Custer’s Last Stand – and That of His Adversaries…

In late 1875, thousands of Sioux and Cheyenne Indians left their reservations, outraged over the intrusion of whites into their sacred lands in the Black Hills, despite treaties to the contrary. They gathered in Montana with Sioux Chiefs Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse, to fight for their lands.

To force this army back to their reservations, the US Army dispatched three columns to attack – including the Seventh Cavalry led by Lt. Colonel George Custer.

On the morning of June 25th,  1876, Custer’s scouts told him that a huge Indian village lay near the Little Big Horn River. He dismissed their estimates of thousands of Indians as an exaggeration, and attacked.

As the 7th Cavalry entered the valley, Custer divided the regiment of about 600 men into four battalions, keeping 215 under his own command. They were slaughtered. The 7th Cavalry suffered 52 percent casualties, and every single soldier in the companies with Custer was killed.

Yet Little Bighorn – the moment of decisive Indian victory – was also their downfall. Outraged over the death of a Civil War hero, the nation demanded harsh retribution; the Black Hills were redrawn on the map as outside the reservations, and open to white settlement. And within a year, the Sioux nation was completely defeated.

How does history view Custer’s actions in that tragic battle? Historians differ – as do presidents.

President Grant bluntly criticized Custer’s actions; quoted in the New York Herald on September 2, 1876, Grant said, “I regard Custer’s massacre as a sacrifice of troops, brought on by Custer himself, that was wholly unnecessary – wholly unnecessary.”

Another president – one with far less military experience – was a staunch supporter. In a letter from the White House, he wrote:

     “His image has been blurred and distorted over time but in truth he was a brilliant officer and not at all the boastful show-off his detractors would have us believe. And he certainly wasn’t on a glory ride on that fateful day. He was carrying out his orders to the letter. It isn’t well known that a brother, a nephew, and his brother-in-law died with him in that last battle.”

Five Custers died that day. Here you can see a letter penned by Lt. Colonel George Custer lobbying for a position for his brother “Bos” – a position that would cost his brother his life as well…

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Color Bearer, Minie Balls, and Bravery: Color Sergeant Leopold Karpeles

Editor’s Note: This is a guest post by Adam Greibel, Shapell Roster Researcher.

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”.

Color Sergeant Leopold Karpeles.
Color Sergeant Leopold Karpeles.

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.”[1]

Understatement.

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.[2]

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.”[3]

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.”[4]

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.”[5]

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.”[6]

Leopold Karpeles, Medal of Honor Recipient.
Leopold Karpeles, Medal of Honor Recipient.

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.

 

Leopold Karpeles. Washington Hebrew Congregation Cemetery.
Leopold Karpeles. Washington Hebrew Congregation Cemetery.

 

[1]http://www.history.army.mil/moh/civilwar_gl.html#KARPELES and http://www.cmohs.org/recipient-detail/731/karpeles-leopold.php

[2]http://legionofvalor.org/citation_parse.php?uid=1083883935

[3] http://ma150.org/day-by-day/1862-09-15/leopold-karpeles-joins-46th-massachusetts-infantry

[4] ibid.

[5] https://archive.org/stream/massachusettssol41931mass#page/814/mode/2up

[6] http://ma150.org/day-by-day/1862-09-15/leopold-karpeles-joins-46th-massachusetts-infantry

 

Interested in staying updated with the latest research news and discoveries?  You can follow the research team’s progress as it’s made at the Shapell Manuscript Foundation Facebook Page and Roster Project Album, or by following @ShapellManu on Twitter,#ShapellRoster, or check back at our blog for more interviews and news from the archives.

Research at the U.S. National Archives, with Alexandra Skerry

We asked Shapell Manuscript Foundation researchers at the National Archives in Washington D.C. about their work and experience there.  The team is working on the Shapell Roster – an updated and accurate roster of Jewish soldiers who served in the American Civil War.

