Luigi Palma di Cesnola Leads Union Cavalry Charge, Receives Medal of Honor

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Luigi Palma di Cesnola Leads Union Cavalry Charge, Receives Medal of Honor

Luigi Palma di Cesnola, c. 1900, photographer unknown
From book Deeds of Valor: How America's Heroes Won the Medal of Honor (1901)
(Unless otherwise indicated, all illustrations are courtesy of Wikipedia)

Today in Military History: June 17, 1863

Here is another unique story with regard to a recipient of the Medal of Honor. This gentleman was born in Italy, fought in two wars before immigrating to the U.S., then joined the Union Army to smash the War of the Rebellion (aka the American Civil War). His post-war career was equally interesting.


Di Cesnola was born in 1832, in the Kingdom of Sardinia, near Turin. His father was a count and military officer. In 1848, at the age of 15, he joined the Sardinian Army and participated in the First Italian War of Independence against the Austrians (1848-1849). During the battle of Novara on March 23, 1849, he was decorated for bravery and promoted to the rank of second lieutenant.. He graduated from the Royal Military Academy at Cherasco in 1851. In 1854 Luigi was dismissed for unknown reasons, and subsequently served with the British Army in the Crimean War as the aide-de-camp to General Enrico Fardella.

In 1858 di Cesnola went to New York, where he first taught Italian and French. He then founded a private military school for officers, where in six months he trained over seven hundred students. In 1861, he entered the Union Army, and one year later he was promoted to colonel of the 4th New York Cavalry Regiment.

Battle of Aldie

On June 17, 1863 the 4th New York Cavalry was part of a cavalry brigade under General Judson Kilpatrick. [Despite being a West Point graduate, Kilpatrick apparently never adjusted to the new tactics of modern war. He earned the nickname of "Kill-Cavalry" for using tactics in battle that were considered as a reckless disregard for lives of soldiers under his command.] Earlier in the day, Col. di Cesnola learned he had been passed over for promotion by someone the Italian viewed as ill-suited for the job. Di Cesnola went straight to Kilpatrick and voiced his opinion, perhaps a bit too forcefully. As a result, di Cesnola was placed under arrest.

Kilpatrick's troops were attempting to penetrate Confederate cavalry under Jeb Stuart, who were screening Robert E. Lee's movements as a prelude to the invasion of Pennsylvania. To block the Union horsement, the Rebels had fortified a strategic hillside. After several Union regiments had attacked the entrenchment without success, Kilpatrick ordered the 4th New York to attack the strongpoint. To a man, the regiment refused to attack without their commanding officer, di Cesnola. Without hesitation, the Italian-American veteran of two previous wars, ran to his horse and led his men on three separate attacks on the Confederate position. After being thrown back a third time, Gen. Kilpatrick approached di Cesnola. Addressing the insubordinate man, Kilpatrick said, "Colonel, you are a brave man. You are released from arrest. Here is my own sword. Take it and bring it back to me covered in the enemy's blood."

Di Cesnola led his men forward a fourth time, and captured the enemy position. However, at some point during the fight, Luigi received two wounds: a saber cut to the head, and a Minié ball to the arm. Further, his horse was killed under him, and in falling trapped the gallant colonel. Luigi was later found on the battlefield by Confederate soldiers looking for dead and wounded comrades.

Di Cesnola captured in aftermath of battle of Aldie, June 17, 1863; From book Deeds of Valor: How America's Heroes Won the Medal of Honor (1901)
Di Cesnola captured in aftermath of battle of Aldie, June 17, 1863
From book Deeds of Valor: How America's Heroes Won the Medal of Honor (1901)


Di Cesnola was sent to Libby Prison in Richmond, where he languised for several months until early 1864. He was exchanged for a personal friend of Confederate President Jefferson Davis. Luigi served in the the Wilderness and Petersburg campaigns as a commander of a cavalry brigade. He was nominated for the rank of brevet brigadier general, but Congress never approved the appointment.

Footnote #1: After the war, he was appointed United States consul at Larnaca in Cyrus (1865–1877). During his stay on Cyprus he carried out excavations (especially around the archaeological site of Kourion), which resulted in the discovery of a large number of antiquities. Even nearly 150 years later, di Cesnola's excavations are considered tantamount to tomb robbery by most Cypriots.

Footnote #2: His collection of Cypriot antiquities was purchased by the newly expanded Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in 1872, and di Cesnola became the first director in 1879, until his death in 1904.

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