Fremont’s Hundred Days in Missouri
Atlantic Monthly, Jan-Mar, 1862
Introduction by G. E. Rule
The unnamed author of Fremont’s Hundred Days in Missouri was a member of the general’s staff. Clearly not a native of Missouri, this Union officer often displayed a definite bias against Missourians; no doubt fueled by reading years of “Border Ruffian” stories in eastern newspapers. He observes of the people of Jefferson City, cited by most historians as the second most pro-Union population in Missouri behind only St. Louis, that “Such vacant, listless faces, with laziness written in every line, and ignorance seated upon every feature! Is it for these that the descendants of New England and the thrifty Germans are going forth to battle? If Missouri depended upon the Missourians, there would be little chance for her safety, and, indeed, not very much to save.” Later he observes of some local farmers that “The Union men of Missouri are quite willing to have you fight for them, but their patriotism does not go farther than this.” These statements might be amusing if one didn’t know that such biases by many Union troops would lead to bitter fruit in the guerrilla war ahead.
Also, there can be no doubt of the author’s opinion of General Fremont. Fremont is depicted as nearly God-like in his attributes and skills in everything he does. To be fair, this is hardly unknown in the history of campaign journals written by junior officers. We have not hesitated to depict Fremont in much less favorable light on the site; we are pleased to have the opportunity to give one of the general’s defenders a chance to tell the story from the other side.
Regardless of the obvious biases of the author, this seems to be an important, detailed primary account by a participant of Fremont’s abortive campaign to catch General Price in the fall of 1861. It appeared in three parts in the national magazine The Atlantic Monthly (still a going concern), Jan through March, 1862, and gained enough national attention that Frank Blair felt the need to refer to it by name, and rebut it, on the floor of the House of Representatives on March 7, 1862. Blair’s rebuttal can be found here on our site.
The author uses almost 24,000 words to cover just five weeks of campaigning, and when he isn’t lauding the general provides some very interesting details of the first large-scale campaign by a Union army west of the Mississippi (an army six times the size of the one Lyon lead at Wilson’s Creek), the general condition of affairs in Missouri, the slavery issue, and the people of Missouri. His account of the famous “Zagonyi’s Charge” at Springfield is particularly fine, and as the author claims to have been a member of the committee of inquiry following the event, may be presumed to be fairly accurate, if a bit breathless –most historians would not agree that it deserves to be compared to the Charge of the Light Brigade at Balaclava, as the author alludes to here. His personal observations of two hundred armed and mounted “contrabands” as part of Jim Lane’s Kansas brigade leads one to suspect that “contraband” is a title of convenience here; an armed and mounted man on campaign with an army is a soldier no matter what you call him. Since under the then-current regs of the Union army he could not be called a “soldier”, the author avoids that label –but “a rose by any other name”.
It is also worth noting that most historians would argue with the author’s conclusion at the end that just another forty-eight hours given to Fremont would have resulted in the climactic battle with Price that the Pathfinder sought. Albert Castel’s General Sterling Price and the Civil War in the West (1968), widely considered the leading history of Price’s Civil War career, asserts that Price was at Pineville, much further southwest of where Fremont thought he was on November 2, 1861.
Interestingly enough, the standard bio of the general’s life, Fremont: Pathmarker of the West, by Allan Nevins, does not appear to use this article as one of its sources. As it is very sympathetic to Fremont, a fine, detailed campaign journal of his major campaign in Missouri, and impactful enough to warrant a public rebuttal from Frank Blair, this is more than passingly strange. It is unclear if Nevins was unaware of this article or just did not find it interesting enough to use for his book.
We found this article on the excellent (and free) Making of America site of Cornell University, that includes many journals from this period besides The Atlantic Monthly. We will be publishing it in three parts, just as it appeared in the magazine.
goto Part I
Camp Haskell, October 24th. We have marched twelve miles to-day, and are encamped near the house of a friendly German farmer. Our cortege has been greatly diminished in number. Some of the staff have returned to St. Louis; to others have been assigned duties which remove them from headquarters; and General Asboth’s division being now in the rear, that soldierly-looking officer no longer rides beside the General, and the gentlemen of his staff no longer swell our ranks.
As we approach the enemy there is a marked change in the General’s demeanor. Usually reserved, and even retiring, —now that his plans begin to work out results, that the Osage is behind us, that the difficulties of deficient transportation have been conquered, there is an unwonted eagerness in his face, his voice is louder, and there is more self-assertion in his attitude. He has hitherto proceeded on a walk, but now he presses on at a trot. His horsemanship is perfect. Asboth is a daring rider, loving to drive his animal at the top of his speed. Zagonyi rides with surpassing grace, and selects fiery chargers which no one else cares to mount. Colonel E. has an easy, business-like gait. But in lightness and security in the saddle the General excels them all. He never worries his beast, is sure to get from him all the work of which he is capable, is himself quite incapable of being fatigued in this way.
