‘The dreadful multitude of rebellious hordes that I found at Kápolna have been scattered and mostly annihilated, and the remnants are fleeing across the Tisza. In a few days, I am hoping to be in Debrecen and to succeed in seizing that center of revolt. Such was the message sent to Emperor Franz Josef I by Field Marshal Alfred Fürst (Prince) zu Windisch-Grätz, commander in chief of the Austrian Imperial army in Hungary after the Battle of Kápolna on February 27, 1849. Windisch-Grätz saw every reason to regard his victory as the turning point in the war Hungary had been fighting since September 1848 to achieve independence from Austria. When Franz Josef, theoretically both emperor of Austria and king of Hungary, received news of the victory, he drew up a new constitution in Olmütz that essentially reasserted the absolutist powers of the Hapsburg monarchy. Nominally, he accepted parliamentary monarchy, but he nevertheless abrogated any autonomy for the separate nations within his empire.
The previous year, 1848, had been a year of revolutions throughout Europe. The Hapsburg empire, a conglomerate of various central European nations, was among the regions ravaged by insurrections. The so-called Holy Alliance, created by Russia, Austria, Prussia and Britain to guard the old system of monarchies in Europe following the defeat of French Emperor Napoleon in 1815, collapsed amid a wave of bourgeois and liberal insurrections in Paris, Venice, Berlin and Prague. In the Austrian capital of Vienna, Chancellor Prince Klemens Wenzel Nepomuk Lothar von Metternich, the most devoted defender of the old order, was overthrown by a popular rebellion on March 13. Emperor Ferdinand V, feeling himself threatened, promised constitutional reforms and the relaxation of suppressive efforts throughout the empire. On March 18, Italian revolutionary nationalists in Milan revolted against Austrian rule, and on the 22nd the Kingdom of Sardinia-Piedmont declared war on behalf of the nationalists in Austria’s Italian provinces. Meanwhile, the Slavic population of the empire was voicing discontent, and Hungary, the largest territory within the empire, also showed signs of revolt.
The underdeveloped Hungarian territories had been fighting for civil reforms for decades. Led by Lajos Kossuth, a small group of prominent aristocrats — the exclusive holders of political rights in the kingdom — advocated radical changes to overcome the industrial and political backwardness of the country. Those efforts were vehemently opposed by the government in Vienna, which wanted Hungary, with its rich agriculture and plentiful sources of raw materials, to remain the pantry of the empire and a market for Austrian and Bohemian industrial goods. Vienna entered into an alliance with the more conservative elements of the Hungarian nobility and tried to slow down reforms by any possible means.
A bloodless revolution by liberal and radical elements in Pest on March 15, 1848, finally put an end to the continual debates regarding class representation by a Diet (national assembly) that represented only the nobility. Encouraged by the uprising in Vienna, the radicals, rallying around poet and revolutionary Sandor Petöfi, summed up and published their demands in Twelve Points, along with Petöfi’s Nemzeti dal (National Song) — a significant step in itself, since both were published without prior permission from the censors. Terrified by the accelerated speed of events, the aristocracy accepted the proposals of the liberals without objection, and Emperor Ferdinand signed reform laws on April 11.
The new legislation, the so-called April Laws, abolished the institution of serfdom, which dated back to the Middle Ages, and made peasants the owners of the land they cultivated. It also revoked the tax-free status of the nobility and ended censorship. The Hungarian kingdom became a constitutional monarchy. The Diet, hitherto drawn from the nobility and convened only by request of the king, was replaced by a representative parliament, which was to meet annually and to which the first prime minister, Grof (Count) Lajos Batthyány, was responsible. The military forces were reorganized into a national guard, and ultimately every soldier of the Imperial army who was stationed in Hungary had to take an oath of allegiance to the government in Buda.
The Imperial court in Vienna, however, regarded the April Laws as mere temporary measures. The ardent supporters of an absolute sovereign power, who feared losing Hungary’s resources and manpower if there was a complete separation between Austria and Hungary, could not openly oppose the changes, principally because Austrian forces were already engaged in a war in Italy. Secretly, though, the Imperialists supported conspiracies to undermine the new government.
