Abolishing slavery motivated Jewish War hero


The gray box on a shelf in the Beryl and Chaya Segal Archives at the R.I. Jewish Historical Association resembles all the other gray boxes housing memorabilia and artifacts testifying to events great and small – and often personal.

This particular box has an assortment of letters and papers, and a unique award citation. The citation had once accompanied the Medal of Honor presented on April 30, 1870, to Leopold Karpeles, a Civil War veteran and the first Jewish veteran to receive the nation’s highest military award. (Five other Jewish Civil War veterans also received the Medal of Honor.) 

Leopold Karpeles was born in Prague, Bohemia, in 1838, the second son of a prominent Jewish family. At an early age, he left Prague to join his older brother, Emile, who had immigrated to Galveston, Texas. The young man planned to enroll in school and apprentice in his brother’s successful dry goods store.

But the freedom that Karpeles found in the Southwest, so different from the proper society of the Old World, appealed to him and his sense of adventure. He became a familiar figure at the stables where cowboys gathered. Already an experienced equestrian, he learned to ride Western style. He also became proficient in the use of knives, lassos, sabers and rifles. These skills stood him in good stead when he volunteered to join convoys from Galveston that brought wares to all parts of Texas.

In her memoir of her grandfather (R.I. Jewish Historical Association’s Notes, Vol. 12B), Joyce Blackman, who lived in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts, wrote of the tales he would tell about his exploits guarding the convoys from looters, his narrow escapes from harrowing situations and chasing marauding bands of outlaws, often with the Texas Rangers or the Brownsville Guards.  He was leading a life of independence and adventure that he found fulfilling.

Disagreements between the brothers on a number of issues became an open rift over the subject of slavery. Texas, like the rest of the country, was seriously divided on the issue.

Karpeles made no secret of his abhorrence of slavery and could not understand his brother’s acceptance of this Southern tradition. Karpeles is reputed to have participated in the Underground Railway, shepherding escaped slaves to freedom in Mexico or with Seminole tribes.

Emile thought that his prosperity and security were threatened by his brother’s defiant attitude. Using his business contacts, he devised a plan to move Leopold far away, to Springfield, Massachusetts.

Instead of the wide-open spaces and silence of the Southwestern landscape, the young man found himself in a crowded cityscape with roiling political factions. He found the transition difficult, until he was introduced to the Abolitionists. He attended lectures and meetings for a better understanding of the slavery conflict. He read all he could about Abraham Lincoln, whose brilliance he admired. 

In March 1863, Karpeles enlisted in the 49th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment for a nine-month tour of duty. At his request, he took on the dangerous duty of standard bearer; unarmed, he would carry the unit’s battle flags into combat.

A month after his discharge, Karpeles enlisted in a brigade comprised of veterans from his previous regiment, the 1st Brigade, 1st Division of the 9th Army Corps. Once again he volunteered to carry the standard. He was named color bearer for the regiment and promoted to color sergeant.

By foot and by train, the unit arrived in Washington. One of Karpeles’ cherished memories was of marching in a parade before Lincoln.

In May, the unit joined Ulysses S. Grant’s Army of the Potomac to serve as lead company in the brutal Battle of the Wilderness.

Withering Confederate gunfire caused heavy casualties. When the right side of the line collapsed, a “disorderly stampede” of retreating men ensued. Karpeles climbed a tree stump, and holding his flag aloft, rallied the men to stand and fight.

For his valor, Karpeles was awarded the Medal of Honor.

He went on to participate in several other major battles before being wounded in the leg. After recovering, he rejoined his unit, only to have the wound reopen and fester.

Hospitalized in Washington, D.C., he faced amputation of his leg until a 16-year-old volunteer named Sara Mundheim persuaded the doctors to allow her family to care for him at their home in Washington.

Karpeles recovered with only a limp.

Soon after the war ended, he and Sara were married and started a business, but Sara died in childbirth. Two of their three children died at an early age. Karpeles then married Sara’s sister, which was Sara’s dying wish, and raised a family of three sons and four daughters.

Karpeles was well-known in Washington society, with a wide circle of acquaintances that included senators, diplomats and three presidents. He used these contacts to advocate for labor laws, in particular shortening the workday and protecting women and children from abuse. He also joined the Grand Army of the Republic and helped found the Medal of Honor Legion, whose mission was to remove politics from the award to ensure that it would be bestowed only for valor in combat.

A popular speaker at meetings and political events, Karpeles served as a spokesman on behalf of veterans causes.

Leopold Karpeles died in 1909 and is buried in the cemetery of the Washington Hebrew Congregation. His gravestone bears the emblem of the Medal of Honor.

Two of Karpeles’ daughters and one son moved to Rhode Island.

GERALDINE S. FOSTER is a past president of the R.I. Jewish Historical Association. To comment about this or any RIJHA article, contact the RIJHA office at info@rijha.org or 401-331-1360.