Just after sundown the camp was startled by heavy infantry firing. Going around the spur of the forest which screens head-quarters from the prairie, we found the Guard dismounted, drawn up in line, firing their carbines and revolvers. The circumstance excites curiosity, and we learn that Zagonyi has been ordered to make a descent upon Springfield, and capture or disperse the Rebel garrison, three or four hundred strong, which is said to be there. Major White has already gone forward with his squadron of “Prairie Scouts” to make a reconnaissance in the direction of Springfield. Zagonyi will overtake White, assume command of the whole force, which will number about three hundred men, and turn the reconnaissance into an attack. The Guard set out at eight o’clock this evening. A few are left behind to do duty around headquarters. Lieutenant Kennedy, of the Kentucky company, was ordered to remain in command of our Home-Guard. He was greatly grieved, and went to the Major and with tears in his eyes besought him to permit him to go. Zagonyi could not refuse the gallant fellow, and all the officers of the Guard have gone. There is a feeling of sadness in camp to-night. We wonder which of our gay and generous comrades will come back to us again.
October 25th. We moved only seven miles to-day. It is understood that the General will gather the whole army upon a large prairie a few miles north of Bolivar, and devote a few days to reviewing the troops, and to field-maneuvers. This will have an excellent effect. The men will be encouraged when they see how large the column is, for the army has never been concentrated.
This morning we received news of the brilliant affair at Fredericktown.
Just before the General left camp to-day, I received orders to report myself to General Asboth, for duty as Judge-Advocate of a Court-Martial to be held in his division. General Asboth was several miles behind us, and I set out to ride back and join him. After a gallop of half an hour across the prairie, I discovered that I had lost my way. I vainly tried to find some landmark of yesterday’s march, but was at last compelled to trust to the sagacity of my horse, — the redoubtable Spitfire, so named by reason of his utter contempt for gunpowder, whether sputtered out of muskets or belched forth by cannon. I gave him his head. He snuffed the air for a moment, deliberately swept the horizon with his eyes, and then turned short around and carried me back to the farm-house from which I had started. I arrived just in time for dinner. Two officers of Lane’s brigade, which had marched from Kansas, came in while we were at the table. They seasoned our food with spicy incidents of Kansas life.
After dinner I started with Captain H., of Springfield, to find Asboth. As we left the house, we were joined by the most extraordinary character I have seen. He was a man of medium height. His chest was enormous in length and breadth; his arms long, muscular, and very large; his legs short. He had the body of a giant upon the legs of a dwarf. This curious figure was surmounted by a huge head, covered with coarse brown hair, which grew very nearly down to his eyes, while his beard grew almost up to his eyes. It seemed as if the hair and beard had had a struggle for the possession of his face, and were kept apart by the deep chasm in which his small gray eyes were set. He was armed with a huge bowie-knife, which he carried slung like a sword. It was at least two feet long, heavy as a butcher’s cleaver, and was thrust into a sheath of undressed hide. He called this pleasant instrument an Arkansas toothpick. He bestrode, as well as his diminutive legs would let him, an Indian pony as shaggy as himself. This person proved to be a bearer of despatches, and offered to guide us to the main road, along which Asboth was marching.
The pony started off at a brisk trot, and in an hour we were upon the road, which we found crowded with troops and wagons. Pressing through the underbrush alongside the road, we kept on at a rapid pace. We soon heard shouts and cheers ahead of us, and in a few moments came in sight of a farm-house, in front of which was an excited crowd. Men were swarming in at every door and window. The yard was filled with furniture which the troops were angrily breaking, and a considerable party was busy tearing up the roof. I could not learn the cause of the uproar, except that a Secessionist lived there who had killed some one. I passed on, and in a little while arrived at Asboth’s quarters.
He had established himself in an unpretending, but comfortable farm-house, formerly owned by a German, named Brown. This house has lately been the scene of one of those bloody outrages, instigated by neighborhood hatred, which have been so frequent in Missouri. Old Brown had lived here more than thirty years. He was industrious, thrifty, and withal a skilful workman. Under his intelligent husbandry his farm became the marvel of all that region. He had long outlived his strength, and when the war broke out he could give to the Union nothing but his voice and influence: these he gave freely and at all times. The plain-spoken patriot excited the enmity of the Secessionists, and the special hatred of one man, his nearest neighbor. All through the summer, his barns were plundered, his cattle driven away, his fences torn down; but no one offered violence to the white-headed old man, or to the three women who composed his family. The approach of our army compelled the Rebels of the neighborhood to fly, and among the fugitives was the foe I have mentioned. He was not willing to depart and leave the old German to welcome the Union troops. Just one week ago, at a late hour in the evening, he rode up to Brown’s door and knocked loudly. The old man cautiously asked who it was. The wretch replied, “A friend who wants lodging.” As a matter of course, —for in this region every house is a tavern,—the farmer opened the door, and at the instant was pierced through the heart by a bullet from the pistol of his cowardly foe. The blood-stains are upon the threshold still. It was the murderer’s house the soldiers sacked to-day. A German artillery company heard the story, and began to plunder the premises under the influence of a not unjustifiable desire for revenge. General Asboth, however, compelled the men to desist, and to replace the furniture they had taken out.
