The Massacre at Pontelandolfo & Casalduni Aug. 14, 1861
By: Tom Frascella Sept. 2016
Pontelandolfo August 14, 1861
On August 13, 1861 General Cialdini commander of the Piedmont forces in southern Italy began to receive an increasing number of reports from his field officers of civil unrest bordering on revolt. These reports were coming from throughout southern Italy especially in the rural southern countryside.
Among the most alarming reports received on August 13th was that about 45 Piedmont soldiers had been killed in fighting with insurgents in and around the towns of Pontelandolfo and Casaldini in Campania. General Cialdini had a reputation earned in northern Campania in October 1860 of dealing harshly with pro-Bourbonist southern Italians. His actions in the October campaign did not differentiate between uniformed Bourbon soldiers and civilians. Neither did his actions in October require hard evidence of who were pro-Bourbon and who was not. His response was summary execution for all deemed pro-Bourbonist.
Now ten months later he found himself the southern military commander and facing a growing anti-Piedmont sentiment. This sentiment was brought on in large part by the policy decisions imposed on the local inhabitants after “unification’. In many of those cases the decisions were imposed by Piedmont controlled local politicians as well as by central northern “national” politicians in Turin. As a commander Cialdini was use to stern and unyielding discipline. He saw only one method of dealing with revolt and or civil unrest. He immediately sought a military solution. Spoiled by the early and easy victories over regular Bourbon troops in October he believed that quick military action by his limited forces would crush any insurgent fervor. So it is not surprising that he gave orders to his field general in Campania, General De Sonnaz, to dispatch troops to expel the rebels from the towns of Pontelandolfo and Casalduni. Rebels and townspeople who had had the audacity to reassert the call for Bourbon return.
The purpose of this military exercise, as the orders made it clear, was that the action was not just to quell civil unrest in those specific towns but rather to demonstrate a powerful lesson to those who opposed the Piedmont regime/supported a return of the Bourbons. His orders called for the annihilation of the people and structures of Pontelandolfo and Casalduni. Cialdini had reports that many of the townspeople had supported the successful overthrow of local Piedmont installed officials and National Guard troops. The killing of a significant number of Piedmont soldiers, 45 demanded in Cialdini’s mind, not justice but retribution. While it was known that there were several hundred insurgents in the area of Pontelandolfo, the Piedmont forces expected and were confident that the actual insurgent fighters would fade away into the mountains if approached by superior forces. This did not concern General Cialdini as in fact he counted on it as his target were not these insurgent fighters. Rather, the true targets were the civilian population of the towns. They were to provide the lesson and it was they who were intended to feel his wrath.
General De Sonnaz dispatched approximately 1,000 soldiers under the command of a Colonel Gaetano Negri. The Colonel commanded primarily regular Piedmont troops and mercenaries with a very limited number of local National Guard. What is clear at the outset is that Col. Negri, who was to carry out Cialdini’s order, understood what Cialdini meant when he ordered “not leave a single stone upon a stone in the two villages”. Of course this command has ancient resonance dating back to Roman history. It is a command that is generally reserved for an enemy that has so infuriated the military commander that nothing less than utter destruction will suffice. Of course such an order had never been given in the newly “unified” Italy and certainly not against an “enemy” that was in fact unarmed civilians. Civilians one might add that were of ones’ own country. Nevertheless, this is precisely the order given. While no written record exists evidencing as to high up the military trail of command beyond Cialdini went with his orders, subsequent events and actions by the Piedmont forces makes it clear that the actions had the support of the Piedmont regime. In addition, from the reports that survive of the soldiers’ action it is also clear that they acted in a premeditated way and were encourage to slaughter at will before the engagement commenced.
Photograph of Col. Gaetano Negri
To relate what occurred at Pontelandolfo and Casalduni upon the arrival of the Piedmont forces I will rely on the descriptions acquired from Aprile’s research and included in his book “Terroni”. I would first note the Piedmont forces arrived at Pontelandolfo early in the morning of August 14th. The insurgents alerted to the troop movements but not the intent fled the village for the mountains the evening before. Upon arriving the Piedmont forces surrounded the sleeping village so as to prevent escape. In this way most of the inhabitants were unable to flee due to a lack of warning and the denial of escape routes. When the soldiers entered the town some of their journals recorded the events and are cited in Aprile’s work;
“That town, Pontelandolfo, had five thousand inhabitants. The bersaglieri marksman however, had excellent tactics. They searched homes and pushed their inhabitants out into the streets with their bayonets. They led people, like a herd, down the streets until the met up with their colleagues, who proceeded to fire shots into the crowd. This town was destined to disappear. In this manner, in order to avoid wasting anything, our plumed brothers went from house to house plundering money (“Coins, Coins, they shouted, one of them reported”) jewelry, valuables, and even provisions (wine, salami, cheese, bread). A Garibaldi supporter tried to save some of his fellow citizens: “Staggering and bloody, a young girl dragged herself towards him. She had been shot in the shoulder because she wanted to safeguard her honor. When she finally found a place she deemed secure, she fell to the ground never to rise again”.
