Bela Estvan
A Hungarian Officer of the Confederate Army

The first sizeable group of Hungarians to come to the United States were political refugees after the unsuccessful 1848-49 War of Liberation, led by the charismatic patriot Lajos Kossuth. Although no precise figures are available, they probably numbered no more than two thousand. Most of them settled in the Eastern seaboard cities of New York and Boston; St. Louis, Missouri; and Davenport and Decatur County in Iowa. Only a few gravitated to the Deep South. Aversion to slavery and lack of economic opportunities were the main reasons. The exiles who made their home in this part of the country did so mainly in Texas. Thus when the Civil War erupted in 1861, the handful of Hungarians who served in the Confederate army were largely from the Lone Star state.

Two of the more notable individuals from Texas were Charles Vidor, grandfather of famous movie director King Vidor, and Maximilian F. de Bajligethy, a public official in Harris County for many years after the Civil War. Vidor was only 15 years old when he arrived in the United States aboard the Mount Stuart Elphinstone on February 25, 1850. One of his companions on the trans-Atlantic voyage was Eugene Kozlay, colonel of the 54th New York Infantry Regiment and brigadier-general by brevet during the Civil War. By the mid-1850s Vidor was living in Galveston, Texas. In 1858 he married the daughter of a wealthy merchant but she died shortly afterwards.

As the country was teetering towards armed conflict, Vidor became fourth sergeant of the Galveston Lone Star Rifles, and afterwards served as private, 1st Regiment Texas Infantry. In February 1864 he was promoted to captain in the Confederate Quartermaster Department. His military career ended with his parole at Greensboro, North Carolina, on May 1, 1865. Upon returning to Galveston, Vidor became a prominent business figure in the community. In January 1866 he married Anna Walter. They had 10 children; one of them Charles Shelton, the father of King Vidor. Charles Vidor died on September 14, 1904, aged 70.

Born in 1813, de Bajligethy settled in Houston in the early 1850s. On February 11, 1856, he married 16-year old Charlotte Finkelman, a native of Prussia, and in July of the following year he was naturalized as an American citizen. During the Civil War he served briefly as quartermaster sergeant with the 8th Texas Cavalry Regiment, also known as Terry's Texas Rangers. Following the end of the conflict he was Justice of the Peace in Harris County and later Chief Clerk in the Houston Tax Assessor and Collector's Office.

Still on the job at the age of 80, he was run over by a train on his way to work. Terribly mangled, he lived for only a few more hours. His horrific death was reported in detail in the February 8, 1893, issue of the Galveston Daily News, and was also noted in the next day's copy of the New York Times.

However, the most famous Hungarian of the South in the Civil War era was Bela Estvan, a resident of Richmond, Virginia. Although Estvan participated in several campaigns with the rank of colonel, he is remembered today not for any military prowess or bravery beyond the call of duty, but for his immensely popular book War Pictures from the South.

Reliable facts about Estvan are admittedly scarce. What is known about him comes from his own book; the writings of fellow Richmond resident Hermann Schuricht; numerous passages from Ella Lonn's monumental Foreigners in the Confederacy; a scattering of contemporary newspaper articles; and Robert W. Frazer's scholarly article "Maximilian's Propaganda Activities in the United States, 1865-1866," in the February 1944 issue of the Hispanic American Historical Review.

Coming to Richmond in 1859, Schuricht started the Virginische Zeitung and a Sunday paper, Die Wespe, with another German immigrant by the name of Henry Schott. When these newspapers were consolidated for a while with the Richmond Enquirer in January 1861 under the name of the Daily Richmond Enquirer, the new entity was printed partly in English and partly in German, with Schuricht as editor of the German section of the paper. Although a staunch anti-slavery man, Schuricht nevertheless felt duty-bound to render Confederate military service and was a lieutenant in the 14th Virginia Cavalry.

