American Jewry has won 16 Congressional Medals of Honor. Of those, Jews earned six in the Civil War, more than in any other theater of combat. Of these six winners, at least half were born overseas and fought for their adopted nation. Leopold Karpeles, born in Prague, Bohemia in 1838, typified the six Medal of Honor recipients.
According to historian Robert Shosteck, Leopold Karpeles left Prague at age 11 to join his older brother in Emil in Galveston, Texas. Leopold worked for Emil until 1861 when, according to his daughter, he left Texas for Massachusetts. "Father, who had seen and abhorred slavery," his daughter wrote a century later, "came North when the Civil War started, to Springfield, Mass; joined the 46th Mass. Volunteers." After serving the ten-month term of his enlistment in North Carolina's battle zone, Karpeles was honorably discharged in July 1863 after showing great courage. "In the battles of Kingston, Whitehall and Goldsborough," Karpeles' superior wrote,"he bore the State colors. The promptness with which he came upon the line of battle, and the firmness with, which he stood his ground, though, his flag was several times pierced by the bullets of the enemy, were so conspicuous as to be the subject of remark and recommendation."
Not content to have served his term with honor, Karpeles reenlisted in March 1864, this time with the 57th Massachusetts Infantry. He was given the rank of sergeant. The 57th Massachusetts was part of the 9th Army Corps, which it joined at the Wilderness in Virginia in April 1864. The Wilderness lies north of Richmond and General Ulysses S. Grant -hoped to use the area to launch an assault on Richmond, the Confederate capital. instead, Robert E. Lee's troops took the offensive on May 5, 1864, by attacking the Union front lines. As historian Shosteck puts it, the 57th Massachusetts Regiment "received its first baptism of fire in the bloody, and indecisive three-day battle which ensued." The veteran sergeant Karpeles later told his own story in the 1870 affidavit 'n which he applied for his Medal of Honor:
According to eyewitnesses, Karpeles stood on a tree stump to make the Union colors more visible. Remarkably, despite the bullet holes in the regimental colors, there were no bullet holes in Karpeles. After three days of indecisive slaughter, the two sides disengaged.
On May 20th General Grant ordered the Army of the Potomac to move south toward Richmond. When the Ninth Army Corps crossed the North Anna River above Richmond it was met by withering Confederate fire. Karpeles's commanding officer ordered his men to attack the entrenched Confederate position. As color bearer Karpeles led the way once more. This time, his luck ran out. Karpeles received a bullet wound in the knee According to Shosteck, "Though badly wounded Karpeles arose and again moved forward with the colors. His colonel tried to take the colors from him an send him back. Karpeles clung to the flag and continued advancing, until weakened from loss of blood when he was obliged to pass it on to other hands an fall to the rear."
Karpeles was sent to Washington, DC, to recuperate. In the hospital, he met Sara Mundheim, daughter of the rabbi of Washington Hebrew Congregation. Sara persuaded her parents to take Karpeles into their home to speed his recovery. Later that year, Leopold and Sara married and subsequently had two children. When Sara died during the birth their third child, Sara's sister came to care for the children and, later, married Karpeles. Together, they had three children. In 1875, Karpeles was rewarded for his military service with a job in the post office, which he held until his death in 1909. Karpeles is buried in the cemetery of Washington Hebrew Congregation.
Source: American Jewish Historical Society (AJHS)