Responses from Alexandra Skerry, Shapell Roster Researcher.

Alexandra Skerry, Shapell Researcher.
Alexandra Skerry, Shapell Researcher.

“What’s been your favorite discovery so far?”

It’s so hard to choose just one “favorite discovery” so far because I feel like every day is a hunt for something exiting!  Anything that I find that can help me imagine what the soldier’s life or experiences may have been like are a treasure.  An exciting discovery that sticks out to me is finding a photograph in a soldier’s service record.  Soldier Louis Sholem has a photograph of himself attached to his Certificate of Disability for Discharge.  Proving he was also Jewish was icing on the cake!  I also love when we find connections between soldiers in the database.  I have come across a few soldiers who have given affidavits for each other saying they knew each other during the war and stayed friends for years after.  Even better, is finding connections to soldier’s that we don’t already have.  Every time we add new soldiers I feel like someone else’s story gets to be told.  This week, Adrienne (Adrienne Usher, Head Researcher) added soldier Aaron Dreyfuss who had one brother Gustave already in the database and I was able to find an additional brother Max who also served.

Click to view full-size images.

“What’s your favorite/least favorite thing about work at the National Archives?”

I love working at the National Archives!  There are so many documents just waiting to be discovered.  The staff there is so knowledgeable and I feel like the girls and I have made some great connections with people who have been able to bring our research to the next level.  I honestly can’t think of anything I dislike about working at NARA.

“What have you learned from your research and the research process?”

I have definitely learned that if you get stuck in your research, there is always somewhere else you can look or someone else you can ask.

“How long does it usually take to qualify or disqualify a soldier from the Roster?”

This depends on what records we have to look at.  Sometimes if a soldier has a Pension Record, I open it up am there is a marriage certificate or a death record that confirm the soldier is Jewish immediately.  Other times it takes some digging online or looking at additional records.

“What’s the longest you’ve gone without making any headway on a soldier/case?  

Usually not too long, because we have so many resources (and so many soldiers) to look at.  One case sticks out in my mind where I was looking for a soldier named Paul Bauer that was only mentioned as having served in his obituary.  The only record that could be found didn’t mention his first name and just that he served in the 5th US Cavalry.  After exhausting online resources I went to “Finding Aids” at NARA on four separate occasions to see if they could pull the muster rolls of the 5th US Cavalry for me (something they don’t normally do, because of their fragile state).  Adam (Adam Geibel, Researcher) was finally able to contact a researcher who had them pulled for him because he knew the exact location and box numbers of the documents I was looking for.  Even though we didn’t find our guy in the end, this experience helped me have a better relationship with one of the employees in the Finding Aids office, who has helped me again since!

Interested in staying updated with the latest research news and discoveries?  You can follow the research team’s progress as it’s made at the Shapell Manuscript Foundation Facebook Page and Roster Project Album, or by following @ShapellManu on Twitter,#ShapellRoster, or check back at our blog for more interviews and news from the archives.

Research Work at the National Archives, with Kim Lindner

We asked Shapell Manuscript Foundation researchers at the National Archives in Washington D.C. about their work and experience there.  The team is working on the Shapell Roster – an updated and accurate roster of Jewish soldiers who served in the American Civil War.

Responses from Kim Lindner, Shapell Roster Researcher.

Kim Lindner, Shapell Roster Researcher.
Kim Lindner, Shapell Roster Researcher.

What’s been your favorite discovery so far?

Of course the best discoveries are when we are able to prove a soldier Jewish but these stories are just interesting all on their own. My favorite discoveries tend to be when I find a letter written by the soldier himself that contains information on his background. I love reading about soldiers emigrating to the United States and fighting for their new country.

