Lt. Charles DeRudio inched along on his belly through dense underbrush to the bottom of a dry creek bed, concealing himself to avoid capture and certain death. Pistol shots rang out nearby, followed by female voices. DeRudio raised his head gingerly and observed two Lakota women scalping a dying US soldier while two others danced around the mutilated body. Then a crackling noise broke the spell. The lieutenant realized that the Lakota had set fire to the grasses, hoping to flush more blue clad enemies out of their hiding places. DeRudio crawled back up the bank and heard a friendly voice call out to him. Three of his comrades and their two horses had also taken refuge in the creek bottom. They elected to wait six hours for darkness in order to cover their escape.
As the small band of soldiers groped their way south safeguarded by a shroud of blackness, they heard the animated chatter of warriors returning to their village. A sharp bend in the Little Bighorn River would have required them to ford it twice, so they crossed back they way they had come and immediately stumbled upon eight enemy horsemen. DeRudio and Private Thomas O’Neill hid in the brush while the two mounted men bolted the scene. The warriors lost interest and continued on their way, but others guarded the fords, forcing DeRudio and his companion to pass the early morning hours secreted three yards from the riverbank.
Dawn brought a cacophony of splashing and sounds of horseshoes striking stones. Peering through the bushes, DeRudio recognized the gray horses and blue blouses of the Seventh Cavalry. He ascended the riverbank and called out to a man wearing a buckskin jacket, high boots, and white hat. “Tom, don’t leave us here!” A hail of bullets from the guns of the mounted men greeted DeRudio, including some from a Lakota warrior dressed in the clothing of Tom Custer. DeRudio and O’Neill finally made it to the reserve skirmish lines thirty-nine hours after he and the rest of Maj. Marcus Reno’s 175-man battalion had been vanquished by the enemy.
Like many of his fellow officers in the so-called Indian Wars, DeRudio had served in the Union Army during the Civil War. Unlike most of his peers, however, his participation in the battle at Little Bighorn was a mere footnote in an incredible life full of epic adventure, harrowing escapes from death, and dark political intrigue.
Carlo Camillo Di Rudio was born in 1832, the son of Count and Countess Aquilla Di Rudio of the province of Belluno in what is now the Veneto region of Italy. In Di Rudio’s time, the region was part of the Kingdom of Lombardy-Venetia under the control of the Austrian Empire. As a teenager he enrolled in Milan’s Imperial College of Cadets, destined to become an officer in the service of the Austrian emperor. When the republican revolutions of 1848 erupted throughout Europe, fifteen-year-old Carlo and his brother Achille deserted and joined the revolutionaries. They fought with Giuseppe Garibaldi and Giuseppe Mazzini in Venice and Rome in a bid to establish a unified Italian republic; a lofty ambition that was eventually crushed by French troops under Louis Napoleon. Di Rudio participated in other minor uprisings in Venice and Paris before setting sail for America in 1854. He was caught in a storm and shipwrecked off the coast of Spain, lucky to survive.
The mid-1850s were difficult times for European political refugees, as the forces of conservative reaction and royal privilege regained their dominance and dampened enthusiasm for further revolts. Di Rudio eventually made his way to London, where Mazzini and many other exiled radicals spent their time waiting for favorable circumstances to reignite democratic revolution on the Continent. Di Rudio fell in love with fourteen-year-old Eliza Booth and after their shotgun wedding, the couple proceeded to bring six children into an uncertain world. Their father struggled to support them, embarrassed by the fact that he had just one suit of clothes to his name. He fell in with extreme Italian leftists like Felice Orsini, who became frustrated at Mazzini’s relative passivity. These radicals preached renewed and immediate violent action.
Orsini, Di Rudio, Belgian bombmaker Simon Bernard and others hatched a daring plot to assassinate French emperor Louis Napoleon, crossing the channel in January 1858 on their way to Paris. Di Rudio posed as a Portuguese beer merchant and the conspirators assembled in a large crowd along the road to the Paris Opera House. The men hurled three bombs at Louis Napoleon’s carriage, with Di Rudio’s second projectile inflicting about 100 casualties. Orsini’s third bomb hit the carriage, killing horses and a policeman, but the emperor and his wife emerged unscathed. Orsini was convicted and beheaded, but Di Rudio’s death sentence was commuted to hard labor at the infamous French prison at Devil’s Island, 4300 miles way off the coast of French Guiana in South America.
Di Rudio spent a year enduring the prison’s excruciating conditions before he and eleven other prisoners stole a fishing boat and made their way to Suriname, where he successfully petitioned for asylum. He returned to England a celebrity, spent a year on the lecture circuit, and even Anglicized his name to Charles C. DeRudio. At the age of thirty-one, the young rebel had already experienced a lifetime of drama and danger, yet his principles called him to again hazard his life in defense of human rights and free popular government. By 1863, the Lincoln administration was shifting its focus in the American Civil War toward a more radical goal: the liberation of more than four million enslaved people. Like many of his so-called “Forty-Eighter” counterparts from all over Europe, DeRudio hated slavery and all forms of oppression and felt a duty to help defeat the Southern Confederacy. He and sailed for America in 1864.
DeRudio applied for an officer commission but was turned down, so he accepted a substitute enlistment as a private in the 79th New York Highlanders Vol. Inf. on August 25, 1864. He used the $1000 bounty to send for his wife and children. His bravery at the Siege of Petersburg earned him a transfer to the US Colored Infantry, where he accepted a commission as second lieutenant on November 11 and served until that regiment was disbanded. DeRudio’s radical past and aristocratic background made him unpopular in certain circles and he was rejected in 1867 for a commission in the regular army. Undeterred, he lobbied newspaperman Horace Greeley to intercede on his behalf, resulting in De Rudio’s commission as second lieutenant in the Seventh Cavalry in 1869. George Armstrong Custer resented DeRudio and blocked his advancement on numerous occasions. Other officers derided his fallen social status, calling him “Count No Account.”
Despite opposition from peers and commanders, DeRudio proved himself an able leader, defending settlers from Indian raiding parties, dismantling a Klu Klux Klan outfit, and fighting black voter suppression. In 1875 he earned promotion to first lieutenant, transferring to Montana to again serve under Custer. After surviving the horrors at the Little Bighorn, one might guess that DeRudio would slip into quiet retirement at the age of 44, but not so. DeRudio went on to serve another 20 years in the US Army, seeing action in the Nez Perce War and even meeting Lunkpapa Lakota chief Sitting Bull while serving as a captain at Fort Yates on the Standing Rock reservation in North Dakota. He retired with the rank of major in 1896 and spent the last twelve years of his life in Los Angeles. DeRudio and his wife are buried in the National Cemetery over looking the Golden Gate in San Francisco.
Charles DeRudio is just one of many European radicals who felt compelled to help transform a war to preserve the Union and republican government into nothing less than a human rights revolution that was international in scope and unprecedented in world history. Their stories should be better known.
Jules C. Landenheim, Alien Horsemen: An Italian Shavetail with Custer (Berwyn Heights, MD: Heritage Books, 2003).
Peter Cozzens, The Earth is Weeping: The Epic Story of the Indian wars for the American West (New York: Vintage Books, 2017).
T.J. Stiles, Custer’s Trials: A Life on the Frontier of a New America (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2015).
Charles DeRudio, “Lieutenant Charles DeRudio’s Letter,” New York Herald 30 July, 1876.