Hungarians with General John C. Fremont in the American Civil War
John C. Fremont
The American Civil War, 1861-1865, was the most fateful episode in the history of the United States. Therefore, it's not surprising that countless thousands of books and articles have been written on virtually every aspect of the conflict.
A substantial portion of these publications naturally deal with the prominent military men on both sides. One individual who has received much attention from historians and Civil War buffs, even though his service in the war was rather brief, is the charismatic John C. Fremont.
On the eve of the Civil War Fremont was one of the best-known and most popular figures in America. His explorations in the Far West had earned him the sobriquet of "Pathfinder." In 1856 he ran for president on the Republican ticket. He had been asked to be the Democratic presidential candidate, but declined because that party supported slavery.
Although Fremont lost the election, he garnered a substantial portion of the popular and electoral vote. His wife, the intrepid Jessie Benton, was the daughter of the powerful Missouri politician Thomas Hart Benton. In the minds of many Americans, Fremont seemed to embody the spirit of the nation.
At the outbreak of the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln commissioned Fremont a major-general and assigned him to the command of the Western Department, with headquarters at St. Louis, Missouri. The situation in Missouri was a most turbulent one and the problems facing Fremont were almost insurmountable. His meager forces were short of arms, ammunition, and supplies of every kind. The majority of Missourians were not in sympathy with the attempt of the North to coerce the South. The state was honeycombed with secessionist camps; guerrillas and bushwhackers burned bridges, wrecked trains, attacked exposed Federal units, and terrorized pro-Union citizens.
Despite the overwhelming obstacles, Fremont accomplished much. He organized and trained an army from raw recruits, fortified St. Louis and other key centers, built a squadron of river gunboats, secured strategic rivers posts, and consolidated the railroad transportation system. Declaring that drastic conditions call for drastic measures, he imposed martial law, arrested active secessionists, and suspended the publication of newspapers charged with disloyalty. Like other commanding generals of departments Fremont was not guided by precedents but had to improvise.
Fremont's actions aroused enmity from various quarters. His numerous political antagonists, ready to capitalize on any misstep, accused him of ostentation and reckless expenditure. His promotion to major-general over the head of many regular army officers excited jealousy. The Blair family, powerful in both local and national politics and once his most ardent supporters, became his bitter foes.
On August 30, 1861, Fremont issued the Missouri Emancipation Proclamation, declaring the property of Missourians in rebellion confiscated and their slaves freed. Radical Northerners rejoiced; "The hour has come, and the man," intoned Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom's Cabin. Lincoln, whose moderate stance on slavery at the time was calculated to keep border slave states loyal, deemed the act as premature and asked Fremont to revoke it. When Fremont refused, Lincoln countermanded it personally.
Controversy continued to dog Fremont's every step. Deeply disturbed by the charges and innuendoes swirling around Fremont, Lincoln relieved him of his command as Fremont and his army were pursuing General Sterling Price's Confederate forces in Southern Missouri. On November 2 Fremont relinquished command to his successor, and after bidding a short and emotional farewell to his soldiers, returned to St. Louis.
Not only was Fremont dismissed, but also many of his officers were sacked without so much as pay for their services on the grounds that they had been given commissions on an irregular basis. However, it was clear that the real reason for their dismissal was their loyalty to Fremont.
Lincoln's peremptory action was condemned by a large segment of the Northern population. Fremont's friends and supporters claimed that the dismissal was the result of political intrigue. To many, Fremont became a martyr in the anti-slavery cause.
Pressured by harsh criticism from Radical elements, Lincoln reinstated Fremont in March 1862, giving him command of the newly created Mountain Department, which comprised Western Virginia, Eastern Kentucky, and a part of Tennessee, with headquarters at present-day Wheeling, West Virginia. But as in Missouri, Fremont was given inadequate and substandardly supplied forces and was constantly bombarded with unrealistic directives by Lincoln and his advisors. Poorly coordinated efforts between Fremont's army and other Federal forces failed to trap General Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson in the Shenandoah Valley; Jackson brilliantly outgeneralled all the enemies confronting him.