The territory of 19th-century Hungary included the entire Carpathian basin, but less than half of the population spoke Magyar as their mother tongue — the other ethnic groups spoke a variety of Slavic languages, Romanian or German. Those ethnic groups set out on the road to modern nationhood almost simultaneously with the Hungarians, and although they welcomed the achievements of the revolution, the leaders of the Serbs, Croats, Romanians and Slovaks soon started to demand autonomy themselves. Their ambitions were not appreciated by the Hungarian politicians, who did not tolerate political autonomy for any other ethnic groups, except in the case of the Croats, whose territorial claims went back several centuries. The Imperial court took advantage of this situation, inciting the various national movements to revolt against the new Hungarian government.
The first uprising within Hungary was launched in June 1848 by ethnic Serbs living on the southern border, who received support from Serbian frontier guards and armed volunteers. On September 17, the Croatian governor, Colonel Josip Jellacic, attacked Hungary. Then, in October, the Romanians living in Transylvania began an armed revolt against the Hungarian community.
At first, the Hungarian government did not have enough military power to protect the country. Although it controlled 15 out of 58 Imperial line infantry regiments, five out of 20 grenadier battalions, 12 out of 37 cavalry regiments and an additional 18 border guard infantry regiments, most of those were stationed in distant territories of the Austrian empire, and their withdrawal to the homeland was slow. The Imperial army units stationed within the country were mostly of foreign origin, their soldiers loyal to the Hungarian government only in theory, and they openly revolted in the fall of 1848. Thus, the actual military power that the Hungarians were able to muster, even including two supplementary Italian battalions and nine hussar regiments, consisted of 26 infantry battalions instead of the original 58 — a total of 25,000 men. Additionally, the Hungarians had absolutely no heavy cavalry, which was traditionally a specialty of the Austrians, Bohemians and Italians.
To supplement the regular troops, the roughly 60,000 national guardsmen who had been originally mobilized to secure internal order were ordered into active service. Only a quarter of them were armed, however, and the majority lacked any significant military training — their three or four weeks of mandatory camp service was grossly inadequate to instill the necessary skills.
After repulsing Jellacic’s forces at the Battle of Pákozd on September 29, a Hungarian army crossed the border into Austria on October 3. After a second revolution broke out in Vienna on October 6, the Hungarians slowly advanced on the capital to support the revolutionaries — only to find an Imperial army under Field Marshal Windisch-Grätz ready to confront it at Schwechat on October 30. The Hungarian national guardsmen could not effectively counter the Imperial artillery in the battle that ensued, and many of them fled the battlefield without firing a shot. Windisch-Grätz crushed the Viennese revolt on the following day.
After the lessons learned in the Serbian uprising, the Hungarian government started building a regular army independent of the Imperial military forces. In the summer of 1848, 10 brown-coated Honvéd (national defense) battalions — 10,000 soldiers — were added to the old Imperial units, and the number of the newly organized battalions was increased to 53 by the end of the year. Imperial hussar regiments that had been stationed too far away to join the Hungarian army were re-formed in Hungary and then expanded from 12 to 18 regiments. Young men from the educated elite were recruited into the artillery and soon became so proficient that the Austrians thought they were French mercenaries fighting on the Hungarian side.
The army was organized by the Committee for National Defense, which had been formed to work alongside the government. With Kossuth as its president after the resignation of Prime Minister Batthyány in October, the committee became the absolute executive power. Under Kossuth’s leadership, the number of troops in the Hungarian army had reached 100,000 by the end of October.
After secretly supporting revolts against the Hungarians, the Imperial court finally decided on an open confrontation in December. Ferdinand V, who had accepted the April Laws, was forced to abdicate and was succeeded on December 2 by his nephew, Franz Josef I, who had just turned 18. According to the Imperial court, Franz Josef was not bound by the promises of his predecessors, but he was never considered to be a legitimate king by the Hungarians, who claimed that they neither elected nor crowned him. Thus, the peace proposals made to the new emperor by the Hungarians, as well as an attempt by the U.S. ambassador to mediate between the two countries, proved fruitless. Franz Josef ordered his army to attack Hungary.
Under the leadership of Field Marshal Windisch-Grätz, an Imperial army of 55,000 troops started from Vienna for Buda while additional attacks were carried out by other Imperial forces stationed around Hungary. The Hungarian army was defeated on every front, and Windisch-Grätz’s troops occupied Buda and Pest on January 5, 1849. Only the slow, deliberate nature of the Imperial advance, which allowed the Hungarians time to regroup and bring reinforcements up to the line, prevented them from being completely routed.
