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Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Charles Zagonyi, Soldier on Two Continents

At the start of the Civil War, both sides were desperate for men with military experience. The last major U.S. conflict had been the Mexican-American War, long enough before that its veterans were beyond prime fighting age. Luckily for the North, it had a good supply of immigrants who were veterans of wars in Europe.

One of them was Charles Zagonyi, a Hungarian who had fought with distinction in his nation's revolution of 1848. Having been born in 1828 he, too, was beyond prime fighting age, but that didn't stop him.

Through connections in the Hungarian community, Zagonyi was invited to join the large personal bodyguard of General John C. Fremont in St. Louis. Fremont was entranced with the pomp and splendor of European armies and surrounded himself with foreigners in glittering costumes. Southerners sneered at all the foreign accents, and Northerners wondered if these strange fellows could actually fight.

Zagonyi got a chance to answer this question October 25, 1861, during the First Battle of Springfield, and the answer was both "yes" and "no". Confederate General Sterling Price's army had taken Lexington in the center of the state before retreating in the face of superior numbers. Now he was in southwest Missouri and only holding one major city in the region--Springfield.

Fremont led 38,000 men to make sure Price didn't come back. At its vanguard was Zagonyi. The Hungarian was given the task of retaking Springfield and decided to do it with a splendid cavalry charge. The charge was splendid all right, that is until it fell into a Confederate ambush.

Zagonyi's men numbered a little more than 300, while there were about 2,000 rebels in town. The Hungarian was in a tight spot, but he pressed forward and after some tough fighting the rebels wavered and ran. "Zagonyi's Charge" soon hit headlines across a North eager for some victories. He could rightly say that he'd seen off a far larger force and taken an important city. On the other hand, he really only defeated a poorly armed rearguard of an already retreating army.

When Fremont was relieved of duty for corruption and failure to adequately defend Missouri (a story I'll get to sometime) Zagonyi found himself out of a job. Fremont later managed to get a command in the Shenandoah Valley in West Virginia, and again hired his old bodyguard as a cavalry commander. Both made a poor showing of themselves and resigned under a cloud.

It's unclear what happened to Zagonyi after the war. While many officers wrote memoirs, for some reason Zagonyi never did.

Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.


  1. Interesting and enlightening post, Sean. Thanks!

  2. They brought in foreign military officials to fight? I didn't know that.

    1. Zagonyi, like many others, were simply veterans who had become immigrants. They were no longer in their old armies. Since they had more experience than most of the native-born Americans, you saw a lot of foreigners rise in the ranks.


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