Esslinger, Isidore (Record number 12029) – He had a very interesting letter in his file. He immigrated from Germany and became a naturalized US Citizen. But back in Germany he had been in the military. It seems like he was supposed to report for another service but came to the United States instead. So in Germany he is considered a deserter. Now he is Captain of his regiment. He asks in his letter for a 90 day furlough to go back to Germany. His father had passed away and the government was trying to take some of his inheritance from his mother since he deserted the army. His furlough was rejected, so he was forced to resign.

Click to view full-size images.

Samuel Davidson (Record number 11294) – In a pension questionnaire Samuel Davidson writes that he was struck in the forehead by holy electricity. Unfortunately he ends up losing his property and is sent to an insane asylum, and then his wife divorces him.

Click to view full-size images.

Joseph Greenhut (Record number 11385) – Joseph was born in Austria, moved to the US and advanced to the rank of Captain. He resigned for a very interesting reason. He claims that his father and uncle were business partners in Austria and they had a large amount of wealth and real estate. When his father died his uncle convinced his mother to emigrate to America with her children, and promised that he would support her. Joseph says his uncle never helped his mother and took all the land that was rightfully his fathers. Joseph resigns because his uncle had passed away and he wants to return to Austria to claim his fathers stolen real estate. The resignation letter is attached to his record.

Click to view full-size images. 

What’s your favorite/least favorite thing about work at the national archives?

My favorite thing about working in the archives is learning about all the different resources that are available to the public. It’s crazy what just anyone can come here and look at.

It’s (least favorite) a tie between my commute and receiving rejection slips. I take an hour and a half train ride to and from Washington DC, it’s nice because I can do work while I’m on the train but being closer to the city would be great. When we request a pension or service record we fill out a slip and hand it in to the archivists. Sometimes we’ll get rejection slips that say they were unable to find our records. Chances are if you put the same slip in again you’ll get your record the second time around.

What have you learned from your research and the research process?

The main thing I’ve learned through the research process is to read everything and double check your work. When reading through pages and pages of handwritten affidavits it’s very easy to miss some information here and there. After I finish working on a state in the database I will go back and look at the records to make sure everything looks correct and clean.

What’s the longest you’ve gone without making any headway on a soldier/case?

I usually don’t spend more than a day looking for a soldier or trying to make a connection. Adrienne (Adrienne Usher, Head Researcher) is amazing at finding information on soldier’s we can’t find on the internet, so if i’m not making any headway and feel like i’m beginning to waste my time, i’ll ask her to see if she can find anything.

How long does it usually take to qualify or disqualify a soldier from the Roster?

If a soldier has a pension we can qualify them or disqualify them pretty quickly. When looking through their pension we usually come across a death or marriage certificate. If the soldier was married by a priest and buried in a Catholic cemetery chances are he didn’t follow the Jewish faith. He could of course be Jewish through his parents but the chances are slim. We won’t rule out a soldier by finding information like this because you never know what you might find online or through another resource, but we make a note that it’s not looking good.

Hope these provide some insight into our work at the archives!

Interested in staying updated with the latest research news and discoveries?  You can follow the research team’s progress as it’s made at the Shapell Manuscript Foundation Facebook Page and Roster Project Album, or by following @ShapellManu on Twitter, #ShapellRoster, or check back at our blog for more interviews and news from the archives.

Research at the National Archives, with Adam Geibel

We asked Shapell Manuscript Foundation researchers at the National Archives in Washington, D.C., about their work and experience there.  The team is working on the Shapell Roster – an updated and accurate roster of Jewish soldiers who served in the American Civil War.

Responses from Adam Geibel, Shapell Roster Researcher.

“What’s been your favorite discovery so far?”

There’s tons of good guys and heroes, but the villain Max Rossvalley (a Confederate faux-Surgeon/crappy spy, who turned coat for the Union) and Rabbi Wise’s post-war mission to expose him as a dastardly liar. This guy is straight out of a Victorian melodrama and I’m still expecting to find out he tied damsels to train tracks while twirling his mustache.

“What’s your favorite/least favorite thing about work at the national archives?”

