Gustav Waagner: The Hungarian Revolutionary Faced One of his Toughest Tests against Stonewall Jackson at Manassas Junction

After the march of Stonewall Jackson’s 24,000 men culminated at Bristoe Station on August 26, 1862, where they managed to cut John Pope’s communication and supply line, Jackson turned his attention to Manassas Junction five miles up the Orange & Alexandria Railroad. A portion of his command scattered the small Federal garrison there overnight; Jackson moved two of his three divisions there on the morning of August 27.

Ruins at Manassas Junction (Library of Congress)

As the Confederates marched along the railroad, they found signs indicating what was to come. Bits of food and occasionally a box of nourishment littered the ground along the tracks. Soldiers stooped down in step to grab the victuals. “You needn’t stop to pick them up, boys, there’s plenty of everything a little way ahead,” yelled one soldier with plenty of foresight. Once they reached the junction, the foot soldiers realized why those scraps they passed it were not worth it.

At Manassas Junction, scores of boxcars and warehouses filled with Federal supplies greeted their eyes. It was “an amount and variety of property such as I had never conceived of (I speak soberly),” remembered one of Jackson’s men. In the van, the men of the Stonewall Brigade got first crack at the supplies, grabbing more than they could hold or consume. The horrors of war seemed distant, at least for the moment.

Two distant cannon shot brought the war back to their minds. Jackson dispatched his men to the Manassas earthworks constructed the previous year to fend off an enemy counterattack. As the Confederates filed into their positions, they saw a Union regiment approximately 600 men strong deploy into battle line and send their skirmishers forward.

These Federal soldiers who broke up the Confederate party at Manassas Junction belonged to the 2nd New York Heavy Artillery, troops who had been garrisoning the Washington defenses since late 1861. Few of them had probably ventured out more than a mile or so beyond the fortifications until August 26, 1862, when they received orders to march to Manassas Junction and strengthen the garrison there.

After crossing Bull Run the next morning, the regiment’s colonel, Gustav Waagner, found the remnants of the Union garrison scattered the night before—two artillery pieces under Capt. Albert von Puttkammer. Von Puttkammer’s men had been driven away in the night. All they knew was that there was a Confederate force in front of them, but they were surely unaware of its growing size. Anxious for revenge and supported by Waagner’s large regiment, Puttkammer ordered his guns loaded and shots fired at the enemy plundering the junction supply stores before Waagner’s men advanced.

Gustav Waagner and his men were in over their heads, though not because of a lack of experience. Any regiment, green or veteran, of 600 men would be in a bad situation facing thousands of enemy soldiers in their front, some of whom were behind entrenchments. And there is where Waagner excelled.

Men of the 2nd New York Heavy Artillery in the defenses of Washington (New York State Military Museum)

Waagner was 49 years old when he led his New Yorkers across Bull Run that August morning. He was a Bohemian native of Czech descent. At the age of 15, he attended a military academy in Vienna to study military engineering. Two years of schooling earned Waagner a spot in the Hungarian army’s artillery branch. He served there for two years before resigning and reverting back to his engineering roots.

Many holes exist in Waagner’s chronology, but by the 1840s, he was working as an engineer in Pressburg, modern-day Bratislava. In 1848, Hungary became swept up in a revolution, like most of the rest of Europe, plunging Waagner back into the military. He organized Hungary’s artillery forces against the Russians and Austrians and eventually served as the government’s supervisor of gunpowder production in southern Hungary and later became the country’s director of saltpeter production. However, Hungary’s revolution was suppressed and the victorious Austro-Russian empires exiled many of Hungary’s top leaders, including Waagner.

The exiled soldier went to Kutahya (in western Turkey today) along with the ex-governor of the Kingdom of Hungary and leader of the Hungarian Revolution, Lajos Kossuth. Kossuth had Waagner’s mother to thank for rescuing Kossuth’s family and escorting them to safety at the end of the revolution. Decades later, Kossuth remembered Waagner’s contributions to Hungary: “You have, with true patriotism, constancy, courage and cheerful self-denial, devoted yourself to the noble and righteous cause of Hungary from the beginning of her legitimate War of Independence to its very end.” But Waagner’s contributions did not end while in exile in Asia Minor.

In 1851, Waagner came to the United States, entering the country through New York City. Kossuth put him to work creating war materiel for Hungary’s next revolution. A few years later, Waagner was in Pennsylvania serving as an engineer for the Cattawissa, Williamsport & Erie Railroad. In 1854, while serving in that civil role, he tried to return to Europe to join the Ottoman Army, though Kossuth ordered him not to.

