The very fact that the October 25, 1861 Battle of Springfield is also called Zagonyi’s Charge provides ample evidence as to who received full credit for this pivotal battle of the war in Missouri. A brief description of the battle fails to provide the full picture of the event, and fails to note the key role played in the combat by Naughton’s Irish Dragoons, who would later become a founding company within the Fifth Iowa Cavalry. This account of the battle provides a more comprehensive portrait of the events, and includes some correspondence in which Captain Naughton sought for his band an acknowledgement of their contribution to the Union victory.
Major General John Fremont was in command of the Western Department of the Union’s war efforts. He had yet to impede the Confederates, who were on the verge of bringing Missouri into the Southern fold. He was headquartered in St. Louis, the only corner of the state which remained predominantly loyal to the Union. Fremont realized that if the North was to keep the men and resources of Missouri out of the enemy’s hands, he must drive Major General Sterling Price from the state. Only then would he be able to lead his troops into the Confederate heartland.
Departing St. Louis on October 7, 1861, Femont’s force of approximately 20,000 was preceded by his cavalry troops numbering 5,000. At the time many of the mounted troops had yet to be consolidated, and they were frequently identified by exotic names. Among them on this expedition were the senior officer, Major Frank White with his Prairie Scouts. Fremont’s Body Guards were under the command of Major Charles Zagonyi, who assumed overall command due to the illness of White. Naughton’s Irish Dragoons, a company destined to become part of the Fifth Iowa Cavalry, was also a key part of this mobile unit.
The Confederates were not caught completely unaware. The State Guard commander, Colonel Julian Frazier gathered a force between 1,000 and 1,500 in number. They unsuccessfully attempted to ambush the Union cavalry, which pressed through to be greeted by Union sympathizers. They also released some prisoners. They did not linger in the hostile community, but returned to Fremont and accompanied the larger force when occupied the city several days later.
The battle itself was the engagement fought when the cavalry forced its way through the Confederate ambush. By sheer coincidence, the charge occurred exactly seven years after the famous Crimean “Charge of the Light Brigade,” an unsuccessful (although courageous) to which it was compared by General Fremont. The image above reveals how the charge was portrayed in contemporary newspapers.
The following correspondence, taken from the Official Records of the war reveal that in the rush to praise the Hungarian immigrant who led the charge, the contribution of the Irish Dragoons was completely overlooked. Captain Naughton sought to rectify this grievous error, and to consecrate the sacrifices and memory of members his company who shed their blood in this early engagement of the War Between the States.
HEADQUARTERS WESTERN DEPARTMENT,
Springfield, Missouri, October 27, 1861
SIR: I have the honor to report that I arrived at this place this evening with General Sigel’s division as the advanced corps, and also with Major Holman’s Battalion Sharpshooters and Colonel Marshall’s Benton Cadets. The enemy had been effectually cleared out of the town, in numbers from 1,500 to 2,000 by the cavalry force under Major Zagonyi, sent out two days since. Major Zagonyi’s report of his affair in detail has not yet been presented, with his statement of killed and wounded. It will be forwarded as soon as received. From all accounts the enemy have pushed on to join General Price’s forces, understood to be at Neosho, some 75 to 80 miles to the southwest. General McCulloch, it is reported, is at Camp Walker, in the northwest corner of Arkansas. I shall proceed to clear the State entirely of the enemy, and my further operations will then be determined by the movements and condition of the enemy.
I have the honor to be, with great respect,
J. C. Fremont
Brigadier General L. Thomas
Adjutant-General of the Army, Washington, D.C.
HEADQUARTERS WESTERN DEPARTMENT
Yost’s Station, Missouri, October 26, 1861
CAPTAIN: I inclose herewith copy of an order issued this morning announcing the handsome and bold service of the Body-Guard, under Major Zagonyi, at Springfield. The reports by reliable scouts were that there were, three days ago, but 300 of the rebel force in Springfield; they appear to have been meanwhile swelled to the strength reported by Major Zagonyi, probably by accessions of other bands from the direction of Lebanon. The commanding general, regarding this as an example of valor too brilliant to be passed over cursorily, directs that you transmit a copy of the order herewith to the War Department, with letter of transmittal.
In addition to Zagonyi’s 150 of the Guard, Major White had joined him about 180 mounted men, and orders had been sent to Colonel Wyman to detach Major Wright’s battalion of rangers from Avis Plins, to co-operate with him. Other dispositions of Wright’s men, and the celerity with which Zagonyi moved, prevented immediate junction with him. Sigel’s division and force at headquarters move in now to occupy Springfield.