I found General Sturgis, and Captain Parrot, his Adjutant, at General Asboth’s, on their way to report to General Fremont. Sturgis has brought his command one hundred and fifty miles in ten days. He says that large numbers of deserters have come into his lines. Price’s followers are becoming discouraged by his continued retreat.
The business which detained me in the rear was finished at an early hour, but I waited in order to accompany General Asboth, who, with some of his staff, was intending to go to headquarters, five miles farther south. We set out at nine o clock. General Asboth likes to ride at the top of his horse’s speed, and at once put his gray into a trot so rapid that we were compelled to gallop in order to keep up. We dashed over a rough road, down a steep decline, and suddenly found ourselves floundering through a stream nearly up to our saddle-girths. My horse had had a hard day’s work. He began to be unsteady on his pins. So I drew up, preferring the hazards of a night-ride across the prairie to a fall upon the stony road. The impetuous old soldier, followed by his companions, rushed into the darkness, and the clatter of their hoofs and the rattling of their sabres faded from my hearing.
I was once more alone on the prairie. The sky was cloudless, but the starlight struggling through a thin haze suggested rather than revealed surrounding objects. I bent over my horse’s shoulder to trace the course of the road but I could see nothing. There were no trees, no fences. I listened for the rustling of the wind over the prairie-grass; but as soon as Spitfire stopped, I found that not a breath of air was stirring: his motion had created the breeze. I turned a little to the left, and at once felt the Mexican stirrup strike against the long, rank grass. Quite exultant with the thought that I had found a certain test that I was in the road, I turned back and regained the beaten track. But now a new difficulty arose. At once the thought suggested itself—“Perhaps I turned the wrong way when I came back into the road, and am now going away from my destination.” I drew up and looked around me. There was nothing to be seen except the veiled stars above, and upon either hand a vast dark expanse, which might be a lake, the sea, or a desert, for anything I could discern. I listened: there was no sound except the deep breathing of my faithful horse, who stood with ears erect, eagerly snuffing the night-air. I had heard that horses can see better than men. “Let me try the experiment.” I gave Spitfire his head. He moved across the road, went out upon the prairie a little distance, waded into a brook which I had not seen, and began to drink. When he had finished, he returned to the road without the least hesitation.
“The horse can certainly see better than I. Perhaps I am the only one of this company who is in trouble, and the good beast is all this while perfectly composed and at ease, and knows quite well where to go.”
I loosened the reins. Spitfire went forward slowly, apparently quite confident, and yet cautious about the stones in his path.
I now began to speculate upon the distance I had come. I thought,— “It is some time since we started. Headquarters were only five miles off. I rode fast at first. It is strange there are no campfires in sight.”
Time is measured by sensation, and with me minutes were drawn out into hours. “Surely, it is midnight. I have been here three hours at the least. The road must have forked, and I have gone the wrong way. The most sagacious of horses could not be expected to know which of two roads to take. There is nothing to be done. I am in for the night, and had better stay here than go farther in the wrong direction.”
I dismount, fill my pipe, and strike a light. I laugh at my thoughtlessness, and another match is lighted to look at my watch, which tells me I have been on the road precisely twenty minutes. I mount. Spitfire seems quite composed, perhaps a little astonished at the unusual conduct of his rider, hut he walks on composedly, carefully avoiding the rolling stones.
It is not a pleasant situation, —on a prairie alone and at night, not knowing where you are going or where you ought to go. Zimmermann himself never imagined a solitude more complete, albeit such a situation is not so favorable to philosophic meditation as the rapt Zimmermann might suppose. I employ my thoughts as well as I am able, and pin my faith to the sagacity of Spitfire. Presently a light gleams in front of me. It is only a flickering, uncertain ray; perhaps some belated teamster is urging his reluctant mules to camp and has lighted his lantern. No, — there are sparks; it is a camp-fire. I hearken for the challenge, not without solicitude; for it is about as dangerous to approach a nervous sentinel as to charge a battery. I do not hear the stern inquiry, “Who comes there?” At last I am abreast of the fire, and myself call out, —
“Who is there?”
“We are travellers,” is the reply.
What this meant I did not know. What travellers are there through this distracted, war-worn region? Are they fugitives from Price, or traitors flying before us? I am not in sufficient force to capture half a dozen men, and if they are foes, it is not worth while to be too inquisitive; so I continue on my way, and they and their fire are soon enveloped by the night. Presently I see another light in the far distance. This must be a picket, for there are soldiers. I look around for the sentry, not quite sure whether I am to be challenged or shot; but again am permitted to approach unquestioned. I call out, —
“Who is there?”
“Men of Colonel Carr’s regiment.”
“What are you doing here?”
“We are guarding some of our wagons which were left here. Our regiment has gone forward at a half-hour’s notice to reinforce Zagonyi,” said a sergeant, rising and saluting me.
