|3rd New Jersey Cavalry
The Butterfly Hussars
|Sometimes ridiculed by their Union Army comrades, the cavalrymen
of the 3rd New Jersey eventually lived up to the dashing image
suggested by their unique, flamboyant uniforms.
When the Civil War broke out in April 1861, state volunteers regiments on both
sides marched into battle wearing a dazzling -- and downright confusing --
kaleidoscope of colorful uniforms. By 1862, the two sides had sorted
themselves into blue and gray, and as the realities of a hard, protracted war
set in, uniforms swiftly evolved into a simple, functional form. In some units, the
more distinctive affectations, such as the popular Zouave uniform, were
modified to be more like the standard uniforms or abandoned entirely. By the
end of 1863, most regiments on both sides were more intent on getting the war
over than on worrying about how they looked.
Then, early in 1864, a new uniform appeared in the ranks of the Union Army of
the Potomac. In marked contrast to the Army's standard complements of
blue-clad troopers rode the 3rd New Jersey Volunteer Cavalry Regiment.
Variously known as the 1st United States Hussars and the Trenton Hussars,
the cavalrymen of the 3rd were widely referred to by their comrades in arms as
The light cavalry known as hussars originated in Serbia in the late 14th
century, where the Slavonic term gussar (bandit) referred to their forte of
scouting and harassing the enemy. Over the next few centuries, both the
tactics of high mobility and the uniform of the hussar evolved in Hungary.
Then, in the 18th century, the hussar and his dashing, flamboyant uniform
came into vogue in armies throughout western Europe. The British army was
among the last to officially adopt the term, in 1805, but its hussar regiments
became the most expensive light cavalry in history because of the amount of
money spent on their ornate uniforms.
The hussars never caught on to any similar degree in the U.S. Army. Some
state militia units like the 3rd New York Hussars affected the uniform while
drilling at home but almost never wore it in battle. Curiously, the closest thing
to the European original at the start of the Civil War appeared in the western
border state of Missouri. The Benton Hussars, also known as Joseph Nemitt's
Cavalry Battalion, were raised in St. Louis in late 1861. Their uniforms
reversed the standard Union Army colors, with light-blue jackets and dark-blue
trousers. Black braids were arrayed across the jacket in hussar fashion, but
unlike the genuine article, in which ornate frogging across the breast was
fastened to buttons on one side or the other, the Benton Hussar jacket
buttoned in the middle, the same as any other U.S. Army jacket. An 1851
pattern cloth shako served as headgear until it was eventually phased out in
favor of the standard Union kepi.
Another hussar unit was formed in St. Louis by Karoly Zagonyi, a veteran of
Hungary's ill-fated war of independence in 1848-49. Zagonyi had spent two
years in an Austrian prison before being released and immigrating to the
United States in 1851. In July 1861, he came to Missouri and became
instructor of cavalry for the commander of the Department of the West, Maj.
Gen. John C. Fremont. Zagonyi trained a cavalry force in European tactics
and equipped it with German sabers, Colt Navy and Beale revolvers, and
dark-blue jackets, trousers and caps of the finest quality. Dubbed "Fremont's
Bodyguard," the gaudy troopers were looked at askance by Missourians, but
the role that Major Zagonyi and his troopers played in the Union victory at
Springfield on October 25, 1861, did much to silence their critics.
Fancy hussar uniforms could not last long on the American frontier, however.
In February 1862, the Benton Hussars were incorporated into the 5th Missouri
Cavalry. That unit in turn was later reorganized into the 4th Missouri Cavalry,
which also absorbed Fremont's Bodyguard.
Meanwhile, in the Eastern Theater of Operations, the Union cavalry corps did
little to justify wearing dashing uniforms of any sort. By mid-1862, it was
actions, not appearances, that counted in Virginia, and there the most
noteworthy acts of scouting, screening and harassment were being performed
by Confederate cavalrymen under the command of such outstanding officers
as Colonel Elijah White, Lt. Col. John S. Mosby and Maj. Gen. J.E.B. Stuart. Not