Winter of the Lucanian Insurgency 1861
By: Tom Frascella October 2016
Once it was discovered, in mid-November that through the treachery of officials in Potenza the weapons upon which the insurgent forces desperately depended had been captured and destroyed the creation of an armed insurgent force in the Capitol became impractical. For Borjes and his roughly 4,000 men to remain in the open valley of Potenza was not an option. The insurgent force quickly faded and dispersed into the mountainous landscape of central Basilicata to avoid an outright confrontation with the gathering Piedmont units. With no weapons with which to arm the growing number of recruits Borjes and his command leadership knew success in the field was not possible without devastating attrition. In Matera Provence many of the men recruited returned to their homes and villages. As most were without the arms that they had expected to receive in Potenza they were vulnerable to the reprisals of the National Guard and regular Piedmont army now in force in the region. Some of the more experienced and armed insurgents of Matera merely spread out and took up the life of a guerilla fighter in the hills as they had before the campaign started. But these too were now hunted by the regular Piedmont army now greatly fortified.
As for Borjes and Crocco, they travelled northward to Potenza Provence. In all, they returned from the campaign with a force of about 2,300-2,400 men. Like their southern Lucanian counterparts some of these men were unarmed but the majority were armed and had a history of guerilla warfare in the region which they were prepared to resume.
In all Borjes’ aggressive insurgent campaign had lasted little more than two weeks. However, the Borjes’ campaign had resulted in an unprecedented, in southern Italy, number of civilian casualties. Some of those casualties were inflicted during the campaign by Piedmont forces in reprisals against suspected pro-insurgents and some were inflicted by insurgents attempting to break the power of the Piedmont magistrates. In a strike more to the pride of the Piedmont army than to its effectiveness the Borjes’ campaign had resulted in about 2,000 Piedmont soldiers killed and many more wounded. This was accomplished by a force that the Piedmont commanders considered little more than a rabble and makeshift peasant force. The Piedmont commanders even after their defeats were unwilling to recognize as even remotely competent the fighting quality of the southern forces. Too many these were fighters inferior to them in every way.
The disbursement of the insurgent force into the mountains frustrated any attempt by the Piedmont regulars to follow and encircle any sizeable insurgent elements. However, from Piedmont’s perspective it was imperative that order be reestablished and punishment implemented upon those that had challenged Piedmont’s authority. Unable to reach the best trained and provisioned of the insurgents, Piedmont turned its attention toward the population centers, small villages and towns that were deemed by their actions sympathetic to the insurgent cause. Further they patrolled in the hills hoping to confront the less skilled of the small insurgent bands now in hiding.
The towns and villages that had resisted had as indicated suffered great destruction and deaths at the hands of the insurgents. However, realizing what resistance meant many towns had basically surrendered or begged for mercy from the insurgent forces. In many instances the people in these towns had “voluntarily” turned over food and other support to the insurgents. In so doing to the Piedmont regulars looking to teach lessons and avenge their losses these acts of self-preservation were now viewed as supporting the insurgents. The period from mid-November thru mid-December of 1861 became a period of reprisal upon towns and anyone who was suspected of complicity or sympathy to the insurgent cause in central and southern Lucania. The record of these reprisals in which hundreds, even thousands of innocent civilians were either executed or imprisoned in this period have been intentionally lost by Italian authorities.
However, I recently became acquainted with an aspect of this reprisal aftermath in the writings from the archives of the Craco Society. Our San Felese Society has had the privilege of working with and exchanging information with the officers and members of the Craco Society for a number of years now. I thank them for their permission to include elements from their July newsletter of a record disclosure concerning the reprisals in the town of Craco in 1861 as part of my article. Craco in 1861 was a small town in southern Matera Provence which fits into the narrative discussed above. The town begged the insurgents for mercy and was essentially spared. From their records published in their monthly newsletter of this past July it would appear that at least two major acts of military reprisals befell the town almost immediately following the disbandment of the insurgent force in the area.