Following their initial baptism of fire, however, the Hungarian soldiers became more effective as they became more experienced. English-born Maj. Gen. Richard Guyon exhorted his Honvéd infantry regiment before the conquest of the Branisko Pass on February 5 with the desperate words: If you advance further, you’ll get double the money, but if you dare to withdraw, I’ll shoot you! By the end of the winter, his battalions, once labeled chicken-livered by fellow Hungarians, were able to match the veteran Imperial troops.
Hungarian fortunes took a turn for the better with the appointment of Polish Lt. Gen. Joséf Bem as commander of the Transylvanian army. Romanians fighting alongside the Imperial troops were harassing the Hungarian forces almost everywhere in Transylvania by the end of 1848, but under Bem’s leadership the Transylvanian army was able to completely rout the Imperial forces. Then, with a series of lightning strikes and superior mobility, Bem drove them from northern Transylvania.
Subsequently, the territory lying to the east of the Tisza River was secured, allowing the Hungarian government, which had moved to Debrecen, to boost military production and organize new regiments. With Windisch-Grätz’s offensive stalled and about to collapse, the Hungarians regrouped their scattered troops behind the Tisza and began to prepare a counteroffensive. Kossuth appointed another Polish volunteer, Lt. Gen. Henryk Dembinski, commander in chief of the Hungarian army. Compared to Bem, however, Dembinski proved to be a poor choice. After leading his troops across the Tisza, he failed to adequately reconnoiter the enemy’s movements, and his scattered army was surprised by a large Imperial force under Windisch-Grätz at Kápolna on February 26. After heavy fighting, the isolated Hungarian sections were defeated on the following day.
Thus, the great hopes that the Hungarians had placed on their offensive were stifled at the beginning. Windisch-Grätz issued a sanguine report following his victory at Kápolna — but he was premature in boasting of his triumph. He was compelled to postpone his attack on the territory east of the Tisza because of tough resistance, and the initiative again passed into the hands of the Hungarians. Facing an equally strong Imperial force — both armies numbered about 50,000 troops each — General György Klapka, who took charge of Hungarian forces from Dembinski, devised a bold plan to tip the balance in his favor. The Imperial troops were situated far west of the Tisza, which enabled the Hungarians to divide their army into two groups. While one corps feinted on the northern wing in the direction of Gyöngyös and Hatvan, the remaining three corps were able to move undetected in the southern wing, encircle the Imperial forces and attack from their rear in the area of Gödöllo.
The spring campaign began with a decisive victory for the Hungarians, as Lt. Gen. Artúr Görgei’s corps effectively surprised the Austrians in the Battle of Hatvan on April 2. The Hungarians’ failure to effectively reconnoiter the area, however, resulted in a cavalry skirmish at Tápióbicske two days later, and although the Hungarians were victorious, the encounter tipped off the Austrians to their plan to encircle them. Consequently, though defeated again at Isaszeg on the 6th, the Austrian forces were able to withdraw from the pincers maneuver and retire toward Pest. Since it was still risky to attack the isolated but still formidable Imperial army in Pest, the Hungarians bypassed the city and moved west to lay siege to Komárom, in the center of the territories under Imperial control.
Komárom was one of the strongest fortresses in the Hapsburg empire, but its location at the crossing point of the Danube and Vág rivers presented the Hungarians an opportunity to conquer both shores of the Danube, thereby cutting off the Imperial reinforcements heading toward Pest. While two corps were kept near Pest to keep Windisch-Grätz uncertain about the Hungarians’ intentions, the remaining three corps made a wide detour on the left shore of the Danube and defeated the Imperial troops setting up blockades at Vác and Nagysalló on April 19. On April 26, the last remnants of Imperial forces defending Komárom were destroyed at Acs, compelling the Austrians to abandon the defensive line of the Danube River.
The Hungarians’ strategy had been extremely risky. If the Austrians had learned how weak the force outside Pest was before the Hungarians had launched their offensive, their army at Pest would have been destroyed, allowing the Imperial forces to advance unhindered as far as Debrecen. In retrospect, Görgei remarked, Such a maneuver one can certainly afford against Prince Windisch-Grätz. After this series of failures, Windisch-Grätz was forced to resign from his post as commander in chief, and his successor, Field Marshal Julius Jacob Freiherr von Haynau, had to withdraw the Austrian military forces all the way back to the starting point of their winter campaign in the outskirts of Vienna. The closing event of the spring campaign was the recapture of the Buda castle by the Honvéd forces on May 21. Meanwhile, after a series of battles with varying degrees of success, Bem finally succeeded in driving the last Imperial forces from Transylvania by the end of April. Bem had also won victories in Serbia in March, leaving the majority of the country in Hungarian hands for the first time since the start of the war.
