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In a big book at the War Department is kept the roster of the Medal-of -Honor men… Opposite each name is a brief record of the “distinguished service during the War of the rebellion” for which the medal was granted. A few days ago the medal men formed an organization in Washington. They are going to have their first reunion in Boston during the Encampment of the Grand Army of the Republic. “The Legion of the Medal of Honor” is the title selected for the new organization. The medal of honor is almost unknown to the great body of veterans.
From the Clearwater Sun, Kansas, May 23, 1890
1,523 Medals of Honor were awarded by the United States Congress for “gallantry in action” during the Civil War, and four of them, went to Jewish soldiers. Remarkably, those four men are in this photograph - which, in would seem, dates to that time in the early 1890’s when the “Legion of the Medal of Honor,” commemorating the Civil War recipients of the Congressional Medal-of-Honor, was founded.
Of that quartet of Jewish soldiers, two were awarded the Medal of Honor for battlefield heroics having to do with “The Colors” – those Regimental flags measuring 72 by 75 inches, affixed to staffs 9 feet 10 inches high, with a brass finial, and fancily tailing blue and white tasseled cords. A Color Bearer, though unarmed, were vital to any action on the field of battle. He was, in fact, the modern equivalent of a tactical communications center. By first leading the troops forward, and then, by virtue of visibility during combat, directing movement, his was the most crucial, dangerous, and respected battlefield job. It was also the most likely to be fatal: if your side could see you, so could the other. One was both a beacon and a target. But aside from the Color Bearer’s strategic necessity, so long as he held the Colors aloft, he literally stood as symbol for cause and country: his was an honored role.
Jewish Medal of Honor winner Leopold Karpeles, with his distinctive muttonchops – seen in the photo standing in the 3rd row from the bottom, 3rd from the right – had volunteered to be a Color Bearer. "I am aware,” he wrote of his choice, “that while I'm providing a rallying point and courage for my comrades, I'm also a prime target for the enemy.” But his decision was based, he said, on his “ardent belief in this noblest of causes, equality for all.” His citatio for what later generations would later rate “conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of life above and beyond the call of duty” came at the Battle of the Wilderness, on May 6, 1864, and read, “While color bearer, rallied the retreating troops and induced them to check the enemy's advance."
Benjamin Levy was awarded the Medal of Honor for his bravery as a color bearer too – albeit he came to the role inadvertently. A drummer boy with the 1st New York Infantry, on June 30, 1862 in Glendale, Virginia, he was in a battle so fraught with confusion it had eight names (Frayer’s Farm and White Oak Swamp are the best known) when, his drum destroyed, he took the gun of a sick comrade and ran into the fight. Seeing the Color Bearer fall, his commendation records that “he carried the colors and saved them from capture.” He was just 17 years old, and his selfless courage made him the youngest, and the first, Jewish soldier to win the Medal of Honor. Here, with his handlebar moustache, he stands in the 4throw from bottom, the 3rd from the left.
Standing next to Levy in the photograph - 4th row from the bottom, 2nd from the left - was Abraham Cohn, his upper lip adorned with a white walrus moustache. Like Levy and Karpeles, he had also won the Medal of Honor during the Civil War – except he did it twice. As a young Sergeant-Major, he was cited for his intrepid gallantry at the Battle of the Wilderness on May 6, 1864 and again, on July 30, 1864, at the Battle of the Crater, Virginia. "During Battle of the Wilderness [Cohn] rallied and formed, under heavy fire, disorganized and fleeing troops of different regiments,” his citation reads. “At Petersburg, Va….[ he] bravely and coolly carried orders to the advanced line under severe fire."
The fourth Jewish soldier to win the Medal of Honor was David Urbanksy who, as the vagaries of Civil War record keeping would sometimes have it, was also known as David Orbanksky. He appeared at the very top of the photo, a small man partially visible, the 4th from the left. But that little bit of him was in no way representative of what he did, as a private, to earn his way into that august and rarified company of the “Legion of the Medal of Honor.” In fact, like Abraham Cohn, he won the Medal of Honor not just once, but twice, for “Gallantry in actions” at the Battle of Shiloh and at the Siege of Vicksburg. A modest man, it would seem typical the exact nature of his cited “gallantry” at Shiloh has gone unrecorded; at Vicksburg, however, his heroism in charging alone across the battlefield under a hail of enemy fire to rescue his wounded commander was clear to all. Unrecognized, perhaps, was that Urbanksy was not a United States citizen… though he would become one later.
Three of the four men, in fact, were born abroad. Urbanksy and Cohn were from Prussia, Karpeles from Hungary. Levy, a native American, hailed from New York. As this photo celebrates, all were proud of their service to the country in which they lived, fought, worked and died, free and honored men.
[Civil War: Medal of Honor Winners] Original Photograph, sepia-toned and oval in shape, matted to an overall size of 16 by 19 inches, circa early 1890s; depicting, most probably, the founding members of the “The Legion of the Medal of Honor.” Present here are the Jewish Civil War Medal-of-Honor recipients:
LEOPOLD KARPLES (1838-1909): 3rd row from bottom, 3rd from the right
BENJAMIN B. LEVY (1845 – 1921): 4throw from bottom, 3rd from the left
ABRAHAM COHN(1832 -1897): 4throw from bottom, 2nd from the left, next to Levy
DAVID URBANKSY [aka ORBANKSY] (1843 -1897): 1st row at the top, 4th from left. Only partial of face