventually be bestowed with the unflattering nickname the Mohawks by the regular army troops in General Winfield Scott command in Mexico during the war.
Much is made in the biographies of Wheat’s imposing physical stature as he stood 6 feet, four inches tall and a solid 240 pounds, a very large man especially for that time. Partially because of his size but also because of his education and bearing he was elected by his men as a Lieutenant in the regiment. His regiment was, once it was “federalized, ordered to march south to reinforce General Zachery Taylor’s army at Matamoros, Mexico. It was there that Wheat in the hot and insect infested terrain contracted what was called “camp fever”. This was a serious condition from which many soldiers died. Wheat spent a number of weeks in the infirmary recovering. It was there that the affable Wheat became friends with General Taylor’s son Richard. The friendship and prolonged recovery from illness resulted in Wheat be assigned to Taylor’s staff as an aide. In January 1847 Wheat’s regiment was ordered to march 400 miles along the Mexican coast to Tampico. There it awaited the arrival of General Winfield’s Scott’s main force.
General Scott arrived with an assembled force of about 13,000 men which were then transported to a landing at Vera Cruz by the Navy. Vera Cruz was a heavily fortified location which required several weeks of siege to defeat. From there General Scott began a march toward Mexico City some 250 miles away. It was during this march that the Americans force and the Mexican army under Santa Anna met in battle at Cerro Gordo. It was a hard fought battle but the Americans were able to drive the Mexican Army back. Wheat’s regiment suffered heavy casualties during this encounter.
At the conclusion of the battle Scott continued toward the Mexican capital but stopped his march at Puebla. He did this, in order to reorganize his force as many of the volunteer units enlistments were up, including the 1st Tennessee. Wheat and about 100 of the Tennessee volunteers decided to remain with Scott’s force. Reduced to “company” strength, the volunteers elected Wheat as their Captain and the unaffiliated company became attached to General Quitman’s headquarter guard.
As Scott’s army renewed its march toward the Mexican Capital Quitman frequently used Wheat’s company to rapidly move and attack small units of Mexicans who were engaged in delaying Scott’s advance. The rapid movement, living off the land, guerrilla type style of fighting was quickly mastered by Wheat. His commanding General Quitman recognized Wheat’s abilities by describing him as “the best natural soldier I ever knew”.
Many of the contacts with high ranking officers that Wheat made while in the service in Mexico would play roles in his later career. However, his engagement in the Mexican campaign was cut short with the surrender of Santa Anna. He returned to the U.S. as a highly decorated hero and took up residence in Louisiana.
Restless after discharge Wheat entered Louisiana politics and was elected to the Louisiana State Legislature as representative from New Orleans in 1848. He was admitted to the Louisiana State Bar as an Attorney the following year.
Wheat’s entry into politics as a hero and veteran of the war with Mexico coincided with the then hot button issue of the path to admission of the vast territorial gains the U.S. had obtained as concessions in defeat of Mexico. The territorial gains would eventually result in whole or part of what would become the States of California, New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado and part of Texas. A part of the political State admission issue was whether slavery would be allowed in the new States or not.
About this time Wheat became associated with a political movement that was an outgrowth of the American “Manifest Destiny” cause. Today we associate this political movement with the successful expansion of the U.S. from Atlantic to Pacific which was greatly enhanced by the territorial gains in the war with Mexico. Lesser attention is paid to the failed American interest in absorbing Canada, and far less attention is paid to the attempts by mostly southern States in extending the U.S. by territorial expansion in the Caribbean and Latin America. Expansion of territorial expansion into Latin America and the Caribbean was largely unsupported by northern States even by those that were proponents of Manifest Destiny.
Those mostly southern proponents of the Caribbean and Latin American expansion collectively became known as “Filibusters”. Part of the Manifest Destiny movement had at its core a belief in the superiority of U.S. culture, ethics, religion and race over “indigenous peoples” and “lesser peoples:” of the Americas. But while it advocating expansion at the sacrifice of indigenous peoples’ rights most supporters were not pro-slavery. The Filibusters generally favored slavery as the most efficient way to tame and exploit the vast riches of the Americas. The aggressive attempts by the Filibusters at creating military upheavals in the Caribbean and Latin America were done without the encouragement or support of the U.S. Government and despite U.S. laws expressly prohibiting privately engaging in warfare in foreign countries.
Private Filibuster military campaigns, financed by “southern” money saw several attempted upheavals in Cuba, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Mexico between 1830 and 1860.
Wheats was attracted to the cause and the financial opportunities that success might offer. He joined one of the more famous Filibuster regional leaders, Narciso Lopez. Lopez was born in Venezuela to an elite family and had been trained as a soldier in Spain. He successfully led a revolt in Venezuela against Spanish rule and then made three attempts to liberate Cuba. It was during his Cuban campaign that Wheats signed on and was commissioned a Colonel in the revolutionary forces under Lopez.
