The Extraordinary Life Of Charles DeRudio

Charles DeRudio did everything from failing to assassinate Napoleon III to surviving Custer’s Last Stand. His story is like no other.

Charles DeRudio did everything from failing to assassinate Napoleon III to surviving Custer’s Last Stand. His story is like no other.

What do you call someone born into a noble family, who fought alongside Garibaldi, was shipwrecked on his way to America, impregnated a teenager, tried and failed to assassinate Napoleon III, faced the guillotine, was thrown into prison on Devil’s Island, escaped to the United States, joined the Union Army during the American Civil War, survived Custer’s Last Stand, and then lived the life of a celebrity in Los Angeles? Well, depending on your point of view, you might call him the world’s luckiest man or a profoundly cursed individual. I like to call him Charles DeRudio. 

Naturally, he was not born with this name; he was more appropriately christened Carlo Camillo Di Rudio by the Count and Countess Aquila Di Rudio on August 26, 1832 in the province of Belluno. His family was wealthy, with the means to enroll him in the Imperial College of Cadets in Milan when he was a young teenager. Training was going well and Carlo was bound to be a soldier in the Emperor of Austria’s legions when the Revolutions of 1848 swept across Europe. Targeted by their fellow countrymen for their association with the occupiers, the cadets barricaded themselves in the compound while chaos raged in the streets.

Eventually the trainees were able to join Marshal Radetzky as he retreated towards Verona and Mantova, and, at age 15, Carlo got his first taste of war. Carlo must have appreciated the on-the-job training, but apparently not enough, as he deserted after being acquainted with the brutal tactics of the Austrians. Accompanied by his older brother Achille, he escaped after killing a soldier who had raped and murdered a young Italian woman. After making their way home to Belluno, they joined the revolutionaries who were seeking the removal of foreign invaders and the establishment of a liberal government. Though his brother died of cholera, Carlo continued on and fought in Rome and Venice with Garibaldi and Giuseppe Mazzini before the revolution was suppressed by French troops under Napoleon III. 

At 16, Carlo had already experienced enough for several lifetimes, but he was just getting started. Sources differ on how he spent the next few years, but he did dabble in uprisings in Paris and Venice before setting sail for the United States in 1854. His ship was caught in a storm and he barely survived the shipwreck off the coast of Spain, causing him to return to wandering Europe for a time. He finally settled in London with many of his fellow Italian exiles, where he was captivated by the 14-year-old Eliza Booth. One thing led to another, and a shotgun wedding became a necessity before the birth of their first child, Hercules.

Things were difficult for Carlo during this period, as his offspring burgeoned to six while the only employment he could find was a combination of gardening and Italian tutoring. It is said that he was embarrassed to leave the house often as he only possessed one suit of clothes to wear. Despite these privations, Carlo found time to keep abreast of happenings in the revolutionary scene, and fell into the company of Felice Orsini, another Italian exile in London. A devotee of Mazzini, Orsini had grown impatient with his mentor’s passive ways, and was looking to make a bigger statement through terrorist strikes. It is difficult to say why a father of six decided to make the transition from activist to terrorist, but some suggest it was due to a combination of his newly embraced hatred for the papacy and a desperate need for another source of income.

Along with Belgian bombmaker Simon Bernard and a few other Italians, Carlo and Orsini began plotting to assassinate Napoleon III, the hated conqueror who had quelled the Italian uprising back in 1849. The planning proceeded according to plan, and in January 1858 the group crossed the English Channel and descended upon Paris. Carlo was traveling under the guise of a Portuguese beer vendor named Da Selva, and the group positioned themselves in the crowd along Napoleon’s route to the Paris Opera. The first bomb was thrown and did little damage, and then Orsini called upon Carlo to throw his device. This second bomb exploded with devastating force, killing or wounding around 100 spectators in the crowd. Orsini threw another bomb, but it missed the Emperor and killed more horses and policemen. The group was immediately arrested and Orsini was subsequently beheaded.

Carlo accepted his fate, and sat in a French cell awaiting his day under the guillotine. But his fate had not yet been decided. While he rotted in prison, his wife Eliza had frantically written to her representative in Parliament, begging that he speak to Queen Victoria regarding Carlo. It seems that Providence was watching over the family, because diplomatic exchanges occurred and Carlo was whisked away from the guillotine as he smoked his last pipe on its steps. This reprieve saved his head, but did not keep him from being condemned to life imprisonment in one of the worst prisons on Earth, 4300 miles away. Devil’s Island had opened only a few years before in French Guiana off the coast of South America, and already had the reputation of a hellhole. 