Realizing that failure of the operation was mainly due to divided commands in the region, Lincoln, on June 26, issued an order creating the "Army of Virginia," to include Fremont's corps and giving command of it to General John Pope. The move incensed Fremont because he harbored an intense loathing toward Pope, whom he believed had been disloyal and insubordinate in Missouri. A subordinate position under such an officer was out of question, and a disgusted Fremont tendered his resignation from command. He remained on the inactive list until 1864, when he resigned from the army.
A persistent accusation leveled against Fremont was that he surrounded himself with foreign officers - Germans, Hungarians, Italians, and French - and actually preferred foreigners to Americans. Furthermore, the critics charged, these officers exaggerated their military experiences, strutted about in gaudy uniforms of their own design, bestowed sonorous and absurd titles upon themselves, and could give Fremont little practical counsel in a situation full of political difficulties.
While there was an element of truth in all of these, the critics, as well as some modern writers echoing their views, overlook a few indisputable facts. First, native-born officers were scarce at the start of the Civil War, prompting not only Fremont but other commanders to rely heavily on the foreign born. Second, many of Fremont's staff officers successfully continued their military careers longer after he left the army.
A number of publications state or imply that a significant number of the foreign officers around Fremont were Hungarians. Actually, there were only four Hungarians on Fremont's staff who held important positions at any given time: Alexander Asboth, Charles Zagonyi, John Fiala, and Anselm Albert. Gustav Waagner's tenure as the Western Department's chief of artillery lasted but a few weeks due to Fremont's dismissal.
Other Hungarians serving in Missouri in the early days of the war - Joseph Nemett, Emeric Meszaros, Hugo Hollan, Anton Gerster, Nicholas Perczel, and the four Rombauer brothers: Robert, Roderick Emil, Raphael Guido and Roland - were not part of the Fremont entourage. Philip Figyelmessy, Emeric Szabad and Nicolai Dunka on Fremont's staff in the Mountain Department occupied minor posts.
A brief summary on the lives and careers of the four prominent Hungarians with Fremont is as follows.
Alexander Asboth - A lieutenant-colonel during the 1848-49 War of Liberation and one of Kossuth's most loyal followers, Asboth accompanied him to the Ottoman Empire and shared the entire Turkish internment with him. He came to the United States aboard the Mississippi, the vessel sent by President Millard Fillmore to bring Kossuth and his companions to America.
Until the outbreak of the Civil War, Asboth worked as an engineer, his chosen profession. While in the employ of Frederick Law Olmsted, the renowned landscape architect, Asboth helped to survey Central Park as well as the upper west side of Manhattan.
When President Lincoln appointed John C. Fremont to head the Western Department, with headquarters in St. Louis, Missouri, he chose Asboth as his chief-of-staff. According to the eminent historian Allan Nevins: "Asboth was highly efficient in seeing that the new regiments drilled hard, steadily and with growing precision."
Following Fremont's dismissal, Asboth remained in Missouri and participated in the Pea Ridge campaign, sustaining wounds in the battle. Later, he served as commander at Columbus, Kentucky, and fought against Nathan Bedford Forrest, one of the most famous Confederate cavalry leaders.
After Colonel Philip Sheridan fought and won the battle of Booneville against heavy odds on July 1, 1862, by a brilliant coup de main, Asboth joined Generals J. C. Sullivan, William Rosecrans, Gordon Granger and W. L. Elliott in the famous dispatch to General Henry W. Halleck: "Brigadiers are scarce. Good ones scarcer [...] [We] beg that you will obtain the promotion of Sheridan. He is worth his weight in gold."
In recalling Asboth in his memoirs, Sheridan wrote: "General Asboth was a tall, spare, handsome man, with gray mustache and a fierce look. He was an educated soldier, of unquestioned courage,..."
