The Southern Italian Response to the Third War of Italian Unification


                   BY: Tom Frascella                                                                                             October 2017


 In my opinion what is called the Third War of Italian Unification is actually the starting point for the “mass” exodus/immigration of southern Italians to the Americas. Especially those from Lucania and San Fele. The 19th and early 20th century Italian exodus was an immigration which would see roughly 9 million southern Italians leave Italy for foreign lands, 3.5 million of them to the U.S. For San Felese the “mass” exodus occurred specifically between the years 1866 and 1930. Taken in total this episode which is a dark stain on modern Italian history as it represents the largest “voluntary” migration of people from one region in the recorded history of the world. As everyone should recognize migrations of this magnitude do not occur without a cause which is severe in nature.  Since San Felese records identify 1866 as the largest and I might add unprecedented exit of villagers to America the so-called “Third Italian War of Unification” in effect became a dividing point for ethnic southern Italians and San Felese. This dividing point became a scar upon the landscape of southern Italian/San Felese culture, society and history. That scar continues to this day affecting families now spread across the globe.

 1866 is uniquely significant as it marks a huge spike in the exodus of San Felese to the United States. Throughout the preceding ten decades small numbers of San Felese did immigrate, seek refuge or work in foreign locations. The reasons for previous departures during that time varied, sometimes it was encouraged by political strife, sometimes economic strife and sometimes the departures were caused by natural disasters. However the overall numbers of villagers departing were relatively small, rarely being more than a dozen or two in any given year. Further, the departures were almost always temporary with the intention to return. If one searches San Felese records the tradition was to count those who had left only as temporarily absent from the town and therefore still residents.

 However, suddenly we see that over 500 individuals left the town for the U.S. in just one year. This was an unprecedented change in the migration history of the town. Put in the American immigration perspective the U.S. Census statistics indicate that the total Italian immigration to the U.S. for the entire decade of the 1860’s was only 22,000 or roughly 2,000 Italians per year during that decade. The fact that in one year 1866 approximately 25% of all Italians immigrating to the U.S. were from just one small town is significant. This large a number of people immigrating further indicates that there must have been extraordinary pressures present for such numbers to exist.

 This is further supported by the fact that Italian immigration to the U.S. up until this point had been largely from northern Italy. There had only been a few immigrants to the U.S. from San Fele in the preceding decade. The numbers I have seen suggests that from 1850-1866 the total number of San Felese in the U.S. did not exceed more than 50 -100.  Now suddenly an unprecedented number were arriving from San Fele exiting Italy in just this one year.

 This article, as far as I know, represents the first time that the Third War of Italian Unification is looked at in the context of a defining line from which the great southern Italian migration starts, including that from San Fele. Usually the “mass” immigration from southern Italy is looked at as starting around 1880 at its earliest. As a result connecting the mass migration to the Third War of Unification is not generally made. From a public relations point one can imagine that connecting the mass exodus of its citizens to a war of unification might send an awkward message which northern Italian authorities in the past were reluctant to create.

 As a result the rural southern Italian response to the Third War of Italian Unification of 1866 has been examined in traditional Italian histories more from the perspective of an internal Italian political perspective.  Traditional studies highlight southern Italy’s diminished enthusiasm and support of the war as unpatriotic or immoral rather than a response to their sense of where they fit in the unification of Italy. It is only in the last fifty years or so, that modern Italian historians have considered the Italian government’s social and civil injustices committed in the south from 1861-1866 as causes of the Palermo Revolt of 1866 or the renewed brigandage of Basilicata. The beginning of mass flight overseas is not often mentioned or included in the narratives.

 In this article, I hope to add the immigration from Lucania as also a reaction to the suppression inflicted from 1861-1865 by Piedmont on the south. I see the exodus to America as a form of social commentary which related to those injustices.  Those injustices were the root of why San Felese considered the opportunity/distraction that the war provided, as an opportunity to set a new course/future for many of the people of San Fele.

 I maintain that both the revolt of 1866 in the Palermo and the Lucanian/San Felese exodus 1866 are two sides of the same coin. Both were opportunistic responses that occurred as preparation for the war caused Piedmont withdraw about half of its “peacekeeping” troops stationed in southern Italy. I would further comment that while I am focused in this article on the San Felese departures from Italy, Lucania also saw renewed armed revolt against Piedmont during this period as well.

