For Which To Aspire – Hungarians In The Union Army: Fighting On A Far Western Front

While growing up in the American South the Civil War was an endless topic of conversation and consternation. Aspects of the war were analyzed in detail, battles dissected, generals rated, martial exploits of the common soldier told and retold. Everyone claimed to have an ancestor who had been on Robert E. Lee’s staff, while no one had an ancestor who had owned a slave. In early adulthood, I finally realized that the war was a hot topic of discussion for one reason and one reason only, because the South had lost. The stigma of defeat had been passed down from generation to generation. For all the glorious honor evoked by infinitely told tales, the harsh truth was that we had gotten our ass kicked.

Thoroughly beaten by those wretched “Yankees”, a word commonly used as both a pejorative and profane term. By “Yankees” we meant anyone north of the Mason-Dixon line. “Those people” who were from states such as New Yawk, Taxachusetts and Disconnecticutt. I had long been aware that plenty of immigrants had also fought for the Union, but I never thought any of them could be Eastern Europeans.  Then on a winter evening I stumbled upon a very different kind of Yankee, one that hailed from the Carpathian Basin.

Startling revelations usually arrive when least expected. Imagine my shock then, as I read the following sentence in Volume I of Shelby Foote’s incomparable history of the Civil War, “his (John C. Fremont, Union commander of the Western Department) personal staff included Hungarians and Italians with titles such as ‘adlatus to the chief’ and names that were hardly pronounceable to a Missouri tongue; Emavic, Meizarras, Kalamaneuzze were three among many.” This was the first time that I learned of Hungarians serving as officers in the Union Army. I found this information startling, but should not have been that surprised for two reasons. Hungarians had been arriving on the shores of North America, beginning as far back as 1583. Secondly, when the conflict broke out the Union was desperate for officers with battlefield experience. Many of the Union’s Hungarian officers came ready made for fighting, since they had served in the 1848/49 Hungarian War of Independence against Austria and later Russia that broke out following the revolutionary upheaval. The loss of that war led to a boatload of Hungarian military officers literally washing up on America’s shores.

Scene from the Hungarian Revolution of 1848

Scene from the Hungarian Revolution of 1848 (Credit: Miklos Barabas)

Martial Bearing –  Exiled To War: From East To West
Of the several waves of Hungarian immigration to the United States the first is by far the smallest and least known. This wave consisted of the “Forty-Eighters” those Hungarian men of military bearing who fled the country after the revolution failed. The numbers were tiny by later standards of immigration, no more than two thousand Hungarians crossed the Atlantic. It is estimated that perhaps 400 of these fought in the war. That does not sound like much, but consider that there were only 4,000 Hungarians living in the United States at the time. As a proportion, Hungarians had greater participation in the war than any other immigrant group at the time. Furthermore, around a quarter of the Hungarians serving in the Union Army were officers. Thus, they took on a role of outsized importance, especially in the Western Department of John C. Fremont, the famous western explorer, presidential candidate and egotistical charlatan.

The more notable Hungarians who served in the Union Army were attached to Fremont’s command.  The most well-known, Alexander Asboth was born on the western shore of Lake Balaton at Keszthely to a prominent family. Asboth was trained as a military engineer. During the Hungarian Revolution, he served with distinction and became the favorite adjutant of Lajos Kossuth. Asboth came to the United States in 1851 along with the exiled Kossuth who was promoting the cause of Hungarian independence. Kossuth went back to Europe, Asboth decided to stay. When the Civil War broke out, Asboth was selected as Fremont’s chief of staff. He would later command a division at the Battle of Pea Ridge. Asboth was wounded twice in battle and ended the war as a brevetted Major General. This turned out to be the highest rank any ethnic Hungarian would attain in the Union Army.

General Alexander Asboth

General Alexander Asboth – (Credit: Matthew Brady – U.S. National Archives and Records Administration)

Hungarian Chivalry In Missouri – Zagonyi Leads The Charge
If there had been an award for the most dashing and chivalrous ethnic Hungarian in the Union forces it would likely have gone to Charles Zagonyi. Zagonyi had served as a cavalry officer during the Hungarian War of Independence. When the Civil War broke out, Zagonyi reprised that role when he was chosen to lead Fremont’s personal bodyguard. Zagonyi achieved great fame from an improbable victory at the First Battle of Springfield which took place in southwestern Missouri in 1861. Outnumbered nearly five to one, Zagonyi led his cavalry force on three consecutive charges that scattered the opposing Confederate force. While high on drama, the strategic value of the victory left much to be desired. Zagonyi lost over a quarter of his force and was unable to hold Springfield. Nonetheless, Zagonyi gained lasting notoriety when Fremont’s wife – Jessie Benton Fremont – portrayed him as a heroic figure in her book, Story of the Guard, published during the war. Unfortunately, Zagonyi’s fame was fleeting as he was out of the army less than a year after charging into history.

Fremont’s coterie included several other Hungarians as well as many foreigners often dressed in elaborate, decoratively colored outfits. This led to criticism from those who visited Fremont’s command that the languages spoken there were unintelligible and the pageantry rather ridiculous. For instance, Zagonyi’s bodyguard was decked out in the garb of Polish hussars. The dark blue uniforms and headgear were little more than flourishes of vanity. Other Hungarians among Fremont’s most trusted confidants were better disguised, none more so than Philip Figyelmessy who brought an aptitude for espionage all the way from Eastern Europe to the Western Theater of the Civil War. Fremont also found a place on his staff for Emeric Szabad, the rare personage whose literary talent was matched by his military ability. He served with distinction throughout the war, managing to survive Fremont’s quick fall from grace to attain the rank of colonel by war’s end.

First Battle of Springfield - Zagonyi's Charge on October 25, 1861

First Battle of Springfield – Zagonyi’s Charge on October 25, 1861 (Credit: from book by Geza Kende)

To Admire & Aspire – Fighting For Freedom
Hundreds of other Hungarians fought for the Union throughout the war. They were not “Yankees” in the usual sense of the word as I learned it, they were Hungarians first and foremost. Military men who chose to fight for a new country. Fremont’s patronage allowed them an exalted position as officers in the Union forces. America offered them freedom and independence, something that their Hungarian homeland still did not enjoy. The martial exploits of the “Forty-Eighters” helped preserve the Union as a bright and shining example of a democratic republic. An example for all Hungarians to admire and for which to aspire.

1 thought on “For Which To Aspire – Hungarians In The Union Army: Fighting On A Far Western Front

  1. Pingback: For Which To Aspire – Hungarians In The Union Army: Fighting On A Far Western Front — Europe Between East And West | hungarywolf

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