Author Topic: Italians With Custer at the Little Big Horn, Part 1  (Read 247 times)

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Italians With Custer at the Little Big Horn, Part 1
« on: January 26, 2020, 10:29:41 AM »
Custer's Italians

Among the troopers advancing with Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer on the Little Bighorn in June 1876 were 1st Lt. Charles DeRudio and Privates John Martin and Augustus De Voto.
By Vincent A. Transano

SHORTLY BEFORE NOON Chicago time on Sunday, June 25, 1876, approximately 600 officers and men of the 7th U.S. Cavalry Regiment, scouts, mule drivers, and other associated civilians were in the saddle advancing toward destiny on the Little Bighorn River in Montana Territory. The soldiers' appearance was much at odds with popular portrayals of the Indian-fighting army. Their uniforms, especially those of the officers, were wildly nonregulation. Many officers wore custom-tailored sailor-style shirts, buckskins, straw hats (or any kind of hat that caught their fancy); the men wore blue shirts of various shades, battered black campaign hats or privately purchased civilian hats; and occasionally individual troopers even wore white canvas trousers or had their light-blue regulation trousers reinforced with canvas. White alkaline dust kicked up by their horses' hooves mixed with sweat on their uniforms, giving them a spurious appearance of uniformity. Heat in the high 90s and accompanying thirst added to the discomfort of both men and horses.

Led by its second-in-command, Lt. Col. George A. Custer, the regiment had marched out of Fort Abraham Lincoln on May 17 as part of Brig. Gen. Alfred H. Terry's column during the ill-fated Indian campaign of 1876. Three bodies of troops converging from west, south and east were attempting to bring the recalcitrant Sitting Bull, his Lakotas, and their Northern Cheyenne and other Indian allies to battle. Neither Sitting Bull's exact location nor the number of Indians with him were known. Thus, on June 22, Terry sent Custer forward toward the Rosebud and Little Bighorn rivers to try and find the Indians' village. By the 25th of the month the 7th Cavalry had ridden 105 miles since separating from Terry's column. The troops had been on campaign for a total of six weeks. The men were tired, dirty and sore. Their mounts also were worn, but despite this the 7th Cavalry was still a very formidable military organization by Indian wars' standards. Among the troops advancing on the Little Bighorn were three Italian-born soldiers. Each of them was at a key point in the forthcoming battle, and taken together, their personal stories effectively tell the story of the battle. How did these Italians come to find themselves fighting Indians in the vastness of the American West?

The full complement of the 7th Cavalry in June 1876 was 43 officers and 793 enlisted men. Of that number 473 were native born and 320 foreign born. The two largest foreign-born groups in the regiment comprised 129 Irish and 127 Germans. The remaining 64 foreign born were drawn from 14 other nationalities, including six Italians. These were: 1st Lt. Charles Camillus DeRudio (a k a Count Carlo Camillo Di Rudio) of Company A; Private Augustus L. De Voto (a k a Augusto De Voto) of Company B; Private John James (a k a Giovanni Casella) of Company E; Private Frank Lombard (a k a Frank Lombardy, Francesco Lombardi) of the regimental band; Private John Martin (a k a Giovanni Martini), trumpeter of Company H; and Chief Musician Felix Villiet Vinatieri (a k a Felice Villiet Vinatieri) of the regimental band. Two of the six were married. As might be expected, given that the pay of the era made it virtually impossible for junior enlisted personnel to wed and support a family, they were the two highest ranking: DeRudio and Vinatieri.
Unlike native-born Americans, Irish and Germans, the Italians were too few to constitute a group or subculture in the regiment. They were individuals who had come to the United States for a variety of reasons, both political and economic. In many cases the latter flowed from the former. Irish and Germans constituted major immigrant groups during the 19th century. Both nationalities immigrated largely for economic reasons by the mid-1800s. Socially, the Germans were more acceptable; they frequently were skilled craftsmen, and a very large percentage were Protestants. The Irish were much less socially acceptable; they were mostly unskilled, usually dirt-poor and Roman Catholic. In 1876 they constituted a clearly defined minority group that suffered very real social and economic discrimination. The Italians shared many of the social disadvantages of the Irish as well as some unique to themselves. They, too, were Roman Catholics; they were poor and, as southern Europeans, tended to be short and swarthy, and thus further removed in appearance from the northern European norm. Further, they came to the new country speaking a foreign tongue. The only advantage the Italians had over the Irish was that they were so few that they were not objects of such organized discrimination.

