Italian rebel who tried to kill Napoleon III, escaped prison, enlisted in a colored unit and eventually became officer of the 7th cavalry at Little Bighorn...
the incredible life of
source: extract of Vincent A. Transano's article , published in the June 1999 issue of Wild West. HistoryNet
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 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. (...) 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.