Professor of history at Goucher College, Ella Lonn was one of the most distinguished academics in her field. Commenting on her book, reviewer B. I. Wiley in the Journal of Southern History stated: "Dr. Lonn does not confine herself to the military activities of foreigners. She gives a detailed account of their doings in every walk of life. [...] The appendices, footnotes, and bibliography pay high tribute to Dr. Lonn for tirelessness of research and thoroughness of scholarship. [...] Certainly no one, whether professional historian or layman, can claim to be an authority on the Confederacy without perusing Foreigners in the Confederacy."

It is generally agreed that Estvan was born in 1827. According to certain remarks in his books, he was an officer in the Hapsburg Imperial Army in Italy in 1848 and participated in the Hungarian War of Liberation. He provides no details, just the terse comment: "In bygone days I had been on many battlefields in Italy and Hungary." His activities in Hungary necessitated his emigration to Great Britain as a political refugee in 1849. Then, in an amazing turn-about-face, Estvan entered Russian service and saw action in the Crimean War, a conflict, which pitted Russia against the Ottoman Empire, supported by England, France, and Sardinia.

During the war Estvan encountered a group of American military observers, among them George B. McClellan, one of the leading Union generals during the Civil War. Becoming convinced that his future lay in the United States, he, along with his wife and her sister, moved to Richmond, Virginia, around 1856. Like many newcomers with no marketable skills other than soldiering, Estvan encountered difficulties in finding suitable employment. Fortunately, his wife and sister-in-law, both highly educated and cultured ladies, managed to do well financially by giving French, German and music lessons to Richmond's upper crust. Years later, the aforementioned Schuricht would write that Estvan "was a very good-looking jovial man and knew how to play the part of an upright Austrian country nobleman to perfection."

Despite living in Virginia for several years, Estvan was not sympathetic to the Confederate cause; he was truly a Unionist at heart and joined the military with reluctance. He explains his position and choice in his book, saying that "circumstances led me to take service in the Confederacy - my long residence in the Southern States being, however, the main inducement thereto." On another page he writes: "For thirteen years I had been away from my native home and now, drawn into the whirlpool of events, I found myself against my will serving in the ranks of a foreign army and fighting for a cause with which neither my head nor my heart could thoroughly sympathize."

Estvan's military affiliation with the Confederate forces spanned eighteen months. The bulk of his service was with Wise's Legion, a brigade named after its commanding officer, General Henry A. Wise. An outspoken champion of slavery and state rights, Wise, a former governor of Virginia and dubbed "A Good Southerner," was an adroit politician but an inept soldier, having absolutely no military experience prior to the war.

Following the battle of Seven Pines, Estvan was ordered to Savannah, Georgia, to organize a saber factory to supply the Confederate cavalry with arms. Here he was struck by one of debilitating illnesses common to the Deep South. "I had escaped without harm from many sanguinary engagements," he lamented, "when I was suddenly attacked by yellow fever in the swampy ricefields of Savannah."

He requested a leave and a free pass to the North, hoping that a change of climate might restore his health. He reached New York in late autumn of 1862 and the more salubrious climate helped to cure him. Not long after his recovery, he departed from the United States, taking up abode once more in Great Britain, where he wrote his book, very likely with considerable help from his wife and sister-in-law. It was published by Routledge & Co.

The book struck an immediate chord with the British reading public and was quickly followed by an American edition from D. Appleton & Co. The British edition was dedicated, most peculiarly, to General McClellan, but the American version was more circumspect: "To America, my second home, whose image I cling to with fond attachment, I cannot look back without sorrow for her misfortunes. [...] Now that my book is ready, I dedicate it to the soldiers of the two contending armies, as a greeting from afar."

War Pictures from the South basically recapitulates and analyzes the events of the Civil War from the opening guns until the battle of Seven Pines, sprinkled with snippets of Estvan's own modest participation in the conflict, along with critical biographical sketches of several prominent Northern and Southern figures. Estvan himself describes the book in the preface as "a narrative of the remarkable events that occurred during a period of more than eighteen months' campaigning in America, the knowledge of which I acquired from my personal experience as an officer of the Confederate army." In concluding his narrative he wrote: "Anticipating, as I fervently do, so desirable a consummation, I trust that thousands will join me in heartily wishing that the American Republic, once the pride of the world, may arise strong and powerful from this disastrous struggle; that the blood which has been shed in torrents during the war may serve to fertilize the soil of liberty, and that a new Union may arise, greater, stronger, and more free than its predecessor!"