Carlo’s story could have once again ended here, but he had different expectations for his next chapter. After a year of atrocious heat and brutal treatment, he seized a fishing boat with a group of eleven others and made his way to Suriname, where he was granted asylum. He returned to England, reunited with Eliza, and spent a year on the lecture circuit, recounting his remarkable life to adoring crowds. It was during this time that his name became Anglicized, and he would go by Charles C. DeRudio for the rest of his life. At the age of 31, one might expect him to have settled down to enjoy his family and avoid further turmoil, but this was exactly what he did not do. Having heard about the American Civil War raging across the Atlantic, he packed up Eliza and the brood and emigrated to the United States. 

As a republican and former prisoner, Charles loathed the institution of slavery, and felt it was his duty to fight the Confederacy. He joined the 79th New York Volunteers as a private in 1864, and during the fall saw action during the Siege of Petersburg. Charles was promoted to second lieutenant and continued his service after the end of the war, now with the 2nd U.S. Colored Infantry Regiment. After the regiment was disbanded, Charles looked to continue his military career by applying for an appointment in the United States Army. He was granted a commission as a second lieutenant and posted to George Armstrong Custer’s 7th Cavalry at Fort Riley, Kansas. Charles was not seen in a positive light by either Custer or his comrades; they saw him as arrogant and self-aggrandizing, even dubbing him “Count No-Account” due to his impoverished noble roots.

Notwithstanding these challenges, Charles made a name for himself defending settlers from cattle rustling Sioux and Cheyenne, and was presented with a golden-hilted saber which he wore with immense pride. He continued his crusade against black oppression by breaking up a Ku Klux Klan group in 1873, and arresting a Louisiana land baron who was keeping his black employees from voting freely in the 1874 presidential election. Some sources propose that this landowner was a Frenchman who had served under Napoleon III, and thus Charles had personal reasons for his police action, but this did not derail his career trajectory. In 1875 he was promoted to first lieutenant and the next year transferred to Montana, once again under the command of Custer. 

The Army had been tasked with clearing the remaining Plains Indians from the region as settlers pushed further and further west. After coming across a large Lakota and Cheyenne encampment on the Little Bighorn River on June 22, Custer divided his force into three battalions to encircle and overwhelm the camp. His estimate of there being 800 Indian warriors was far from accurate. In reality, there were over 2500, against his regiment of 700 cavalrymen. Charles was assigned to Major Marcus Reno’s battalion, after having been shuffled around by Custer due to their conflicting personalities. As Reno led his men to attack the southern end of the encampment, they were pushed back by a charging group of Lakota warriors. Charles tried to rally men and send them to support the center, but in the chaos he and a handful of others were cut off from the main force.

Embedded in a thicket, they could only watch in horror as Custer and his men were surrounded and slowly overwhelmed. Custer and around 40 others fought valiantly, but their fate was sealed. The scalping and looting went on until sundown, when Charles sought to make an escape. Intercepted by more Indians, he spent the next two days running and hiding on the battlefield before encountering friendly forces. Charles was assigned the task of counting his dead comrades — all 268 of them. In a letter published in the New York Herald the next month, Charles wrote that he had seen women at the revolting work of scalping a soldier who was perhaps not yet dead. Two of the ladies were cutting away, while two others performed a sort of war dance around the body and its mutilators. I will not attempt to describe to you my feelings at witnessing the disgusting performance.”

Despite this traumatic experience, Charles remained committed to his military career for the next 20 years, seeing minor action during the Nez Perce War and earning a promotion to captain in 1882. He was stationed all across his adopted country, from Fort Sam Houston in Texas to Standing Rock Reservation in South Dakota. Upon reaching retirement age in 1896, he ended his soldiering with a late promotion to the rank of major. After moving to Los Angeles in 1898, he lived a celebrity retiree life, giving talks and working on his extensive memoirs. 

Charles passed away on November 1, 1910, leaving behind his beloved Eliza and his many children, including his daughters Roma and Italia. He had, as the Los Angeles Herald phrased it, lived a “most eventful life.”

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