In the Footsteps of Cavalry Major Lajos Csomortanyi
Lajos Csomortanyi, a hussar major in the 1848-49 War of Liberation, was one of Lajos Kossuth’s officers. He did not become famous on the battlefield nor did he die a glorious death. Nor did he become a successful entrepreneur in the years following the defeat. His name is not perpetuated in famous literary works, he didn’t pen an autobiography, as a matter of fact, he didn’t bequeath any personal notes - presuming they existed. Yet it is still worthwhile to give him more than a passing glance and briefly review his life because it parallels those of several noteworthy émigré officers. All of them were forced to leave their country following the defeat, all of them had to establish a new home in foreign lands and start a new life.
Recalling his memory with respect, my heart always fills with a warm feeling when I think of Lajos Csomortanyi. Sometime in the early 1900s I would have begun my brief account as follows:
With aching heart and tears in his eyes, Lajos glanced back at the fortress of Komarom, the stronghold behind whose walls he had spent the final weeks of the War of Liberation. On his chest he proudly wears the decoration which a few days ago General Klapka pinned on him for successfully leading the final cavalry charge of the War of Liberation. He and his youthful companions marched with heavy steps towards the future, and had no inkling that most of them would never return to their beloved homeland for which they were ready to sacrifice their lives...
So let us examine what we know about Lajos’s life from a distance of more than one and a half century. He was born on May 15, 1822, in the village of Sztancsafalva, part of the town of Rekas in Temes County. His father, Istvan, was a Roman Catholic nobleman, and his mother was Anna Bellosits. Of his parents we know next to nothing. It can only be surmised of his father that he was a descendant of one of the branches of the Csomortanyi family of Heves County. Specifically, he was from that part, which broke off from the Csomortanyi family of Csik in the beginning of the 1700s. Of his siblings, we only know the name of his brother, Alajos, born two years later, also at Rekas.1
It must be said that the similarity of the names of the two brothers has created numerous problems while doing the research. Even their own contemporaries often confused their names and personalities, making our task more difficult.
Both boys chose a military career. There is very little information about Lajos’s pre-1848 years.2 It is known, however, that as a 20-year old in 1842, he was a corporal in the 12th (Nador) hussar regiment in the years preceding the War of Liberation, while in February 1848 he was a lieutenant in the 6th (Wrbna) hussar regiment. Concerning his service with the latter, it was noted that he left his unit without official permission.
However, there must be some misunderstanding about this occurrence because Lajos was officially transferred from his regiment to train the raw recruits of Budapest’s National Guard.3
Incidentally, an interesting interlude occurred in 1847 while he was still an officer in the Imperial Hapsburg army. Having taken a leave of absence, he established a private riding academy in Luzern, Switzerland, for he local police force. His school enjoyed such an excellent reputation that the grateful locals bestowed the rank of lieutenant on him.4
Lajos’s military career continued during the War of Liberation. On July 7, 1848 - as aide to Major Kokenyessy - he was already a first-lieutenant in the National Guard of the Jaszkun district. Later, along with his regiment, he was sent south, and was stationed at Szenttamas, near the Ferenc canal. On October 16, 1848, he was captain in the 14th (Lehel) hussar regiment. Paralleling the advancement of Lajos, his brother Alajos, also moved up in the ranks. Starting as a horse groom (which begs the question: was this interest in horses a family tradition or a mere coincidence?), later we find him also with the 14th (Lehel) hussar regiment: the day before his brother’s promotion to captain he was advanced to lieutenant.
Without delving into the well-known military events of the War of Liberation, it should be noted that during the winter campaign Lajos served in the Ist army corps, and later during the spring campaign served in the IInd army corps. Most likely he participated with his comrades in the battle of Szolnok on January 22, 1849, and subsequently, on April 14, in the battle of Tapiobicske during the victorious spring campaign.
The fate of the Hungarian War of Liberation was quickly decided following the Russian intervention in June: on August 13 at Vilagos the unconditional surrender took place. Despite this, various formations continued the struggle. We find Lajos a member of the garrison of the completely encircled fortress of Komarom. On September 6 he was appointed major. Most likely his new rank stemmed from the clash in the neighborhood of Heteny a few days before. The War of Liberation’s final cavalry battle ended with the victory of the three hussar companies commanded by Lajos Csomortanyi. He led two of the companies into the woods, close to the town, and left one company near the town. He enticed a 300-man Cossack column moving from Ogyalla by pretending to withdraw and after a brief fight scattered the enemy by attacking from two different directions.5
In the beginning of October the defenders of Komarom were forced to give up the fortress to the Hapsburg forces, subject to certain conditions. Following this, Lajos emigrated to Turkey. From here, he departed from Constantinople with a number of other Hungarian exiles in May 1851. After linking up at Gömlek (today Gemlik, a harbor in the Sea of Marmara ) with another group, who were with Kossuth at Kutahya, they all boarded the steamer Sultan for England. On their voyage across the Mediterranean Sea they touched the island of Malta (where they made a brief stop), then Gibraltar where the ship was refueled with coal, and finally Lisbon, the Portuguese capital. At Southampton, following a few days of respite, Lajos and most of the others sailed on to America aboard the Devonshire.6
Having passed the shoals of Newfoundland, the city of New York emerged from the fog. When the ship sailed into the harbor on the 2nd August, a new world awaited the 29 year old Csomortanyi.9 A new start, with all the associated difficulties and struggles. A New World and a new country with new customs. It wasn’t easy for immigrants, especially for soldiers who had no marketable skills, which made the adjustment all the more difficult. The elaborate reception rendered in New York and the reunion with old comrades soon faded away in the face of everyday struggles.