The book was reviewed in numerous magazines and newspapers on both sides of the Atlantic. These reviews present an interesting range of opinions regarding Estvan's character and motives, his insight into military and political matters, and his literary style.

The Saturday Review of August 22, 1863, described the book as "written by a soldier of fortune in a tone of bitter hostility to his former comrades and to the Government under which he served. It is full of adulation towards the North and disparagement of the South, ungenerous in the extreme, and excites little respect for the author who can so speak of the cause to which he voluntarily gave his sword, and of the companions in arms with whom he has shared the perils of the field and the hardships of the march [...] lively to flippancy, always readable, and almost always interesting, but shamelessly partial."

Said the New York Times, July 19, 1863: "Although Col. Estvan has, perhaps, tried to please both sides, it can hardly be said that he has succeeded with either. We confess that we should prefer that he stood up more manfully either for the North or the South. But that he is a brave man, who speaks generously of the gallantry of friend and foe, is beyond question. This circumstance, whilst, it will be his best introduction to the readers of the North, will we fear, exclude his volumes utterly from the South."

Comparing several passages from Estvan's book to those in The First Year of the War by Edward A. Pollard, published the previous year, the review in the July 4, 1863, issue of the Atheneum, detected extensive plagiarism on Estvan's part "running through every chapter and page of War Pictures, in which are mentioned the events of the first year of the war." Furthermore, said the anonymous reviewer: "The flimsy verbal alterations, by which the appropriator hoped to conceal his filching, altogether fail in achieving their object. It does not seem to have struck the Colonel that a stolen sentence may be identified in spite of grammatical tampering with construction, [...] it is well for readers to bear in mind that this witness against the honesty and patriotism of his former companions frankly admits that though he served under their flag, his heart was not with their cause."

Intensely Confederate but a vehement critic of the Davis administration, Pollard was editor of the Richmond Examiner from 1861-67 and the author of several books, The Lost Cause perhaps being the best known. While his writings have been judged useful as historical sources, they are also regarded as being marred by his violent prejudices. More than one writer "barrowed" from Pollard and other recognized authorities. For example, Sallie Brock Putnam declares her indebtedness in the Initial Chapter of her highly regarded Richmond during the War, published shortly after the end of the war, with these words: "Acknowledgments are due to the author of the Southern history entitled "Four Years of the War," from whose pages accounts of military movements have been liberally drawn."

Harper's Magazine of September 1863 was very pleased with the book: "Colonel Estvan is apparently a true soldier of fortune, [...] He would fight bravely and honestly on either side as long as his terms of agreement lasted; [...] His work is really a very valuable one - the best, on the whole, which has been written on this subject. [...] The main value of the work consists in its faithfulness as a military history [...] We accept his book as a reliable one, [...]"

While questioning Estvan's extravagant assessment of the military genius of General McClellan, the North American Review, October 1863, praised the book, declaring that Estvan "in his "War Pictures" he occupies an impartial position, which attaches peculiar weight to his opinions. [...] His book seems to us eminently wise in its judgments and opinions, [...] and affords matter for careful reflection on past errors, and grave suggestions toward a better future, for our statesmen, generals, and citizens."

The book was also noted in the January 1864 issue of The Atlantic Monthly. Its price was denoted as $1.25.
A German translation of the book as Kriegsbilder aus Amerika was published by the firm of Brockhaus in Leipzig in 1864. The book did much to foster the pro-Union sentiment throughout the German Confederation. Excerpts from Estvan's book have been reprinted in various books, magazines, and newspapers over the years. A particular favorite in this respect has been Chapter 24, A Christmas Eve. Erroneously referring to the title of the book as Notes from the South, the Brooklyn Eagle presented the anecdote "A Duel on Horseback" to its readers in its July 28, 1863, issue. The entire book was reprinted by Books for Libraries Press in 1971.

