NEW YORK – New York Army National Guard Soldiers and leaders recognized the first Jewish Soldier to receive the Medal of Honor during a short ceremony at Cypress Hills Cemetery in Brooklyn May 21.
Pvt. Benjamin Levy was honored for his heroic actions in combat on June 30, 1862.
Levy, then a 17-year-old drummer boy, picked up the flag of the 1st New York Volunteer Infantry under a hail of enemy fire and rallied his regiment, preventing a retreat.
He received the Medal of Honor in March 1865 and died at age 76 in July 1921.
The commemoration was sponsored by the Jewish Community Centers Association of North America and the Jewish Welfare Board Jewish Chaplains Council.
“With Memorial Day coming upon us, we wanted to gather here at the site of one of New York’s earliest Medal of Honor recipients to recognize his bravery and the sacrifice of so many other American service members that followed,” said retired U.S. Navy Chaplain Capt. Rabbi Irv Elson, director of the Jewish Welfare Board Jewish Chaplains Council.
The nation’s first Jewish American to receive the Medal of Honor influenced future generations, said Doron Krakow, president and chief executive officer of the JCC Association of North America.
“Firsts matter a great deal, as without them, we can never know those that follow,” he said. “Our presence today, here at the gravesite of Benjamin Levy, is an opportunity to remember all of the members of our community who have given their lives in the service of our country.”
A color guard from the New York Army National Guard’s 107th Military Police Company, Maj. Raziel Amar, chaplain for the 501st Ordnance Battalion, and Col. Richard Goldenberg, the New York National Guard public affairs officer, participated in the ceremony.
Levy’s actions were significant because during the Civil War a regimental flag, or colors, had tactical as well as ceremonial significance, Goldenberg said.
The flag marked the regiment’s line in battle. Soldiers looked for the colors to see where they should be. The job of protecting the flag was given to the most senior sergeant.
The enemy concentrated fires on the sergeant holding the flag. If he was shot and the colors fell, a retreat could result.
When Levy picked up the flag that day, when 15 members of the color guard had been killed or wounded, he was displaying incredible bravery, Goldenberg explained.
Levy, born in 1845 in New York City, enlisted in the Union Army in October 1861.
Only 16 at the time, Levy and his younger brother, Robert, volunteered to serve as drummers, Benjamin with the 1st New York Volunteer Infantry and Robert with the 7th New York Volunteer Infantry Regiment.
“Levy was the child of immigrants,” Goldenberg said, “and like so many New Yorkers of his time and now ours, he volunteered to serve his family’s adopted country in a time of crisis.”
“It’s fitting that today we honor Levy with a color guard, the symbol of service that he selflessly braved Confederate fire to save from capture and use to rally his regiment,” Goldenberg said.
In June 1862, Levy’s regiment arrived to reinforce the Army of the Potomac just after the Battle of Fair Oaks, which was fought May 31-June 1, 1862.
The morning of June 30, while the regiment formed for muster, the Confederates attacked. The 1st New York ran for the action.
Levy, whose drum was broken, grabbed the musket of his ill tent mate, Jacob Turnbull, and joined the fight.
Passing through dense woods, the regiment moved to ambush the flank of approaching Confederate forces.
However, the enemy moved on the New York Volunteers from another direction and the Battle of Glendale began around 3 p.m.
In less than 10 minutes, four color sergeants and 11 corporals comprising the color guard all fell to intense fire. Only one escaped, the remainder killed or wounded.
Levy saw his color bearer, Charley Mahorn, fall from a bullet wound. Levy charged ahead and picked up the unit colors to rally his regiment in defense until relieved by other Union forces.
At the end of the fight, 230 1st New York Soldiers were killed, wounded or missing – a quarter of the men who went into action.
Levy exhibited “extraordinary heroism …. and when the Color Bearers were shot down, carried the colors and saved them from capture,” his citation says.
After his initial two-year service, Levy reenlisted in January 1864 and was severely wounded in the thigh during the Battle of the Wilderness, receiving a discharge due to disability in May 1865.
“I really didn’t know anything about him before today,” said Spc. William Armstrong from the color guard detail. “It’s great to learn his story and honor a Medal of Honor recipient.”
Maj. Raziel Amar, chaplain for the 501st Ordnance Battalion (Explosive Ordnance Disposal), provided traditional Hebrew memorial prayers and the group then placed stones on the gravesite instead of presenting the traditional wreath of flowers.
“We thought the stones, as a more traditional act in the Jewish faith, were more appropriate than a wreath,” Elson said.
Sgt. Letty Luiz, the noncommissioned officer in charge of the color guard, then provided a rendition of taps, utilizing a military forces honor guard bugle that plays a recorded version of the military salute.
“It was really fun participating in this,” Luiz said. “Our company just held a uniform inspection this past weekend for drill, so we were able to come up with the volunteers, and I’m glad we did.”
To end the ceremony, Krakow intoned the traditional Hebrew message for mourners: “Baruch Dayan Emet,” which means “Blessed is the True Judge” and acknowledges “God’s plan for all.”
Then, he added, “And God Bless America.”