Whether you were identified with the insurrectionists or with the pro-Piedmont faction in the town it ultimately made no difference either to the Piedmont soldiers, their field commanders or to the government ministers accompanying the troops from northern Italy. A slaughter had been ordered as a lesson and a slaughter was to be carried out;
“A deputy from Milan named Giuseppe Ferrari, recorded this story. He wanted to personally see what had happened… (“There are two old women who will perish amidst the flames. Over there are some people who have been shot, justly, but nonetheless shot. Earrings were torn from the ears of women…”) In other places, fingers were chopped off in order to remove rings”.
Aprile goes on to say of the slaughter; “It would seem easy to destroy a town in merely one day. There were five hundred bersagleiri marksman against five thousand townspeople.” It is interesting that no Piedmont soldiers were reported injured a clear indication that the town made no resistance or was no capable of resistance as they were unarmed during the attack and approach.
In the words of one of the actual soldiers involved, Carlo Margolfo from Sondrio Province, Lombardy, in his diary discovered fourteen years later his account reads; “we entered the town and immediately began shooting as many priests and men as we could. Then the soldiers plundered the town. Finally, we set the town on fire”. Margolfo goes on to report, “According to our orders women, children and the sick were to be spared. But you know how these things go once you are there…there was such desolation”. He further wrote that by the end of the day, “that you could not stay near the town due to the great heat and the noise that those poor devils made. Their destiny was to die roasting in the flames, underneath the ruins of their homes. Instead, during the fire we had everything. We had chickens, bread, wine, and capons. Nothing was missing. After all, the townspeople no longer had any use for those things, so why let them go to waste…”.Pages 53 &54
The callousness of the diary entry of this soldier coupled with the fact that no orders were given to stop the massacre makes it clear what the intent of the soldiers and officers was. I should note that this slaughter was a reported event but I think it has been expedient for Italians authorities, if mentioning this event at all, to keep the victims faceless and distant when describing the events. To refer to them as brigands, outlaws rather than women, children and unarmed civilians allowed for the Piedmont authorities to cast the slaughter as heroic.To de-personalize allows the victims to not be recognized as fellow countrymen, women, children or human beings. To deny them their humanity allows for a clean conscience. However, Pino Aprile does history a great service by going into some individual details and acts which were reported and he gleamed from various sources concerning the attack. In this way the facts and victims can become real some of their humanity restored even over the span of so many years.
In his book narrative he starts by asking’ “What does it take to kill our fellowman?” although the more accurate question would be, what does it take to kill our fellow countryman? His answer taken from the reports and diaries of the soldiers who committed the massacre was:
“For Giuseppe Santopietro and his newborn son, not much: a rifle shot was enough for him and his newborn was killed with a bayonet stab. For those thirty women who gathered around the cross in the square where the market stands, a burst of shots from the bersaglieri’s rifles was enough. They proceeded to take their newly acquired position by storm. Apparently the women’s rosary beads were inefficient against blades. Those who sought shelter in the church, clinging, to the altar were undressed and abused right there. One of those women had her hands chopped off because she scratched one of the bersaglieri’s faces. They proceeded to kill her. Gigi di Fiore chose to recount these events in a somewhat narrative form in his book 1861, but he used names he came upon in documents that he lists in his appendix. Antonio Ciano, in order to chronicle this massacre in his work,” I Savoia e il massacre del Sud” primarily consulted trial records. Other events were discovered through oral declarations and these often gave rise to disputes (sometimes these are necessary) and thus the slaughter was forgotten. I report some of these anecdotes here, without expecting to solve anything….
Perhaps Maria Izzo was the most beautiful girl in the town, because many men, those of our Iytalian brothers with the liberty to commit rape freely, desired her. However, there was much work to be done in that town (“No stone should remain standing,” was the precise order given). So to save time they tied her, naked, to a tree with her legs raised. She remained this way until the last soldier pierced her stomach with a bayonet”. Page 52.
Aprile goes on in his book to include several more pages of atrocities as gross in their inhumanity as anyone can imagine. Among these is a detailed description of the rape of several town’s women in the church where they had sought sanctuary from the soldiers. They found no sanctuary there and in fact were rape and murdered at the altar of the church. The church was then plundered and set ablaze. There should be no doubt that acts that he is describing are nothing short of the most heinous of war crimes. But in addition to being war crimes, these are crimes committed by countrymen against their fellow non-combatant citizens without a declaration of war. Keep in mind that although the actions of the soldiers suggests an abandonment of civil law and an imposing of martial law in fact no civilian authorization for such a transfer of authority or power existed. It would be almost another year before the atrocities were formally authorized by Turin in the so-called P.I.C.A. Laws of 1863.