 The two rural southern regions, Basilicata and Sicily 1866 responses even as armed resistance were not coordinated with each other and therefore are not usually linked. However both regions similarly did have armed uprisings that overlapped the same period of time. They simply were not coordinated. The regional lack of coordination has led to a lack of appreciation that both regions were responding to similar conditions.

 Lucania’s revolt had the additional immigration element that is not seen this early in Sicily. This, from my perspective as a descendant of that migration, is most important and the reason for this article. The reduction in the Piedmont forces stationed in the south during the war presented the opportunity, in effect, to create a different form of physical opposition and demand a change on social issues. In effect they could vote with their feet. The sudden withdraw of many of the Piedmont troops allowed that social action/departure to take place without the level of fear of immediate governmental reprisals against families or blockage of departures at the ports.


                                                          The Loss of a Sense of Unified Nationhood


 First let me start by saying that as to both regions, Basilicata and Sicily, the response to the Third War of Unification in 1866 was dramatically different than those same regions response to the Second War of Unification in 1860. Six years of “unification” had resulted in very different “nationalistic” feelings evolving over time for the people of those two regions toward the political reality of unification.   To be clear those later “evolved” feelings and intervening experiences toward unification had become decidedly negative in fact and by application.

 At the time of Garibaldi’s invasion of southern Italy in 1860 both the rural Palermo region and rural San Fele/Lucania regions overwhelmingly supported the overthrow of the Bourbons.  The idea of a future “one nation” Italian State was attractive to many people in the south in 1860. This support was demonstrated in the form of volunteers, weapons and monetary contributions to Garibaldi and his efforts in his 1860 campaign. Both regions produced revolutionary councils that overwhelmingly supported Garibaldi’s efforts.

 Following Garibaldi’s successes and those of Victor Emanuel’s, both regions overwhelmingly supported the unification. They further supported the vote for unity in the 1861 Plebiscite and the joining with Piedmont thus creating a single “unified” country. In fact, Basilicata had of its own accord demanded unification in August 1860 by consent of its revolutionary assemblage even before Garibaldi’s landing on the mainland of the south. Having said that, admittedly there was less universal consensus in the regions regarding whether the new unified country should be a democratic republic or constitutional monarchy. Ultimately both regions did support joining with Piedmont under King Victor Emmanuel II, as constitutional monarch, in 1861.

 Initially, in 1862 the unification and initial unified legislative assembly guaranteed that all of the civil rights and civil protections existent in the northern Piedmont region would extend to the whole of the south of Italy. This on paper represented the type of Constitutional guarantees of civil liberty that many in the south had struggled to achieve for decades. Unfortunately, in practice this constitutional mandate soon proved an illusion. Four major political initiatives ushered in by northern politicians crippled the optimism of the south. First, Piedmont failed to deliver on the promise of fair and uncorrupted elections. Elections were highly orchestrated by the north to produce candidates that were pawns for northern Italian goals. Second, it installed primarily northern bureaucrats or corrupt southern administrators who failed to provide a fair and equitable system of applied justice despite the constitutional guarantees. Their effective actions were either motivated by personal enrichment or again northern goal enforcement. Third, it failed to recognize and in fact criminalized those who had fought for unification. Thus making a significant number of southern Italian men de facto criminals. Fourth and lastly it crippled the existing traditional economic controls while depleting the entire treasury of the south. Land reform became a new opportunity for the corrupt officials rather than a benefit to the oppressed.

 The net harm being implemented under the guise of government reform and “unification” had the effect of at first creating civil protest in the south which was met by Piedmont’s officials implementing heavy handed political/social suppression. This in turn led to armed revolt among segments of the southern population which in turn was followed by ever increasing Piedmont military suppression of the general population. In effect civil war broke out although Piedmont were careful to characterize what was really a southern political revolt as nothing more than criminal brigandage.