“But is there no sentry here?” I asked.
“There was one, but he has been withdrawn,” replied the sergeant.
“Where are headquarters?”
“At the first house on your right, about a hundred yards farther up the road,” he said, pointing in the direction I was going.
It was strange that I could ride up to within pistol-shot of headquarters without being challenged. I soon reached the house. A sentry stood at the gate. I tied my horse to the fence, and walked into the Adjutant’s tent. I had passed by night from one division of the army to another, along the public road, and entered headquarters without being questioned. Twenty-five bold men might have carried off the General. I at once reported these facts to Colonel E.; inquiry was made, and it was found that some one had blundered.
There is no report from Springfield. Zagonyi sent back for reinforcements before he reached the town, and Carr’s cavalry, with two light field-pieces, have been sent forward. Captain R., my companion this afternoon, has also gone to learn what he may. While I am writing up my journal, a group of officers is around the fire in front of the tent. They are talking about Zagonyi and the Guard. We are all feverish with anxiety.
October 26th. This morning I was awakened by loud cheers from the camp of the Benton Cadets. My servant came at my call.
“What are those cheers for, Dan?”
“The Body-Guard has won a great victory, Sir! They have beaten the Rebels, driven them out of Springfield, and killed over a hundred of them. The news came late last night, and the General has issued an order which has just been read to the Cadets.”
The joyful words had hardly reached my eager ears when shouts were heard from the sharp-shooters. They have got the news. In an instant the camp is astir. Half-dressed, the officers rush from their tents, — servants leave their work, cooks forget breakfast, — they gather together, and breathless drink in the delicious story. We hear how the brave Guard, finding the foe three times as strong as had been reported, resolved to go on, in spite of odds, for their own honor and the honor of our General,— how Zagonyi led the onset, —how with cheers and shouts of “Union and Fremont,” the noble fellows rushed upon the foe as gayly as boys at play,—what deeds of daring were done, — that Zagonyi, Foley, Maythenyi, Newhall, Treikel, Goff and Kennedy shone heroes in the fray, — how gallantly the Guards had fought, and how gloriously they had died. These things we heard, feasting upon every word, and interrupting the fervid recital with involuntary exclamations of sympathy and joy.
It did not fall to the fortune of the writer to take part with the Body-Guard in their memorable attack, but, as the Judge-Advocate of a Court of Inquiry into that affair, which was held at Springfield immediately after our arrival there, I became familiar with the field and the incidents of the battle. I trust it will not be regarded as an inexcusable digression, if I recite the facts connected with the engagement, which, as respects the odds encountered, the heroism displayed, and the importance of its results, is still the most remarkable encounter of the war.
THE BODY-GUARD AT SPRINGFIELD.
It may not be out of place to say a few words as to the character and organization of the Guard. Among the foreign officers whom the fame of General Fremont drew around him was Charles Zagonyi, —an Hungarian refugee, but long a resident of this country. In his boyhood, Zagonyi had plunged into the passionate, but unavailing, struggle which Hungary made for her liberty. He at once attracted the attention of General Bem, and was by him placed in command of a picked company of cavalry. In one of the desperate engagements of the war, Zagonyi led a charge upon a large artillery force. More than half of his men were slain. He was wounded and taken prisoner. Two years passed before he could exchange an Austrian dungeon for American exile.
General Fremont welcomed Zagonyi cordially, and authorized him to recruit a company of horse, to act as his body-guard. Zagonyi was most scrupulous in his selection; but so ardent was the desire to serve under the eye and near the person of the General, that in five days after the lists were opened two full companies were enlisted. Soon after a whole company, composed of the very flower of the youth of Kentucky, tendered its services, and requested to be added to the Guard. Zagonyi was still overwhelmed with applications, and he obtained permission to recruit a fourth company. The fourth company, however, did not go with us into the field. 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 revolvers; besides which, the first company carried carbines. They were mounted upon bay horses, carefully chosen from the Government stables. Zagonyi had but little time to instruct his recruits, but in less than a month from the commencement of the enlistments the Body-Guard was a well-disciplined and most efficient corps of cavalry. The officers were all Americans except three, —one Hollander, and two Hungarians, Zagonyi and Lieutenant Maythenyi, who came to the United States during his boyhood.
Zagonyi left our camp at eight o’clock on the evening of the twenty-fourth, with about a hundred and sixty men, the remainder of the Guard being left at head-quarters under the command of a non-commissioned officer.
Major White was already on his way to Springfield with his squadron. This young officer, hardly twenty-one years old, had won great reputation for energy and zeal while a captain of infantry in a New York regiment stationed at Fort Monroe. He there saw much hazardous scouting-service, and had been in a number of small engagements. In the West he held a position upon General Fremont’s staff, with the rank of Major. While at Jefferson City, by permission of the General he had organized a battalion to act as scouts and rangers, composed of two companies of the Third Illinois Cavalry, under Captains Fairbanks and Kehoe, and a company of Irish dragoons, Captain Naughton, which had been recruited for Mulligan’s brigade, but had not joined Mulligan in time to be at Lexington.