In August 1863, Asboth assumed charge of the District of West Florida. A substantial portion of his troops were African-Americans and several of his officers were Hungarians, among them the Zulavsky brothers, Ladislas and Emil, and Albert Ruttkay, nephews of Kossuth. His primary mission was to raid nearby Confederate entrenchments. Referring to Asboth's expeditions, historian William Watson Davis makes this quaint comment in his The Civil War and Reconstruction in Florida, published in 1913: "When not engaged in the barbarous practice of pillaging, Asboth was an urbane, pleasant fellow with a great love for flowers and a keen interest in dogs and fine horses. He and his fellow Hungarians were hated, dreaded, and condemned by the country people of that section on the triple charge of being 'furreners,' Yankees, and 'nigger lovers.'"
One of Asboth's frequent guests at Pensacola was Admiral David Glasgow Farragut, commander of the Western Gulf Blockading Squadron.
In the battle of Marianna on September 27, 1864, he received debilitating wounds to his arm and face. Describing his wounds, Asboth wrote in his official report to Major George B. Drake, Assistant Adjutant-General: "I myself was also honored by the rebels with two balls, the first, in the face, breaking the cheek bone, the other fracturing my left arm in two places."
William Harrison Clayton of the 19th Iowa Infantry, who witnessed Asboth's return from the expedition, wrote to his family back in Van Buren County: "He appears to suffer a good deal of pain. The genl. is quite grey-haired and looks as though he was about 60 years of age. He is a Hungarian - one of the Kossuth staff during the Hungarian war, and speaks English brokenly. He appears to be a go-a-head sort of man, and seems to think a good deal of his men."
Due to the extent of his injuries, he had to withdraw from field duty. Commenting on the situation, an article in the November 26, 1864 issue of the New York Times stated: "We see that General Asboth has been compelled by the severity of his wounds to retire for the present from active service [...] General Asboth is one of the oldest and most meritorious of the foreign officers who entered our servive when the rebellion broke out. He is a man of high character and of very marked ability [...] During his residence in this country he has won the respect and friendship of all who knew him by the sterling qualities of his character, and by the modest manliness of his demeanor."
Despite the serious nature of the wounds, Asboth recovered sufficiently to resume command. Towards the end of the war, he was brevetted major-general.
As United States Minister to Argentina he did his utmost to terminate the devastating war pitting Paraguay, led by the fearsome dictator Francisco Solano Lopez, against Argentina, Uruguay and Brazil. Because the doctors were unable to extricate the bullet lodged in his face, he was in constant pain and the effects of the wound led to his death on January 21, 1868.
He was buried in Buenos Aires. Later an elaborately carved headstone was placed over the grave, bearing the coat-of-arms of Hungary and the United States and the following inscription: AN ADJUTANT GENERAL IN THE PATRIOT ARMY OF HUNGARY, HIS NATIVE LAND. AFTERWARDS MAJOR GENERAL IN THE ARMY OF THE UNITED STATES. AT THE TIME OF HIS DEATH MINISTER RESIDENT OF THE U.S. TO THE ARGENTINA REPUBLIC. In 1990 his remains were brought back to the United States and now rest in Arlington National Cemetery.
In 2001, one of the schools in his native city of Keszthely was renamed in his honor and a plaque adorns the Asboth family house, now a small hotel.
A number of American writings give his name as Alexander Sandor Asboth. This is somewhat redundant since Sándor is the Hungarian equivalent of Alexander. Given Asboth's close association with Kossuth, there are of course many references to him in Hungarian publications. Sketches of his life and career appear in virtually all standard American biographical reference works and in numerous articles and books about the Civil War. Most of them, however, contain a variety of errors about his pre-American days.
Charles Zagonyi - A professional soldier, Zagonyi served under the legendary Polish revolutionary General Jozef Bem during the Hungarian War of Liberation. Captured by the invading Russians, he managed to escape and make his way to the Ottoman Empire. He arrived in the United States in 1851 by way of England.