Captain Chauncey McKeever
A.A.G., Saint Louis, Missouri
HEADQUARTERS WESTERN DEPARTMENT
Yost’s Station, Missouri, October 26, 1861
By order of the general commanding, the following dispatches from the brave Major Zagonyi are published, that all may know how much of success to the cause of the country may be accomplished by discipline and good conduct, viz:
EIGHT MILES FROM SPRINGFIELD
October 25, 1861 – 11.30 am
GENERAL: The information on which I can rely is that Wednesday evening 1,500 men came into Springfield, and that at present there are not less than 1,800 or 1,900 men. I march forward, and will try what I can do. At the same time I would be thankful if some re-enforcement could come after me. Should I be successful, I need them for guard; should I be defeated, to have some troops to fall back with my workout command. I will report shortly again.
With high respect,
Major, Commanding Body-Guard
Major-General Fremont, Commanding
FIVE MILES OF BOLIVAR
October 26, 1861 – 1 am
GENERAL: 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 three 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, 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 was cry, “Fremont and the Union,” broke forth as thunder. Our loss comparatively small. I expected to remain on the field with them all. I will write about particulars.
With the highest respect, your obedient servant,
Major, Commanding Body-Guard
By order of Major-General Fremont:
Acting Assistant Adjutant-General
Report of Major Charles Zagonyi, Fremont’s Body-Guard.
SPRINGFIELD, October 28, 1861
SIR: According to the order of Major-General Fremont, I left the camp south of Pomme de Terre River on Thursday, the 24th instant, at 8.30 pm, and proceeded towards Springfield. About 8 miles from that place I captured five men belonging to picket guard and foraging parties. A sixth escaped and gave the alarm to the rebels. I reached Springfield, a distance of 51 miles, at 3 pm on the 25th. Knowing that the enemy was apprised of our coming, I made a detour of 5 miles, to attack from another side; but instead of finding the enemy in their old camp, I came suddenly upon them, drawn up in line of battle, as I emerged from a wood near the Mount Vernon road. The place was too confined for me to form my men. I had to pass 250 yards down a lane and take down a rail fence at the end of it, form in their camp, and make the first charge. My men belonging to the Body-Guard amounted to 150, and were exposed from the moment we wounded the lane to a murderous cross-fire. Our first charge was completely successful. Half of my command charged upon the infantry and the remainder upon the cavalry, breaking their line at every point. The infantry retired into a thick wood, where it was impossible to follow them. The cavalry fled in all directions through the town. I rallied, and charged through the streets in all directions about twenty times, clearing the town and neighborhood, returning at last to the court-house, where I raised the flag of one of my companies, liberated the prisoners, and united my men, which now amounted to 70, the rest being scattered or lost. As it was nearly dark I retired, in order not to run the risk of sacrificing the remainder of my men, who were exhausted with the labors of the march and the battle. Twenty men, with a corporal, who were without horses, took possession of the town, collected the wounded and placed them in the hospital, picked up the dead, ordered out the Home Guard, and preserved order throughout the next day.
On the 27th, at 5 o’clock am, I arrived again in the city, and from the statements of citizens, scouts, and prisoners [the latter being Union soldiers placed in front of the enemy’s ranks to be shot at], I ascertained that the rebel strength, as arrayed to receive our first charge, was 2,100 men. They had concentrated all the forces in the city to receive us. From the beginning to the end the Body-Guard behaved with the most unparalleled bravery and coolness. I have seen battles and cavalry charges before, but I never imagined that a body of men could endure and accomplish so much in the face of such a fearful disadvantage. At the cry of “Fremont and the Union,” which was raised at every charge, they dashed forward repeatedly in perfect order and with resistless energy. Many of my officers, non-commissioned officers, and privates had three or even four horses killed under them, capturing new ones from the enemy. I cannot mention any names without doing great injustice to my command. Many performed acts of heroism. Not one but did his whole duty.
Our loss is as follows:
Killed: Corporals, 6; privates, 9. Wounded: Officers, 4; non-commissioned officers, 7; privates, 16. Missing: Sergeant, 1; Corporal 1, privates, 8. Total loss, 52.
The loss of the enemy in killed alone, from the statement of citizens, scouts, and prisoners, was at least 106. How many wounded have since died I have no means of knowing, as they removed them in the night with wagons. Twenty-three of their dead were buried by the Body-Guard. We took 27 prisoners, $4,040 in gold, and about 60 stand of arms. Inclosed I send you a detailed account of our loss, with names.
Major White’s command left me at the beginning of the action and before my first charge, and I saw no more of them until the next day at 10 o’clock. Captain Naughton and Lieutenant Conolly, who followed part way down the lane, were both wounded, the latter mortally, whereupon their company turned and followed the other two in spite of the efforts of the Sergeant Major. White himself was made a prisoner before the battle, and placed with others in the enemy’s front rank, but escaped uninjured.
In conclusion, I beg to urge the necessity of new clothing, arms, and horses for my command. Forty-five horses are killed or unfitted for use. Uniforms, haversacks, and extra clothes carried in the haversacks are so riddled with bullets as to be useless. Revolvers are also seriously damaged by the enemy’s bullets.