Major White went to Georgetown in advance of the whole army, from there marched sixty-five miles in one night to Lexington, surprised the garrison, liberated a number of Federal officers who were there wounded and prisoners, and captured the steamers which Price had taken from Mulligan. From Lexington White came by way of Warrensburg to Warsaw. During this long and hazardous expedition, the Prairie Scouts had been without tents, and dependent for food upon the supplies they could take from the enemy.
Major White did not remain at Warsaw to recruit his health, seriously impaired by hardship and exposure. He asked for further service, and was directed to report himself to General Sigel, by whom he was ordered to make a reconnaissance in the direction of Springfield.
After a rapid night-march, Zagonyi overtook White, and assumed command of the whole force. White was quite ill, and, unable to stay in the saddle, was obliged to follow in a carriage. In the morning, yielding to the request of Zagonyi, he remained at a farm-house where the troop had halted for refreshment, — it being arranged that he should rest an hour or two, come on in his carriage with a small escort, and overtake Zagonyi before he reached Springfield. The Prairie Scouts numbered one hundred and thirty, so that the troop was nearly three hundred strong.
The day was fine, the road good, and the little column pushed on merrily, hoping to surprise the enemy. When within two hours’ march of the town, they met a Union farmer of the neighborhood, who told Zagonyi that a large body of Rebels had arrived at Springfield the day before, on their way to reinforce Price, and that the enemy were now two thousand strong. Zagonyi would have been justified, if he had turned back. But the Guard had been made the subject of much malicious remark, and had brought ridicule upon the General. Should they retire now, a storm of abuse would burst upon them. Zagonyi therefore took no counsel of prudence. He could not hope to defeat and capture the foe, but he might surprise them, dash into their camp, destroy their train, and, as he expressed it, “disturb their sleep,” — obtaining a victory which, for its moral effects, would be worth the sacrifices it cost. His daring resolve found unanimous and ardent assent with his zealous followers.
The Union farmer offered to guide Zagonyi by a circuitous route to the rear of the Rebel position, and under his guidance he left the main road about five miles from Springfield.
After an hour of repose, White set out in pursuit of his men, driving his horses at a gallop. He knew nothing of the change in Zagonyi’s plans, and supposed the attack was to be made upon the front of the town. He therefore continued upon the main road, expecting every minute to overtake the column. As he drew near the village, and heard and saw nothing of Zagonyi, he supposed the enemy had left the place and the Federals had taken it without opposition. The approach to Springfield from the north is through a forest, and the village cannot be seen until its outskirts are reached. A sudden turn in the road brought White into the very midst of a strong Rebel guard. They surrounded him, seized his horses, and in an instant he and his companions were prisoners. When they learned his rank, they danced around him like a pack of savages, shouting and holding their cocked pieces at his heart. The leader of the party had a few days before lost a brother in a skirmish with Wyman’s force, and with loud oaths he swore that the Federal Major should die in expiation of his brother s death. He was about to carry his inhuman threat into execution, Major White boldly facing him and saying, “If my men were here, I ‘d give you all the revenge you want.” At this moment a young officer, Captain Wroton by name, — of whom more hereafter, — pressed through the throng, and, placing himself in front of White, declared that he would protect the prisoner with his own life. The firm bearing of Wroton saved the Major’s life, but his captors robbed him and hurried him to their camp, where he remained during the fight, exposed to the hottest of the fire, an excited, hut helpless spectator of the stirring events which followed. He promised his generous protector that he would not attempt to escape, unless his men should try to rescue him; but Captain Wroton remained by his side, guarding him.
Making a detour of twelve miles, Zagonyi approached the position of the enemy. They were encamped half a mile west of Springfield, upon a hill which sloped to the east. Along the northern side of their camp was a broad and well-travelled road; along the southern side a narrow lane ran down to a brook at the foot of the hill: the space between, about three hundred yards broad, was the field of battle. Along the west side of the field, separating it from the county fair-ground, was another lane, connecting the main road and the first-mentioned lane. The side of the hill was clear, but its summit, which was broad and flat, was covered with a rank growth of small timber, so dense as to he impervious to horse.
The following diagram, drawn from memory, will illustrate sufficiently well the shape of the ground, and the position of the respective forces.
The foe were advised of the intended attack. When Major White was brought into their camp, they were preparing to defend their position. As appears from the confessions of prisoners, they had twenty-two hundred men, of whom four hundred were cavalry, the rest being infantry, armed with shot-guns, American rifles, and revolvers. Twelve hundred of their foot were posted along the edge of the wood upon the crest of the hill. The cavalry was stationed upon the extreme left, on top of a spur of the hill and in front of a patch of timber. Sharp-shooters were concealed behind the trees close to the fence along-side the lane, and a small number in some underbrush near the foot of the hill. Another detachment guarded their train, holding possession of the county fair-ground, which was surrounded by a high board-fence.