Like most immigrants, he struggled to earn a living and worked at a series of odd jobs to support himself. While working as an instructor at the Boston riding academy run by fellow emigre János Kalapsza, Zagonyi met and married a young German-American lady by the name of Amanda Schweiger.
Early in the Civil War, he joined General Fremont's staff and became commander, with the rank of major, of an elite cavalry detachment known as the Body Guard. This unit was more than an escort to Fremont; it performed guard, policing and scouting duties in addition to always being ready to respond to any emergency. About half were native-born Americans and the
rest mainly German-Americans, recruited in the states of Missouri, Ohio and Kentucky.
Despite his broken English and quaint pronounciation, Zagonyi had the respect of his men and fellow officers. Albert Tracy, one of Fremont's staff who harbored a strong dislike of foreigners - stating that the Italians serving with him "are of about as much use as fifth wheels on a coach" - refers to Zagonyi as "my good friend" in his diary. Asa Mahan, in his A Critical History of the Late American Civil War, published in 1877, calls Zagonyi "one of the most chivalrous heroes of the age."
In October 1861, when Fremont's army approached Springfield, Missouri, the Guard, along with another cavalry formation, the Prairie Scouts, spearheaded the army. Encountering an enemy force which outnumbered them 5 to 1, Zagonyi ordered an attack and decisively routed the Confederates. This gallant charge, although a minor affair in the war, captured the imagination of the public and has been the subject of poems, articles and books and has been honored by plaques, markers and various memorials. The highly acclaimed and widely popular The Story of the Guard, by General Fremont's wife, the redoubtable Jessie Benton Fremont, recounts the actions of the Guard in vivid details with Zagonyi as the overt central hero. University Club historical marker no. 17 at Springfield, commemorating Zagonyi and the Guard, was erected on May 6, 1931.
When Fremont assumed command of the Mountain Department in West Virginia in early 1862, Zagonyi became his chief of cavalry with the rank of colonel. Incensed at being subordinated to General John Pope whom he loathed, Fremont resigned in June of that year and was put on the inactive list along with Zagonyi, one of his most devoted followers. Neither of them saw any more service in the war.
Zagonyi remained with the Fremonts and became a fixture in their household. He frequently accompanied Jessie on her trips and spent many hours giving riding lessons to the Fremonts' daughter Lily, transforming her into an expert horsewoman and becoming worthy, said a proud Jessie, to ride with Kit Carson. According to Mary Lee Spence's The Arizona Diary of Lily Fremont, Lily carried a life-long crush on Zagonyi.
Zagonyi intended to go back to Hungary after the Compromise of 1867. Before he could do so he vanished and neither his American nor Hungarian friends ever heard from him again. His fate remains a mystery to this day. He most certainly did not, as some American writings claim, return to Hungary and operate a cigar shop in Budapest. This error seems to owe its origin to a note in the February 24, 1871 issue of the Tuscumbia Osage Valley Sentinel.
The museum of the Greene County Historical Society in Springfield contains a multitude of Zagonyi memorabilia. He has also been honored with a medallion by the American Hungarian Federation in 1986. To commemorate his services in the War of Liberation, a stone column was erected in his native town of Szinérváralja (now Seini, Romania) on the 150th anniversary of that event.
Erroneous and preposterous statements about Zagonyi and the Body Guard abound in the Civil War literature. For example, James Neal Primm in his Lion of the Valley refers to the Body Guard as a "resplendent 300-man personal bodyguard of foreign volunteers." Fletcher Pratt's Ordeal by Fire states that "his [Fremont's] bodyguard had lined their pockets with five million dollars' worth of contracts." Obviously, both authors did their best to ignore indisputable facts when penning these remarks. Incidentally, Pratt's work is subtitled An Informal History of the Civil War. An Inaccurate History of the Civil War would be far more appropriate.
