L’Italia Unità! L’America Unità![1]: Italians and the American Civil War

By Lauren Letizia ’23

Italian immigrants and their culture have greatly impacted the historic and modern landscape of the United States. From the creation of Columbus Day to The Godfather film franchise, Italians and Italian-Americans have been prominent pieces of the melting pot that is the American experience. Before their integration in the late 20th century, Italians were spurned by the largely English-Protestant Americans of the 18th and 19th centuries. Because most Italians were Catholic and had darker skin, they were not considered white and, like Irish immigrants, were prohibited from certain jobs because of their religion. Despite these social and economic obstacles of the 18th and 19th centuries, Italians and other immigrants were eager to support their adopted country. During the American Civil War, Italians made significant contributions to the Union war effort that have been largely overlooked in military and social histories.

When Confederate General P.G.T. Beauregard officially instigated the war with his bombardment of the Federal Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861, thousands of Northern soldiers flocked to answer President Lincoln’s call for 75,000 military volunteers, swelling the force far beyond that number. Surprisingly, hundreds of officers and soldiers from the Italian Army traveled to the American legation in Turin to volunteer for the Union Army. Because of Italy’s parallel struggle for unification and liberty, Italian nationals strongly identified with the United States’ war aims. Additionally, many Italians were opposed to slavery based on their Catholic faith.  Interestingly, several hundred Italians did ultimately volunteer for the Confederacy, instead choosing to identify with its claim of “States’ rights,” which the individual kingdoms in Italy proclaimed prior to unification.

In Italy, a notice published by the American delegation via the Italian government stated that the Americans did not need Italian volunteers. When word reached United States Secretary of War, William Seward about the Italians’ enthusiasm, he ordered the American foreign minister to Italy, George P. Marsh, to investigate acquiring Italian volunteers, on August 19, 1861.

Since many of the Italians who wished to join the Union Army were experienced soldiers or officers in the Italian Army, they asked to be officers in America. However, Union officials balked because they did not believe the Italians spoke English well enough to command American soldiers. Moreover, financial obstacles blocked more extensive efforts to recruit Italians for the Northern cause. By the late summer and early fall of 1861, the United States’ economy began to feel the strain of the widening conflict and could not pay the Italians’ wages or travel expenses. Therefore, few enlisted Italian soldiers could afford to emigrate to the United States. Yet, financial problems did not stop the federal government from trying to recruit a select few Italians with particular military prowess.

Most notably, in 1861, President Lincoln offered the famous Italian general Giuseppe Garibaldi a commission as a major general in the Union Army. In August, Seward claimed he had received a letter from Garibaldi stating his intention to accept Lincoln’s commission. Though his claims never came to fruition, as Italy continued to reel from its own civil war and Garibaldi was wracked by political controversy, he sent many of his officers to the United States. They were assigned to the command of Major General John Fremont, who served as the head of the Department of the West until 1862.

General Giuseppe Garibaldi (1860) Source; J. Paul Getty Museum (object no. 84.XM.637.9); Digital image courtesy of the Getty’s Open Content Program. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Giuseppe-Garibaldi/images-videos.

Though Garibaldi did not come to America during the Civil War proper, his galvanizing spirit and revolutionary military campaigns abroad inspired Italian immigrants and Italian-American soldiers to take up arms in America’s Civil War. In May of 1861, the 39th New York Infantry nicknamed the Garibaldi Guard, was formed in New York City. Its soldiers wore brilliant red shirts and bersaglieri plume on their caps. Standard bearers carried the Italian flag alongside the American flag when they marched. Of the regiment’s 350 immigrant troops representing a kaleidoscope of European countries, 50 were Italians, and many served with great distinction. For example, during the Battle of Cross Keys on June 29, 1862, the 39th’s active commander, Captain Odoardo (Edward) Venuti, was wounded in action while leading his men. A little over a year later, Captain Venuti was killed during the Battle of Gettysburg.  His name is etched on the New York State Monument to the Garibaldi Guard on Cemetery Ridge. According to its regimental history, the 39th NY lost “119 by death from wounds, and 159 by death from accident, imprisonment or disease, of whom 94 died in prison.”[2]

Garibaldi Guard Monument on the Gettysburg Battlefield Source; Gettysburg Stone Sentinels, “Union Monuments,” https://gettysburg.stonesentinels.com/union-monuments/new-york/new-york-state/.