This position was unassailable by cavalry from the road, the only point of attack being down the lane on the right; and the enemy were so disposed as to command this approach perfectly. The lane was a blind one, being closed, after passing the brook, by fences and ploughed land: it was in fact a cul-de-sac. If the infantry should stand, nothing could save the rash assailants. There are horsemen sufficient to sweep the little band before them, as helplessly as the withered forest-leaves in the grasp of the autumn winds; there are deadly marksmen lying behind the trees upon the heights and lurking in the long grass upon the lowlands; while a long line of foot stand upon the summit of the slope, who, only stepping a few paces back into the forest, may defy the boldest riders. Yet, down this narrow lane, leading into the very jaws of death, came the three hundred.
On the prairie, at the edge of the woodland in which he knew his wily foe lay hidden, Zagonyi halted his command. He spurred along the line. With eager glance he scanned each horse and rider. To his officers be gave the simple order, “Follow me! do as I do!” and then, drawing up in front of his men, with a voice tremulous and shrill with emotion, he spoke : —
“Fellow-soldiers, comrades, brothers! This is your first battle. For our three hundred, the enemy are two thousand. If any of you are sick, or tired by the long march, or if any think the number is too great, now is the time to turn back.” He paused; no one was sick or tired. “We must not retreat. 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; to-day 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!”
Bright swords flashed in the sunshine, a passionate shout burst from every lip, and with one accord, the trot passing into a gallop, the compact column swept on to its deadly purpose. Most of them were boys. A few weeks before they had left their homes. Those who were cool enough to note it say that ruddy cheeks grew pale, and fiery eyes were dimmed with tears. Who shall tell what thoughts, — what visions of peaceful cottages nestling among the groves of Kentucky or shining upon the banks of the Ohio and the Illinois,— what sad recollections of tearful farewells, of tender, loving faces, filled their minds during those fearful moments of suspense? No word was spoken. With lips compressed, firmly clenching their sword-hilts, with quick tramp of hoofs and clang of steel, honor leading and glory awaiting them, the young soldiers flew forward, each brave rider and each straining steed members of one huge creature, enormous, terrible, irresistible.
“‘T’were worth ten years of peaceful life,
One glance at their array.”
They pass the fair-ground. They are at the corner of the lane where the wood begins. It runs close to the fence on their left for a hundred yards, and beyond it they see white tents gleaming. They are half-way past the forest, when, sharp and loud, a volley of musketry bursts upon the head of the column; horses stagger, riders reel and fall, but the troop presses forward undismayed. The farther corner of the wood is reached, and Zagonyi beholds the terrible array. Amazed, he involuntarily checks his horse. The Rebels are not surprised. There to his left they stand crowning the height, foot and horse ready to ingulf him, if he shall be rash enough to go on. The road he is following declines rapidly. There is but one thing to do, —run the gantlet, gain the cover of the hill, and charge up the steep. These thoughts pass quicker than they can be told. He waves his sabre over his head, and shouting, “Forward! follow me! quick trot! gallop!” he dashes headlong down the stony road. The first company and most of the second follow. From the left a thousand muzzles belch forth a hissing flood of bullets; the poor fellows clutch wildly at the air and fall from their saddles, and maddened horses throw themselves against the fences. Their speed is not for an instant checked; farther down the hill they fly, like wasps driven by the leaden storm. Sharp volleys pour out of the underbrush at the left, clearing wide gaps through their ranks. They leap the brook, take down the fence, and draw up under the shelter of the hill. Zagonyi looks around him, and to his horror sees that only a fourth of his men are with him. He cries, “They do not come, —we are lost!” and frantically waves his sabre.
He has not long to wait. The delay of the rest of the Guard was not from hesitation. When Captain Foley reached the lower corner of the wood and saw the enemy’s line, he thought a flank attack might be advantageously made. He ordered some of his men to dismount and take down the fence. This was done under a severe fire. Several men fell, and he found the wood so dense that it could not be penetrated. Looking down the hill, he saw the flash of Zagonyi’s sabre, and at once gave the order, “Forward!” At the same time, Lieutenant Kennedy, a stalwart Kentuckian, shouted, “Come on, boys! remember Old Kentucky!” and the third company of the Guard, fire on every side of them, —from behind trees, from under the fences, —with thundering strides and loud cheers, poured down the slope and rushed to the side of Zagonyi. They have lost seventy dead and wounded men, and the carcasses of horses are strewn along the lane. Kennedy is wounded in the arm and lies upon the stones, his faithful charger standing motionless beside him. Lieutenant Goff received a wound in the thigh; he kept his seat, and cried out, “The devils have hit me, but I will give it to them yet!”
The remnant of the Guard are now in the field under the hill, and from the shape of the ground the Rebel fire sweeps with the roar of a whirlwind over their heads. Here we will leave them for a moment, and trace the fortunes of the Prairie Scouts.