Colonel J.H. Eaton, Acting Asst. Adjt. General, Springfield
Report of Captain P. Naughton, commanding “Irish Dragoons”
SAINT LOUIS, Missouri, December 18, 1861
GENERAL: In accordance with the privilege granted me of making a personal report to your headquarters of the part taken by my company in the charge at Springfield on the 25th of October last, I respectfully represent that: 1st. Gross injustice, after several solicitations on my part, and a forbearance extending even several weeks, has not been atoned for in any even the slightest manner.
The proof of my first accusation against Major Zagonyi consists in this: that, from a personal knowledge, he was aware of a portion of my command being connected with his own in the charge on and pursuit of the enemy’s cavalry; that from information drawn from his officers he was cognizant of the participation of the rest of my company, assisted by some dismounted Body-Guards, in three successive assaults on the enemy’s camp, and that having confessed this much in the presence of different officers of his command, he deliberately withheld all credit therefore, and even perverted a temporary and purely accidental connection with Major White’s command, so that the public might conclude my company–as stated, whether truly or not, of Major White’s–was not in the fight.
The proof of my second accusation against Major Zagonyi consists in this: that with the knowledge of the untruth implied in his report, and well knowing by letter and otherwise from me how grievously we felt the impropriety of any stigma being attached to us on account of others’ default, he nevertheless studiously avoided, except by word of mouth, any retraction or any written evidence of his inconsiderate and evidently egotistical announcement of the affair at Springfield.
I leave it to your judgment, general, whether or not, under these circumstances, I should forbear to characterize his conduct as it appears to deserve. So far from Major Zagonyi’s command being the only one engaged at Springfield, it was proved in the court of inquiry [called for, but of which the full report never saw the light] that the dragoons were the second in the order of time into the field, and were the last to leave it. It was also proved to that court’s satisfaction that the major gave no orders, either to his men or Major White’s command, and consequently that the conduct of the dragoons in engaging the infantry of the enemy almost single handed, after his cavalry had been detached and was in the road to Springfield, was purely a voluntary, and, therefore, whether wise or not, no cowardly choice of alternatives.
It was proved, finally, that if Major Zagonyi could not recognize us as being in the field, he could count our dead and wounded as his own, barely leaving us a dozen or so as testimony to our presence and the aim of the enemy.
For reasons personal to Major Zagonyi all these facts were suppressed from publication, and the want of generosity shown by that officer has been allowed to take form in the general misconception of the public in our regard.
I beg, general, while apologizing for this personal explanation, which you have been kind enough to permit, to append the report sent by me, shortly after the affair of Springfield, to my colonel, and also a copy of a letter in reference to this subject to Major Zagonyi. Hoping these documents transmitted will assist to do that justice to my men which I really believe they deserve,
I am, general, your obedient servant,
Captain Irish Dragoons, Twenty-third Illinois Volunteers
Major General H.W. Halleck
Commanding Dep’t of the West, Hdqrs. Saint Louis, Missouri
Saint Louis, Missouri, November 12, 1861
SIR: I have waited with a very natural impatience for your twice-promised amend of the manner in which the services of the Irish Dragoons in the late charge at Springfield have been ignored. Not seeing any publication calculated to do them justice, and feeling that they should not be unjustly debarred from whatever merit they may have deserved and you confess to belong to them, not even for the Body-Guard, I now ask you very earnestly to fulfill your promise. For myself I have nothing to ask; for them, and more particularly for the sake of the brigade to which they belong, I not only ask but demand equal and exact justice. A soldier yourself, you can appreciate my anxiety for the good fame of my command. Wounded as I am, you can only be the more willing to render further requests and other proceedings unnecessary.
I remain, sir, yours, &c.,
Captain, Irish Brigade
We do not know whether Major Zagonyi ever apologized to his comrades in arms, but we are pleased to know that Captain Naughton’s appeals for justice have survived. An interesting sidelight to the story of this battle, which could presumably account for some of the recklessness of the charge against what was understood to be a larger opposing force, comes from the 1883 History of Greene County, Missouri. “At Josiah Burney’s still-house, on Sac river, in section 33-30-22, Robberson township, a detachment of the Federals are reported as having halted ‘twenty minutes for refreshments,’ and in twenty minutes were ready to charge and to fight Price’s entire army if necessary! The farther they progressed the braver and more reckless they became, and though the citizens of whom they inquired were emphatic in their statements that the force in Springfield numbered 1,000 or 1,200, yet they demanded to be led forward instantly, expressing their ability to ‘clean out’ any force numbering not more than four to one. Zagonyi’s guide, W.P. Cox, Esq., of Christian county, emphatically denies this statement, and says no still-house was visited and no whisky drank before the fight, to his knowledge.”