Some lesser known Hungarians of the American Civil War
The Civil War (1861–1865) was the most destructive conflict in the history of the United States. Both the Union and the Confederacy mobilized vast armies and fought countless skirmishes and battles on land and water. A substantial portion of the soldiers and sailors on both sides were foreign-born, immigrants from all parts of the world.
Among these foreign-born were several hundred Hungarians, most of them political refugees in the aftermath of the unsuccessful 1848-49 War of Liberation led by Lajos Kossuth against the ruling Hapsburg dynasty.
As few Hungarians settled in the South, the overwhelming majority served the Northern cause. Among the best known and most written about Hungarians are those who were on General John C. Frémont’s staff, namely Alexander Asboth, John Fiala, Anselm Albert, and Charles Zagonyi; Julius Stahel, who attained the rank of major-general and won the Congressional Medal of Honor; and colonels of sundry regiments: Geza Mihalotzy (24th Illinois Infantry), Eugene Kozlay (54th New York Infantry), Frederick George D’Utassy (39th New York Infantry), Frederick Knefler (79th Indiana Infantry), and Nicholas Perczel (10th Iowa Infantry).
However, many of the participants have received little or no attention. Described briefly are the lives and careers of six of these neglected individuals: Joseph Vandor, Hugo Hollan, Edward Zerdahelyi, George Grecheneck, Theodore G. Korony, and Stephen Spelletich.
A veteran of the War of Liberation, Joseph Vandor settled in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, upon coming to America. By 1860 he was a well known and respected lawyer in the community. At the outbreak of the Civil War, Governor Alexander Randall, on the recommendation of several prominent citizens, appointed Vandor colonel of the 7th Wisconsin Infantry, a regiment organized at Madison in August and September of 1861 to serve for three years. Mustered in with a numerical strength of 1,016 on September 2, the regiment left the state on Sept. 21 and reached Washington, D.C., five days later. It was assigned to the command of General Rufus King to brigade with the 2nd and 6th Wisconsin Infantry and the 19th Indiana Infantry to form the only all-western brigade in the eastern theater of operations.
Vandor’s command didn’t last very long; he handed in his resignation on June 30, 1862. Why he resigned differ among the sources. According to R. C. Nesbit’s Wisconsin – A History (1973) and R. N. Current’s The History of Wisconsin, Vol. II (1976), Vandor was masterful in drill, a strict disciplinarian, and was liked by his men, but alienated his officers by constantly pointing out their deficiencies in military science. According to L. J. Herdegen’s The Men Stood Like Iron: How the Iron Brigade Won Its Name (1997), Vandor was altogether incompetent and unfit for colonelcy. Despite Wisconsin’s large immigrant population, the native-born harbored a strong resentment against foreign-born officers. This attitude may also have been a contributing factor in Vandor’s resignation.
Whatever the truth, Vandor saw no further war service. He was appointed consul to Tahiti and retained that posting until 1868.
The scion of a prominent family established in Nyitra County since the 16th century, Edward Zerdahelyi was born in 1821. From an early age he exhibited great musical talent. As a pupil and friend of the great Franz Liszt he became an acclaimed piano virtuoso. One of Liszt’s Hungarian rhapsodies is dedicated to Zerdahelyi.
During the conflict against the Hapsburg dynasty he was a captain in the revolutionary army. After the defeat he went abroad to Great Britain where he continued his musical career and also served as secretary to Miklós Kiss, one of the principal leaders of the émigrés.
His sojourn in England was rather brief; he soon moved to America, settling in Boston. There he became a fixture in the Hungarian circle of George Luther Stearns, a wealthy businessman, dedicated abolitionist, and ardent patron of Hungarian refugees. He was also a frequent guest at the homes of other Massachusetts notables. Reminiscing about Zerdahelyi, Ernest Wadsworth Longfellow, son of the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, wrote in his memoirs: “He was wonderfully well-read on all military matters, and could describe all Napoleon’s campaigns and battles in great detail. What his special attraction was, to my father, I do not know, certainly not his recital of battles. Probably his being an exile was enough for my father to be kind to him.”
