Fighting for Two Souths
This CSA flag with the
Bourbon crest of Naples
never existed. I just needed a picture.
across a local website by a gentleman near Naples who says
that his great-great grandfather left to fight for the
south in the US Civil War and then returned with eight
other survivors to Italy in 1868. Furthermore, “To his
last days [he] testified to his devotion to the
Confederate States of America...”. The author now writes
passionate letters to nostalgic Southern Civil War sites
in the U.S. and signs them “God Bless the
Confederacy.” I have no reason to share his
politics, but I also have no reason to doubt his numbers
and statistics, which seem well researched, nor the
authenticity of his family’s personal memoirs that he
cites. Taken together with a few others sources
(bibliography, below), it is perhaps possible to piece
together a bit of a narrative about the fascinating fact
that there were at least some Italians on both sides in
the U.S. War Between the States.
A bit of background:
—On March 17, 1861, King Vittorio Emanuele II proclaimed the new nation of Italy after annexing the south, i.e. the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies (alias The Kingdom of Naples), made possible by Garibaldi’s conquest of southern Italy. A few weeks later, on April 12, Confederate forces fired on Ft. Sumter, the Union garrison in Charleston harbor, South Carolina, to begin the US Civil War.
—US opinion on the war in Italy (that is, Garibaldi's invasion of the south in 1860) was overwhelmingly in favor of Italian unification. An exception to this was the Catholic press in the US and opinion among U.S. Roman Catholics, who knew that a united Italy would mean the dissolution of the Papal States and the so-called “temporal power of the Church.” (Indeed, that is precisely what happened.)
—Opinion in the new Italy on the U.S. Civil War was not as lopsidedly pro-north as one might think. It is true that “national unity” as a theme appealed to many Italians, who had just united their own nation (an unfinished process, however, that would continue well into the 1870s and even up to WWI in the case of the extreme north), but there was also a large conservative economic, social and religious sentiment even among new pan-Italians that still viewed the “isms” of the 19th century with suspicion—liberalism, modernism and socialism. (Even after unification, Italy rejected republicanism and kept the monarchy, and most Italians remained staunch Roman Catholics.) To many such Italians, the US north smacked of such "-isms," while the south did not. (After all, Karl Marx, himself, had just written an enthusiastic letter of encouragement to Abraham Lincoln!)
—There were foreign-born soldiers on both sides in the Civil War. These were of two kinds and it is important to make the distinction: most (Group 1) were immigrants who had come to stay (say, the vast numbers of Irish and Germans who immigrated in the 1840s and 1850s. (There were not many Italians in Group 1. The Italian-born population of the U.S. in 1860 was only about 10,000. The great wave of immigration from Italy would not start until the 1870s.) Some numbers place the Union Army at as high as one-third foreign-born. (Many of them, obviously, had become or would become naturalized citizens.) The others (Group 2) were those who had come specifically to participate in the Civil War, for whatever reason—ideology, money, etc. Those in the first group wound up fighting for the side they happened to live in. The second group came with a purpose, but compared to the first group, was relatively small on both sides.
—Demographics of the south are interesting. The white population in the eleven states of the Confederacy was nearly 5,500,000 people, of whom nearly 250,000 had been born abroad (Group 1), or roughly between 4 and 5 percent. That is smaller than the north, but in large southern cities, the percentage was much higher—about 25% in Richmond and 40% in New Orleans, for example. Again, Group 2—those who came to fight—probably numbered no more than a few thousand fighting for the south. Of those, there were approximately 2,000 Italians, virtually all of them from the former Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. (There was perhaps a similar number of Group 2 foreigners fighting for the north; Italians among them would have been primarily from the armies of recent Italian unification—many inspired by Garibaldi. A few were certainly soldiers of fortune. (Garibaldi, himself, turned down Lincoln’s offer in 1861 to become a general in the Union army.)