Anselm Albert - A native of Pest, Albert was an officer in the Hapsburg Imperial Army until 1845. He spent the next three years working abroad, in France and England. During the War of Liberation he participated in numerous battles and led one of the attacking columns at the siege of the fortress of Buda, which culminated in the expulsion of the Hapsburg forces occupying the Hungarian capital. Following the victory of the Hapsburg and Russian armies he sought asylum in Turkey and served briefly in the Ottoman army. Upon coming to America in 1852, he lived at various places, settling eventually in St. Louis, Missouri.
In the spring of 1861, when Missouri was torn by factional strife as pro- and anti-Union elements were vying for control, Albert helped to organize Home Guard units to protect the citizens from marauding secessionists. He fought at Wilson's Creek under General Nathaniel Lyons and was wounded and captured. The Confederate bullet, which lodged in his hip, remained with him for the rest of his life, leaving him partly crippled. Following his exchange, he joined Fremont's staff as an adjutant to Asboth.
Albert was among those who testified on Fremont's behalf before the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War, a body established by Congress in December 1861 as a result of public outcry over Union defeats and Lincoln's apparently ineffectual war strategy.
At Cross Keys in the Shenandoah Valley on June 6, 1862, he and Lieutenant-Colonel John Pilsen bore the primary responsibility for aligning the Federal troops. Referring to Albert and fellow Hungarian General Julius Stahel, Fremont wrote to President Lincoln: "Both of them displayed distinguished courage & ability in the battle of Cross Keys and are every way worthy of your regard."
Fremont asked President Lincoln to appoint Albert brigadier-general. However, the request was never acted upon. When Fremont resigned from command of the Mountain Department, both he and Albert were placed on the inactive list and neither saw any further service in the war. Incensed by the inactivity her husband and his loyal followers were forced to endure, an embittered Jessie Benton Fremont wrote to Indiana Congressman George Julian on January 16, 1864: "Col Albert has been twelve years in America [...] He has steadily done good duty until shelved with the General. He speaks as good English as we do & is thorough in French & German - is a Hungarian & a trained officer."
After the Civil War, Albert became the president of the Metropolitan Bank of St. Louis. He managed to accumulate a substantial wealth while business was good, but a series of financial reverses wiped out his gains. He was subsequently employed as the assistant editor of the German-language paper Amerika and then worked as District Assessor. He died on November 20, 1893.
John Fiala - Educated at the prestigious Graz cadet school, Fiala was an officer in the Hapsburg Imperial Army until 1843 when he resigned his commission to embark on a civilian career as an engineer. At the outbreak of the War of Independence in 1848, he enrolled in the revolutionary forces, eventually attaining the rank of major. Like many others, he fled to the Ottoman Empire after the defeat.
Following a brief Turkish service, he came to the United States and made his home in St. Louis, Missouri. While working for the railroad, he drew up the first great map of Missouri. At the outbreak of the Civil War he was employed in the Surveyor-General's office. He was one of the first to use his influence to organize the German-born residents of the city in pro-Union military units.
In the Western Department, Fiala was Fremont's chief topographical engineer, and played a significant role in the construction of the fortifications around St. Louis and the establishment of the river flotilla of gunboats. He held the same position under Fremont in the Mountain Department. Like Albert and Zagonyi, he was placed on the inactive list following Fremont's resignation from command. During the remainder of the Civil War he promoted Fremont's political interests in St. Louis. Later he moved to California and died in San Francisco at the age of 89 in 1911.
Fiala's memoirs, which extend up to his arrival in America in 1852, were published in Hungary in 1940. Fiala was the brother-in-law of four other distinguished Hungarians of the Civil War from St. Louis, the Rombauer brothers: Robert Julius, Roderick Emil, Raphael Guido and Roland, having married their sister Ida. Over the years, descendants of the Rombauer family have donated numerous papers of their ancestors, as well as those of Fiala, to the Missouri Historical Society. Fiala's sister, who remained in Hungary, was the wife of the well-known writer and historian Frigyes Pesthy. Fiala maintained a lively correspondence with Pesthy as well as with another respected author, Frigyes Riedl, a relative of the Rombauer family.