An idea—whence “Zygonyi”?

My father’s father’s father’s father was named Zygonyi Ray Shearer (sometimes spelled Zygonia Ray Shearer), and until today I’ve had no clear idea why he was named Zygonyi/Zygonia (for simplicity’s sake, I’ll refer to him from here on as “Ray,” which is what he went by as an adult).

Today, I came across this tidbit from a story (“Odd War Nicknames: Crack Regiments with High Sounding Adopted Titles—Some were won in battle”) that was published on page 12 of the August 19, 1897 edition of the Sterling Standard (Sterling, Illinois) and also on page 6 of the August 24, 1897 edition of the Akron Beacon Journal (Akron, Ohio):

“Zagoni’s Battalion” of Missouri cavalry, also called “Fremont’s Bodyguard,” has been immortalized in song and story for its charge at Springfield.

Before digging deeper into Zagoni’s Battalion for hints, the reason this stood out to me as a possible reason was that Ray’s mother (Mary Belle Coddington) came from a family with a strong connection to the Union Army during the U.S. Civil War. Mary Belle’s grandfather (Daniel Schram Coddington), her father (George Harrison Coddington), three of her uncles (David Humphreys Coddington, William Albert Coddington, and Lewis C. Coddington), and her half-uncle James Dennis Coddington all served in the Union Army during the Civil War.

Five of these six family members served in Missouri regiments:

  • Her grandfather Daniel Schram Coddington was a Sergeant in Company B of the 18th Missouri Infantry.
  • Her father George Harrison Coddington served in Company B of the 18th Missouri Infantry.
  • Her uncle David Humphreys Coddington served in Company D of the 47th Illinois Infantry.
  • Her uncle William Albert Coddington served in Company B of the 18th Missouri Infantry.
  • Her uncle Lewis C. Coddington served in Company C of the 42nd Missouri Infantry.
  • Her half-uncle James Dennis Coddington was a Captain in Company F og the 18th Missouri Infantry.

They were proud of their family’s service to the Union, and in November 1910 an article ran in newspapers across the state announcing that George, David, William, and Lewis were initiated into the Old Abe camp of the Sons of Veterans—their half-brother James had already been a member of the Old Abe camp for five years.

Zygonyi Ray Shearer was born on January 6, 1895, almost thirty years after the end of the U.S. Civil War. While three decades had passed since the end of the Civil War, patriotism and pride in having saved the Union were continuing to increase as veterans of that war were growing older and in need of old age pensions. Veterans told their stories on pension applications, on applications to veterans groups, in letters to the editors, to authors and historians, among others. As an example (in addition to the 1910 story I mentioned above), is this letter to the editor written by Mary Belle Coddington’s half-uncle about his family’s service (this ran on page 2 of the Thursday, September 2, 1909, edition of The National Tribune in Washington, DC):

From this article, we can see not only that the family was justifiably proud of their family’s service, but that they saw themselves as somewhat independent fighters who received help from the government, but who were not working for the government. I imagine this was a common sentiment among those serving in the volunteer forces (as opposed to regular military service).

This brings us back to Major Károly Zágonyi (known in the U.S. as Charles Zagonyi—sometimes spelled Zagonia or Zagoni), a daring Hungarian calvary leader who was himself a bit of a maverick and who seems to have become a hero of independent Union fighters.

Maj. Zagonyi was noted for his bravery, quick thinking, and previous experience fighting with the Hungarian calvary against Austria, and was put in charge of a select group of calvary organized at Cincinnati, Ohio, and St. Louis, Missouri, in August 1861. The group served under General Fremont and was referred to as “Fremont’s Body Guard.” Although the group was disbanded on orders of the Secretary of War on November 30, 1861 (more on this later), they accomplished much in their short three months of service and their exploits were the stuff of legend. Most notably, with a force of 160 men, they were ordered to scout the area around Springfield, Missouri, which had been captured by Confederate forces, in preparation for a planned Union army assault on the town.

When his unit was sent on their mission, the town was thought to be only lightly garrisoned by Confederate forces, but as they drew nearer they learned that there were about 1500–2200 Confederates in the town, laying in wait for the Union army. Zagonyi had gotten there well before the Union army, having covered 55 miles in a 17-hour forced march. When he arrived and saw the lethal trap that the Confederates had set for the Union army approaching from the east, Zagonyi took initiative and decided to skirt the town and attack from the southwest. Zagonyi’s calvary entered the city with sabers drawn (also highly unusual and discouraged by the Union command) and despite being outnumbered more than ten to one, they routed the Confederate forces and retook the town.

While a momentous victory for the Union (in fact, the only Union victory in the West in 1861), it was accomplished because Zagonyi exceeded and in some cases ignored his orders. This may not have been a problem with General Frémont, but because Frémont himself was a maverick who frequently acted independently or against orders (such as deciding to place all of Missouri under martial law and immediately emancipate all slaves in the state), Abraham Lincoln relieved Frémont of his command and his troops were ordered out of Springfield and withdrew over 100 miles to the northeast. Shortly after Frémont was dismissed, Zagonyi and his calvary were mustered out of the Army without pay.

So to recap, Zagonyi expertly and bravely defeated the rebels at Springfield, giving the Union its only victory in the West that year. Frémont effectively drove Confederate forces out of the entire state and emancipated Missouri’s slaves. But politicians in Washington decided to punish Frémont and Zagonyi and in doing so, yield southern Missouri back to the Confederates.

According to Pioneer Life in Southwest Missouri, by Wiley Britton (The Missouri Historical Review, October 1922–July 1923, pages 373-374),

A great deal was printed in the newspapers about Zagoni’s charge; but it did not accomplish anything of permanent value to the Union cause, for the reason that it was made without military judgment as to the results to be achieved…. After General Fremont’s elaborate movements had forced the Southern forces out of the State, to relive (sic) him and retire the army 125 to 150 miles, seemed to the friends of the Government the very climax of blunders on our side, and added cruel sufferings to the Unionists in all the territory yielded up.

So is it possible that Zygonyi Ray Shearer, born on January 6, 1895, was named for a people’s hero of the Union Army in Missouri in 1861? If so, it wasn’t because of any personal relationship with Charles Zagonyi, as he appears to have returned to Hungary in 1867 and was never heard from again. It doesn’t even seem that Ray’s parents spent any time in the areas of Missouri associated with Charles Zagonyi (Ray’s dad was from Iowa and his parents were from North Carolina; and while Ray’s mom was born in Missouri, it was in far north Missouri; her parents were from Iowa and Indiana, although her dad, uncles, and grandfather campaigned throughout the state). So if Ray was named after Charles Zagonyi, he was named after the legend of Zagonyi, as preserved in stories and songs. While songs were written about the brave deeds in Springfield, they don’t specifically Zagonyi (or any soldiers) by name (see, for instance, The Song of the Guard, or The Trooper’s Death, written in 1863).

If Ray was indeed named after Charles Zagonyi, it probably would have been because of stories Ray’s mother Mary Belle Coddington heard from the Civil War veterans in her family, most especially her father George Harrison Coddington, a twice-wounded Union veteran who served for four years and three months in Company B of the 18th Regiment of Missouri Infantry.

So what do you think? Would Mary Belle have named her first-born after a local-ish popular war hero who exemplified the mettle, bravery, and resourcefulness of Missourians? Why wouldn’t she name her first-born after her own twice-wounded father who served the Union for nearly the entire length of the war? Perhaps she had everyone and their brother wanting her to name her first-born after them, and she chose a safe course by selecting none of their names and instead going with the name of someone they all respected? Or is there some other reason for this highly unusual name choice that I’ve never encountered before?

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