Distinguishing himself as a commanding officer of the Union Army in the American Civil War and then as a US diplomat who played an active role in the negotiations for the Alaska Purchase, George Pomutz is celebrated today as a hero by the Romanian-American community. In Romania, however, Pomutz remains a largely unknown figure. When Bill Clinton visited the country in July 1997, he delivered a speech in which he mentioned the Romanian George Pomutz as one of the people who played a role in the making of today’s America. The speech was received with great confusion and even cynicism by most Romanians because they had never heard of this so-called Romanian or of any Romanians fighting in the American Civil War for that matter.
Many thought that President Clinton made a mistake and confused Pomutz’s ethnicity, taking it as a national insult. Yet, there was no mistake. Exactly one year after Clinton’s visit, Emil Constantinescu, the President of Romania, participated at a Joint Meeting of the United States Congress. His address, which was meant to facilitate closer Romanian-American relations, ended with the “true story” of Pomutz:
I would like to close with a true story. One hundred and fifty years ago, a young Romanian who had fought for freedom in the 1848 revolution emigrated to America. His name was George Pomutz, which in Romanian means ‘‘little tree.’’ Once on American soil, he volunteered for Lincoln’s Army and fought in some of the key battles of the Civil War, including Vicksburg and Atlanta. Our ‘‘little tree’’ went on to become a general in your Army and later an American diplomat, serving in Russia, where he helped negotiate the American purchase of Alaska. In 1944, long after his death, the Romanian community in the United States donated money to build a battleship, named for Romanian-American General George Pomutz. The ship named for the ‘‘little tree’’ served in peace and war, always a symbol of strength and vigilance. Over the decades, Pomutz’s story attests to the common roots shared by our two people, the closeness of their souls, their love of freedom and their willingness to fight in its defense. God bless America. God bless Romania. God bless the land of freedom.
Pomutz is the Americanized spelling of Pomuț, George’s family name, which does indeed mean “little tree”: pom (= “fruit-bearing tree” in Romanian, from Latin pomus) + the diminutive suffix –uț. Let us then take a closer look at Pomutz’s origins and life before he moved to America.
George Pomutz was born on May 31, 1818 to Romanian Orthodox parents in the town of Gyula, then in the Austrian Empire and today in Hungary. He was baptized by Atanasie, a Romanian Orthodox priest who served at the Saint Nicholas [Orthodox] church from Gyula, receiving the name of Gheorghie. The Pomutz family moved there from modern-day Săcele city in Brașov County, Romania, then part of the Austrian Empire and primarily known by its Hungarian and German names of Négyfalu (also Szecseleváros) and Siebendörfer (also Langendorf) respectively. The first Pomutz who moved to Gyula appears to have been George’s grandfather Constantin who left Săcele in the 1810s in search for a better life.
Ioan and Victoria Pomutz, George’s parents, followed Constantin soon afterwards, as did many other Romanians from Transylvania; during those times, Gyula became home to a significant Romanian population. It seems that Ioan worked as a blacksmith on a local nobleman’s estate and managed to accumulate enough wealth to provide a good education for his children. Constantin, George’s older brother, studied medicine in Pest (Budapest) and Vienna, eventually becoming an esteemed physician and professor of medicine, while George himself studied law at the University of Pest and later worked as a magistrate in Kaposvár (the capital of Somogy region in Hungary).
Certain traditions hold that George Pomutz studied the art of war at the Theresian Military Academy in Vienna and at the Saint Etienne Military Academy in France, but according to historian Aurel Sasu no documents have been found to substantiate these claims. Whether or not Pomutz studied the military arts, he eagerly enlisted in the Hungarian National Army at the beginning of the Hungarian Revolution of 1848. He was 30 years of age when the Revolution broke out. No documents relating to his enlistment have been discovered so far, Pomutz making a sudden appearance on the lists of officers in the Hungarian Army, first as lieutenant and later as captain. Pomutz was eventually appointed secretary to Count Újházy László, a revolutionary leader who established his headquarters in the stronghold city of Komárom. Pomutz also acted as chief of police in that city.
Flight to America
Pomutz’s enthusiasm for the Hungarian cause was probably a side-effect of the education he received in Hungarian schools and institutions, especially at the Law University of Pest where he came into contact with many Hungarian radical progressives. Most Romanians living in the Austrian Empire, most notably in Transylvania, have aligned themselves with the Crown and fought bitterly against the Hungarian revolutionaries who declared their independence and wanted to make Transylvania a part of an independent Hungary. A Romanian fighting for the Hungarian cause seems counter-intuitive today. Nevertheless, the Hungarian Revolution was crushed in October 1849, Austrian power was restored and Hungary was placed under ruthless martial law.