As might be imagined Estvan's book unleashed an acrimonious reaction in the South. He was branded as a deserter and traitor. "In these war times, they [deserters] are plentiful under the uniform of military officers," snarled the Richmond Examiner on February 5, 1864. "Estvan, the soi-disant count, who ran to the North after playing out his calls here, was one of a particular class."

Understanding Estvan's dilemma and sympathizing with his predicament, Dr. Lonn, his impartial American critic, wrote: "A perusal of his book leaves no doubt that though his strictures on the Confederate authorities may not have been influenced by personal feelings, at heart he was a Unionist; he therefore did the natural thing when he resigned his commission and should, doubtless, never have taken service under that banner. That he played the role of deserter or that he failed to discharge his duty while wearing the gray is not indicated by the evidence."

Most accounts of Estvan state that he disappeared from the public eye after the publication of his book, and his subsequent movements are not known with any degree of certainty. Far from slipping into oblivion and obscurity, he returned to the United States, and in October 1865 was sent to the court of Emperor Maximilian in Mexico as a special correspondent for the New York Herald by James Gordon Bennett.

Following the war with the United States, Mexico experienced uninterrupted years of turmoil with Liberals and Conservatives locked in a bitter and bloody struggle for supremacy. Some Mexicans felt that it would be politically expedient for the country to install a strong monarch from one of the more powerful European dynasties. Such a ruler would not only restore peace and tranquility but would also afford protection from further encroachment of Mexican territory by the United States through dynastic alliances.

When Benito Juarez, Mexico's constitutional president, suspended payment on the foreign debt in 1861, Spain, France and England initiated a tripartite intervention. Several months later, the Spanish and British forces were withdrawn but the French, in accordance with Napoleon III's grandiose plans for a Latin empire, remained. Full-scale war erupted between Mexico and France.

The French presence in Mexico required delicate handling on the part of the United States. Mexican chargé and minister Matias Romero constantly pressed Secretary of State William H. Seward to take positive action. However, with the Civil War raging, it was only wisdom to avoid outright confrontation with France. If Seward should protest too vigorously, Napoleon might offer the Confederacy an alliance; if he should say nothing, he would sacrifice the Monroe doctrine. As long as the Civil War continued the United States could do little.

To cloak his involvement in Mexico in some sort of legitimacy, Napoleon maneuvered a committee of Mexican conservatives to invite Maximilian, the younger brother of Hapsburg Emperor Franz Joseph, to become Emperor of Mexico. Maximilian hesitated but his ambitious young wife, Charlotte, - better known in history as Carlota - daughter of Leopold I of Belgium, who wished to be an empress and revive the ancient glories of the Aztecs, convinced him to accept. Napoleon assured Maximilian that French soldiers would remain to support him. On June 10, 1864, Maximilian and Carlota were crowned in the Cathedral of Mexico. Far from being a tyrannical dictator, Maximilian was an enlightened, modern ruler who implemented numerous desperately needed reforms. His cabinet and state council included both Liberals and Conservatives. However, Maximilian was also an impractical idealist who often tackled issues with a complete lack of realism. Despite his good intentions, the Mexican masses remained hostile to his regime and loyal to Juarez. Maximilian's throne was secure as long as it was surrounded by French troops.

Upon arriving in Mexico on November 12, Estvan obtained a private audience with Maximilian. At the same time he also became a leading member of the agency set up by the imperial Mexican government in New York City to generate favorable propaganda for Maximilian in the United States. As to why he became embroiled in this venture, Estvan later claimed that it stemmed from the fact that despite his many years of absence from the Hapsburg Empire he "still preserved a deep affection for the imperial Family of the House of Hapsburg," and now an opportunity presented itself "to indirectly serve an imperial Prince." The hefty fee he charged for his services was undoubtedly also a motivating factor.