I do Open Source research (anything that I can reach online, with forays into Philadelphia-local archives). I… occasionally hit libraries, museums and even gun shows.

“What’s the longest you’ve gone without making any headway on a soldier/case?  How long does it usually take to qualify or disqualify a soldier from the Roster?”

I don’t think my figures can be used for a statistical deviation, because 1) I get tossed the ‘hard cases’ and 2) I’ve worked out a ‘firing rotation’, where I work about two hours and if I can’t make headway, I mark my last position and shift to another active information request. That reduces time wasted and frustration levels. Also, Adrienne (Adrienne Usher, Head Researcher) and I have worked out a way to ‘hot potato’ our hard cases – when we hit walls, she looks at mine & I look at hers, so rarely does evidence escape our researcher cross-fire. When it does, that can be an indicator that the subject had a hinky past/event (fake names, mis-remembered stories, hidden crimes, hidden social or moral shenanigans, & etc)

“What have you learned from your research and the research process?”

Like the French say, “plus ça change plus c’est la même chose.” I did some time as a solider and when I’m building up an almost three-dimensional profile of these guys, I’ll frequently think ‘yeah, that sounds like when… he reminds me of…’etc. Soldiers (particularly those from citizen armies) tend to act the same way, the biggest difference being the uniforms and the names on the payroll rosters.

The least favorite is when I’m unraveling someone’s story like a loose thread in a sweater and hit a blank wall – generally this’d be something like records for a synagogue, county or unit having been lost or burnt long, long ago. It also happens when a period newspaper hasn’t been preserved in a morgue somewhere. *I* know exactly where the answer *should be*, it’s just that the tome it’s hiding in may no longer exist. Bang head against wall, rinse, later, repeat. If you’ve ever seen the movie Brigadoon, it’s like the research version of that. Kinda. Sorta.

Interested in staying updated with the latest research news and discoveries?  You can follow the research team’s progress as it’s made at the Shapell Manuscript Foundation Facebook Page and Roster Project Album, or by following @ShapellManu on Twitter, #ShapellRoster, or check back at our blog for more interviews and news from the archives.

 

Research Work at the National Archives, with Caitlin Eichner

We asked Shapell Manuscript Foundation researchers at the National Archives in Washington D.C. about their work and experience there.  The team is working on the Shapell Roster – an updated and accurate roster of Jewish soldiers who served in the American Civil War.

Responses from Caitlin Eichner, Shapell Roster Researcher.

Caitlin Eichner, Shapell Roster Researcher at the U.S. National Archives
Caitlin Eichner, Shapell Roster Researcher at the U.S. National Archives

“What’s been your favorite discovery so far?”

It’s really hard to narrow down what my favorite find from the project has been so far.  There are so many incredible documents at our fingertips at the Archives.  And I always try to see the files we create for individual soldiers from the viewpoint of a future descendant, or researcher focused on a specific soldier, using our database. If I had a personal or heightened connection to a soldier, what would be really exciting to find?  So it’s hard to choose one find, but here are the three I think stand out the most in my mind:

Hand Colored Photograph of Samuel Cline- 

I found this in my first few days working for the Foundation.  I got incredibly lucky with the first batch of files I requested. Lots of great first hand accounts, evidence of soldiers being Jewish, and this this photograph.  I was spoiled early on! But it was great motivation to dig deeper into files, and know what could potentially be unearthed.

Samuel Cline. Hand-painted photograph.
Samuel Cline. Hand-painted photograph. Click to view full-size image.

Samuel Cline is one of the most interesting soldiers I have come across in the past year and a half.  He served in the military under the alias Simon Newmark. Two different accounts were given for this:

1st story- Cline said he adopted the name Simon Newmark, the name of his elder cousin, to serve without his relatives in New York knowing, but after the war returned to “his own name.”

