By Adam Greibel
The Washington Hebrew Congregation Cemetery is a peaceful place, quiet and shaded. On a warm spring morning you can walk past memorials and gravestones, wondering who they were and what they did in life, while the most stressful thing on your mind is what to have for lunch.
Until you find Color Sergeant Leopold Karpeles.
“I know you”.
Words in reports, files, and books come to life; Karpeles, the Texas Ranger, Karpeles, the Texas storekeeper, so earnest an Abolitionist that he traveled to Massachusetts on the eve of war to enlist. Karpeles, the veteran of nine months of campaigning, who reenlisted for a second tour with a Regiment mostly filled with untested men.
Karpeles the Medal of Honor recipient.
You can look up his official Citation online: “While color bearer, rallied the retreating troops and induced them to check the enemy’s advance.”
You can dig a bit deeper and find a version that has places and dates.
“Sergeant Leopold Karpeles, 57th Massachusetts Volunteers, United States Army, distinguished himself by conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity in action at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty at Wilderness, Virginia, 6 May 1864, as a member of Company E, 57th Massachusetts Infantry, while color bearer, rallied the retreating troops and induced them to check the enemy’ s advance.”
What the Citation doesn’t say was that on that morning the 57th Regiment, Massachusetts Infantry, was a pretty raw unit. It would be the first time many of them had ever been shot at and having spent the night nearby, the ears of the men had already been deafened with the continuous roar of the battle already in progress.
Medal of Honor recipients who live to receive their medals are generally labeled ‘modest’. In Leopold’s own words, that morning “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.”
What that doesn’t tell you is that during the Civil War, a flag bearer was a bullet magnet holding one of the most convenient targets one could offer an enemy – if you aimed at the enemy’s flag, even on a smoke-choked battlefield and missed your intended mark then perhaps you could hit the unit’s leader (since the commanders often positioned themselves next to the colors) or any of the soldiers in the ranks near or rallying to the spot where the flag stood.
Again, in Sergeant Karpeles’ own words – “I am aware that while I’m providing a rallying point and courage for my comrades, I’m also a prime target for the enemy. I vowed to accept that risk when I assumed this obligation which I consider a privilege and honor.”
In the age before field radios and cell phones, the Regiment’s colors served as a form of communication where even bugles and drums could fail men deafened by gunfire – those flags conveyed the Commander’s intent; stand fast, face threats to the left or right, advance.
But a flag several feet above the shoulder-high clouds of burnt powder is just as easily seen by friend as well as foe.
There are accounts that 54 soldiers from the 57th Massachusetts dropped from the Confederates’ first volleys that morning.
That’s ten percent of the unit, a Roman-style decimation, dead or dying soon enough, within a minute.
The lead bullets, mostly .577 caliber Minie balls, killing and maiming those men from Massachusetts were just over half an inch in diameter and heavy: fourteen to a pound. A man could fire and reload three times in a minute, a Regiment could muster between five hundred to a thousand men.
Lethal math is simple.
Self-preservation would demand that any sane man facing such a hornets’ nest flatten himself against the earth.
A Color bearer can not.
More dry words from a book: “On the morning of the 6th Stevenson’s Division was sent to the support of Hancock’s (2d) Corps on the Plank road, and in the severe contest which followed the 57th lost 47 killed, 161 wounded, and 43 missing.”
The colors – both those of the nation as well as the regiment – held an intangible weight, a reminder of oaths to causes and promises to comrades when there is only a temptation to do whatever was necessary to escape the slaughter.
Color Sergeant Karpeles later remembered that “Our troops were rushing wildly to the rear. In vain did our colonel take a stand and called the boys to rally. I joined our colonel, waved the flag and likewise called on my comrades to halt and form on us. We held our position until we had gathered a sufficient force to make a charge. Presently the colonel commanded: ‘Forward,’ and he and I dashed ahead, I waving our flag high in the air. Our advance was entirely unexpected. It completely dazed the Confederates and brought their advance to an end. We held our position till nightfall, when we fall back in good order and reorganized our forces.”
So on a warm spring day 150 years and two weeks after Leopold Karpeles earned the eternal respect of his nation, we strangers left a handful of stones on his memorial.
They each weighed about the same as a Minie ball.