Seven years later, another opportunity to join an army settled in Waagner’s lap when the Civil War began. Waagner applied to George B. McClellan for a job. McClellan accepted his offer and sent him to Cairo, Illinois, to train green troops. In Cairo, Waagner got a taste of American volunteer soldiers. British journalist William Howard Russell found Waagner in Cairo “in a hut full of flies, suffering from camp diarrhea.” Waagner took time to voice his opinion about volunteer soldiers to Russell. “It is most astonishing how ignorant they are; there is not one of these men who can trace a regular work. Of West Point I speak not, but of the people about here, and they will not learn of me—from me who know.”

Waagner also put his engineering skills to work in Cairo. He plotted the city’s defenses and supervised their construction. Russell concluded, “the works were well enough, strongly covered, commanded both rivers, and not to be reduced without trouble.”

Out west, Waagner worked alongside Ulysses Grant, who praised the European for his “great zeal and precaution” during an expedition to Belmont, Missouri, on September 2, 1861. Waagner caught the eye of department commander John Fremont, who appointed him as the department’s chief of artillery. When Waagner left Grant’s immediate area of operations, Grant said of him, “His energy and ability have been of great service to me, particularly in directing reconnaissance, and his loss from his post will be felt.” This was high praise from the future commanding general of the United States Army.

After Fremont was forced out of his role in November 1861 over an emancipation squabble with President Lincoln, Waagner was out of a job. It appears he put his New York connections to work and was named lieutenant colonel of the 2nd New York Heavy Artillery on March 5, 1862. Nine days later, he was its colonel. Strangely, records list Waagner as being dismissed from this leadership role on August 26, 1862, the same day he led his regiment towards Manassas Junction. Regardless, he was definitely in charge of the regiment when it faced Jackson’s men on August 27.

Waagner’s headstone in Hampton National Cemetery (Find a Grave)

With decades of military and engineering experience, Waagner knew a tough situation when he saw one. Yet, supported by von Puttkammer’s screaming shells, his men marched towards Manassas. When within a half mile of the enemy positions, Waagner realized what he was getting into. More Confederate troops moved into position. Waagner tried to extend his line to meet these reserves but he did not have enough men to adequately do so. Increased Confederate artillery fire made the odds more apparent. And charging strong earthworks—something the engineer Waagner was familiar with—did not seem a bright idea. Recognizing the no-win situation he and his men were in, Waagner ordered a retreat. A small portion of Jackson’s force pursued. Waagner, however, was able to bring his command off the field intact, having lost 7 men wounded and 53 missing.

Unfortunately, Waagner, a man with potential to aid the Union war effort, vanishes from the historical records for the rest of the war. In fact, I could not locate him until 1887, when the New York Times described him as “old and broken in health, and has lost his sight.” By 1890, Waagner was living in Virginia’s National Home for Disabled Soldiers. He died on December 27, 1891, in Hampton, Virginia. His remains rest under a simple military headstone in the Hampton National Cemetery.

5 Responses to Gustav Waagner: The Hungarian Revolutionary Faced One of his Toughest Tests against Stonewall Jackson at Manassas Junction

  1. Thanks for introducing this little-known American patriot. Gustave Waagner was representative of the many “Germans” observed in St. Louis, supposedly brought over to America by MGen Fremont upon his return from Europe; and then rumored to be engaged in an Aaron Burr-style plot to “set up an independent Nation of Fremont” in the West. Ignored is the fact that in May 1861, so many West Point-trained officers had left the service of the United States to join the Confederacy, that the official Army codes were compromised. MGen Fremont employed Hungarian as a “code-language,” attached Hungarian speakers to his essential commanders, and communicated securely with those commanders via the telegraph. It is believed that Gustave Waagner “decrypted” Hungarian language telegrams for BGen U.S. Grant at Cairo.
    The attached is a 1913 booklet that records the war service of many of the noteworthy Hungarian-American participants in the War Between the States. Although there is nothing more to add concerning Colonel Waagner, the final five pages of the booklet list perhaps sixty Federal officers from this community

  2. Hungarian Emeric Szabad served in the Union army, was captured, and put into Libby Prison. Afterwards, he published a lively account of his adventures, and I used many of his observations in my recent book “The Greatest Escape, a True Civil War Adventure”. Though a true Union loyalist, he was a European aristocrat who often criticized his fellow officers for their general uncouthness. He gets a long paragraph in above mentioned book about Hungarians in the Civil War.

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