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Of his staff officers the following were Hungarians: Brig.-Gen. Alexander Asboth, Chief-ofStart'; Col. John T. Fiala, Chief Topographical Engineer; Coi. Gustave Wagner, Chief of Ordnance; Major Charles Zagonyi, Commander of the Body Guard; Col. Anselm Albert, Capt. Leonidas Haskell and Capt. Joseph Remenyfi, Aides-de-Camp.
Col. Fiala was one of the ablest engineers in the country. Born at Temesvar, Hungary, in 1822, he received his education at the Military Academy of Gratz, Austria, joined the Honved Army in 1848, and attained the rank of major. He followed Gen. Bern to Syria, after whose death he sought refuge in France, but left that country for the United States in 1851. He made and published the first large sectional and topographical map of Missouri, and suggested to Gen. Lyon the St. Louis forts subsequently built by Fremont. Gen. Fremont entertained a high opinion of this officer's abilities, and had him appointed on his staff again when he got command of the Mountain Department the following year. There Col. Fiala was seized with a dangerous disease and had to retire from the service. Although the army surgeons had given up his life, he recovered under the care of a physician in Davenport, Iowa, and settled eventually in San Francisco, where he ended his useful life in 1911.
Toward the end of September, Gen. Fremont moved to Jefferson City, whence he began his march southward to Springfield. His Army of the West contained approximately 50,000 men in five divisions, the fourth of which, with about 6,500 men, was under the command of Gen. Asboth. After crossing the Osage River, the Prairie Scouts, a mounted body of about 150 men under Major Frank White, a gallant officer hardly out of his teens, and a detachment of Fremont's Body Guard, about 150 mounted men, under Major Charles Zagonyi, were sent forward to reconnoitre in the direction of Springfield.
Charles Zagonyi was born at Szatmar, Hungary, in 1826, espoused the national cause in 1848, and rose to be captain of hussars in Gen. Bem's army in Transylvania. He was wounded and taken prisoner in an engagement, and spent two years in an
Austrian dungeon before his escape to America. He was the true representative of that superb type of light cavalrymen which Hungary has given to the world: The Hussars. Imbued with the spirit of ancient chivalry, full of dash, devoted to his commander and able to impart his spirit to his men, he was eminently fit for the position for which Fremont selected him. He was to organize a company of horse to act as the General's body
guard, but so many were the applicants that four companies were organized. The men were clad in blue jackets, trousers and caps. They were armed with light German sabres, the best that at that time could be procured, and with revolvers; besides which, the first company carried carbines. They were mounted upon bay horses, carefully chosen from the government stables by Zagonyi, who, in less than a month's time, drilled his men into a well-disciplined and efficient corps of cavalry. Their uniforms were simple enough compared with the braided dolmans and breeches of the Hungarian hussars, but to their poorly equipped comrades they looked "showy." Instilled with pride and esprit de corps by Zagonyi, the Guards carried themselves rather proudly and were dubbed holiday soldiers by the envious This attitude of ridicule towards the Guard, however, was soon to be changed into one of respect and admiration. The officers were all Americans, except three,—one Dutchman and two Hungarians, Zagonyi and Lieut. Theodore Majthenyi.
Zagonyi got permission from Fremont to attack the Confederate garrison at Springfield, which was thought to number about 300. When report was received that it was 1,900 strong, the General revoked his permission, but finally was persuaded by Zagonyi's appeals to let him go, promising to send him re-enforcements. Fremont was afraid that the impetuous hussar would do something "rash"; Gen. Sigel also entertained such fears, and sent Zagonyi word not to make an attack until he could send him aid. Sigel's note, however, reached Zagonyi only after it was all over.
Major White, having been taken sick, was left with a few men in a farmhouse, and Zagonyi took command of both troops. On approaching Springfield they saw the enemy's infantry, about 1.200 strong, posted on top of a hill, with about 300 horse on the left and a little lower. To reach the field they had to pass a narrow lane lined with underbrush, cross a brook, and jump a fence. Zagonyi halted his men and told them that, if any of them was tired or sick, he could turn back. No one moved. Then he said: "Our honor, the honor of our General and our country, tell us to go on. I will lead you. We have been called holiday soldiers for the pavements of St. Louis; today we will show that we are soldiers for the battle. Your watchword shall be: The Union and Fremont! Draw sabre! By the right flank,—quick trot,—march!" Little did the honest hussar think that this little speech would be given a sinister meaning by the General's enemies.
The underbrush lining the lane was packed with Confederate sharpshooters. It took the Guards only a minute to dash through the lane, but when they emerged at the other end, some fifty bodies of men and horses were writhing in the lane; the sharpshooters had done murderous work. On reaching the field, Zagonyi ordered Lieut. Majthenyi with thirty men to attack the enemy's cavalry to their right. "With sabres flashing over their heads, the little band of heroes spring towards their tremendous foe. Right upon the centre they charge. The dense mass opens, the blue coats force their way in, and the whole Rebel squadron scatter in disgraceful flight through the cornfields in the rear. The boys follow them, sabring the fugitives."
Zagonyi then charged with the rest of his men the infantry on the hill. "Steeds respond to the ardor of their riders, and quick as thought, with thrilling cheers, the noble hearts rush into the leaden torrent which pours down the incline. With unabated fire the gallant fellows press through. Their fierce onset is not even checked. The foe do not wait for them,—they waver, break and fly." The Guardsmen follow them to the village. Zagonyi leads them. A desperate hand-tohand fight ensues, ending with the utter rout of the enemy.
It may have been a "rash" act, but it was a glorious victory and one of the most heroic deeds recorded in the annals of warfare15. It was generally referred to as "Zagonyi's death-ride," and Gen. Fremont wrote to his wife: "This was really a Balaklava charge." It is now officially designated as a "skirmish," but it is certain that no skirmish has ever had such moral effect as this one, for it gave tone and spirit to the western army, instilled courage and a feeling of safety into the hearts of the loyal population of Missouri, and had a much-needed, bracing effect all the country over.
Mrs. Fremont jotted down in what she kindly called Zagonyi's "quaint Hungarian-English" his ideas on the subject of "rashness." He said: "They call it a 'rash act.' How is it possible to say it so? From half-past eleven till half-past four we knew we were to meet nineteen hundred men, was time enough to consider and cool down every rashness. Blood cools in five hours. It is so. Very naturally it could not be 'rashness.'"
A week later Gen. Fremont was removed from the command of the Western Department and replaced by Gen. Hunter. The Guard was shamefully treated for its heroism. On its return to St. Louis, it was denied rations and forage, and was promptly disbanded by order of Gen. McClellan. The wild rumors about Fremont's alleged dictatorial ambitions and the "dangerous sentiments" said to be uttered by the Guardsmen were prob
15. The best account of the battle was written by Major W. Dorsheimer, of Fremont's staff, in The Atlantic Monthly for Jan., Feb. and March, 1862, under the title "Fremont's. Hundred Days in Missouri" It contains a plan of the field and many incidents and sidelights on Asboth and Zagonyi. It was largely drawn upon by the earlier historian! of the Civil War, as Greeley, Abbott, etc.