In 1855 we find Wheat on another Filibuster campaign in Mexico under the command of Juan Alvarez’s in his successful attempt to oust Santa Anna. In that cause he was commissioned a Brigadier General in the artillery of the Rebels. Eventually Alverez succeeded in ousting Santa Anna and becoming President of Mexico. Wheat was handsomely rewarded with estates in Mexico and could have retired to a very comfortable life. However, he continued to support the expansion of the Filibuster cause and its attempts to change the face of “Spanish” America. He followed the activities of one of the more famous of the American Filibuster adventurers William Walker through his campaigns up until 1860. Walker was captured and turned over by the British who also opposed the free ranging expansionist campaigns of the southern Americans. They were able to capture Walker and turn him over to Honduran authorities in 1860. After a brief summary military trial Walker was executed by a Honduran fire squad in 1860.
At this point Wheat decided to seek adventure with Garibaldi in Italy and joined his cause shortly after Piedmont defeated the Austrians with the help of the French in northern Italy. Garibaldi recognized in Wheat a competent veteran well-schooled in guerilla tactics and familiar with the style of fighting Garibaldi employed.
By mid-November 1860 Garibaldi’s campaign was essentially over in Italy. When Lincoln was elected Wheat saw an opportunity to continue his southern Filibuster activities in the heartland of his birth. He decided to return to Louisiana to support the secession cause. As a “volunteer” with Garibaldi he could leave the campaign at any point. Since the campaign was essentially finished Garibaldi had no objection to various officers seeking their own personal agendas and futures and leaving his command. Wheat recognized in the situation in Italy an opportunity to raise a force of men to fight in the “possible” upcoming War in the U.S. There was immediate access to highly trained Bourbon soldiers who had been captured by Garibaldi’s forces in the later stages of Garibaldi’s assault on Northern Campania.
Garibaldi had between 8,000-12,000 Bourbon P.O.W.’s, in the prison archipelago in the Neapolitan Bay area. These men represented those forces that had remained loyal to the Bourbon King but had been captured in the last battles of the campaign. These were experienced and trained soldiers. The question for the Garibaldi led provisional government was what to do with them. Early in the campaign it had served Garibaldi to release captured Bourbon soldiers who were mostly lightly trained militia-men. These men once released returned home and caused no further problems to his advancing forces. Garibaldi in this way both encouraged defections and avoided the difficultly of monitoring large numbers of prisoners.
However, later in the campaign the remaining forces loyal to King Francis were culled down to his best men. Garibaldi could not release them while King Francis still resisted as they might rejoin his forces. So he began to be forced to take prisoners and confine them. Ironically, these men were imprisoned in the same dank, unhealthy old fortresses along the coast that the Bourbons had used for generations to imprison Carbonari dissidents.
However the large body of prisoners that he had to supervise, feed and control by the end of the campaign stretched Garibaldi’s resources. According to a number of sources Wheat and Garibaldi reached an agreement. The agreement was that Garibaldi would set free any Bourbon military prisoner of war that agreed to go to America with Wheat and fight for Louisiana if war should come. Garibaldi probably viewed this as a win-win. He got to help his friend and comrade in arms and was relieved of having to maintain those that choose to leave.
For many of the Bourbon prisoners of war it was an offer they couldn’t refuse. Conditions in the prisons were deplorable, illnesses were rampant and medical treatment nonexistent. The threat that even greater harm or protracted incarceration would follow a Piedmont victory was almost assured. So faced with the choice available many choose the option of potential freedom. It also offered to some continued employment as soldiers an occupation that was their only profession. Enlistment in Wheat’s cause, while taking them to a foreign land was probably considered not much different than soldiering for any other monarch or cause.
An exact number of those that choose to go to America seems to be impossible to assess. The provisional government and spread out prison system encouraged poor records keeping of those imprisoned. Those that left for service in America did so without any official sanction. Subsequently when the Piedmont government took over fully after King Francis’ surrender many of the remaining prisoners together with tens of thousands of additional Bourbon soldiers were moved north to Piedmont prisons. Again there were few records kept of the individuals imprisoned but it is believed as many as 40,000 ex-Bourbon soldiers died in northern Italian prisons after unification.
What is believed to have occurred is that between 880 and 2,000 “volunteer” ex-Bourbon soldiers were shipped, on authorization of Garibaldi, to America at the request and organization of Wheat. They followed Wheat to New Orleans, Louisiana on four or five ships which left Naples separately over a spread out period between late November 1860 and April 1861.
It would appear that initially Wheat’s plan was to assemble the Italians in New Orleans where they would form the bulk of a brigade that he would organize and equip. He believed that he could rely on the same money men who had underwritten some of the Filibuster adventures for the revenue needed. He also understood that formation of a brigade strength unit would automatically bestow on him a commission of Brigadier General in the Louisiana State militia.
After Wheat’s arrival in Louisiana the rapidly evolving events pushing the States into military action soon overtook some of Wheat’s plan before it could be fully realized. What followed will be recited in the next article.
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