Sgt. Leopold Karpeles had a dangerous job. Serving in the 57th Massachusetts Infantry’s E Company during the American Civil War, he was a color bearer, which meant carrying a flag that identified his unit’s position — a necessary role, but one that invariably drew attention from the enemy. In May 1864, his actions won him the Medal of Honor — a decoration created during the conflict. His citation credited him with encouraging fleeing men to reform ranks and drive back the Confederates during the Battle of the Wilderness in northern Virginia.
Karpeles’s story was one of the more prominent accounts of Jews in the US Army during the Civil War. A new book, “Jewish Soldiers in the Civil War: The Union Army,” by Adam D. Mendelsohn, director of the Kaplan Centre for Jewish Studies at the University of Cape Town, explores the wider narrative around Jews serving in America’s bloodiest conflict. Its release is scheduled for November 15, just a few days after Veterans Day.
“Individual cases obviously gave life and color,” Mendelsohn told The Times of Israel, including when it came to “their decision to enlist, their experience in the army — which was not an easy one, particularly for Jews.”
On the battlefield, there was deadly combat and fear, including the terror Karpeles experienced in Virginia. Jews in uniform also faced ignorance, antisemitism or both from fellow servicemembers and higher-ups. Notoriously, in General Orders No. 11, Gen. Ulysses S. Grant expelled Jews as a class from the war department he commanded in the American South in December 1862.
“Clearly, in the senior ranks of the army, we see in [William T.] Sherman, Grant, [Benjamin] Butler, others, echoing views current in American society at the time of Jewish speculators and shirkers, profiting at the expense of the Union,” Mendelsohn said. “All these things ultimately came to a head in Grant’s order.”
Yet there were also interfaith friendships formed through mutual dependence during wartime.
“What I sensed in the data was the nature of comradeship,” Mendelsohn said. “Serving alongside each other, the experience of fighting together, does bring down the barriers.”
After the war, many Jews joined a nationwide veterans movement called the Grand Army of the Republic, with some even taking leadership roles. While the book states that Jewish veterans were largely unrecognized immediately after the war out of a national desire to move on, this changed several decades later. In the 1890s, the Hebrew Union Veterans Association was established amid a wave of antisemitism sweeping the nation.
“In a way, [the Civil War] really created the Jewish war veterans movement,” Mendelsohn said.
The book draws upon a remarkable resource: the Shapell Roster, an archive of Jews who fought in the war — both for the Union and Confederacy — with a total of 10,000 records. Initiated in 2009 and still ongoing, it builds upon and in some cases corrects previous archival work dating back to 1895, which was compiled by a prominent American Jew of the era named Simon Wolf.
The Shapell Roster “uses very careful methodology to identify Jewish soldiers,” Mendelsohn said. “It verifies military service and verifies Jewishness — which is a really difficult thing to do, whether it’s records of burial in a Jewish cemetery, a ketubah [marriage certificate], or [evidence that] otherwise demonstrates someone is Jewish.”
Mendelsohn, a scholar from South Africa, became interested in the American Civil War while conducting doctoral work at Brandeis University under prominent Civil War historian Jonathan Sarna. He is now at work on a second volume, about Jews who served in the Confederate military, again with the help of the archive.
“It’s much, much tougher with the Confederacy,” he said. “Their record-keeping was not as good, in the first place. And with the destruction of Richmond at the end of the war, a lot of the records were lost.”
Within the Union records, Mendelsohn searched for patterns. Many Jewish soldiers were foreign-born — reflective of an army in which about one-quarter of the troops came from immigrant backgrounds. Of Jewish immigrants in the Union army, the majority came from the German Confederation. The state with the highest number of Jews serving was New York. The most common Jewish surname? Levy. And the most common nontraditional military role for Jews? Musician.
“Jews from particular places were more or less likely to enlist,” Mendelsohn said. “Jews from Bavaria were somewhat different than Jews from Baden. There were patterns where Jews settled. For example, Jews from northern Ohio behaved differently from Jews living in Baltimore or Philadelphia … You can see patterns that are otherwise very undetectable if dealing with individual cases.”
