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Hungary’s Heroes in the American Civil War

Written by: Peter Rosenbluth

Many Americans don’t know about the Hungarian contribution to the Union’s Victory. However, the Civil War was not the first time when Hungarians took up the arms to fight for America’s unity. Hungarians have been fighting for liberty throughout their history, therefore it’s not a surprise that they took their parts even in the American Revolution, long before the Civil War. A former Hussar officer called Michael de Kovats is known as one of the founders of the US cavalry. But let’s come back to the Civil War and see what is so special about the Hungarian participants. That’s what an upcoming documentary film will tell: the story of the Hungarian and Jewish Hungarian heroes.

When the Hungarian Revolution of 1848 was crushed, many freedom-fighters had to leave Hungary, especially the Jews, who participated on the Hungarian side as they were subject to Habsburg hatred and were considered as traitors.

Many former officers of 1848 followed Lajos Kossuth into emigration to the USA.

People do not know that these volunteers played a key role in the Union victory. Most of the Hungarian heroes were almost all veterans of the Revolution of 1848 and many also fought in the Italian War of Independence. As skilled veterans they brought significant military experience to the US at a time when the Union army was desperately in need of skilled officers as most of the American veterans were in the service of the Confederates.

What makes our characters special from other volunteers?

This sketch depicts Zagonyi’s charge.
  • Hungarian soldiers regardless of faith served in the Union army especially in high ranks compared to their smaller numbers. Many of them were generals and colonels.
  • We need to mention a former hussar officer Charles Zagonyi who showed extraordinary gallantry at the Battle of Springfield and defeated the advancing CSA troops
  • The Hungarians and Hungarian Jews fought as volunteers not as conscripted soldiers in the Revolutionary armies in 1848 and in 1859 many years before the emancipation. Not being equal citizens did not deter them to sacrifice for liberty and humanity.
  • It has been a common prejudice from anti-semites that Jews never took up the arms and they did not contribute to their countries. While some people heard of Jewish scientists and doctors, the image of the Jewish soldier has not been told yet. The Jews who immigrated to the United States all gave their blood for their new homeland fighting on the front lines.
  • All of the Jewish immigrants from Hungary joined the Union without exception to fight for freedom and equal rights. Non Jewish Hungarians also served the Union (apart from a few who fought for the Confederacy). At least 1000 skilled soldiers came to America’s help when the country was the most divided in her history. Other nationalities and immigrants fought on both sides.
  • Our officers organized numerous volunteer brigades during the war. For example Colonel Frederick George Utassy, a Jewish veteran who was the founder and the commander of the famous 39th New York Volunteer Infantry regiment. The regiment was also known as Garibaldi Guard as many of its soldiers (including Utassy) fought in the Second Italian War of Independence as well.
Colonel Utassy
  • Racism was also present on the Union side. A Jewish and a Hungarian officer came to the help of their Afro American comrades when white officers refused to provide them military training. These soldiers knew well what it is to be oppressed.
  • The highest ranking Jewish general of the Union Army was also from Hungary called Frederick Knefler who was barely 15 years old when he already saw the crossfire during the Hungarian Revolution. He was also one of the founders of the first Jewish Congregation in Indianapolis. Many don’t know that Joseph Pulitzer, the „father” of modern journalism, was also a volunteer soldier from Hungary. We can only learn from their stories and sacrifice.
  • August Bondi– have people ever heard of this name? He was one of the closest friends of John Brown, the famous abolitionist. Bondi rode through with him in Kansas and later joined the Union cavalry and fought through the Civil War, despite being severely wounded. It’s a very important detail when Jews are often accused of being the cause of the slavery. Bondi was one of the immigrants who never gave up the values of the Revolution of 1848.

As the emancipation of the Jews did not happen due to the Habsburg oppression they were not fully considered as Hungarians before the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy. They deserve to be mentioned separately from the other Hungarian heroes as previous researchers of the Hungarian American history never distinguished them from the other Hungarian volunteers. No one has ever mentioned their background and they are even more forgotten heroes.

If you would like to preserve and promote the Hungarian and Jewish Hungarian history, please contribute to an upcoming documentary film which will tell the story of our heroes. The donations are tax-deductible for US citizens. To make a change and to learn more please visit the Jews and Patriots Documentary website where you will also find the trailer.