 Once the disparate suppressive official policies of the northern regime toward the south became obvious a “civilized” justification for the treatment needed to be created. Initially, as stated above, the suppression was justified on the grounds of governmental self-preservation protecting the local citizens from the criminal/brigand actions. Piedmont’s “emergency powers” were invoked to justify suspension of the south’s civil rights and implementing martial law. However, slowly a new narrative was added, one which started out as feigned moral outrage against those labelled as lawless outlaws. Piedmont reserved to itself the “moral high ground” against those that would challenge the government and the law. Higher “moral authority” became the cloak which the northern troops were clothed in for any horrendous act against civilians committed including those against civilian men women and children. Eventually however the narrative supporting a suppression of the general population, including women and children, needed a broader mantel of self-righteousness.  Increasingly, as we shall see, the Piedmont justification of mass suppression, imprisonment and murder of civilians in the south took on a tone that relied on fabricated racial underpinnings.

 So by 1865 there was already an element in the northern dialogue that viewed the southern Italian as morally and racially different, apart, and by implication inferior from other Italians. This narrative change was not lost on our ancestors.

 To understand the sequence of social degradation that occurred in both Sicily and Basilicata in 1866 it is important to look at what immediately preceded it. In 1865 with the lifting of Legge Pica and the lifting of the official state of emergency in the south there appeared to be a signal of return to normal civil order. Granted this was after most of the regional revolts of the south had been crushed and the ring leaders of those revolts either killed, imprisoned or co-opted. When in early 1866 two thirds of all of the troops stationed in the south were removed it again must have appeared that a move toward civil normalcy was occurring. Initially the people of the south would have had no knowledge that the true reason for the removal of troops from the south was to reposition them for the likely war with Austria.

  As we have seen by April 1866 the treaties and secret agreements between Prussia and Italy were in place. War broke out in June and no one could have predicted either its course or duration. However, it was clear that Piedmont by draft expected young southern men to serve in that war. However, their service was only positioned for the most part in the lower ranks. As they were not considered for higher service ranks. This of course place the draftees in the front lines after several years of suppression at home and subject to the disdain of their “foreign” officers. Many of whom regarded the southerners s racial inferiors.

  As it turned out the fighting concluded by mid-August. Probably nobody expected the war would be of such short duration. By mid-September even the peace negotiations among Prussia, France and Austria were finishing and the Piedmont troops were free to be reassigned from the front. Again, this was probably not an expected time frame and in fact may have affected the timing and nature of the revolts that followed. It was then realized that there was the very real threat that the north would return both its troops and its suppressive social order to the south.


                                                                         The Palermo Revolt of 1866


 I will examine the Palermo Revolt of 1866, sometimes called the seven and a half day revolt first, although as we shall see Basilicata’s response to the repositioning of Piedmont troops in April 1866 happens some five months before the Palermo revolt. As I have said I think it is important to link the two revolts in the same conversation but the focus of our articles is Basilicata. Therefore I will spend more time on that after describing the Palermo revolt.

 The Sicilian revolt in Italian:  “Rivolta del sette e mezzo” lasted from September 16 until September 22 1866. As you can see from the date the revolt actually begins after the fighting in the Third War of Unification stops and the peace negotiation had resolved the turnover of Venetia to Italy. Therefore the Italian army was largely on stand down and available for redeployment back to southern Italy.

 Traditional Italian historians treat this revolt like most of the civil unrest of the past 200 years in southern Italy, as fundamentally a manifestation of criminality. A criminality inherent in the lack of moral fiber of the people which derives in part from racial inferiority. In fact, many texts will discuss this uprising under the general topic of southern Italian brigandage. It has only been in the last 50 years or so that some historians, often non-Italian historians, have been rewriting this narrative to expose the political, social, and economic causes of the civil unrest thereby recasting the revolts as demonstrations against government oppression. As part of that narrative the “revisionist” histories of the later historians has exposed the injustices, inequities, corruption and outrages inflicted on the populations as the primary causes of the civil unrest. One of the later trend historian authors who has focused on the civil unrest in Sicily in particular is British historian Lucy Riall. For those who are interested in this topic I would recommend her book “Sicily and the Unification of Italy”. While I find her work very well done I think that limiting her discussion in a sense to “Sicilian Culture and geography” to some extent loses the broader rural southern Italian aspect of the topic.