Individual stories, however, brought out the nuance. Edward Salomon, whose photo is on the book cover, was a German immigrant in Chicago poised to enter local politics when the war began. He discovered he had a knack for leadership as lieutenant colonel of the 82nd Illinois Infantry, which fought in key campaigns such as Sherman’s March to the Sea. After the war, Salomon became governor of the Washington Territory, a first for a self-identifying American Jew.
A fellow German immigrant, Marcus Spiegel, left small-town Ohio for the 120th Ohio Infantry. His wife, Caroline Spiegel, a Quaker convert to Judaism, opposed his decision. Marcus himself was initially hostile to the new American president, Abraham Lincoln, whose election prompted the South to secede. In 1862, when Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, Marcus criticized the decision to widen the war aims from reuniting the Union to abolishing slavery. Yet serving in Mississippi and seeing the evils of slavery up close convinced Marcus to change his mind — reflective of other Union army soldiers’ shift toward abolition. Tragically, Marcus died in an ambush in 1864. His brother Joseph Spiegel, who was the sutler for Marcus’s regiment, was captured.
Unlike the Spiegels, other Jews in the Union army often found themselves underrepresented, with only a handful within the 1,000 men who comprised a regiment. Overall, it was an army that served pork to its members and granted Sabbath rest on Sunday, not Saturday.
“I think there was very little understanding of the needs of Jews when it came to food, when it came to worship, things of that kind,” Mendelsohn said. “Jews were much less familiar, Judaism was much less familiar, to Americans than it is today.”
And yet at least one notable American sought to foster a more inclusive military atmosphere — President Lincoln.
Mendelsohn said that Lincoln understood that “you needed to maintain unity within a very diverse population in the nation. Lincoln was very, very attentive to the needs of a variety of groups — Germans, Irish, others. Lincoln was attentive to the needs of Jews in the same way.
“He ensured Jews were appointed… to positions of authority. When it came to the chaplain issue, Lincoln was understanding that the language used in chaplaincies was actually inherently prejudicial against Jews. Things of this kind, again, were testament to the kind of individual Lincoln was.”
Another example was Lincoln’s response to Grant’s order expelling Jews.
The order arose in the wake of tensions between the Commerce Department and the military. To boost the US wartime economy, the federal government controversially purchased cotton from the South, including along the Mississippi River, where Grant was campaigning due to its strategic nature.
For Grant, things got personal when his father, Jesse Grant, entered into a business partnership with the wealthy Mack brothers, Cincinnati industrialists who were Jewish. Purchasing cotton would fuel the Macks’ business. To help them, the elder Grant aimed to leverage his relationship with his son. This enraged the younger Grant, who subsequently issued his controversial order.
In several places, Jews were “ordered out of their homes,” Mendelsohn said. “They do organize a protest and send a representative who goes racing off to Washington, DC, to speak to Lincoln. When Lincoln hears of the order, he quickly countermands it.”
Within the ranks, Mendelsohn said, there were “wider reverberations,” including “one or two Jewish soldiers who do resign their commissions because of the order.”
Beyond these examples, he said, “I really got the sense that it was deeply, deeply hurtful and troubling. Some expressed a real anger at Grant without naming the order. In other cases, they suddenly go silent, people who otherwise wrote an enormous number of letters, correspondence, diaries… They avoided the topic or expressed it without directly talking about the order — rage at Grant, anger at Grant, that he was a terrible general. I think it is a shocking moment for Jewish soldiers.”
However, many Jews remained in the Union army and continued to excel. On May 6, 1864, on the same day and in the same Battle of the Wilderness listed on Karpeles’s Medal of Honor citation, a coreligionist also acted valiantly — Sgt. Maj. Abraham Cohn of the 6th New Hampshire Infantry. Like Karpeles, Cohn persuaded retreating men to regroup while facing enemy fire. Two months later, on July 30, Cohn did not flinch under a constant barrage while bringing orders to the front. These actions won Cohn a Medal of Honor. He and Karpeles performed these brave actions while serving in the Army of the Potomac. The army’s overall commander? Gen. Ulysses S. Grant.
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