This caused many revolutionary leaders to flee Hungary in fear of the Austrian government’s retaliation. Reprisals were indeed brutal: the revolutionaries were rounded up and either thrown in dungeon (sometimes for decades) or executed. As a result, an entire generation of Forty-Eighters gave up their old lives and followed the path of exile. With limited options, most of them ended up in the United States, one of the very few countries that eagerly granted Forty-Eighters political asylum. Pomutz and Újházy left Hungary in a hurry when the Revolution failed. Together with twenty other companions, they traveled to Paris and from there to London, ultimately crossing the Atlantic to settle in the United States.
Count Újházy wrote a letter to President Zachary Taylor (in November 1848) on behalf of the entire group of Forty-Eighters, soliciting asylum. The President replied within a month, assuring the Count that they will “find a second home in America.” Thus, Újházy, Pomutz and the rest of the twenty Forty-Eighters arrived in New York in February 1850. When spring came and the weather improved, the group moved west to Iowa where they founded a small settlement called New Buda (south of Burlington) in honor of the old country’s capital. However, Pomutz and many others of the group would eventually part ways and settle in various cities of the US.
Pomutz was awarded US citizenship in 1855, five years after arriving in America. By then, he was living in Decatur, Iowa where he professed as a lawyer. Pomutz also amassed a small fortune after purchasing land and a mining concession. It was also around this time that Pomutz was described as a promoter and defender of the Orthodox faith in an overwhelmingly Protestant community. This indicates that his pro-Hungarian views crumbled, probably in light of the Hungarians’ systematic oppression of ethnic Romanians in Transylvania. It was these ideas of fighting for a just cause that prompted Pomutz to enroll voluntarily in the Union Army when the America Civil War broke out in 1861, even though he was over 40 years of age.
Notwithstanding his age, Pomutz was appointed the rank of first lieutenant and regimental adjutant of the 15th Iowa Infantry Regiment and saw action in the Battle of Shiloh (April 6-7, 1862) where he was wounded:
Major Belknap and Adjutant Pomutz, both also mounted, were on hand wherever their presence was required along the line, keeping the men deployed whenever there was a tendency on their part to collect into groups, and exhorting the same that instead of firing too rapidly they deliver their fire with steady and deliberate aim . Both were wounded — the Major in the back of his shoulder and his horse shot under him, the Adjutant receiving towards the end of the fight a severe wound in the left thigh; continued on horseback until weakened by loss of blood he was thrown by his horse.
The horse was a mare named Mary and after the incident Pomutz defended her:
The Adjutant will be remembered, and the words will be recalled which he spoke, when expecting death when thrown from his mare, whom the surrounding soldier’s denounced, he defended his favorite animal and said: “If I die, I forgive Mary.”
Making a speedy recovery, Pomutz went on to fight in five decisive campaigns, participating in the battles of Corinth (October 3-4, 1862), Vicksburg (May 18 – July 4, 1863) and Atlanta (July 22, 1864) among others, always leading his men personally in the line of fire. By 1863, he was promoted to the rank of major and in May 1864 Major General Frank P. Blair appointed Pomutz as Provost Marshall of the XVII Corps. In July, however, just before the Battle of Atlanta, Pomutz requested to be relieved from this position and allowed to return to his regiment:
While I fully and gratefully appreciate the honor of serving on the staff of the Major General commanding this army corps, I deem it my duty to make application for the purpose of being relieved from my present duty as Provost Marshal of this corps, and being allowed to rejoin my regiment.
I am, Colonel, very respectfully, your obedient servant,
GEORGE POMUTZ, Major 15th Iowa Inf., Provost Marshal 17th A. C.
In the Atlanta Campaign, Pomutz proved his valor once again, advancing and erecting fortifications “400 yards (365 m) nearer the enemy, under constant fire from their artillery and musketry.” In recognition of his extraordinary merit, leadership and military skills throughout the Civil War, Pomutz was awarded the rank of brevet brigadier general on March 13, 1865. When the Civil War officially ended one month later, Pomutz proved his gallantry and integrity once again when he delivered a farewell speech to his 15th Iowa Infantry Regiment:
Then let our actions and deeds show, when we return to our firesides, that we are the foremost in obeying the laws of the country we have been fighting to uphold; that in the proud consciousness of having done our duty full and well, we are determined to keep and enhance the good name we have fairly won; that we are determined to let our future conduct ever be that of peaceful citizens in time of peace, as it has been that of true warriors in time of war.
The Alaska Purchase
Pomutz would continue to serve the United States until the end of his life. On February 16, 1866 he was appointed Consul of the United States at Sankt Petersburg, the capital of Tsarist Russia. Pomutz would remain there until his death in 1882. Shortly after assuming office, Pomutz actively participated in the negotiations for the Alaska Purchase. The vast territory, three times the size of Texas, became a liability for the Russians who feared that the British might annex it in a future conflict via its Crown colonies of Vancouver and Columbia. Therefore, Tsar Alexander II decided to sell Alaska after the Crimean War of 1853-1856, making an offer to the United States in 1859.