 Dissatisfaction in Sicily with the Piedmont regime’s handling of local administration of the laws, bureaucracy, economic conditions and politics of the “new” Italian republic had been growing, especially in the rural confines of Sicily since 1861. As we discussed protest of injustices were generally labelled as criminal brigandage not political discourse and treated as criminal activity for purposes of punishment. The whole of rural southern Italy saw armed revolt fiercely put down by the authorities from 1861-1865. Those killed or imprisoned in these civil actions numbered in the tens of thousands.

 Obviously, as the war up north was concluding the Sicilian opposition saw a fading opportunity to once again strike a note of civil discord. Histories of the episode indicate that the revolt organized in the outskirts of Palermo in the town of Monreale which strategically overlooks the city of Palermo. As a result this uprising is often described as being a “rural” uprising or rural in initiation. However, close inspection of the participants confirms that the roughly 4,000 initial men that descended on Palermo and its prefecture were composed of the same mixture of political outcasts as had been constant in the previous pre-1866 engagements. That is to say they were made up of former Bourbon soldiers and supporters, former Garibaldi supporters, former anti-Bourbon insurgents and those who had been victimized by the heavy handed political and social practices of the Piedmont supported local officials.

 At the initial strike on the Prefecture and Palermo’s Police headquarters the resulting violence of the first few days lead to the insurgents killing the Inspector general of the Public Security Guard Corps, roughly 10 of the security guards and 21 police officers. However, it would be an error to equate this violence to a riot rather than a politically based revolt. Piedmont authorities estimated that the initial 4,000 were soon joined by up to 35,000 Sicilian sympathizers. So this revolt had an impressive public support base. I would also note that like the initial actions of the insurgents in Basilicata in 1861 among their first acts was to set up a provisional town council. So rather than being “lawless” the rebellious citizenship sought to establish a new order within their community.

 Piedmont responded to the uprising very quickly dispatching General Raffaele Cadorna and 40,000 troops with naval escort. The sheer size of the force dispatched showed both the extent to which Piedmont evaluated the threat and the determination to crush it. Upon the General’s arrival he immediately declared a “state of siege” which as we have seen meant a suspension of all civil liberties, or in other words the imposition of martial law.

 He then began to disembark his troops under cover of a naval bombardment of the city. Insurgents as well as noncombatant men women and children living within the city of Palermo were killed indiscriminately. By the time the uprising was put down Palermo lay in ruins and hundreds if not thousands of civilians lay dead. Many died in the bombardment or in the fires created by it. Many others in the house to house and street to street fighting employed to take control of the city. There were many reports that Piedmont soldiers employed fire, the burning of buildings where insurgents were barricaded as a means to eliminate those within. So seven and one half days after it started Palermo was “pacified” and the city retaken.

 As to exact casualties we know only that roughly 200 soldiers and 42 police officers were killed in the pacification of the city. Insurgent and or civilian casualties are not known as they were intentionally not counted. Roughly 2,500 people were arrested and imprisoned, of which only about 300 were given the opportunity of a trial. Due process was by virtue of the “state of siege” declaration suspended so trials were the exception. Once again Piedmont made it abundantly clear that any resistance to their authority would be dealt with swiftly and without mercy.



                                                                    The 1866 Revolt in Lucania/San Fele


Rural Lucania and San Fele also saw an opportunity to renew their revolt when the Piedmont troops were redeployed in preparation for war with Austria in April 1866 as well. However the nature of their second revolt was longer and more complicated than that of Palermo. I believe that the difference was a result of the preceding history of Lucania rather than a difference in sentiment.

 To explain, for Lucania the origins of the revolt first against the Bourbons and then against the House of Savoy begins in December of 1857 with the Great Neapolitan Earthquake. As we have said this incredible catastrophe had an epicenter near Potenza in Lucania. Officially, 20,000 Lucanians died in the quake but unofficial totals are closer to 30,000. Approximately 95% of those casualties were experienced in Basilicata. This in an Italian State, Basilicata, with a total population of 450,000-500,000. The death toll coupled with the two very harsh following winters, massive numbers of sick and injured, total infrastructure devastation and lack of any federal aid, set off massive civil unrest and ultimately armed revolt against the Bourbon authorities. Statistically it is important to realize that even before the first shots of rebellion were heard in Basilicata roughly 5% of the population had been killed in the quake. This initial revolt against the Bourbon regime, with its subsequent civil rebellion preceded and then overlapped with Garibaldi’s invasion of Sicily. So independently Lucanians were ready for regime change.