In the July 2016 Craco Newsletter on page 3 under the Title of, “The Briganti of Craco”, the article states that the society has located a document which is a certified copy of arrest and execution lists from the town. Such documents are extremely rare allowing for much of what was carried out in government reprisals to go “unsubstantiated” for the past 150 years or so. The Craco Newsletter article states in relevant part;
“The document from the Archivio is labeled as a copy made in 1889 from the original in the Communnal achives. The list contains the names of 58 individuals, their hometown and details about their arrest or death. Six individuals are listed as being killed on November 24, 1861 in Craco and the remainder are listed under the date of December 5, 1861.
The November 24th incident is documented by Prof. D’Angella in “Note Storiche…” but the other individuals had varying fates.
These included 35 men arrested and 17 killed or had whereabouts unknown. In all of these cases, the individuals were “rendered” by the Mayor of the town. “Rendered” is a legal term meaning they were officially reported or declared in a legal judgment by the Mayor as briganti.” The Mayor would have been Pro-Piedmont and the judgments summary in fashion as well as the execution of punishment. This means that one could be convicted and punished based upon acquisition whether supported by facts or not.
Click HERE for a Copy of page from the Archivo as reprinted in the Craco July Newsletter issue.
Once Borjes and Cracco realized there was no purpose in taking the capitol Potenza as the weapons had been lost they determined to leave the area. As stated some of the force departed to the south in Matera Provence. Borjes and Crocco headed back toward Potenza Provence with about 2,300 men. Although they were in retreat toward their home province they were far from moving out peacefully. On the evening of November 16th they attack the town of Pietragalla which resisted. Most of the National Guard and many of the townspeople took refuge in the town’s ancient fortress. From there the National Guard and townspeople successfully defended themselves but left unprotected the village houses which were then open to looting and fires. The insurgents left the abandoned village the next day when the town defenders were relieved by National Guard units who arrived from Acerenza and Forenza.
From Pietragalia the retreat basically moved northwest into Potenza Provence, Basilicata. It should be noted that Crocco reported in his autobiographically that around November 19-20th the weather in the mountains changed and winter began to set in. On the way northward the insurgent force attacked Avigliano and were repulsed by the townspeople and National Guard troops there.
At this point there appears to be the beginning of a command revolt against Borjes. The men heading northward were veterans of guerrilla warfare and understood what they needed to do to survive the coming winter. On November 22 the insurgents attacked the town of Bella. The pattern of this attack is much like the attack on Ruvo del Monte. First, the insurgents tried to get the town to cooperate but were met by the bell tower alarms which signaled that there would be resistance. The result of the resistance in Bella was a nine hour battle between the insurgents and the defenders. At great cost the insurgents gained the town but the defenders again retreated safely to their ancient fortress. The town was looted and much of it set ablaze but the fortress could not be taken.
The next intended raid was on the large town of Mauro Lucano. However, Crocco and the insurgents were warned that the town was too heavily defended to be successfully assaulted and they instead moved toward the town of Balvano. Balvano was the easier target as it was too exposed to successfully resist. Knowing this the townspeople instead instead attempted to greet the insurgents warmly. That however did not save them from looting and anyone who complained was shot. The looting of Balvano was followed by the insurgents moving on to Ricigliano where the townspeople also did not resist.
Around November 26th the first snows of winter began to fall. The mountains in this part of the Apennines range anywhere from 1,500-2,500 feet above sea level. Which means that the region experiences four true seasons and frequently heavy snows. Snowfall can be heavy enough to shut the mountain passes down, sometimes for weeks/months. The reader will remember that the winter of 1857 saw very heavy snowfall and the closing of most of the mountain passes for the winter season. With the first snow the insurgent force begins to experience some desertions especially among the less veteran men. Crocco in his diary did not view these losses as a negative as he considered the less adept as a liability to survival.