When Foley brought his troop to a halt, Captain Fairbanks, at the head of the first company of Scouts, was at the point where the first volley of musketry had been received. The narrow lane was crowded by a dense mass of struggling horses, and filled with the tumult of battle. Captain Fairbanks says, and he is corroborated by several of his men who were near, that at this moment an officer of the Guard rode up to him and said, “They are flying; take your men down that lane and cut off their retreat,” —pointing to the lane at the left. Captain Fairbanks was not able to identify the person who gave this order. It certainly did not come from Zagonyi, who was several hundred yards farther on. Captain Fairbanks executed the order, followed by the second company of Prairie Scouts, under Captain Kehoe. When this movement was made, Captain Naughton, with the Third Irish Dragoons, had not reached the corner of the lane. He came up at a gallop, and was about to follow Fairbanks, when he saw a Guards-man who pointed in the direction in which Zagonyi had gone. He took this for an order, and obeyed it. When he reached the gap in the fence, made by Foley, not seeing anything of the Guard, he supposed they had passed through at that place, and gallantly attempted to follow. Thirteen men fell in a few minutes. He was shot in the arm and dismounted. Lieutenant Connolly spurred into the under-brush and received two balls through the lungs and one in the left shoulder. The Dragoons, at the outset not more than fifty strong, were broken, and, dispirited by the loss of their officers, retired. A sergeant rallied a few and brought them up to the gap again, and they were again driven back. Five of the boldest passed down the hill, joined Zagonyi, and were conspicuous by their valor during the rest of the day. —Fairbanks and Kehoe, having gained the rear and left of the enemy’s position, made two or three assaults upon detached parties of the foe, but did not join in the main attack.
I now return to the Guard. It is forming under the shelter of the hill. In front with a gentle inclination rises a grassy slope broken by occasional tree-stumps. A line of fire upon the summit marks the position of the Rebel infantry, and nearer and on the top of a lower eminence to the right stand their horse. Up to this time no Guardsman has struck a blow, but blue coats and bay horses lie thick along the bloody lane. Their time has come. Lieutenant Maythenyi with thirty men is ordered to attack the cavalry. 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 bays follow them, sabring the fugitives. Days after, the enemy’s horses lay thick among the uncut corn.
Zagonyi holds his main body until Maythenyi disappears in the cloud of Rebel cavalry; then his voice rises through the air,—“In open order, — charge!” The line opens out to give play to their sword-arm. 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 spur into the midst of the rout, and their fast-falling swords work a terrible revenge. Some of the boldest of the Southrons retreat into the woods, and continue a murderous fire from behind trees and thickets. Seven Guard horses fall upon a space not more than twenty feet square. As his steed sinks under him, one of the officers is caught around the shoulders by a grape-vine, and hangs dangling in the air until he is cut down by his friends.
The Rebel foot are flying in furious haste from the field. Some take refuge in the fair-ground, some hurry into the cornfield, but the greater part run along the edge of the wood, swarm over the fence into the road, and hasten to the village. The Guardsmen follow. Zagonyi leads them. Over the loudest roar of battle rings his clarion voice, —“Come on, Old Kentuck! I’m with you!” And the flash of his sword-blade tells his men where to go. As he approaches a barn, a man steps from behind the door and lowers his rifle; but before it has reached the level, Zagonyi’s sabre-point descends upon his head, and his life-blood leaps to the very top of the huge barn-door.
The conflict now rages through the village, —in the public square, and along the streets. Up and down the Guards ride in squads of three or four, and whereever they see a group of the enemy charge upon and scatter them. It is hand to hand. No one but has a share in the fray.
There was at least one soldier in the Southern ranks. A young officer, superbly mounted, charges alone upon a large body of the Guard. He passes through the line unscathed, killing one man. He wheels, charges back, and again breaks through, killing another man. A third time he rushes upon the Federal line, a score of sabre-points confront him, a cloud of bullets fly around him, but he pushes on until he reaches Zagonyi, —he presses his pistol so close to the Major’s side that he feels it and draws convulsively back, the bullet passes through the front of Zagonyi’s coat, who at the instant runs the daring Rebel through the body, he falls, and the men, thinking their commander hurt, kill him with half a dozen wounds.
“He was a brave man,” said Zagonyi afterwards, “and I did wish to make him prisoner.”
Meanwhile it has grown dark. The foe have left the village and the battle has ceased. The assembly is sounded, and the Guard gathers in the Plaza. Not more than eighty mounted men appear: the rest are killed, wounded, or unhorsed. At this time one of the most characteristic incidents of the affair took place.
Just before the charge, Zagonyi directed one of his buglers, a Frenchman, to sound a signal. The bugler did not seem to pay any attention to the order, but darted off with Lieutenant Maythenyi. A few moments afterwards he was observed in another part of the field vigorously pursuing the flying infantry. His active form was always seen in the thickest of the fight. When the line was formed in the Plaza, Zagonyi noticed the bugler, and approaching him said, “In the midst of the battle you disobeyed my order. You are unworthy to be a member of the Guard. I dismiss you.” The bugler showed his bugle to his indignant commander; —the mouth-piece of the instrument was shot away. He said, “The mouth was shoot off. I could not bugle viz mon bugle, and so I bugle viz mon pistol and sabre.” It is unnecessary to add, the brave Frenchman was not dismissed.