To support himself, Zerdahelyi worked as a music teacher at Chickering & Sons, America’s foremost manufacturer of pianos.
On May 17, 1861, Zerdahelyi enrolled in the 39th New York Infantry Regiment, eventually attaining the rank of second lieutenant. After the war he relocated to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where for many years he was professor of music at Sacred Heart Convent. He died on Aug. 16, 1906.
An engineer by education, George Grecheneck was a first lieutenant during the War of Liberation. Following the victory of the Hapsburg and Czarist armies, he fled to the Ottoman Empire. Becoming a member of Kossuth’s entourage, he shared the entire Turkish internment with the former Governor. On Sept. 10, 1851, Kossuth, Grecheneck, and some fifty other exiles boarded the Mississippi, a warship dispatched by the government of the United States to convey Kossuth and his companions to America. While Kossuth disembarked at Gibraltar to make a whirlwind tour of Great Britain, Grecheneck and the rest continued their voyage, reaching New York harbor on November 10. Kossuth arrived on December 5 and Grecheneck acted as one of his bodyguards during his visit to New England.
After Kossuth’s return to Europe in July 1852, Grecheneck made his home in Boston. Like Zerdahelyi, he was one of the émigrés constituting George Luther Stearns’s Hungarian circle.
A few years later, Grecheneck, accompanied by fellow exile Albert de Zeyk, moved to Webster City, a booming community in northwestern Iowa. Extolling the location, character, and business opportunities possessed by Webster City, the traveling correspondent of the Dubuque Express and Herald wrote in the paper’s Dec. 15, 1857, issue:
"No one can become acquainted with the inhabitants of Webster City and not be pleased with them and the town. [...] Extensive preparations are making for building during the coming spring. [...] A handsome and durable bridge is now being thrown across the Boone river near the center of the town, north and south, which connects the town with a beautiful addition on the east side recently laid out by Messrs. Grechenek and de Zeyk, Land Agents, Civil Engineers and Surveyors, of Webster City. These gentlemen are Hungarians, and were with Kossuth during the memorable struggle of Hungary for freedom. They purchased largely in this place, and have done much by their activity and enterprise for the advancement of its interests."
Grecheneck enrolled in the 72nd New York Infantry Regiment on May 22, 1861, and was mustered in as captain of Company A on June 21. Seriously wounded in the battle of Williamsburg, Virginia, on May 5, 1862, he succumbed to his injuries on May 17.
Hugo Hollan, a native of the city of Szombathely, was the son of a physician. At the beginning of the War of Liberation he was a cavalry lieutenant in the Imperial Army, stationed in the Empire’s Czech dominions. Heeding the call of the revolutionary government for Hungarian soldiers to return to defend the country, he and some 200 of his comrades deserted. Fighting their way through hostile territory, they reached the Hungarian border eight days later, on Oct. 28, 1848.
Hollan rendered distinguished service against the Hapsburg forces and their Czarist allies. Following the defeat, he fled to the Ottoman Empire and served in the Turkish army for a short time. In the final days of 1851 he left the Near East aboard a ship in the company of several other exiles, among them John Fiala and Anselm Albert. They sailed to Marseilles, France, and from there to New Orleans, arriving just as Kossuth was visiting the Crescent City.
Upon commencement of hostilities between North and South, Hollan enrolled in the 10th Illinois Infantry, a three-month regiment. He then became an instructor of cavalry maneuvers at Camp Butler, near Springfield, Illinois, before assuming command, with the rank of major, of a Missouri cavalry battalion, known appropriately enough as the Hollan Horse.
Pillaging by both sides was a common occurrence throughout the conflict, especially in Missouri, and Hollan and his men were among those who showed scant respect toward the lives and property of civilians.
