16 October 2007 by Published in: Union Cavalry 7 comments

Time for another in my infrequent series of forgotten cavalrymen.

di CesnolaBorn to an ancient, ennobled Italian family in 1833, Luigi Palma di Cesnola had a glittering military reputation at the beginning of the Civil War. His father had fought for Napoleon. di Cesnola was educated at the Royal Military Academy at Turin, and entered the mounted arm of the Sardinian army. At age seventeen, the young count fought against powerful Austrian armies in Italy’s war for independence. He also fought in the Crimea in the late 1850’s. Finally, in 1860, di Cesnola immigrated to the United States, settling in New York. He married the daughter of an American naval officer and served as the director of a 700-student military school in New York.

With the coming of war, he offered his services to the 11th New York Infantry, and received a commission as major as a result of his prior military service. He was promoted to lieutenant colonel in 1862, before accepting an appointment as colonel of the 4th New York Cavalry. However, in February 1863, the dashing count was dismissed from the service for allegedly stealing six pistols, but he was exonerated, reinstated, and returned to his regiment. At the time, di Cesnola commanded a brigade of cavalry as well as a detachment of infantry and a battery of artillery.

The unhappy colonel protested, and the Judge Advocate General’s office launched an investigation. It found that di Cesnola “was most unjustly wronged,” and he was reinstated to his former rank and position. di Cesnola wrote to his division commander, Brig. Gen. William W. Averell, asking “In regard to my former position I heard that my brigade has been broken up & my Regt is under your command now; though I regret my command has gone yet it is gratifying to me to be under the command of a regular officer like you are.” Averell returned di Cesnola to command of the 4th New York Cavalry, and the dashing Italian count proved himself a brave man in the coming months.

Although the injustice was corrected, this incident cut di Cesnola to the quick. “With what aching heart I return to my regiment few persons can appreciate it,” he wrote to his Congressman a week later. “I tried ever to my utmost in well deserving from my adoptive country and the rewards I received from the Administration I may say were nothing but kicks.” He concluded, “I am…going to the Regiment with a broken heart to stay there some weeks and then I shall resign as it is incompatible with my character to continue.” The dashing count did not resign, and remained with his regiment, which had a troubled history for the duration of its service with the Army of the Potomac.

di Cesnola was a loyal McClellan man, something that did not stand him well with either the administration or with the army’s high command. In late May, a few days after Maj. Gen. George Stoneman, the commander of the Army of the Potomac’s Cavalry Corps, took medical leave, di Cesnola complained to a friend, “Here things go badly. I am the senior Colonel in Averill’s Division, and since he left, other Colonels [Americans] were put in command when the law & any Regulations give me as by seniority of rank the command of it. Oh my heart is every day more sore! Nobody was more enthusiastic in fighting than I was. They succeeded now in making me cold like a stone.” The frustrated officer concluded, “This & thousand other wrong things dishearten me that I shall not be able to stand great deal longer this life of humiliation, never revenged, and injustice.”

Incredibly, the proud count’s humiliation grew. In the aftermath of the June 9, 1863 Battle of Brandy Station, Brig. Gen. Alfred Pleasonton, now commanding the Cavalry Corps, placed di Cesnola under arrest for moving some of his men through an infantry camp while on the way to the front. At the June 17, 1863 Battle of Aldie, di Cesnola led his men into battle without any weapons, and in spite of the fact that his arrest meant that he had no command authority. As a result of di Cesnola’s valiant conduct, Col. Judson Kilpatrick, di Cesnola’s brigade commander, asked Pleasonton to release the count from arrest, and Pleasonton agreed. Di Cesnola was awarded the Medal of Honor for his valor that day, something that undoubtedly rankled Pleasonton a great deal. However, the count also suffered serious combat wounds and was captured and sent to Richmond’s notorious Libby Prison, meaning that he, too, did not command troops in the Army of the Potomac for nearly a year.

di Cesnola had a fascinating career after the Civil War. At the end of the war, he published an account of his time as a prisoner of war in Libby Prison. In 1865, di Cesnola, now a naturalized American citizen, was appointed consul general to Lanarca, Cyprus, while the island was occupied by the Ottoman Empire. He remained there until 1876, illegally acquiring a large collection of antiquities taken from Cypriot tombs that he removed to the United States. He wrote a well-regarded book about his excavations and archaeological studies of the island, and his vast collection of nearly 5,000 items is on display in Harvard University’s Semitic Museum. He also wrote a lengthy description of the collection when it was placed on display. The count sold his collection to the new Metropolitan Museum in New York, and then became the museum’s first director in 1879, a position that he held until his death on November 21, 1904, at the age of seventy-two. di Cesnola’s excavations remain an unhappy chapter in the history of Cyprus, which still views the collection as property of the State of Cyprus. He was buried in Kensico Cemetery in Valhalla, West Chester County, New York.

More than one hundred years after his death, Cypriots often view the Italian count as a grave robber.

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  1. Mike Peters
    Wed 17th Oct 2007 at 5:43 pm


    One of my favorite characters of the war. Did the count see any action at 1st Bull Run?


  2. Wed 17th Oct 2007 at 7:29 pm


    I’d never heard of di Cesnola up until this point (which I suppose is why he is part of your forgotten cavalrymen series). He’s really interesting.
    This may be a stupid question, but how exactly do soldiers go into battle without weapons? That seems like sure death to me, not to mention not all that helpful to anyone.

  3. Wed 17th Oct 2007 at 10:34 pm


    He might have. I honestly don’t know. I have a bio of him that I can check.


  4. Wed 17th Oct 2007 at 10:36 pm


    He is a fascinating fellow. I think his post-war career is almost as his war-time career. The whole grave robbing thing is particularly interesting to me.

    As for going into battle without weapons, you, are of course, quite right, and that he did so–with complete disregard for his safety–is why he was eventually awarded the Medal of Honor for valor above and beyond the call of duty. As for helpful, it’s true he had no weapons, but what an inspiration to his men–leading from the front with no weapons, oblivious to the danger….


  5. Teej Smith
    Fri 19th Oct 2007 at 11:10 am

    At least one Ohio trooper found di Cesnola lacking during the Fredericksburg Campaign. Thomas M. Covert of the 6th Ohio Cavalry wrote to his wife, “We are under a dutchman by the name of Di Cesnola and we call him desplonada. He is a fool or a coward. He will get the brigade out and scout our side of the picketts {sic} all night or go a mile or so from camp and make us dismount and hold our horses all night. I tell you there is some cussing at…times. I hope some of our picketts will shoot him for he will never get close enough to the rebs to get shot.” (Will Greene, “Morale, Maneuver, and Mud,” The Fredericksburg Campaign: Decision on the Rappahannock, ed. by Gary W. Gallagher.

  6. Torben Retboll
    Tue 28th Jan 2014 at 1:22 am

    Luigi Palma di Cesnola was born in 1832, not in 1833, as you say in your presentation of him. Please correct your text accordingly. Thank you for your time.

    Torben Retboll

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