I must not forget to mention Sergeant Hunter, of the Kentucky company. His soldierly figure never failed to attract the eye in the ranks of the Guard. He had served in the regular cavalry, and the Body-Guard had profited greatly from his skill as a drill-master. He lost three horses in the fight. As soon as one was killed, he caught another from the Rebels: the third horse taken by him in this way he rode into St. Louis.
The Sergeant slew five men. “I won’t speak of those I shot,” said he, —“another may have hit them; but those I touched with my sabre I am sure of, because I felt them.”
At the beginning of the charge, he came to the extreme right and took position next to Zagonyi, whom he followed closely through the battle. The Major, seeing him, said,—
“Why are you here, Sergeant Hunter? Your place is with your company on the left.”
“I kind o’ wanted to be in the front,” was the answer.
“What could I say to such a man?” exclaimed Zagonyi, speaking of the matter afterwards.
There was hardly a horse or rider among the survivors that did not bring away some mark of the fray. I saw one animal with no less than seven wounds, —none of them serious. Scabbards were bent, clothes and caps pierced, pistols injured. I saw one pistol from which the sight had been cut as neatly as it could have been done by machinery. A piece of board a few inches long was cut from a fence on the field, in which there were thirty-one shot-holes.
It was now nine o’clock. The wounded had been carried to the hospital. The dismounted troopers were placed in charge of them,—in the double capacity of nurses and guards. Zagonyi expected the foe to return every minute. It seemed like madness to try and hold the town with his small force, exhausted by the long march and desperate fight. He therefore left Springfield, and retired before morning twenty-five miles on the Bolivar road.
Captain Fairbanks did not see his commander after leaving the column in the lane, at the commencement of the engagement. About dusk he repaired to the prairie, and remained there within a mile of the village until midnight, when he followed Zagonyi, rejoining him in the morning.
I will now return to Major White. During the conflict upon the hill, he was in the forest near the front of the Rebel line. Here his horse was shot under him. Captain Wroton kept careful watch over him. When the flight began he hurried White away, and, accompanied by a squad of eleven men, took him ten miles into the country. They stopped at a farm-house for the night. White discovered that their host was a Union man. His parole having expired, he took advantage of the momentary absence of his captor to speak to the farmer, telling him who he was, and asking him to send for assistance. The countryman mounted his son upon his swiftest horse, and sent him for succor. The party lay down by the fire, White being placed in the midst. The Rebels were soon asleep, but there was no sleep for the Major. He listened anxiously for the footsteps of his rescuers. After long, weary hours, he heard the tramp of horses. He arose, and walking on tiptoe, cautiously stepping over his sleeping guards, he reached the door and silently unfastened it. The Union men rushed into the room and took the astonished Wroton and his followers prisoners. At daybreak White rode into Springfield at the head of his captives and a motley band of Home-Guards. He found the Federals still in possession of the place. As the officer of highest rank, he took command. His garrison consisted of twenty-four men. He stationed twenty-two of them as pickets in the outskirts of the village, and held the other two as a reserve. At noon the enemy sent in a flag of truce, and asked permission to bury their dead. Major White received the flag with proper ceremony, but said that General Sigel was in command and the request would have to be referred to him. Sigel was then forty miles away. In a short time a written communication purporting to come from General Sigel, saying that the Rebels might send a party under certain restrictions to bury their dead, White drew in some of his pickets, stationed them about the field, and under their surveillance the Southern dead were buried.
The loss of the enemy, as reported by some of their working party, was one hundred and sixteen killed. The number of wounded could not be ascertained. After the conflict had drifted away from the hill-side, some of the foe had returned to the field, taken away their wounded, and robbed our dead. The loss of the Guard was fifty-three out of one hundred and forty-eight actually engaged, twelve men having been left by Zagonyi in charge of his train. The Prairie Scouts reported a loss of thirty-one out of one hundred and thirty: half of these belonged to the Irish Dragoons. In a neighboring field an Irishman was found stark and stiff, still clinging to the hilt of his sword, which was thrust through the body of a Rebel who lay beside him. Within a few feet a second Rebel lay, shot through the head.
I have given a statement of this affair drawn from the testimony taken before a Court of Inquiry, from conversations with men who were engaged upon both sides, and from a careful examination of the locality. It was the first essay of raw troops, and yet there are few more brilliant achievements in history.
It is humiliating to be obliged to tell what followed. The heroism of the Guard was rewarded by such treatment as we blush to record. Upon their return to St. Louis, rations and forage were denied them, the men were compelled to wear the clothing soiled and torn in battle, they were promptly disbanded, and the officers retired from service. The swords which pricked the clouds and let the joyful sunshine of victory into the darkness of constant defeat are now idle. But the fame of the Guard is secure. Out from that fiery baptism they came children of the nation, and American song and story will carry their heroic triumph down to the latest generation.