For their wanton acts, General J. M. Schofield detained the entire unit near Warrenton. According to General Schofield’s irate report of Jan. 2, 1862: “These men had preceded me only a few days, but they had already murdered one of the few Union men in that vicinity and committed numerous depredations upon the property of peaceful citizens. [...] Their officers either connive at it or else have no power to restrain their men. I cannot trust them out of my sight for a moment, [...] I therefore urgently request [...] that I be authorized to dismount and disarm Major Hollan’s battalion [...] I will as soon as possible forward charges against Major Hollan, Captain Winkel, and the men I have arrested.”
The Hollan Horse was promptly disbanded; about half of the troopers were merged into the 4th Missouri Cavalry and the remainder amalgamated into the 5th Missouri Cavalry. Despite this blemish on his record, Hollan obtained a commission as captain with the 119th Illinois Infantry Regiment. He fell in action at Jackson, Tennessee, on April 1, 1863.
Born in 1839 at Pest, Theodore G. Korony was a mere youth when he came to the United States. During the Civil War he served with the 183rd Pennsylvania Infantry, a regiment organized at Philadelphia. He fought in numerous battles and sustained a serious wound at Cold Harbor in June of 1864. He was discharged from the army on Aug. 16, 1864, with the rank of first lieutenant.
After the cessation of hostilities, Korony settled in New York City. For several years he was business manager of the Economy Packing Co., a meat processing firm. Later, during the last thirteen years of his life, he was inspector of customs in charge of St. John’s Park. Active in several civic and veterans organizations, he was a member of the Grand Army of the Republic, the largest and most influential veterans group. For a time he was commander of Post No. 259. A dedicated Mason, he belonged to Kane Lodge No. 454.
He died of Bright’s disease on Sept. 1, 1907. Upon his passing, his fellow Masons ran the following notice in the Sept. 3, 1907, issue of the New York Times: “Brethren: You are requested to attend an emergency communication of the lodge for the purpose of holding Masonic services over the remains of our late brother, Theodore G. Korony, at his late residence, 83 Varick St., Tuesday evening Sept. 3, at 8 o’clock.” Another obituary notice described him as “a man of splendid attainments, an interesting conversationalist, and of cultured manners.”
Stephen Spelletich came to the United States as a young child. His father, Bódog Spelletich, was a prominent public figure at the city of Szabadka and a devoted follower and friend of Kossuth. Upon arriving in America, the family settled in Iowa. By the autumn of 1851 they owned and operated a substantial farm on the outskirts of Davenport.
At the beginning of the Civil War, Spelletich joined the 2nd Iowa Infantry, becoming a private in Company C. The regiment was the first Iowa unit to leave the state for the theater of war, shipping down the Mississippi River, June 13, 1861. Spelletich fought with conspicuous gallantry at the siege and capture of Fort Donelson, the great Confederate stronghold on the Cumberland River in Tennessee, just below the Kentucky-Tennessee border. Recounting his gallantry, the Davenport Daily Gazette, April 14, 1862, said:
"A few days ago we made mention of the bravery at Fort Donelson of Stephen Spellitich, a young Hungarian of this county, and that a request was made of the War Department that he be presented with the rifle he had captured. The following letter will show that the request has promptly been granted:
Subsequently Spelletich served as a private in Company G of the 14th Missouri Cavalry, a regiment organized at St. Louis and Springfield.
While his father and two sisters returned to Hungary in 1866, he remained in America. One of his descendants, Timothy Spelletich, is the proprietor of a bonded winery in California’s Napa Valley (http://www.spellwine.com). Among the brands made is one named Bodog Red in honor of his illustrious great great grandfather.
Notes and Acknowledgments – Some American writers have “Dutchified” Vandor’s name to Van Dor. Albert de Zeyk manned the telegraph office in Washington, D.C. in the early days of the war to handle messages in Hungarian between General Fremont and President Lincoln. Afterwards he was appointed consul to Taranto, Italy. I’m grateful to Barry Moreno, a historian at Ellis Island, New York City, for calling my attention to Theodore G. Korony, and to Janet Kozlay, the indefatigable genealogist of the Kozlay family, for certain details on the Spelletich family.