On Oct. 25, 1861 Maj. Charles Zagonyi led a spectacular cavalry charge against a much larger Missouri State Guard force defending Springfield. The bloody charge was the sole military action of the Frémont Campaign of 1861. While Zagonyi’s Charge yielded no strategic gains, it did garner nationwide publicity as a rare federal triumph in a bleak period marked by Union defeats at First Bull Run, Wilson’s Creek, Lexington, and Ball’s Bluff in Virginia.
Zagonyi led the personal bodyguard of Maj. Gen. John C. Frémont, who was moving with 38,789 soldiers toward Springfield, intending to take that city from the secessionists and crush the forces of Gen. Sterling Price. But as Frémont neared Boliver, Price was a full 100 miles away at Neosho. There were reports that Springfield was lightly defended by 300-400 State Guardsmen. Zagonyi sought and received permission to lead the bodyguard against the Springfield defenders.
NIGHT RIDE TO SPRINGFIELD
Zagonyi’s 160 cavalrymen rode overnight toward Springfield. Nearing the city early next morning, Zagonyi met and took command of Major Frank White’s 154-strong “Prairie Scouts.” Zagonyi managed to learn from captured State Guard forargers that the city had been reinforced. Zagonyi reported that 2,100 State Guardsmen (the actual number was 1,000-1,500) now occupied the city. A State Guard soldier eluded capture and warned the Springfield garrison of Zagonyi’s approach.
Zagonyi continued south on the Bolivar Road but then detoured around to the Mount Vernon Road to attack from the west. Their foe was just ahead. Near the city fairgrounds, on a slope backed by trees, State Guard infantry and cavalry units, under the command of Col. Julian Frazier, awaited their arrival.
At 4:30 in the afternoon, Zagonyi and his men arrived at the city’s edge. Here they left the Mount Vernon Road and rode down a lane that seperated the city fairgrounds from dense grove of trees. They came to a narrow lane bordered by a rail fence that ran at the base of the slope where the State Guard was formed. Zagonyi decided to lead the bodyguard down the lane, across Jordan Creek, to the base of the slope, where he could form his men and initiate a charge. The lane became littered with fallen horses and wounded men as the bodyguard swept forward, receiving volleys of heavy fire from State Guard infantry. With two companies, Zagonyi pressed on, crossed Jordan Creek, and found cover at the bottom of the slope.
Zagonyi’s third company dismounted at the beginning of the lane and tore down a section of fence in an attempt to attack the State Guard in the flank. Beaten back, with a loss of 13 men, they returned to the lane and reached cover with the rest of the bodyguard. Meanwhile White’s Prairie Scouts, bottled up in the chaos of the narrow fenced lane, instead turned north and rode past the fairgrounds to cut off a State Guard retreat.
From a creek bottom, Zagonyi gathered the three battered companies for the main assault up the slope. Charging first the State Guard cavalry, then infantry, the bodyguard scattered the poorly trained guardsmen in several directions. After winning the field, small groups of the bodyguard pursued retreating guardsmen through the city and killed many with their revolvers and sabers.
Zagonyi’s bodyguard suffered at least 52 casualties in the charge, including 16 killed, plus the loss of 45 horses. For the 130 Prairie Scouts, casualties numbered 31. The State Guard toll was also heavy, roughly 23 dead and 100 wounded. Zagonyi’s troops rode into Springfield’s square to cheers and flag-waving from Unionist citizens. But the bodyguard only controlled the city for a few hours. Zagonyi decided to leave before a stronger force returned to chase him out, so he and his cavalry rode north and joined Gen. Sigel south of Bolivar. In the county courthouse he left behind his wounded with a detachment of 24 to care for them.