From Ricigliano the remaining insurgent force headed toward the town of Pescopagano about ten miles northwest of San Fele. But here they again faced resistance from the town. While they were able at some cost in lives occupy the village the defenders once again continued to resist from inside the ancient fortress of this town as well. The insurgent’s lack of artillery meant they had no way to successfully attack a fortress. Their only possible method toward success against such a structure was by siege which takes time, but that was something in an assault that they did not have. Once again the insurgents after looting as much as they could were forced to retreat before they were approached by substantial numbers of regular and National Guard troops. The personal command authority of General Borjes continued to diminish with the general personnel of the insurgent force during these raids.
Histories indicate that Borjes was uncomfortable with the frequent excesses of the insurgents toward innocent civilians.
The Departure of General Borjes
As stated above by the time the Potenza contingent of the insurgent force returned to Potenza province from Matera Province it numbered between 2,000-2,300 men. A number of these men were suffering wounds received in the campaign of the previous several weeks. Many of the men were greatly dissatisfied with the results of the campaign given their sacrifice and the failure of the plan to capture Potenza. The loss of the “secret cache” of weapons by deceit and the traitorous acts of a number of local landowners who had obviously switched sides further raised distrust toward Borjes and the resolve of the men he served. To some extent the insurgent excesses of violence toward the townspeople in November and December reflected their frustration from the campaign. It also reflected that the insurgent force had not planned to spend the winter in the mountains without supplies. Rather the plan was to capture Potenza and to build an army there during the winter months. That obviously was not going to happen.
Now returned to their home base region they faced the potential encirclement by Piedmont forces and the hardship of a long winter in the mountains. To the commanders of the insurgents, such as Crocco, who had years of experience they knew exactly what they needed to do for their men to survive.
First, they needed to gather quickly sufficient supplies to carry their force through the winter. Then once adequately supplied they needed to disperse the men into sufficiently small enough units that they could melt into the landscape leaving little in the way of footprints for the Piedmont soldiers to follow.
This late into the Lucanian fall most of the supplies upon which the local communities depended to help them through the winter had already been gathered and stored primarily in the towns and villages. Surplus agriculture would have already been sold off before the passes would close in the winter snows.
As a result you see the aggressive attacks on the villages above especially focusing on supplies. The locals for their part even if sympathetic had barely enough food for their own survival and it is not surprising that many towns fought with the insurgents rather than surrendering their supplies. Crocco and his men knew that they had to get these supplies even at the sacrifice of these towns and that making something of a lesson of those that resisted while unfortunate was a necessary cost of their war and the insurgent’s survival.
Borjes for his part had not signed on to wage a guerilla type war. As a professional soldier of his era he had no experience with such tactics and probably shared with the Piedmont officers a contempt for the necessities and lifestyle of such warfare. Borjes had signed on to lead a regular army, raised from the local peasants of the south and the former Bourbon soldiers still loyal to the Bourbon King. He had anticipated after he occupied Potenza and took possession of the large cache of weapons that he would spend the winter training and organizing a conventional military force there. It would be with this force that he would begin a campaign to re-instate the Bourbon monarchy. Obviously that plan could not proceed given the treacherous failure of the Capitol City Potenza’s leadership and the loss of the weapons.
Around November 26th there was a major falling out between Borjes and the leadership of the insurgents. Borjes wanted the force to remain intact and train. The insurgent leadership wanted to disperse for the winter. Borjes wanted the insurgent troops to develop regular military discipline including disciplined restraint against the civilian population when foraging for supplies. The insurgents felt that fear of reprisals from them was the only counter to the way the Piedmont authorities were waging war and pressuring the civilians in their own way.
Unable to enlist further cooperation from either the leadership or the rank and file of the insurgents General Borjes decided he needed to discuss the situation with King Francis and his advisors in Rome. According to Crocco’s autobiography Borjes left the Melfi region heading north through the mountains after the first snows of winter had already fallen. Also according to Crocco he was accompanied by about thirty men, about a dozen of whom were Spanish officers.
