The Life and Times of Nicholas Perczel

When the Hungarian revolutionaries, led by the charismatic Lajos Kossuth, were defeated by the ruling Hapsburg dynasty with the aid of a huge Russian army in the 1848-49 War of Liberation, thousands of patriots fled abroad. Several hundred of them came to the United States, comprising the first significant wave of Hungarian emigrants to America. One of the most distinguished among them was Miklós Perczel, better known in American history as Nicholas Perczel, first colonel of the 10th Iowa Infantry Regiment during the Civil War.
Nicholas Perczel was born on December 15, 1812 at Bonyhád, Tolna County, the son of a wealthy landowner. The family was an unusually large one; Nicholas had more than a dozen siblings. However, he was closest to Mór, a brother a year older. Their steadfast friendship and devotion to each other endured till the end of their long lives. As youths they were tutored by the renowned poet Mihály Vörösmarty, who installed a lasting patriotism in both of them.

By 1848-49 Nicholas as well as Mór were prominent public figures and both, especially Mór, played important roles in the struggle. As a matter of fact, Mór was one of the leading generals of the revolutionary army. Nicholas attained the rank of colonel. When the combined Hapsburg and Czarist armies overwhelmed the Hungarian forces in the summer of 1849, Nicholas and Mór, along with Kossuth and many others fled to the neighboring Ottoman Empire. Here they found asylum. They remained in internment until September 1851 when the warship Mississippi, dispatched by the American government, arrived to take Kossuth and his companions to the United States. Nicholas and his wife boarded the vessel, but Mór was unable because his wife, the former Júlianna Sárközy, was expecting another child any day. (Nicholas and his wife, the former Hermina Latinovits, had a childless marriage.) Soon after the departure of the Mississippi, Mór and his family relocated to England.

The Mississippi entered New York harbor amidst much fanfare and the refugees were feted as heroes. They were the celebrities of the moment. Perczel's bearing and manners made a most favorable impression. Catharine M. Sedgwick, one of the leading female authors of her time, wrote to her niece: "We were all charmed by Colonel Perczel. He is about forty-five - a fine person, [...] having a certain tone expressing purity, refinement, manliness, health, and giving to beautiful and harmonious features just the ground they want. [...] His manners, too, have a high-bred quality, kindly and gentle, with a certain reserve of delicacy, and not hauteur." Public curiosity and interest in the exiles soon vaned and they were confronted with the stark reality of earning a living in the new homeland. Most helpful to Perczel in this respect was the Reverend Henry Ward Beecher, brother of Harriet Beecher Stowe. Aided by Beecher, he set up a small academy, teaching German and French to a select group drawn from the upper crust of New York's society. While New York City was the arrival point of most of the exiles, many of them quickly moved to other parts of the country. Iowa especially was a favorite destination and a group of the émigrés even founded a tiny community called New Buda there. After considerable deliberation, Perczel himself decided to try Iowa in the autumn of 1852. However, New Buda did not impress him on account of its isolation and remoteness. He therefore opted for the more civilized environs of Davenport. Here he purchased a tract of land which he farmed.

But he didn't remain for very long. Political development in the Near East which would culminate in the Crimean War and Mór's urgings induced him to sail for England in August 1854. He took a cottage adjacent to that of Mór on the Isle of Jersey. The island harbored political refugees from all parts of Europe. One of their neighbors was none other than Victor Hugo. The Perczels and the Hugos socialized on a fairly regular basis; Adele, the great writer's daughter, describes several soirées in her diary which were attended by the Perczel brothers at the Hugo household.
In 1859 the Kingdom of Sardinia, supported by France, went to war against the Hapsburg Empire. This conflict raised the hopes and aspirations of Hungarian exiles like no other political event of the 1850s. Thousands of them flocked to Italy, among them the two Perczels. A Hungarian contingent was organized but before it could take to the battlefield, Emperor Napoleon III, despite scoring resounding victories at Magenta and Solferino, hastily concluded a peace treaty with the enemy. Nicholas was so dismayed, disgusted and infuriated at this turn of events that he rushed back to England and embarked on the first available boat bound for America, settling in Iowa once more.