2nd story- Cline’s parents passed away when he was 12 and living in Poland.  He then went to Germany to learn a trade and took the name Simon Newmark because as a subject of Russia he was not permitted to reside there. He resumed the name Samuel Cline at the time of his marriage because “he desired his children to have the name of his ancestors.

To establish that Cline and Newmark were one and the same, the photograph was provided to the pension examiner to show to other members of the soldier’s companies.

Henry Adler Letter Home

I think by far the most poignant find I have had was a letter sent from Private Henry Adler home to his mother.  It was the last letter he ever sent to her; he died on the train back from a Confederate prison on his way to being paroled. One of the last things he wrote to her in the letter was “we are all ready to march and maybe never to come back any more but I want you to pray for my safety and I do what I can towards it now.”  Mrs. Adler sent the letter in to the pension officer to prove her relationship with her son, along with the envelope it was sent in, on which she wrote “This is the last letter we got from our son, and the only one we have at this present time [sic] please return this letter when done with it, if it’s no benefit to you”  Unfortunately for her, the letter was never sent back.  Finding these personal keepsakes is very bittersweet- we are excited to be able to see and document such important, intimate objects; but we also must mourn the loss to the families who never got these items back.

There are only two Henry Adlers who served in New Jersey, and Wolf listed two from the state in his roster. But, Adler is one of the soldiers found in Wolf that we cannot find evidence for, showing that he was Jewish. As researchers going through these records over one hundred years later, we know that Wolf would have had access to contemporary resources that may have evidence of a soldier being Jewish, and therefore we cannot rule out these names.

Click to view full-size images.

Lincoln Signatures

Lately, I have had a fantastic run pulling court martial records and coming across Abraham Lincoln signatures.  To date, I have seen four of these signatures; two of which were previously undocumented.  Holding the documents the person you are researching held, wrote, signed is a pretty incredible feeling in of itself.  But when that person is arguably the greatest president of all time, it takes that feeling to a whole other level.  It amazes me the range and amount of these cases Lincoln personally reviewed or inquired about.  In spite of how busy he was, he took the time to make sure justice was being carried out for individuals- whether it was a senator asking him to look into the case, or a wife who barely spoke English.

“What’s the longest you’ve gone without making any headway on a soldier/case?  

I would say I’ve probably spent two or three days on a soldier, occasionally, where I just am not able to sort the information out to get him added to our database.  We have so many records, that overall, we try not to get stuck on one guy too long – leaving these more complicated soldiers for after we have made it through the multitude of names to get just the basic information ready for them to be put on our public site.  But there is nothing more frustrating than having a guy you really think was Jewish, who has a huge pension file to sift through, with a ton of really interesting stuff, but who ends up not being Jewish, or doesn’t have any evidence to support him being Jewish.  You get invested in guys you then cannot add.

 “How long does it usually take to qualify or disqualify a soldier from the Roster?”

It totally depends.  Some guys we find a marriage certificate or a death certificate right away, and “bam!” they’re in the roster.  Other guys, it takes more work. Sifting through newspapers, contacting descendants, tracking families through census records and finding the local synagogue records.

“What’s your favorite/least favorite thing about work at the national archives?”

My favorite thing about working at the National Archives is the amazing range of resources located there, spanning hundreds of years, and how accessible these records are.  And Pizza Fridays in the cafeteria.

“What have you learned from your research and the research process?”

Don’t give up! Just when you think you’ve run out of resources, or you’ll never figure a soldier’s record out, you find another place to look, and things all fall into place.  We’re really lucky with the team we have, where if one of us hits a wall, we can punt the problem over to someone with a fresh perspective, who will attack the problem from a different angle and suddenly make headway. Everyone is happy to pitch in and share in difficult records, along with the goldmines.

Interested in staying updated with the latest research news and discoveries?  You can follow the research team’s progress as it’s made at the Shapell Manuscript Foundation Facebook Page and Roster Project Album, or by following @ShapellManu on Twitter, #ShapellRoster, or check back at our blog for more interviews and news from the archives.