If there were six Italians in the 7th Cavalry, why were only three present on that fateful day in 1876? The three absentees were in good company because Colonel Samuel D. Sturgis, the regimental commanding officer, the two senior majors, and approximately 200 other officers and men were also absent. This was characteristic of the frontier army. Large numbers of regimental personnel routinely were seconded to headquarters assignments or detailed to other duties away from their units. This was a pleasant break from the harsh and boring life of campaign and garrison duty in the Far West. In the case of the three absent Italians, Vinatieri was at the Powder River base camp with the regimental band, James was detailed away to unspecified duties, and Lombard was in the hospital back at Fort Abraham Lincoln.
The Italians in the 7th Cavalry evidently recognized their social disadvantages and took steps to lessen the obvious differences between themselves and native-born Americans. All six anglicized their given names, and three of them did the same to their surnames (or in the case of John James, adopted an new surname). Of the six, DeRudio was the only one who could not be expected to downplay his origins. He was a nobleman by birth and as such was pro forma a gentleman. His commission depended on recognition of this distinction. The most he would do was anglicize his Christian name and change the spelling of his surname to make it more phonetic for English speakers. The other Italians, however, labored under no such stricture. They had no urge to maintain their cultural identity, since they belonged to no ethnic subculture. They simply desired to lose themselves in the general population and become Americans.

Three of the six Italians held music-related positions, a traditional occupation for Italians in America at the time, especially those in the Army. Indeed, 20th century New York Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia was an "army brat," the son of a regimental bandmaster. Italians stereotypically were thought to possess greater natural musical talent than other ethnic groups and thus were much sought after for military bands. It is no mystery that Chief Musician Felix Vinatieri was the regimental bandmaster, Frank Lombard was a musician (instrument unknown), and John Martin, while a line private, was a trumpeter in his company. Some years before immigrating, when he was only 14, Martin also had served in the Italian army as a drummer boy.
As with John Martin, two other Italians, DeRudio and John James, claimed prior military service. The former attended an Austrian cadet academy in Milan and served with the revolutionary forces of Mazzini and Garibaldi during the period of the Roman Republic in 1848. The latter simply listed his previous occupation as "soldier." Vinatieri and Lombard were formerly musicians, and De Voto identified his previous occupation as that of bookbinder.

That three of the six Italians should claim prior military experience is not unexpected, although seemingly flying in the face of the musical stereotype. Italy had been a hotbed of revolutionary activity and active warfare for the past several decades. Up to 1870 the nation of Italy was being forged from many disparate elements. This forging entailed a great deal of armed conflict--against foreign occupiers, such as the Austrians, between the various states that comprised pre-unification Italy, and finally against the Pope himself, ruler of most of central Italy. Thus, while Americans typecast Italians as "artistic" and "musical," given the amount of warfare that afflicted Italy during the first half of the 19th century, the reality was that Italians were much more likely to be soldiers than music makers.
The six Italians were from different parts of Italy, spoke different dialects, and probably felt very little solidarity with one another. After all, "Italian" was a relatively new term, at least to the degree that it expressed nationality. Italy had only been a nation since 1860, and it was not until 1870 that King Victor Emmanuel II defeated the last enemy of national unification, Pope Pius IX. DeRudio was from Belluno, in the province of Venice, and was born a subject of the Austrian emperor. De Voto from Genoa, Vinatieri from Turin and Martin from Sola Conzalina were all born subjects of the Piedmontese king of Sardinia, who would one day be king of Italy. James was born in Rome, a subject of the Pope, and Lombard in Naples, a subject of the Bourbon king of the Two Sicilies.

The Italians of the 7th Cavalry, like so many others, came to the United States because they saw little future for themselves in the land of their birth. They ended up in the army because it was the employer of first and last resort for recently arrived male immigrants with no prospects. Such immigrants could use the army as a springboard to better things.

One of this group, Charles DeRudio had nothing in common with the others; as a nobleman, an aristocrat, he claimed and received a commission not long after his arrival in the United States. Given his status, he would have felt no camaraderie for his fellow Italians. DeRudio was certainly the most controversial of the six. The Di Rudio family of Belluno held the title count. Their nobility was fairly recent, however, dating back only to the mid-17th century. DeRudio's grandfather had been an ardent Bonapartist and was extremely hostile to the Austrians. Under Napoleon I, the elder Di Rudio had been prefect of Belluno where Charles would one day be born. Following Napoleon's defeat and the re-establishment of Austrian power in Italy, the family fell on hard times. Charles' father, Count Aquila Di Rudio, was as hostile to the Austrians as his father and was involved continually in conspiratorial activities against them. Political ideology, however, had no effect on matters of the heart. While working against the hated Austrians, Count Aquila managed to fall in love and subsequently elope with the daughter of the pro-Austrian governor of Belluno. Disinherited by her father, the bride and her revolutionary husband were compelled to live in modest circumstances. Carlo Camillo Di Rudio was born of this union on August 26, 1832. As a teenager, he attended an Austrian military academy in Milan. At the age of 15 he left to join the Italian patriots during the uprising in 1848, and participated in the defense of Rome and, later, of Venice against the Austrians. Following the suppression of the revolutions in Italy, Di Rudio sailed for America but was shipwrecked off Spain. He claimed subsequently to have served with French colonial troops in North Africa, and he finally ended up in exile in England in 1855. There he impregnated and later married a 15-year-old English girl, an illiterate of working-class origin.

