Leopold Karpeles, born in Prague, Bohemia in 1838, emigrated with his older brother
Emil to Galveston, Texas at the age of 11. He became an expert rider, and eventually
one of the youngest members of the Texas Rangers. Leopold was outspoken about
his anti-slavery views, which differed dramatically from his brother. And so he
moved to Springfield, Massachusetts, where he subsequently enlisted in the Union
Army as a flag-bearer ... which was "as important to a regiment as a head is to
a man" (John Anderson).
Color Sergeant Leopold Karpeles was instrumental in turning the tide of the May
1864 Wilderness Campaign, that saw his 57th Massachusetts Regiment suffer among
the highest casualties. Some historians consider this Civil War battle as the
turning point, when the North began its slow march toward victory. Karpeles' bravery
is described in the hero's own words: "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."
While hospitalized with nearly
total paralysis in Washington DC in the Spring of 1864, Karpeles was ministered
to by a young volunteer -- Sara Mundheim, daughter of the local rabbi -- whom
he later married. Once his health improved, Karpeles was appointed to the Commerce
and Post Office Departments. He was a major figure in the Grand Army of the Republic,
which supported veteran causes, and was one of the six founders of the Medal of
Leopold Karpeles died in February, 1909 and was buried in
the cemetery of the Hebrew Congregation in Washington. His tombstone is unique,
with a replica of the Congressional Medal of Honor emblazoned on its granite surface.
The Karpeles medal's reverse features an excerpt of a letter, in Lincoln's
own handwriting, written on May 13, 1862 acknowledging the prayers of the Congregation
Mikveh Israel in Philadelphia for the Union cause. Alongside is a tallit (four
cornered fringed Jewish prayer shawl), whose blue-striped pattern was the model
for the flag of Israel.