Zagonyi was a cavalry captain in during the 1848-49 Hungarian revolution. He came to the United States in 1851 by way of Turkey and England. In the years leading up to the Civil War, he held a variety of jobs: farm hand, housepainter, tailor, and instructor at the Boston riding academy of fellow Hungarian emigre Janos Kalapsza. Joining Fremont’s Western Department, he organized and commanded Fremont’s Body Guard, an elite unit of cavalrymen. At Springfield, Missouri, on October 25, 1861, Zagonyi led his troopers against a Confederate force that outnumbered them by about ten to one and defeated them. This daring act brought him enduring fame. He is the overt hero of Jessie Benton Fremont’s Story of the Guard, published in 1863.*
The Guard was a flamboyant unit, outfitted by Zagonyi in velvet uniforms, it is said. Although it may be that the odds against The Guard at Springfield were not nearly so great as legend holds, Zagonyi’s Charge, or as it is sometimes called, “Zagonyi’s Death Ride,” was probably the first great cavalry charge of the Civil War. Interestingly, Zagonyi’s Charge at Springfield occurred seven years to the day after the Charge of the Light Brigade in the Crimean War.
After his moment of fame, Zagonyi followed Fremont to the Mountain Department, where he rose to the rank of colonel. He resigned his commission in 1862, and his life thereafter is lost to history. He remains a hero in Hungary.
*description courtesy of NOTABLE HUNGARIANS AND THEIR CONTRIBUTIONS IN THE CIVIL WAR, by Stephen Beszedits, in the Iowa in the Civil War website