Leopold Karpeles was a Jewish American soldier who was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for valor during the American Civil War.
Karpeles was born in Prague, Bohemia (modern-day Czech Republic) and moved to Galveston, Texas when he was a eleven years old. Karpeles worked for his older brother Emil until 1861 when 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 the battle zones of North Carolina, Karpeles was honorably discharged in July 1863. "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."
Karpeles reenlisted in March 1864, this time with the 57th Massachusetts Infantry, was given the rank of sergeant and was sent to join the 9th Army Corps at the Wilderness in Virginia in April 1864. Union General Ulysses S. Grant hoped to use the Wilderness to launch an assault on Richmond, however, Confederate General Robert E. Lee attacked the Union fron lines on May 5, 1864. The 57th Massachusetts Regiment "received its first baptism of fire in the bloody, and indecisive three-day battle which ensued."
Karpeles later told his own story in the 1870 affidavit in which he applied for his Medal of Honor:
Your Applicant ... states that while, his Regiment was engaged in the Battle of the Wilderness on the 6th day of May, 1864, at 5 o'clock P.M., Col., Bartlett commanding said regiment having been wounded, Lieutenant Colonel Charles S. Chandler of said Regiment assumed command. When after 5 o'clock on the 6th day of May, 1864 the right of the 9th Corps commenced breaking and falling back in considerable disorder, the rebels having commenced a flanking movement ... your applicant being Regimental Color Bearer ... inquired of the Lieutenant Colonel what was the matter. When he the Lieutenant Colonel, answered that he did not know what was the cause of the disorderly retreat of a portion of the Wing aforesaid. When your applicant urged him to stand firm and rally as many of the retreating troops as possible, he said, "All right, I will stand by you." We then, by every possible exertion, by waving the colors and otherwise,. were enabled to rally a large number of retreating troops around our Regimental Colors. ...When they were formed into a line and ordered to advance on the advancing Rebels, they, by a rapid discharge of fire arms, managed to check the enemy and enabled the disordered Wing to form, thereby, as your Applicant believes, saved that portion of the Wing aforesaid from almost total destruction, in which engagement our Colors were very severely shattered.
According to eyewitnesses, Karpeles stood on a tree stump to make the Union colors more visible and, despite many bullet holes in the regimental colors, Karpeles was uninjured.
On May 20, 1864, General Grant ordered the Army of the Potomac to move south toward Richmond. When the Ninth Army Corps crossed the North Anna River it was met by Confederate fire and Karpeles's commanding officer ordered his men to attack the Confederate position. As color bearer, Karpeles again led the way but his luck ran out and he was shot in the knee. According to historian 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."
In Washington, D.C. to recuperate, Karpeles met Sara Mundheim, daughter of the rabbi of Washington Hebrew Congregation, at the hosptial. The couple later married and subsequently had two children. When Sara died during the birth of their third child, her sister came to care for the children and later married Karpeles. They had three children.
On April 30, 1870, Karpeles was awarded the Medal of Honor, the United States' highest military decoration, for his heroism during the war. His citation reads:
Karpeles is buried in the cemetery of Washington Hebrew Congregation.
Sources: American Jewish Historical Society (AJHS);
Jewish Recipients of the Congressional Medal of Honor Compiled by Seymour "Sy" Brody;
Congressional Medal of Honor Foundation.
Photo: Public Domain.