The abandonment by the Piedmont authorities of any meaningful rule of law in the south as it was to be applied to the civilian population was devastating to the socio-political development and culture of the south in the early years of “unification”. Again it unraveled centuries of economic, social, cultural, religious and political traditions and dependencies and replaced them with encouraged barbarism, distrust and disdain by the oppressors. However, as this is a long and complicated process as it was imposed it will be discussed and described over many article to come.
Photograph of General Cialdini
Casalduni August 14, 1861
Photograph of Casalduni
While the slaughter was taking place at Pontelandolfo the Piedmont commander felt comfortable enough with the lack of resistance to his forces to split his force and dispatch about half to destroy the nearby town of Casalduni. Casalduni was a nearby town of about three thousand. When the insurgents who had captured Pontelandolfo acted originally in ousting the Piedmont officials the small Piedmont force stationed at Pontelandolfo had fled in the direction of Casalduni. It was near that town that the Piedmont force of 45 men had been overtaken by the insurgents and killed. This appears to be the specific reason that Casalduni was also targeted. In all Cialdini’s orders, as he well knew would slaughter approximately 8,000 civilians if carried out efficiently.
To the extent that you can say the townspeople of Casalduni had some advantage over the townspeople of Pontelandolfo it is that they got word of what was happening in Pontelandolfo before the Piedmont troops arrived. Most writers believe that about two-thirds of the population of Casalduni were able to flee before the Piedmont troops’ arrival. This was the only factor that reduced the loss of life there.
However for the remaining population and for the physical structures of the town there was basically a repeat of what was taking place in Pontelandolfo. Again, Aprile goes into some detail regarding the atrocities committed by the Piedmont troops at Casalduni that I will not repeat here. However, I do not want anyone to think that the absence of including more of the graphic details means they are not available for the reading or verification of the events. It also certainly is not meant as an opportunity for the “official” Italian position of denial of war crime level massacres in the south during this period to be sustained. The stain of inhumanity perpetrated on southern Italians during this period cannot be erased by denial and cannot be undone.
I think what is clear is that the actions of the Piedmont troops at Pontelandolfo and Casalduni in their wanton destruction and inhumane, barbarous treatment of unarmed civilians, including elderly, sick, women and children, ushered in a new phase in the “unification” process for both the north and the south. That is not to say that other isolated events or small scale murders had not occurred to this point. But this is the first example of the new “unified” government eliminating an entire town or towns as reprisal for some act of revolt. In addition it is an example of “justice” administered without legal process or fundamental rights. It begins the process of creating one “unified” country with two distinct classes of citizens determined by geography, sometimes disguised as moral or racial distinction.
For the Piedmont commander General Cialdini, the actions taken at Pontelandolfo and Casalduni were no doubt considered by him to be a success and a great victory. He had obtained the result that he wanted and demonstrated the “lesson” he wanted to. A “victory” is the way the action was reported to him and no doubt the way he presented it to his superiors in Milan/Turin. He awarded the field commanders decorations for valor.
Unfortunately the “victory” was tainted by the insurgent “victory” further south by Crocco and his forces where 250 Piedmont soldiers were killed at Ruvo del Monte. In a sense committed to a program of harsh reprisals in response to the insurgency Cialdini was well on the path of creating a bloody civil war. A war in which civilians would suffer the most. The degree to which the pattern emerges of encouraging greater and greater atrocities is reflect in the following;
“ In the book listing the honors bestowed upon our members of the armed forces, one can count the number of awards that Italy bestowed upon those authors of this “brotherly” massacre (in the south); four gold medals, two thousand three hundred and seventy-five silver medals, and five thousand and twelve honorable mentions”. April goes on to ask, what country celebrates murderers in this fashion?”… The medals were only awarded to those Northern soldiers Northern murderers: the Southerners who fought in the Natonal Guard, against their own townsfolk, received no medals. Their families did not receive a subsidy if they died in battle…” Terroni at page 69.
In the massacre at Pontelandolfo and Casalduni Cialdini broadcasted his future intent regarding how he would deal with the insurgency. This of course was a calculated social risk which I think he and others associated with the Piedmont regime only saw as an ends to a means. I think history has proven that there was then and probably now little appreciation for the complexity of the social issues that they were creating.
While the unprecedented use of genocidal force might intimidate some in the south toward political and social submission it would also enrage some toward greater opposition. Worse the actions would set up societal conflicts which fester even today. These actions unleashed 150 years ago would have far reaching and very complex impacts on the whole of Lucanian culture and its resident’s future. But also far reaching and complex impacts on the whole of Italian culture, economics and social cohesiveness.