 As previous articles have outlined post “unification” with northern Italy the new Piedmont government’s policies once again pushed the southern Italian population of Basilicata into armed revolt. Civil revolt was during the years 1862-1865 harshly dealt with by overwhelming Piedmont government forces. Once again conservative numbers suggest that around 20,000-30,000 people in Basilicata were either Killed or imprisoned from 1861-1865. By the end of 1865 almost all of the armed revolt’s leaders were either killed or imprisoned, many surrendering rather than have their families arrested under charges of complicity. The ability to successfully wage civil war in Basilicata was by 1865 no longer practical under the intense control of massive numbers of Piedmont troops.

 As 1866 arrived the population of Basilicata had from 1857-1865 literally been decimated with conservatively 40,000 to 60,000 killed. Much of the infrastructure had been destroyed and the normal economic flow of the region severely crippled. When in around April of 1866 Piedmont began to scale down the troop commitment in the region, Basilicatans saw an opportunity to again give voice to their civil grievances. Some took up armed resistance as had been done earlier. New insurgent leaders arose. These were again labelled brigands with no recognition that the lack of civil liberties and the pervasive injustices had led them to their actions. One of the most notable of this “second” round of local “brigands” is the female brigand Michelina De Cesare whose short revolutionary career began around 1865 and lasted until she was  executed in 1868. Because of her youth, courage and loyalty to her comrades her photograph is often used as representative of her generation of Lucanian resistance.



                                                                                    Photograph of Michelina De Cesare


 The second wave of insurgency although much smaller in scope was in Lucania generally said to have persisted from 1865 thru about 1875. However, for these few new insurgents the ultimate return of northern pacifying troops would eventually result in the same terrible consequences that had occurred in the first post-unification uprisings. While I will write more about that later what I intend to write about now is a very different type of revolt that occurred in Lucania and specifically San Fele starting right around April 1866. This secondary revolt response was more passive than armed rebellion but just as much a declaration of civil discord.

 San Fele had suffered and experienced firsthand the Piedmont military suppression of civil liberties which were implemented from 1861-1865. When northern troops began to be repositioned in the north of Italy an immediate reaction occurred within the town. Thanks to the research of Prof. Stia and his book “La Grande Emigrazione” we can see very clearly how the San Felese responded to the sudden easing of restrictions due to reduced troop presence. They began to immigrate in extraordinary numbers. With no practical option to succeed in armed rebellion the choice was to silently suffer the indignities of life as second class citizens or as it turns out seek out the promise of equality elsewhere. This choice became available as an option because in 1865 a number of the political refugees, including my great- great grandfather were returning to Italy. Many had lived in the U.S. in exile for a number of years. They had survived and to some extent prospered in that foreign land. More the U.S. had just completed a great Civil War of its own which had resulted in an expansion of civil liberties to a whole class of people previously denied. Just as important some San Felese were still in America and could serve as valuable contacts for those thinking about leaving.

 Within this historic context I think it is important to reprint the entire list of those who left San Fele in 1866. That list is as follows:




                                                                                 1866 San Fele Immigration List


                                                           Click HERE for 1866 Part 1

                                                 Click HERE for 1866 Part 2 

                                                           Click HERE for 1866 Part 3


 The dates of departures on this list should be looked at within the context of the dates that correspond to the Piedmont troop movements from the region and their eventual return at the end of the Third War of Unification. As you can see from the departure dates the majority of those able-bodied men leaving San Fele for the United States falls between April and October of 1866. Clearly there was no precedent for such an empting of the civilian population on this scale in the town’s long history. The departures at this time were also counter to the agrarian lifestyle of the village. You would not expect to see a quarter to a third of the adult male population of a rural town leave during the planting, cultivating and harvest times. Generally the history of most previous migratory work journeys occurred during late fall and winter months when domestic labor demands were low. The departure dates clearly indicate that men were leaving the town in large numbers when internal labor demand was at a premium. In fact the local village labor demand would have been extra high as many of the young males, 16-20, of the village had been conscripted into the army.