The spring battles ended in a stalemate, with neither side holding a decisive advantage, but at that point Austria turned to her traditional ally, Russia, for help. Czar Nicholas I, worried that the revolution would spread as far as Poland, was eager to offer his army to put down the Hungarian revolt. At the same time, Kossuth, pointing out Ferdinand’s abdication and Franz Josef’s ominous Olmütz constitution, convinced the government to declare the dethronement of the Hapsburg dynasty on April 14, thereby hoping to gain the support of the Western European powers for a Hungarian republic. France, however, was busy with its own internal problems, and Britain saw the entire European balance of power endangered by a weakened Hapsburg empire. Thus, after being informed about Russia’s plans for intervention, the British foreign minister declared to the Russian ambassador, Maybe they are right, but get done with them [the Hungarians] quickly.
The Russians surprised everybody with the strength of their response. Both the Imperial military leadership and the Hungarians were expecting a maximum force of 60,000 Russian soldiers. The Austrian failures, however, led the cautious czar to decide that the military force he was sending needed to be strong enough to ensure victory without Imperial aid. Thus, he eventually supported Franz Josef with 200,000 soldiers and put an additional 80,000 on alert. The Imperial army could field 170,000 men, while the Hungarians expanded their army to about the same number. With the Russian forces stepping in, the Hungarian army was facing a combined force more than double its size. There could be no doubt that the two double-headed eagles — the heraldic birds of both imperial dynasties — would ultimately emerge victorious.
The Hungarian military leadership pinned its last hope on dealing the Imperial army a heavy blow on the left shore of the Danube before the Russians arrived, in order to create more favorable circumstances for any future peace negotiations. The planned summer offensive was halted, however, when railroad trains sped up the arrival of Russian reinforcements from Poland.
Following the declaration of complete independence from Austria on April 14, the Hungarian government appointed Görgei both commander in chief of the army and minister of defense. Kossuth, the provisionally elected governing president, declared Szeged, near Hungary’s southern border with the politically neutral Ottoman empire, to be the assembly point for the Hungarian forces. Theoretically, the location was also suitable to carry out movements against the Serbian forces and thus threaten the entire territory. Kossuth’s plan had a serious weakness, however. Although it created an opportunity for uniting the entire Hungarian army, it also enabled the union of the Austrian and Russian forces. The allied Russian and Austrian armies intended to surround the Hungarian forces in a pincer maneuver from the north and west, while their troops in Transylvania, by retaking the lost territory, would block further resistance by controlling the eastern part of the country.
The summer campaign started successfully for the allies, with 30,000 Hungarian troops unable to stop a 60,000-strong army at the western border under Haynau. The Imperial commander unexpectedly relocated his soldiers onto the left shore of the Danube and cut off the main Hungarian army from Buda.
Meanwhile, two Russian armies, commanded by Field Marshal Ivan Fyodorovich Paskievich, Prince of Warsaw, and Lt. Gen. Pavel Khristoforovich Grabbe, began marching south from the Carpathians on June 17, intending to converge on Vác, on the shore of the Danube, to block the Hungarian army’s shortest route to Szeged. The 16,000 Hungarian troops guarding Hungary’s northern border, commanded by yet another Polish volunteer, General Józef Wysocki, were hopelessly outnumbered by Paskievich’s army. Görgei’s army, however, was not only withdrawing before Haynau’s advance but was also maneuvering to strike the Russians in flank. Recognizing the threat, Paskievich advanced cautiously, allowing Wysocki to conduct a slow fighting retreat to central Hungary, where he was able to unite with a newly organized force under General Mór Perczel.
The inexorable Russian advance from the north compelled Görgei to make a large detour around them in the direction of Losonc, Rimaszombat, Miskolc, Tokaj and Nagyvárad. Although he had only 30,000 troops under his immediate command, Görgei managed to stop the 120,000 troops of Paskievich’s main army by harassing the Russian lines of communication. Moving along the Russians’ exterior lines, his troops performed brilliantly, reaching their designated targets in spite of the Russians’ being much closer to those objectives. With very little loss, on August 9 Görgei’s men arrived at Arad, which by then had been redesignated as the assembly point in place of Szeged.