Sporting the grandiose title of Directeur des Bureaux Imperials du Mexique, aux Etats Unis, Estvan wrote articles casting a favorable light on Maximilian's Mexico. A number of these articles were in the form of letters, signed with the pseudonym of Veritas. Another key element in Estvan's campaign called for bribing the editors of certain influential newspapers to print articles partial to Maximilian. However, these overtures were largely repulsed, and, according to Frazer's article, Estvan, therefore, pocketed the bulk of the funds allocated for this purpose. In addition to writing, Estvan spent much time lobbying in Washington. He approached just about everyone; he even formed an association with some Fenian leaders.

The results attained by Estvan and his agency colleagues were meager. The press remained adamantly anti-Maximilian. The Marquis de Montholon, French Minister to the United States, was far more concerned with maintaining cordial French-American relationships than propping up Maximilian's shaky throne. The lobbying of Matias Romero was much more fruitful. Slowly but surely he gained the support of many prominent Americans. General Ulysses S. Grant wanted vigorous action, repeatedly declaring that the Civil War would not be over until the French were expelled from Mexico. Following Robert E. Lee's surrender Seward adopted a stiffer attitude toward the French and there was a growing sentiment in favor of dispatching an American army into Mexico. Armaments flowed to Juarez. General Phil Sheridan wrote in his memoirs: "During the winter and spring of 1866 we continued covertly supplying arms and ammunition to the Liberals - sending as many as 30,000 muskets from Baton Rouge alone."

Faced by an ever-hardening American attitude and widespread dissatisfaction among the French people, Napoleon sought to extricate himself from the Mexican fiasco by announcing that he'd start withdrawing his troops in stages. His decision was also influenced by the crushing defeat of the Hapsburg army at Sadowa at the hands of the Prussians. Clearly, France needed her soldiers at home.

In July 1866 Carlota rushed to Europe to beseech Napoleon not to abandon her husband. She also sought help from the Pope Pius IX. The enormous strain led to a mental breakdown and she never regained her sanity.

True to promise, the last French forces left Mexico on March 12, 1867. Napoleon urged Maximilian to abdicate and return to safety in Europe. But he refused to abandon "his people." Totally bereft of French troops, Maximilian assumed personal command of his small army, composed mainly of European adventurers, and withdrew from Mexico City to Queretaro. He was quickly overwhelmed by the juaristas. On June 19, Maximilian, branded as "a usurper of the national sovereignty," along with two of his Mexican generals, Tomas Mejia and Miguel Miramon, was executed by a firing squad. Such was the tragic end of Napoleon's dream of glory in the New World. Juarez died five years later. In 1876 Porfirio Diaz, one of his most capable generals, became president and held onto the post until 1911.

George Templeton Strong, the witty, aristocratic New York lawyer, confided to his diary on July 1, 1867, that Maximilian's execution came as no surprise because Juarez and his followers "could hardly be expected to depart from the settled practice of all Mexican administration in their hour of victory." He wrote on July 16: "When the "archduke" interfered in Mexican affairs, he must have known the penalty of failure."

In a letter appearing in the July 17, 1867, issue of the New York Times, an embittered Estvan said: "Maximilian, Emperor of Mexico, is dead. Sold and betrayed by his friends and abandoned in the moment of his greatest need by those Governments which had given a moral guarantee to protect and save his life, [...] The mission which his Imperial Majesty had entrusted to my hands has ceased with his death, [...] As the last of my official duty to the murdered Emperor, I ask you, Mr. Editor, to give this solemn protest to the great American people."

Maximilian's execution inspired the great French painter Edouard Manet with subject matter for a series of four oil paintings and a large lithograph. The undertaking represented his most ambitious attempt at history painting. The mighty Napoleon was not pleased, and the French government blocked the exhibition of the paintings and the publication of the lithograph. Manet's masterpieces have been the subject of at least two books: Edouard Manet der Tod des Maximilian by Oskar Bätschmann in 1993, and, more recently, Manet and the Execution of Maximilian by John Elderfield in 2006. The pictures have been exhibited throughout the world; earlier this year they were on display at New York City's Museum of Modern Art (MOMA).

