“Fremont and the Union!”

Well that’s what Major Charles Zagonyi said his 160 bodyguard troopers yelled as they made one heck of a charge into a force of defiant rebels outside Springfield, Missouri on this day (October 25) in 1861.  His initial report read:

I report respectfully that yesterday afternoon at 4 o’clock I met in Springfield about 2,000 or 2,200 of the rebels in their camp, formed in line of battle.  They gave me a very warm reception – warmer than I expected. But your guard, with one feeling, made a charge, and in less than 3 minutes the 2,000 or 2,200 men were perfectly routed by 150 men of the Body-Guard.  We cleared out the city perfectly of every rebel, and raised the Union flag on the court-house.  It getting too dark, I concluded to leave the city, not being able to keep it with 150 men.  Major White’s men did not participate in the charge.

Allow me, general [Fremont], to make you acquainted with the behavior of the soldiers and officers.  I have seen charges, but such brilliant unanimity and bravery I have never seen and did not expect it.  Their war cry, “Fremont and the Union,” broke forth as thunder….  (OR, Series I, Volume 3, Serial 3, page 250).

… and well maybe that is a little embellished.  There were probably less than 1500 poorly organized and equipped Missouri State Guard troops on the field.  The fighting lasted longer than just a few minutes.  And Zagonyi downplayed the role of Major Frank White’s “Prairie Scouts,” a pro-union Missouri state force, in the action.

Zagonyi commanded General John C. Fremont’s personal bodyguard, a force one might describe as “dashing,” but at a minimum I’d say famously dressed.  Zagonyi himself was a soldier of fortune type from Hungary.

While his first report has more flourishes than a Forth of July speech in an election year, Zagonyi did indeed drive his opponents out of Springfield.  The Guard, armed with Colt revolving rifles and braces of pistols, outmatched their state guard opponents in weaponry.  But situations dictated Zagonyi charge down a narrow farm lane, which negated any advantage.  The State Guard effectively bottled up the force for a short time.  Zagonyi dismounted part of his force in an attempt to flank the Guard.  White’s men rode out of the farm lane, taking the long way around to envelope the Guard troops.  Meanwhile Zagonyi pushed his other companies forward, eventually breaking through resistance.

In his official report on the action, Zagonyi reduced the number of charges to one, made little mention of resistance, and gave lavish credit to the body-guard.  Other accounts, particularly that of Captain Patrick Naughton of 23rd Illinois Volunteers, refuted Zagonyi’s version of events.

In the fighting, Zagonyi’s casualties numbered about 80.  The Missouri State Guard suffered around 125.   A small action, but one that went down as a legendary charge.  The site of the action is today fully developed.  A rail line and the Kansas Expressway bisect the area where the fighting occurred.

Wilsons Creek 404
Site of Zagonyi's Charge

A stone marker, inside private property, reminds visitors of the Hungarian’s action.

Wilsons Creek 406
Marker for Zagonyi's Charge

I’ve often wondered if the glory of Zagonyi’s Charge dimmed due to circumstances (particularly the relief of Fremont from command in Missouri a few days later); or on the other hand the charge benefited with inflated importance by way of Zagonyi’s and other’s embellishments.

Regardless Zagonyi is truly a “forgotten cavalryman” today.  He followed his boss east, with the rank of Colonel.  But Zagonyi resigned at the same time Fremont left the Army.  From there, the Hungarian disappears from the records.

Published by Craig Swain

"Historical marker hunter" and Civil War enthusiast.

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