Meanwhile, Bem — with heavy losses — tied down Russian forces in Transylvania, preventing them from reaching the Hungarian plains. First he stopped Russian Lt. Gen. Magnus Johann von Grotenheilm’s army at Bezsterce on July 10, then struck at the rear of the main Russian force, under General of Infantry Aleksandr Nikolayevich Lüders. Austrian Lt. Gen. Eduard Graf von Clam-Gallas, who had been left behind to pacify the region, was unable to cope with the Hungarian troops in Transylvania. Therefore, Lüders had to interrupt his march toward the main theater of war three times in order to assist his Austrian ally until he finally managed to defeat Bem’s army at Segesvár on July 31 and destroy it at Nagyczür on August 6.
In the meantime, a Hungarian division under Maj. Gen. György Kmety, which had been separated from Görgei’s army in the early stages of Haynau’s offensive, withdrew from Csorna southeast toward Szabadka, where he joined the troops of Lt. Gen. Antal Vetter fighting at the southern border. Thus strengthened, their combined forces were able to drive Jellacic’s Austrian troops and Serbian rebels back to the southern bank of the Danube.
At that point, the opportunity still existed for the Hungarians to assemble 70,000 soldiers from different battlefields and strike at Haynau’s army, which had been reduced to less than 30,000 men. However, Dembinski, commanding 34,000 troops at Szeged, gave up the city on August 5. Then, instead of heading toward Arad, he marched toward Temesvár — which was in Austrian hands — completely forfeiting any chance of a future linkup with Görgei’s army. Bem, who had managed to escape the debacle at Segesvár by feigning death, took command of the retreating army from the inadequate Dembinski and tried to make a stand at Temesvár on August 9, but his force was routed by Haynau. Bem, Dembinski and Kossuth fled to Turkey, but Haynau had nine other rebel generals hanged and four more shot at Arad.
From then on, there was no point in further fighting. After withdrawing from Arad with his remaining army — by then down to 22,000 troops — Görgei surrendered to a Russian force under General of Cavalry Friedrich Wilhelm von Rüdiger, which had been pursuing him from the north, at Világos on August 13, 1849. Görgei’s surrender to the Russians rather than to the Austrians was a last gesture of defiance, implying that the Hungarians had failed only because of the Russian intervention.
Defeat was followed by a large-scale — and, even by the standards of the time, brutal — retaliation against the rebellious Hungarians. I shall uproot the weed, Haynau swore. I shall set an example to the whole of Europe of how rebels should be treated and how order, peace and tranquillity should be ensured for a century. Hungary’s first prime minister, Batthyány, died before a firing squad on October 6. On Haynau’s orders, more than 100 people were executed, 1,200 Imperial officers fighting on the Hungarian side were sentenced to imprisonment, and an additional 40,000 to 50,000 officers and soldiers were drafted into the Imperial army.
After spending time in Turkey, Kossuth left for America in September 1851 aboard the U.S. Navy frigate Mississippi, and between December and July 1852 he toured the United States at the invitation of the government. At receptions in New York, Philadelphia and Boston, he was touted as the Hungarian George Washington, and in January 1852 he addressed the Senate and House of Representatives, the second non-American to do so since the Marquis de Lafayette in 1824. He died, still in exile, in Turin, Italy, on March 20, 1894. Many other former Honvéd troops who fled to the United States put their combat experience to use again in the Union army during the American Civil War. Joséf Bem remained in Turkey, embraced Islam and, under the adopted name of Murad Pasha, became governor of Aleppo, where he died on December 10, 1850.
In spite of Austria’s ultimate victory, the prophecy of future British Prime Minister Henry John Temple, 3rd Viscount Palmerston, was fulfilled: Continuing the fight till the end, he had predicted, Austria is crushing her right hand in this war. The social changes brought about by the revolutionary legislation were irreversible. After a series of failures, both abroad and at home, during the 1850s and early 1860s, Franz Josef I was finally compelled to compromise and create a dualistic state out of the Hapsburg empire in 1867. The first prime minister of the Austro-Hungarian dual monarchy was Grof Gyula Andrássy, who had fought in the war as a hussar officer and who, during his years in exile, had been sentenced to death by Emperor Franz Josef and hanged in effigy.
This article was written by János B. Szabó and originally appeared in the August 1999 issue of Military History magazine. For more great articles be sure to subscribe to Military History magazine today!