General Cialdini’s actions further sent a not to subtle message of encouragement to his foot soldiers that atrocity, rape, looting and willful acts against humanity were not only OK but should be rewarded. A country based on such a foundation is going to have an impossible task in truly “unifying” for generations. The wounds created by these acts, if reparable at all would take generations to heal.
To illustrate in part the problem created by these and subsequent atrocities PIno Aprile describes the aftermath of the destruction of the two towns from a Piedmont soldier’s perspective;
“The bersagliere Margolfo implied that few managed to survive from the town of Pontelandolfo. They had sealed them in their burning homes to “roast”. Only three homes were left standing in the entire town. None were left in Casalduni. The day after the mass killing, August 15, 1861, the bersaglieri set up a market in the town of Fragneto Monforte in order to sell the goods they had stolen. A priest managed to redeem the chalice that held the consecrated hosts in the tabernacle of the church of Pontelandolfo.” While this was taking place the commanding officers reported back to Naples on the outcome of their mission, “Yesterday, at dawn, justice was served in the towns of Pontelandolfo and Casalduni. They are still burning.” Terroni, page 57.
The callousness of the above remarks coupled with the inhumanity and moral disengagement on display by the soldiers in the midst of their victims’ regional brethren creates a double-edged psychological bind on both sides of the equation. This would trickle out among the people of the south as well as the north for generations. Take for example the remark that the chalice which had held the consecrated hosts in the Church was redeemed in nearby town. This town undoubtedly held citizens who knew or were even related to the people of Pontelandolfo. If they didn’t know of the atrocities the next day they would eventually understand fully. At that point they would fully understand the callousness of the soldiers and contempt would build in both directions. This is the same church, remember, where personal reports that women were raped, and murdered in front of the very same altar by these very same soldiers would come out. These same soldiers were then praised by the authorities as heroes, how do you undue that social injustice?
The Piedmont army may have been able to eventually crush the opposition by force but the very culture of Italy was changed in the process. Even the language reflects the change, for example, General Maurizio de Sonnaz, who led the Piedmont forces in the slaughter, eventually earned a nickname. He was nicknamed “Requiescant.” Terroni, Page 57. This comes from the Latin phrase “Requiescat in pace”, meaning, rest in peace, often written R.I.P.
Really the question for our ancestors living in greater Lucania at the time was with this as the “Government’s” response, how should they respond? Of course this was ultimately an individual decision which would be answered both in the short and long term as the “pacification continued for twenty years. But the choices varied due to their complexity. The complexity of the decision for the people of the south should not be ignored. As Aprile describes the choices;
“In the towns, families found themselves divided and at war with each other and amongst themselves. That hatred and resentment often remained and became chronic. Still today many communities are fragile and filled with rancor. In this manner, one goes against one’s interest by trying to favor the interest of the “enemy”…
Several wars were being fought at the same time: a war of invasion, one of armed resistance, a civil war between those who were invaded which was incited by the invaders, and a criminal one of plundering. To anyone who was looking to even a score, all they had to do was choose a side,( the patriotic bourgeois went overboard to the point of killing people on the opposite side, particularly poor farmers, with inhuman ferocity), writes Lucarelli, in Il sergente Romano. Brigantaggio politico in Puglia dopo il 1860. The possessions of the ‘enemy” were stolen, women were raped and killed so as to wear the men out’. Terroni, page 67.
So early on the people of the south, especially in greater Lucania were slowly but surely moving into a no win situation. The lone major military success of the insurgents at Ruvo del Monte actually in my opinion made the future more bleak for the citizens of Lucania. We have already seen that Piedmont was likely to seek fierce reprisals for the 250 dead soldiers. But what we haven’t discussed was how Bourbon King Francis and his advisors now in exile in Rome, together with the advisors to the pope viewed this success.
Remember that Crocco and several other insurgent leaders had been encourage by a number of wealthy local landowners to declare a pro-Bourbon or “Legitimist” uprising. With large numbers of primarily untrained and poorly armed locals in revolt, and experiencing some initial success, the Bourbon monarchy began to believe that there was potential for a counter populist uprising to their advantage.
In their view what was missing in the insurgency was a strong professionally trained officer corps which could raise and train an army in the Apennines and drive the Piedmont “invaders” out. Plans began to be drafted in late summer early fall to find and deliver just such an officer corps to the region. The man the Bourbon King selected for the task was Spanish general and adventurer Jose Borjes.
The irony here is that the former Bourbon King that Lucania had ousted was now sending another foreign general to lead a revolt against another foreign King and his foreign generals. The expectation being that the Lucanians would fall in line with this plan instead of recognizing it as just another no win situation.
I will leave the discussion of the arrival of the great Spanish general in Lucania for the next article.