Like other Northern states, Iowa mobilized enthusiastically after Fort Sumter was fired upon by the Confederates. Governor Samuel Jordan Kirkwood believed in the policy of raising as large a number of troops as possible. In light of Perczel's military experience, the governor offered him the colonelcy of the 10th Iowa Infantry, a regiment raised by John C. Bennett and organized at Iowa City and Montezuma. Nearing his 50th birthday and unsure if he would be able to endure the rigors of field duty, Perczel hesitated before accepting. He was commissioned colonel on September 1, 1861, and Bennett received the rank of major. The regiment was mustered in at Iowa City on September 6th and 7th, 1861. Perczel and his men were immediately ordered to St. Louis, Missouri. From there they were dispatched to Cape Girardeau, about 160 km south of St. Louis, in the southeastern part of the state and became part of the city's garrison. Strategically located on the west bank of the Mississippi River, Cape Girardeau was a bustling river port before the war.

The commander of the district was the soon-to-be famous Ulysses S. Grant and above him was General John C. Fremont, with several Hungarians - all of them Perczel's comrades-in-arms during 1848-49 - holding key positions on his staff.

Although Missouri was one of the border states which remained in the Union, many of its residents harbored Southern sympathies. Bitter guerrilla warfare was raging throughout the state and would continue till the end of the war. Among the numerous guerrilla bands confronting the 10th Iowa the most formidable was led by the colorful M. Jeff Thompson. Regarded as a buffoon even in certain Confederate circles for his fondness for issuing bombastic proclamations, Thompson, nicknamed the "Swamp Fox" by his admirers, was a veritable genius at minor harassing operations.
The single most outstanding terrain feature of Thompson's domain was a great swamp, five to twenty-five miles wide, extending from the Arkansas line northward to a point parallel with Cape Girardeau. The swamp offered a haven for Thompson and his mobile band, allowing them to conduct raids throughout southeastern Missouri with impunity.

Early in November General Grant instructed Perczel to mobilize his regiment against Thompson's stronghold, the town of Bloomfield, while he himself launched an attack on Belmont. As Perczel approached the town, informants told him that Thompson had 1,500 men and three pieces of artillery at his disposal. But the anticipated battle didn't materialize as Thompson decided to evacuate the town, allowing Perczel and his troopers to enter without any opposition. Upon returning from this mission, the 10th Iowa was assigned to Bird's Point, near the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers, directly across the Mississippi River from Cairo, Illinois.
The next major operation of the regiment didn't go as smoothly as the advance on Thompson's irregulars. In the first week of January 1862, Perczel was ordered to take a detachment of troops and seek out a party of Confederate cavalry reportedly camped in the vicinity of nearby Charleston. Suddenly, at an isolated farmhouse, Confederates numbering about 75 to 80, hidden behind a rail fence, opened a murderous fire. By the time Perczel and Lieutenant-Colonel W. E. Small rallied the men, the attackers disappeared. Despite the brevity of the fight, the 10th Iowa sustained five killed, two mortally wounded, and fifteen severely wounded.

At the beginning of March Perczel and his troopers joined General John Pope's army on its campaign against the formidable Southern strongholds at New Madrid and Island Number 10, not far from Bird's Point to the south. Perczel was given command of a small brigade, consisting of his own regiment and the 26th Missouri Infantry. Designated as the Second Brigade, it was assigned to the Second Division led by Brigadier-General Schuyler Hamilton.
On March 8 Pope surrounded New Madrid. The Federals not only had to contend with the massive earthworks and the garrison but also the troublesome M. Jeff Thompson who materialized in their rear. On March 13 Pope unleashed a ferocious bombardment lasting the entire day. Unable to withstand the intense pounding, the Confederates abandoned New Madrid during the night and Pope's men occupied the deserted fortifications the next day.