The insurgent force being led by Crocco divided at this point into four groups and separately made their way toward the Monticchio Forest region which was Crocco’s strongest home base and his most familiar home territory.
November 27th thru December 7th 1861
The distance that Borjes and his small group had to travel thru the Apennine Mountains from roughly the Pescopagano region to Rome is about 230-270 very rugged miles. For men not familiar with the terrain and with the snows already setting in the trip would have been difficult at best. For Borjes and his men the added concern of trying to avoid detection by the Piedmont forces made the journey that much more dangerous and slow. Borjes and his men reached the area near the town of Tagliacozzo in Abruzzo on December 7th. Exhausted cold and having come to within about twenty miles of the border of territory held by the Papal States which represented safety Borjes made the fateful decision to spend the night at a local travel station.
In those days the mountain passes and rural roads were dotted with small modest way stations where travelers could get a warm meal and shelter for the night. The place that he stayed was located slightly south and fifty miles east of Rome. Unfortunately for Borjes someone locally recognized him or the military assemblage that he was travelling with and reported him to the local Piedmont garrison in the nearby town of Tagliacozzo.
The garrison troops lead by a major Franchini surrounded the station and a brief gunfight erupted during which three of Borjes men were killed and the rest including the general forced to surrender. Borjes being a professionally trained soldier, according to reports, attempted to surrender his sword to the Piedmont officer. That office ignored the gesture and refused to recognize any military curtesy. Instead Borjes and his men were stripped of all valuables which the Piedmont soldiers kept, bound and marched back to the town of Tagliacozza. There they were told to make whatever religious preparations were appropriate for them as they were to be summarily executed. They then were taken to the town square and shot.
When the events of December 8th were reported there was some minor condemnation by international military bodies expressing shock and outrage over the breach of military protocol. Documents that would have illuminated whether the Major was acting on his own initiative in ordering the executions or on orders have conveniently been lost. Little came of the international protest concerning the treatment of enemy combatants, especially officers of senior rank and so ended the episode and the brief military career of General Borjes in southern Italy.
Portrait of General Jose Borges
During the period of General Borjes’ ill-fated departure the insurgent forces in Potenza province were busy strategically centralizing for the winter in the Monticchio Forest region, or so it was planned. The Piedmont forces were by now, a year into Crocco’s insurgency, well aware that this was Crocco’s safe haven. Crocco had left behind during the Potenza/Matera campaign about 80 insurgent fighters to continue operations in the area of the extensive forest land during his absence.
Prior to Crocco’s return from the Potenza/Matera campaign Piedmont regulars had gone into the Monticchio region in force to root out the small insurgent band. When in late November early December Crocco and his forces returned they found the landscape greatly changed. In Crocco’s own words;
“I come back to the Toppacivita brush (forest), the field of my victory. But strangely, it is gone! All that remained was the moved soil. The general Della Chiesa with three battalions of riflemen and artillery and cavalry had arrived in Rionero. At the Toppacivita brush, during my absence, there had been a band of eighty bandits led by Pio Masiello; he had maintained the position and the thrill in the district because of the lack of soldiers. The general with his force at first attacked the position with artillery; at the grenades explosion the robbers escaped, those who were not killed, fell prisoners and then the band was destroyed. The general after realizing that that position in the hands of bold and numerous robbers was a great danger to Rionero and the neighboring countries, ordered that it was destroyed. With a public announcement he allowed the farmers to cut the wood in that spot, and so quickly the brush of Mr. Filippo Decillo from San Fele became a beautiful smooth field.” “How I became a Bandit” page 84.
