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Medals of Honor in the Civil War

Lawrence Bush
May 5, 2017

Two Jewish soldiers in the Union Army received the Congressional Medal of Honor for the heroism they showed on this date in 1864 during the four-day Battle of the Wilderness, the first attempt by Ulysses S. Grant to use consolidated forces of the Union to destroy Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia. Abraham Cohn was a German-Jewish immigrant who fought in eleven Civil War battles and was twice wounded. “During the Battle of the Wilderness,” says his Medal of Honor citation, he “rallied and formed, under heavy fire, disorganized and fleeing troops of different regiments,” and at Petersburg, Virginia, “bravely and coolly carried orders to the advanced line under severe fire.” Cohn, married, fathered eight children, and lived to be nearly 65; he is buried in Cypress Hills Cemetery in Brooklyn. Leopold Karpeles, shown in the photo above, was a Czech-born immigrant to Galveston, Texas who became one of the youngest members of the Texas Rangers. Because of his anti-slavery views, he moved from Texas to Massachusetts in 1861 and became a flag-bearer in the Union army. During the Battle of the Wilderness, says Karpeles’ citation, he “rallied the retreating troops and induced them to check the enemy’s advance.” Karpeles lived to be 70 and is buried in the cemetery of the Washington Hebrew Congregation. Some 9,000 Jews fought for the Union, some 2,000 for the Confederacy.

“I marched in an inspired manner with my flag waving proudly . . . providing courage for my comrades. I’m also a prime target for the enemy. My dedication to my country’s flag rests on my ardent belief in this noblest of causes, equality for all.” --Leopold Karpeles

​​​​Lawrence Bush edited Jewish Currents from 2003 until 2018. He is the author of Bessie: A Novel of Love and Revolution and Waiting for God: The Spiritual Explorations of a Reluctant Atheist, among other books. His new volume of illustrated Torah commentaries, American Torah Toons 2, is scheduled for publication this year.