The hope of an independent Hungary persisted among the émigré soldiers and politicians. Thus for this objective two military factories were created in the vicinity of New York City. To finance the renewed struggle for liberty, Kossuth raised money through the sale of bonds and other means, including issuing the so-called Kossuth dollars. Perhaps it is worthwhile to note that participating in the lattermost venture was a Csomortanyi, most likely a distant relative of Lajos, by the name of Karoly Csomortanyi, a lawyer in Budapest, but originally from Szentivany ( today Besenyszog). For this and for forming the Revolutionary Society of Pest in 1854 Karoly was arrested and imprisoned.10
Lajos was able to obtain work in a relatively short time after arriving in New York. By the middle of September he was working at the gunpowder production facility at Moringville, supervised by Sandor Asboth, along with one of the other defenders of Komarom as well as a fellow companion from the Devonshire, Captain Guido Pongracz. However, this place wasn’t the ideal working environment Lajos wished for.11
In March 1852 he was employed at the belt factory at Weavertown, also designed and supervised by Asboth. This facility made cartridge belts and pouches, knapsacks, rifle straps, harnesses for horses and sundry similar leather items, with Captain Mihaly Mohor serving as technical director and Lajos acting as the military commander. These were difficult, turbulent and unsettled times for the émigrés. Matters did not proceed smoothly either: his brother Alajos - who was also working at this site - departed for reasons unknown in April 1852.12 A few years later, in 1856, he surfaced in Australia as a gold digger, there he established a family, and was buried there as Louis (!) Csomortanyi.13
During this summer, Lajos too, left the factory. It is also possible that after Kossuth departed from America the factory closed. For a short time - with a countryman, Major Becsey - he tried his luck as a digger in Panama in the employ of the Panama Rail Company, a firm headquartered in New York American commercial interests, increased business activity on the West coast, and the transportation of gold from California to the East coast all made it imperative to develop a fast and safe route between the eastern and western shores. The company was founded for this purpose. At first, they were employed as common laborers, later one of them is mentioned as a carriage driver and the other as a domestic servant.14
However, this detour proved to be short. A year later, in July 1853 they surfaced in California. In 1850 California was officially admitted to the Union as a state. This and the gold rush at the beginning of 1848 altered the economic life of the territory. It can only be surmised whether Lajos and his friend were attracted to California by the gold fever or the viticulture emerging about the same time. It is a well known fact that Hungarian exiles, former military engineers, were already profitably engage in gold smelting and coin striking. Perhaps this is how he met Agoston Haraszthy, who himself was an interested party in the gold industry as a shareholder in the Eureka gold enterprise.15
In addition to all of this, Haraszthy played a pioneering role in the establishment of the California wine industry: the Buena Vista winery founded by him is still operating today.
It should be noted that around the town of Lajos’s birthplace, as well as in Eger, the seat of the Csomortanyi family of Heves County, grape growing and wine making had a history of several hundred years. Perhaps these distant ties and family connections also motivated him.
In 1859 he bought from General Mariano Vallejo - two of whose daughters married sons of Haraszthy - 500 acres (c. 200 hectares) of land in Sonoma. According to contemporary maps, it appears that Csomortanyi was among the very first who began to cultivated grapes on General Vallejo’s land.16
As to why such an experienced military man did not participate in the 1861 - 1865 Civil War begs for an answer. Examining the facts, I have come to the conclusion - even though some of his old comrades became involved in the conflict - that the economic growth in California was far more absorbing for Lajos than the bloody events on the distant East coast.
His connections with Haraszthy were quite close. In 1870 Lajos is mentioned as the late director of Buena Vista.17 Unfortunately, these years were not favorable for viticulture, thus his endeavors, like those of his fellow viticulturists, weren’t very successful. In 1866 he was depicted not as the owner, but only as the foreman of the estate which he named Tokay Vineyard, on the property which he sold previously in two lots (Haraszthy was confronted with similar financial problems: he sold Buena Vista in that very year). His tiny estate and cottage later became part of the house of famous author Jack London.18 The estate founded by Lajos was still known by its original name as late as 1894, when the beneficiaries of Kohler sold the property to the California Wine Association, and it was then that the renowned writer purchased the lot and vineyard. It should be noted that many of Jack London's popular novels were written here.
I searched assiduously for possible descendants of Lajos, but I do’'t even know whether he had a family or not. In July 1869, remote from his roots, far from his closest relatives, in a new home, but in a foreign land, at the age of 47, in rather impoverished circumstances (his estate couldn’t cover his medical and hospital bills), cavalry Major Lajos Csomortanyi, a resident of Sonoma County, died in San Francisco.19 The cause of his death wasn’t given.
In his final hours he breathed slowly and laboriously, but evenly, recalling the past decades. The memories of the past flashed before his eyes ... Although he never considered himself a loser, it appeared that the desired successes never materialized. He thought tenderly of his mother, his pleasant childhood memories, friends, and felt with relief: now the end is here ...
How should we remember Lajos Csomortanyi? As a successful riding instructor in Luzern, a soldier of the 1848 War of Liberation, a proud defender of Komarom, an embittered Hungarian émigré, director of the New York armaments factory, a lowly laborer with the Panama Rail Company, a gold digger, or simply an unsuccessful viticulturist in California?
Let us preserve in our hearts the memory of this brave and loyal hussar major of the War of Liberation!
Åseda, May 15, 2008
I would like to thank Steve Beszedits for the article's translation to English and Tamas Boros for his editorial assistance in preparing the text in Hungarian.