James Clay Rice: 39th New York Volunteers Source; New York State Museum and Veterans Research Center, “39th New York Infantry Regiment,” https://museum.dmna.ny.gov/unit-history/infantry/39th-infantry-regiment.

Though Garibaldi was unable to support the United States’ war effort physically, he and many other Italians supported the Union’s ideological cause, particularly emancipation and the abolition of slavery. On August 6, 1863, over a year after Lincoln published the Emancipation Proclamation, General Garibaldi sent Lincoln a short but heartfelt letter stating his support for the decision:

“In the midst of your titanic struggle, permit me, as another among the free children of Columbus, to send you a word of greeting and admiration for the great work you have begun. Posterity will call you the great emancipator, a more enviable title than any crown could be, and greater than any merely mundane treasure. You are a true heir of the teaching given us by Christ and by John Brown. If an entire race of human beings, subjugated into slavery by human egoism, has been restored to human dignity, to civilization and human love, this is by your doing and at the price of the most noble lives in America.

It is America, the same country which taught liberty to our forefathers, which now opens another solemn epoch of human progress. And while your tremendous courage astonishes the world, we are sadly reminded how this old Europe, which also can boast a great cause of liberty to fight for, has not found the mind or heart to equal you.[3]

In 1860, roughly 13 percent of the American population was foreign-born. Because these immigrants mainly settled in Northern industrial states, one in every four Union soldiers was an immigrant. Recent estimates claim that 534,000 men out of the 2 million United States soldiers were foreign-born. Moreover, approximately 18 percent of soldiers had at least one immigrant parent. Immigrants or immigrant-born soldiers made up 53 percent of the United States Army.[4] Between 5,000 and 10,000 Italians or Americans of Italian descent served in the American Civil War, mainly for the United States. They contributed significantly to vital battles such as the Second Battle of Bull Run, South Mountain, Antietam, Fredericksburg, Gettysburg, and Harper’s Ferry. Major General Edward Ferrero, the highest-ranking Union officer of Italian heritage, led the 51st New York Infantry in almost all these significant battles except Gettysburg and Harper’s Ferry. Their war stories and experiences represent the collective effort immigrants from many nations put forth to fight for their new home’s ideals, to prove themselves as “true” Americans, and to affirm for their native homelands and the world that genuinely America was the last best hope for democracy on earth. As a country of immigrants, American Civil War history should include the victories and sacrifices of immigrant soldiers. Only by having their stories told will we gain a fuller picture of the vast impacts and legacies of the bloodiest war in our history.

Presidential Review of the Garibaldi Guard Source; Killed at Gettysburg, http://killedatgettysburg.org/adolphus-wagner-39th-new-york-volunteer-infantry/.


American Battlefield Trust. “Giuseppe Garibaldi to President Lincoln.” Civil War Primary Source. https://www.battlefields.org/learn/primary-sources/giuseppe-garibaldi-president-lincoln.

Belfiglio, Valentino J. “Italians and the American Civil War.” Italian Americana 4, no. 2 (1978): 163–75. http://www.jstor.org/stable/41330626.

New York State Museum and Veterans Research Center. “39th New York Infantry Regiment.”https://museum.dmna.ny.gov/unit-history/infantry/39th-infantry-regiment.

[1] Translation: Italy United! American United; Italians chanted the former during General Garibaldi’s campaigns for unification in southern Italy. Many Italian soldiers transferred their enthusiasm for a united Italy to the fight for union during the American Civil War.

[2] New York State Museum and Veterans Research Center, “39th New York Infantry Regiment,” https://museum.dmna.ny.gov/unit-history/infantry/39th-infantry-regiment.

[3] American Battlefield Trust, “Giuseppe Garibaldi to President Lincoln,” Civil War Primary Source, https://www.battlefields.org/learn/primary-sources/giuseppe-garibaldi-president-lincoln.

[4] Don H. Doyle, “The Civil War Was Won By Immigrant Soldiers,” Time, December 23, 2019. https://time.com/3940428/civil-war-immigrant-soldiers/.

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