 Additionally, the most significant and telling feature that makes this departure of able-bodied men so unusual is the sheer scope and direction of the migration. Over 500 young men uprooting from the mountains of San Fele to make an expensive, dangerous and long 48-60 day journey, 3,500 miles by ship, to a foreign place. A country where they did not speak the language, had few resources waiting and did not understand the culture. A foreign country where the recorded census on immigration from Italy in the preceding 15 years only totaled 20,000. Now from one small town in one year 500?

 It is worth taking a moment to look at a general view of the impact to the town that such a departure event would cause. The population in 1866 of the town was less than 10,000. If you do the math and say out of 10,000 half were women then it is 500 out of a male population in the town of 5,000. If you then figure that half the males in that number are children, then it is 500 out of 2,500. Going still further if you figure about 10-20 percent of the remaining male population were old men over 50 that leaves a pool of potential men of 2,000. What we are looking at is the departure of between 20 and 25% of the entire adult male population of the town for America in a six month period of just this one year 1866. This is an extraordinary event. It is also an exodus that has no modern or historic precedent in San Felese history.

 I have written and cited information from Prof. Stia’s book “La Grande Emigrazione” on a number of occasions in my writings. I should note that the purpose of Prof. Stia’s writing was not to just document the scope and times of departures. In this regard his writing does provide that very valuable information to us. However, his stated purpose was to examine the impact of the departures on the family, culture and social institutions of the village life. So this event even within San fele is recognized as the beginning of a mass departure, further a sequence of departures which fundamentally changed a thousand years of village life forever. This was the beginning of events which changed the culture of the town to its very core not to mention the life course of our ancestors who moved abroad. In all the town’s population dropped from 10,000 in 1860 to about 6,000 in 1930. Some 16,000 people born in San Fele would immigrate to foreign lands during that period.

 It is clear that the Piedmont troop deployment northward was viewed by the San Felese as an opportunity that allowed the departures to occur. Because of the recent history of civil unrest, Piedmont and its local officials in 1866 recognized, I am sure, that the departure of so many “peace-keeping” troops raised a very real concern for their being able to maintain civil order in the south. Lucanians in general and southern Italians as a whole were viewed as “trouble”. A prolonged absence of sufficient numbers of federal troops would only encourage the locals to press civil unrest.

 The sudden departure of 500+ Lucanians for a foreign destination was most likely viewed by officials as a positive occurrence. After all this would mean 500 fewer men from a region that was notorious for violent unrest they needed to keep in line. So the opportunity was created to slip away without any real resistance on the part of the local government.  In future writings there will be discussions about how northern Italians generally would come to view and encourage southern Italian mass immigration, once it was recognized it was occurring. Again the view up until about 1910 or so was the mass exodus was a positive event for the country. An event that removed “undesirables” from the population and made control easier to maintain.

 However, in general in the 1860’s conventional northern Italian sentiment was that southern Italians collectively would never leave in a mass exodus. Rather by past experience with the nature of southern regional populations they would they were more likely to dig in to their ancestral regions and never leave. That they were inexplicitly attached to their homes regardless of how miserable the environment became.

 In fact, building on that perception one of the punishments build into violations of the Pica Laws was forced resettlement on people away from their familial roots and regions. As one Piedmont supported southern Italian politician wrote about punishment by resettlement;

“The effectiveness of this punishment was commended to us by almost all the honourable magistrates and jurists we interviewed. They all made us reflect on the fact that, in addition to this punishment’s intrinsic effectiveness, there is also the advantage that derives in this special case from the nature of the southerners, who are extremely fond of their own land, infatuated with their own sky, and unbelievably averse to the thought of leaving the house where they were born. Even just the announcement of this new punishment would bring about a salutary and useful fear”. Page 41 &42 “Darkest Italy” by John Dickie.

 This is a further indication of how highly unusual, unexpected at least by authorities, and in terms of civil response, unprecedented the departures occurring in 1866 were.



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