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News | June 21, 2021

The Hungarian Code Writers

Most people today are familiar with the Native American Code Talkers of World War II, who used their native languages — often unintelligible to non-members of their tribe — to transmit important tactical communications in the war against Germany and Japan.

Much less well known is the Union Army’s use of Hungarian immigrants during the early months of the American Civil War to transmit their own unintelligible code via telegram and written message. Many Hungarian immigrants made their way to the United States following the failed Hungarian Revolution of 1848, when Hungary sought independence from the Habsburg, or Austrian Empire. When the Hungarians looked like they might pull off the victory in 1849, the Austrian Empire called on the Russians for help. Tsar Nicholas I sent a massive army to support the Austrians and the joint forces ultimately defeated the Hungarians. Before Habsburg rule was restored and ruthless martial law was implemented, many Hungarian fighters fled their native country. Many came to the U.S., with over 90% settling in northern cities — especially, New York, and St. Louis, Missouri.

When the American Civil War started 12 years later, many Hungarians who had fought in the 1848 Revolution joined the Union war effort, particularly in the first year of the conflict. Well-educated Hungarians with military and political experience supported the North in whatever way they could. For example, in Missouri, they played a sizable role in creating the St. Louis Home Guard. Missouri was a border state and the St. Louis Home Guard, like other home guards formed in 1861, sought to oppose secessionist elements in the state. Additionally, Hungarians were awarded prominent positions in MG John C. Fremont’s Department of the West; in fact, the leader of “Fremont’s Body Guard” was none other than Hungarian-born Maj. James Zagonyi.

Of special note to the study of early U.S. cryptologic history, Hungarians also used their native language to send “coded” messages for both Fremont and then-commander of Southeastern Missouri, BG Ulysses S. Grant. It was September 1861 and border state politics and military incursions into them were heating up. Fremont was aware of Confederate movements into the border state of Kentucky, and while he certainly sought to root out that threat, he also sought to use the situation to pursue his own interest in expanding his department’s reach outside of Missouri. Kentucky was then under the authority of BG William Tecumseh Sherman’s Department of the Cumberland, but that technicality would not deter the ambitious Fremont.

As a result, Fremont sent BG Grant a Hungarian-coded telegram on 5 September, authorizing him to enter Kentucky, address the Confederate threat, and occupy certain sites, “including Paducah, if you feel strong enough.” The Hungarian code was what ensured that the Department of the West’s high-level tactical and strategic communications remained secure when transmitted over telegraph. One native Hungarian, located at department headquarters in St. Louis, would transmit the coded message, while another native in the field — in this case, co-located with BG Grant — would translate it. In September 1861, the Hungarian native who supported BG Grant in the encoding and decoding of secret messages was MAJ Raphael Guido Rombauer, who translated Hungarian code for BG Grant in Cairo, Illinois, (just before his move on Paducah, Kentucky). MG Fremont also sent Hungarian-encoded messages to military and political leaders in Washington D.C., during this period. Indeed, it was this secret Hungarian code that successfully served portions of the Union army during the early months of the war, prior to the development and use of more official codes for encrypting telegraph and written messages.