It was in England that the Italian revolutionary Felice Orsini recruited Di Rudio in a plot to assassinate Emperor Napoleon III of France, who had displeased Italian nationalists by his lukewarm support of their bid for nationhood and independence from Austrian domination. Orsini previously had been in an Austrian prison with Di Rudio's father and sister, and also had a prior association with Di Rudio himself. Although Di Rudio was condemned to death for throwing the most powerful bomb in the 1858 attempt that killed and wounded more than 100 people, he escaped the guillotine via a last-minute reprieve, probably because his wife testified against an English co-conspirator. Sentenced to life imprisonment in the penal colony of Cayenne, French Guiana, he escaped (it has been alleged with French connivance), made his way back to England to gather up wife and family, and then left for a new home in the United States. Arriving in the midst of the Civil War, DeRudio joined the 79th New York Infantry in 1864. This was followed by a commission as a second lieutenant in the 2nd U.S. Colored Volunteer Infantry. DeRudio may have been an idealist at 15, but by the time he was 32 he was an opportunistic survivor. Very plausible in manner, he claimed to be a great believer in the cause to free the slaves. He soon had many influential supporters among the liberals of the period, not least of whom was the famous newspaper reporter Horace Greeley. The influence of these supporters won DeRudio a commission in the Regular Army at the end of the war. In 1869 he was a second lieutenant in the 7th U.S. Cavalry, and by 1876 had advanced to first lieutenant. DeRudio possessed an air of Old World charm and sophistication and was an inveterate storyteller. He clearly was popular in the social milieu of Far West military outposts, for he was witty and entertaining and helped relieve the crushing boredom that was part of the life of frontier Regulars.
On the other hand, DeRudio's superiors thought little of his military ability. His previous company commander, Captain Frederick W. Benteen of Company H, although finding DeRudio an amusing companion, disparaged him as "Count No Account" and had a low estimate of his military skills. Benteen himself was an accomplished Indian fighter and the senior captain of the regiment. The de facto commanding officer of the 7th Cavalry, Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer, also held DeRudio in low esteem. Custer wrote early in 1876 that "He [DeRudio] is, all things considered, the inferior of every first lieutenant in this Regt. as an efficient and subordinate officer." Ironically, one factor in Custer's disesteem of DeRudio may have been how well the latter got on socially with Benteen, who made no bones about his dislike for Custer. In February 1876 Custer transferred DeRudio from Company E, of which he was acting commanding officer by seniority, and attached him to Company A, under Captain James M. Moylan. Custer simultaneously transferred 1st Lt. Algeron E. Smith, Company A's executive officer, to Company E where he became acting commanding officer in DeRudio's place. This transfer saved DeRudio's life and condemned Smith to death. One thing is certain: at 43, DeRudio was the oldest officer riding toward the Little Bighorn on that fateful June day in 1876; he was perhaps too old, cynical and wily for Custer to consider him a good cavalry officer.

Chance events on the morning of June 25 propelled the trio of Italians in three different directions. That morning Captain Benteen of Company H detailed John Martin to serve as Custer's personal trumpeter-orderly for the day. As such he would accompany "Longhair" wherever he went. The Indian scouts had spotted a very large village from the Crow's Nest, a lookout point some distance ahead of the column. Although warned that the village was enormous, Custer determined to move against the Indians that afternoon instead of attacking during the early morning hours of June 26 as originally planned. Waiting for the next day would have allowed both men and horses time for needed rest and would be more likely to catch the Indians asleep in their lodges. Further, Custer and Terry had agreed that if he, Custer, found Indians on the Little Bighorn, he would attack on the 26th and drive them toward Terry, who would by then be approaching from the northeast.

Despite the seemingly rash change in plan, Custer's decision to attack on the afternoon of the 25th was perfectly reasonable in the context of the conventional tactics of the era. Although his scouts informed him that he faced up to 2,000 warriors, they also told him that the Indians already had spotted his approach. The greatest fear of Custer and other frontier military commanders on major campaigns was not that they would be outnumbered and overwhelmed, but that their adversaries would break up into small bands and succeed in fleeing, rendering an expensive and exhausting military campaign a failure. Indians habitually picked their battles and, because they were infinitely more mobile than the ponderous columns of cavalry and infantry that pursued them, rarely could be brought to battle except on their own terms. Custer recognized that he had found a large village; if he could attack it before it broke and could capture a large number of women and children, he could force the enemy to surrender. Custer was probably the best cavalry leader in the army's history; he was no fool and believed that his regiment, properly handled, could defeat any number of Indians. While man for man, Indian warriors were often superior to the soldiers, they fought as individuals. The discipline and organization of Custer's troops gave them an advantage far beyond their numbers.

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