While the Americans were interested, they failed to reach an agreement with Russia due to the outbreak of the Civil War. Once the Civil War ended, however, talks resumed and a deal was reached on March 30, 1867 after an all-night negotiation session. Ownership of Alaska was officially transferred to the United States on October 18, 1867 when the Russian flag was lowered in Sitka (Russian: Ново-Архангельск, tr. Novo-Arkhangelsk, English: New Archangel) and the American flag was raised in its place. It was a solemn ceremony accompanied by artillery fire. Pomutz who was involved in the negotiations for the Alaska Purchase continued his consulship in Sankt Petersburg, eventually being promoted to consul general in 1874 under President Rutherford B. Hayes.
According to William Belknap, Pomutz was appointed to that position earlier, in 1865:
He was mustered out with his Regiment in 1865, and was appointed Consul General at Sankt Petersburg and Kronstadt, which position he filled with honor and efficiency. Governor Curtin, of Pennsylvania, formerly United States Minister to Russia, bears cheerful witness to his great usefulness in that position.
Regardless of the chronology of events, Pomutz moved to Sankt Petersburg in either 1865 or 1866 to occupy his office and never returned to the United States. He never visited Hungary or Romania either despite their relative proximity to Russia.
Death and Legacy
Pomutz remained in Russia for sixteen of seventeen years, until his unexpected death in 1882. He was 64 years of age. Belknap informs us that:
Political changes removed him from this place, and financial troubles coming upon him he died in great poverty at St. Petersburg, on October 12, 1882.
That is all that is known of Pomutz’s final years and death. How a man of his caliber and prestige lost everything and died in miserable obscurity remains an enigma yet to be solved. Pomutz was frequently described as “a man of superior culture” and “a well-mannered gentleman”; back in the United States he was a successful and wealthy landowner and entrepreneur, a reputed lawyer and a celebrated Civil War veteran.
Pomutz further distinguished himself as a superb diplomat, mastering no less than eight languages and holding his office for fourteen years. During his years in Sankt Petersburg he was frequently invited to luxurious social events and soirées at the Imperial Court. One of the many rumors surrounding the tragedy of Pomutz’s downfall and death claims that he was ruined by a Russian woman he met on such an occasion. This alleged woman was only interested in his wealth and once it was all gone she left the impoverished Pomutz who then turned to drinking until he drank himself to death. However, this remains nothing but a rumor.
Pomutz was buried in the Smolensky cemetery from Sankt Petersburg, presumably in the potter’s field (that is, the poor people section of the cemetery). Efforts to return his remains to the United States for proper burial have been consistently made ever since his death, first by his friends and more recently by Romanian-American organizations. So far, all these efforts have failed, because his grave is lost. After the 1917 Russian Revolution, the Communists decided to “repurpose” the Smolensky cemetery into a garden in 1937, desecrating and destroying many monuments and tombs. As a result, the remains of many who where interred there are now lost, including those of Pomutz.
Today, George Pomutz is mostly forgotten: only two streets in Romania bear his name in the cities of Timișoara and Cluj Napoca respectively; another street bears his name in his hometown of Gyula, Hungary. In 1998, a bilingual Hungarian and Romanian commemorative bronze plaque was placed on the building where the Pomutz family once lived (in Gyula). The Romanian-American community, who holds Pomutz as their greatest hero, unveiled a bronze bust of the general at the Dormition of the Theotokos [Orthodox] Cathedral in Cleveland, Ohio in 2004. In response, the Hungarians and Romanians of Gyula erected their own statue of Pomutz in 2007.
It is also noteworthy to mention that the American-Romanian community funded the construction of a Liberty ship in World War II. The ship was named SS George Pomutz and it served from August 3, 1944 until 1970, when it was decommissioned.
Consulted Works & Sources:
- Sasu, A. (1996). George Pomutz: The Legend Lives on. Editura Galaxia.
- Sasu, A. (2015). George Pomutz: A Romanian Brigadier General in the American War (1861-1865): Un General de Brigadă Român În Războiul Civil American (1861-1865). Şcoala Ardeleană
- Wertsman, V. (1975). The Romanians in America, 1748-1974: a Chronology & Factbook(No. 19). Oceana Pubns.
- Hentea, C. (2007). Brief Romanian Military History. Scarecrow Press.
- Belknap, W. W. (1887). History of the Fifteenth Regiment, Iowa Veteran Volunteer Infantry. RB Ogden & Son.
- Vassady, B. (1991). New Buda: a Colony of Hungarian Forty-Eighters in Iowa. The Annals of Iowa, 51(1), 26-52.
- Saul, N. E. (1996). Concord and conflict: the United States and Russia, 1867-1914(Vol. 11). University Press of Kansas.
- Williams, G. H. (2014). The Liberty Ships of World War II: A Record of the 2,710 Vessels and Their Builders, Operators and Namesakes, with a History of the Jeremiah O’Brien. McFarland.