That is background. As to the nitty-gritty of how some southern Italians wound up fighting for the Confederate States of America, that is not too complicated. Garibaldi took the city of Naples in September, 1860. In early October, his army took part in their last military campaign in the struggle for the south at the battle of the Volturno, north of Naples. By November, the war for southern Italy was over, although the siege of Gaeta by the regular Italian army lasted into February of ’61. Garibaldi's army, however, did not participate in that siege, so by November, 1860, Garibaldi was sitting on the city of Naples and the rest of the south while the final chapter of the war was about to play out 50 miles further north in Gaeta. He was also sitting on a large number of prisoners from the army of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies that he had just defeated. Enter now the swashbuckling figure of Chatham Roberdeau Wheat (1826-1862), a captain in the US Army, volunteer in the Mexican War, mercenary in Cuba, Mexico and Italy (!), and a native of Virginia and then member of the Louisiana legislature. He had come to know Garibaldi in 1850 in New York while the latter was living there; then, in 1860 Roberdeau traveled to fight with Garibaldi in the campaign to unify Italy. In November, the election of Lincoln convinced southerner Roberdeau that a civil war in the US was imminent, so he appealed to Garibaldi to let him recruit members of the ex-Bourbon army of Naples being held prisoner to go off and fight for the Confederacy instead of being shipped off to some northern Italian prison camp. Probably to reward Roberdeau for his service, Garibaldi said “yes”. A number of prisoners took the offer.
And so, in early 1861, before the Union blockade closed the port of New Orleans, four ships arrived from Naples with 884 ex-members of the armed forces of the defunct Kingdom of the Two Sicilies to take up arms for the Confederacy. (The total number of Bourbon recruits rose to about 2000. The port of Naples was closed shortly thereafter to any more Confederate recruiting efforts when the United States complained to the new Italian government. Interestingly, US diplomatic efforts never did succeed in completely closing Italian ports to Confederate naval vessels.) The troops were enlisted as the “Italian Guards” in the 10th Louisiana infantry regiment. Some survived the war and some returned to Italy. To this day, in the museum at Civitella del Tronto in Abruzzo, the last Bourbon fortress in the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies to surrender (on March 20, 1861) to the forces of Italian unification, there is a Confederate flag commemorating the soldiers who left to fight for another South.
update Feb 23, 2016 -Save your Confederate buttons!
Reader Bob Mullins was kind enough to send me a photo of a button he has "recently acquired." It appears to be a "Confederacy Cavalry C" botton. It is a "very well made 28 mm one piece" article with a "high dome". On the reverse is inscribed the name of the manufacturer: De Gregorio, Monte Calvario, Napoli! Mr. Mullins asked if I had any further information. Unfortunately, no. He consented to letting me present this photo with the understanding that he does "not have any proof that this is indeed a Confederacy button... [So noted]... It just seems too much of a coincidence to be otherwise and because of your story [above], it fits."
It certainly seems to. I couldn't resist a little bit of research. I knew that there were US Civil War buffs (as well as history enthusiasts of many other—maybe all—wars), so I was not surprised that there is a considerable amount of information available on flags, uniforms and weaponry. I was surprised to learn, however, that there are only button buffs. That's all they are interested in, and that is what they buy and sell. There are entire conventions of buttonobilia. Forget saving your Confederate money. Collect these things. If the article in the image is genuine, it's worth a pretty penny—many thousands of them, actually—far north of () one-thousand dollars. Yankee. The object in the photo—with the script C for Calvary—is a dead ringer for authenticated Confederate buttons made in Britain and shipped to the Confederacy during the US Civil War. This one seems to be the same.
The question that I had was simply this: why would the CSA outsource uniform needs to the other side of the ocean. Apparently it was more economic to do so. As the war dragged on, it became cheaper to order items from Europe, primarily Britain (don't be surprised—Britain, in spite of its expressed neutrality, openly built and repaired Confederate naval vessels.)—than to gear up and keep running home production facilities for the millions upon millions of metal buttons necessary for uniforms. This, even in spite of the extra effort in shipping to southern ports through the Northern blockade of the Confederate coast.
bibliography:Cassani, Emanuele. Italiani nella guerra civile americana. Prospettiva Editrice, Rome. 2006.
Codignola, Luca. "The Civil War: The View from Italy" in Reviews in American History, Vol. 3, No. 4 (Dec., 1975), pp. 457-461. Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore.
Dufour, Charles L. Gentle Tiger: The Gallant Life of Roberdeau Wheat. Louisiana State University Press, Baton Rouge, 1957.
Lonn, Ella. Foreigners in the Confederacy. U. of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, 1940.
Marraro, Howard. American Opinion on the Unification of Italy, 1846–61. Columbia University Press, New York, 1932.
Rebagliati, Franco and Furio Cicliot. Garibaldi Guard, Garibaldi Legion. Voluntari italiani nella Guerra civile americana. Marco Sabatelli ed., Savona, Italy, 2008.