Denied his former strategic position it is interesting how Crocco then sets up his force for the winter. Again quoting directly from his autobiography;
“We had to look for another district that was not the Toppacivita one. The winter was advancing very quickly, we were 2,180 men and 340 horses. We divided into six main factions, and I founded other twenty small bands of 12 to 20 men; each of these had their own boss, they could bivouac as well as they liked, working on their own to earn their bread, and in case of tracking, they had to return to the main band they belonged. I stationed in the woods of Castiglione, Sassano, Pesco di Razza, and Palumba; all these forests belonged to the town of Calitri, Carbonara, Aquilonia and Monteverde, all countries without troops, controlled by weak National Guard…”
“All these bands were so well spaced that in a few hours they could gather all together; in a few days they built huts, protections, stables, barracks, kitchens and seized the boilers, barrels, the buckets.
In order to live, there was a forced requisition of oxes, goats, sheeps, we visited the cellars of the neighboring farms to have the wine and the water of the wells or that which fell out of the sky; what paid was the lead.” Page 85.
The insurgents in the region were knowledgeable enough to hunker down in force where the Piedmont troop strength was weakest. The Piedmont forces in response to the deteriorating weather condition and recognizing that travel in winter conditions in the mountains was difficult apparently were content to settle their accumulated garrisons in the local towns and villages of the surrounding region. So the insurgents had free rein in the countryside and the Piedmont regular soldiers/National Guard in control of most to the town centers, a sort of temporary stand-off.
Once the snows began in the winter of 1861 the mountains of southern Italy would experience one of the heaviest snowfall accumulations of the decade. Essentially the Piedmont troops stationed there became isolated in place. They realized that they had to limit townspeople from aiding the insurgents either by joining them, supplying them or delivering information. They were of course concerned that their scattered presence could lead to a coordinated attacks during the winter months. An order was given by the local commanders forbidding the townspeople from leaving their villages. The order advised the locals that anyone caught on the roads, in the winter (December) of 1861- spring (May) 1862 would be summarily executed by the Piedmont soldiers garrisoned throughout the region. Of course this was viewed as oppressive by the townspeople and reflected the regular army’s psychological mindset that insurgents and or townspeople were all potential enemies to be treated harshly.
If you read through the histories concerning December of 1861 you realize that there were also many other insurgent bands operating in other parts of southern Italy as well. As previously written there was a good amount of support for the Bourbon regime in northern Campania. In fact general Cialdini’s original area of concentration against the insurgents was in northern Campania. About this time the insurgent bands in this region which abutted the Papal States, also dispersed and settled into mountain hideaways for the winter. Several of the leaders of the Campania insurgents, from the Nola and Avellino regions took the opportunity of winter to travel to the Papal States to confer with the Bourbon King in exile in Rome. Unlike general Borjes these men, native to the region had no problem avoiding Piedmont patrols and successfully reached Rome. I mention this as four of these men will play a major, if unintentional role in how the conflict, politics and social future of the region would evolve. More will be written about these men in coming articles. In addition mentioning them at this times stresses that the insurrection was widely based in1861-1862.
From a personal/San Fele family perspective this is also precisely the time (December 1861) that my great-great grandfather Vito left the village of San Fele on his initial journey to the U.S. I mention this because even the act of leaving could have ended in his execution if he was discovered traversing the mountainous roads. Yet he accepted that risk. Obviously in accepting the risks there must have been a sense of necessity in choosing this course of action at that time. I would however note that he did have several advantages over other villagers that probably aided him in leaving the town with minimal risk or implication that he was sympathetic to the insurgency.
First, as I understand it his father was the owner of the local grain mill located in the valley below the town. As the oldest son he would have been involved in its operation including visiting farms regarding production and sites connected with sale and grain distribution. Such endeavors would have at times taken him out of the town and possibly to markets outside of the immediate region. So a greater degree of travel without raising suspicion may have been available to him.