Pope began at once his operations for the reduction of Island Number 10. Here the Confederate fortifications consisted of land batteries on the island and a floating battery off the coast of the island. It was a difficult siege and the defenders managed to repulse attacks by land and water. The daily bulletin from the island, for many days, claimed that the enemy, after incessant bombardment of many hours, inflicted no injury. The people of the South were constantly assured that the place was impregnable, and that the enemy never could pass it.
However, Flag Officer Andrew H. Foote's gunboats eventually managed to outmaneuver the Southern batteries, thereby forcing the island to surrender on April 8. The great victory was another serious break in the Confederate defense of the Mississippi River.
In summing up the campaign in his report, General Hamilton stated: "Col. William H. Worthington, Fifth Iowa, commanding First Brigade, and Col. Nicholas Perczel, commanding Second Brigade, showed on all occasions so much promptitude, so much attention to the health and welfare as well as instruction of the brigades under their respective commands [...] as to prove them well fitted for their responsible positions, and inspiring the men and officers under their orders with a confidence which could not fail to prove of the highest value in an engagement."
Perczel's finest moment in the Civil War occurred during the battle of Iuka, Mississippi, on September 19, 1862. This spirited engagement pitted the Union forces led by Major-General William S. Rosecrans against the Southern army of Major-General Sterling Price. At this time, the 10th Iowa was part of the Second Brigade, commanded by Brigadier-General Jeremiah C. Sullivan.

As Rosecrans's army approached Iuka, unexpectedly the enemy seized the initiative and became the attacking party. The Federals quickly deployed as best as they could under the circumstances.
Sullivan dispatched Perczel's regiment and a section of Lorenzo D. Immell's 12th Battery, Wisconsin Light Artillery, to a spot on the Iuka road about a quarter mile ahead of the Federal left wing. The Confederates attacked intensely from several directions and the fighting was ferocious all along the line. As the Confederates drew nearer, Perczel realigned his regiment along a ridge which gave his men an unobstructed view of the open field between them and the Confederates.
"They soon emerged from the woods," Perczel wrote in his official report, "opened a heavy fire, and advanced on our lines. Their fire was returned, and I too opened with musketry and canister. The rebels wavered, fell back a little, but were soon rallied. [...] suddenly a full regiment marched out from the woods on their side, offering their right flank to my fire, with the evident intention to advance for the support of their forces already engaged. [...] They attempted twice to advance, but were driven back each time." Price was determined to renew the battle the next day, but his subordinate officers convinced him to abandon the idea.

Both Perczel and Immell received praise for their valiant conduct. General Sullivan declared after the battle: "Colonel Perczel with his command held the position assigned them and drove back a brigade of the rebels which was advancing to take possession of the road. He gallantly held his position and by his determined stand led the enemy to believe we were in strong force at that point and to desist from their attack."
Lieutenant-Colonel H. G. Kennett, Rosecrans's chief-of-staff stated the following in his report: "The Tenth Iowa, under Colonel Perczel, deserves honorable mention, for covering our left flank from the assault of the Texan Legion."
When Brigadier-General Thomas J. McKean was rumored to be resigning Iowa Senators James W. Grimes and James Harlan recommended the appointment of Perczel as brigadier-general in his place. McKean did not resign, however, and Perczel was not promoted. But he couldn't care less. Physically drained from frequent bouts with malaria, he tendered his resignation, effective November 1, 1862.
Perczel returned to Iowa and became a vociferous advocate of the draft. He urged Governor Kirkwood to inaugurate it as soon as possible. Later he moved to New York City where he was involved in the wine trade. In 1865, upon the formation of the New Yorki Magyar Egylet [Hungarian Association of New York], Perczel became its first president. The organization was established for the purpose of studying American institutions to popularize them in Hungary and stimulating the scientific and commercial work of Hungarians in the United States.

In 1867, with the establishment of the Dual Monarchy of Austria-Hungary and a general amnesty for everyone convicted of political offenses in the aftermath of 1848-49, he and Mór returned to Hungary and both of them again became important political figures. Nicholas held political offices on the local and national levels and was the recipient of numerous honors during the remaining years of his life.
Mór died in 1899 at the age of 88. Nicholas passed away on March 14, 1904 at Baja and was buried in that city's Roman Catholic Szent Rókus cemetery. Throughout the nearly twenty years spent in exile, Nicholas kept a diary which remained in manuscript form until the 1970s when it was published in two volumes.

References: The two best Hungarian works containing much valuable information about Nicholas Perczel are of course his own diary and the book A Perczelek [The Perczels], a detailed history of this illustrious family, published in 2001. His life and career are also summarized in a multitude of biographical dictionaries and encyclopedias. American writings describing Perczel's participation in the Civil War include the War of the Rebellion: Official Records, the multi-volume The Papers of Ulysses S. Grant, and The Darkest Days of the War: the Battles of Iuka & Corinth by Peter Cozzens.

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Stephen Beszedits