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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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."
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.