Second while Vito’s father came from an old and well known San Felese family his mother came from the town of Bella. He could have travelled their on pretext of visiting family. Once out of the town he had, as a native of the region familiarity with the terrain. That would have been important to avoid any patrols of Piedmont soldiers. It would also have been important to avoid any insurgent patrols. Small insurgent bands were very active in the provence during that winter and were victimizing anyone they found on the roadways. However since he had spent his entire life in the area he likely could move through the mountains on paths not known or travelled by the Piedmont troops and maybe not by the insurgents. I mentioned the insurgents because they were routinely stopping, robbing or holding for ransom people that they encountered on the road. This was especially true of some of the bands that had San Fele members and were led by Fortunato.
Obviously he made it out of the mountains and to the port of Naples. There he apparently had the were- with-all to book passage for the U.S. Family history does not say what or how long he stayed in Naples. It also does not relate as to what he did while in Naples. This is for me an interesting gap in Vito’s story. I bring this up because an interesting meeting was taking place in the city that same December of 1861. I do not know if he had any connection to that meeting which I will discuss in more detail in the next article.
While there is no direct family history on why he left for America at that time, he apparently did. Generally speaking in this time frame the journey to America by sailing ship, in his case to New York City, took between 50 and 70 days with stops, departure schedules, etc. So this was a journey that was not undertaken lightly. Further the length of the journey coincides with the documented fact that he arrived in Trento in the early spring of 1862.
The question created by Vito’s departure of how Vito’s journey to America appeared to the authorities in Naples or San Fele I suspect was probably answered by the local tradition of exporting labor. The tradition of men seeking employment opportunities in other parts of Italy and Europe had been in place and active in southern Italy for decades. As long as he was sure to confirm that he was leaving Italy or the region his absence could be understood or at least explained as part of that tradition of seeking business opportunity out of the region. Since he was heading to America he clearly was not joining the insurgents. From the records accumulated by Prof. Stia we know that departures for America would very shortly, late 1862, be tracked by authorities very carefully and recorded. Later that year a number of men began to escape the conditions presented in San Fele by very publicly recording their departures for “work” in America. So Vito may have been one of the earliest to leave the village using foreign work as the cover for their departures.
But their remains another unanswered question in why Vito was heading for America and that is, why America? This was not a common destination for San Felese prior to Vito’s departure. The answer may not be found where one would expect. Generally, the insurgency/counter revolt of this period is looked at as a struggle between the pro-Bourbon insurgents and the pro-Piedmont government. However there is no indication that his departure was the result of a direct threat for belonging to either faction. In addition when the “family” discussed Vito’s politics both Italian and American politics the statements attributed to him were neither pro-Piedmont nor pro-Bourbon.
I think that the answer to the question was that there was a third faction in the political mix of the time and place and that faction was disliked/threatened and threatening to both the pro-Bourbon and pro Piedmont/Savoy factions. That faction would be those who were politically aligned with the anti-Monarchist, pro-democratic republicans of the Mazzinian faction. That faction had been receiving support, financial and political, in the United States of 1861.
The question then is, was Vito’s politics a pro-democratic/republican, anti-Monarchist Mazzinian and is that the reason that he felt compelled to leave San Fele at that time and shortly thereafter come to America? Otherwise America seems to be an odd destination for a young man from Lucania in 1861. It was 3,500 miles, mostly oceanic miles, from home. America was an English language and Protestant based culture. English has never been a commonly acquired language in the Basilicata area, even today. The U.S. was in the first year of a violent civil war of its own which presented its own dangers to life and limb. Finally there probably were less than a couple of thousand Italians, mostly northern Italians, scattered across the northeast U.S. It would not seem that he could easily find compatriots here in the U.S.
Interestingly, in family discussions regarding Vito’s American politics it was always mentioned that he was a “Lincoln” republican and insisted that his children belong to the party of Lincoln. This made him in the context of his time a liberal. In addition, every statement the family attributed to him about Italian politics clearly identified him as anti-monarchist, regardless of what monarchy was being discussed. So from the stories about Vito that I heard his politics were aligned with those of Mazzini’s in the early 1860’s.
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