Enduring fascination with the story of Maximilian and Carlota also led to a flood of literary works. Carlota herself outlived her husband by sixty years. Sinking deeper and deeper into her own private demented world with each passing year, she remained oblivious to the collapse of the Second Empire, the ouster of Porfirio Diaz, and the passing of the Hapsburg, Hohenzollern, and Romanov dynasties. She died on January 20, 1927, at the chateau of Bouchout, near Laeken, a suburb of Brussels. Despite the brutal cold and the raging blizzard, thousands attended the funeral ceremonies of the "mad empress," among them a score of grizzled veterans of Maximilian's army.

A decade later Hollywood decided to bring the tragic saga to the silver screen as a grand historical blockbuster. The movie, titled Juarez, was released in 1939. Directed by William Dieterle and based mainly on the play Juarez and Maximilian by the prolific Franz Werfel, it starred Brian Aherne as the unfortunate Maximilian and Bette Davis as Carlota, while the renowned Paul Muni, king of the biopics, portrayed the stoic Mexican patriot, and John Garfield his eventual successor, Porfirio Diaz.

Following the end of the Maximilian affair, Estvan disappeared from the public stage. Whether he stayed in the United States or sailed once more to Europe remains shrouded in mystery. While nothing definitive has come to light about his subsequent activities, wild rumors, vacuous gossip, and ludicrous claims abound.

In the late 1890s the aforementioned Schuricht completed his massive History of the German Element in Virginia, a work which contains several comments on Estvan. After reiterating the charges originally aired in the February 5, 1864, issue of the Richmond Examiner - namely, that Estvan was a contemptible deserter and traitor to the Confederate cause - Schuricht, who seemed to have harbored a relentless animosity toward Estvan, relates with considerable satisfaction that Estvan, not long after the publication of War Pictures from the South, traveled to Vienna where he was arrested and treated as a common criminal by the Hapsburg authorities.

Regretfully these absurd ravings have been enshrined as "facts" in the writings of some not overly scrupulous authors. Incidentally, Estvan was not the only target of Schuricht's phantasmagoria, causing the reviewer of the book in the Virginia History Magazine to declare: "With great enthusiasm for his subject, and much knowledge of many of its phases, the author displayed so little judgment, such great ignorance of elementary facts of the history of Virginia and the Virginia people, and made so many utterly unfounded claims, that the book is practically worthless."

Ludicrous as are Schuricht's contentions over Estvan's fate, even more preposterous are the claims of the two dubious sources cited after the entry for War Pictures from the South in Compendium of the Confederacy, a tome compiled by John. H. Wright. The first one purports Estvan to be a blatant fake and the second one has him as nothing more than a hospital orderly with an overactive imagination. How such irresponsible, scurrilous trash, in the face of inconvertible evidence, has been espoused by some respectable historians and reproduced in serious historical works is truly astonishing.

From what is definitely known about Estvan, he may certainly be labeled as a soldier of fortune, an adventurer, an opportunist, and perhaps even a plagiarist. But most certainly he was not an impostor. In his book Drum-Beat of the Nation, respected Civil War reporter Charles Carleton Coffin emphasizes that "History is valuable only as long as it is truthful." It may also be noted that history is derived from the Greek word historia, meaning "research," "investigation." Judging from the inaccurate and inane comments prevalent in many so-called historical works, the truth for some authors is tantamount to their personal flights of fancy. As for research and investigation, such "experts" are apt to be inadequately equipped intellectually and far too lazy to conduct any strenuous mental activities, preferring to copy nilly-willy. Individuals of this ilk debase scholarship and should have their products categorized as fiction, pure fiction and nothing more.

Today frequent reference is made to the Information Highway. But those who fail to exercise their little grey cells as advocated by Agatha Christie's celebrated fictional detective, Hercule Poirot, are more likely to be cruising on the Superhighway of Misinformation and Ignorance.

Acknowledgments - I'd like to thank Paul Scott, County Records Manager of Harris County, for details on the life and career of de Bajligethy, and to Janet Kozlay, the dedicated genealogist of the Kozlay family, for providing excerpts on the voyage of the Mount Stuart Elphinstone from Eugene Kozlay's voluminous diary.

Vissza az oldal tetejére
Stephen Beszedits