Of the 1,330 sentinels of stone standing eternal picket on the Vicksburg National Battlefield, one is a handsome granite monument on Union Avenue honoring the service of the 120th Ohio Volunteer Infantry and its colonel, Marcus M. Spiegel.
What sets this commemorative stone apart from all the others adorning the hills and ravines of the one-time Confederate bastion on the Mississippi River is not the fighting qualities of the regiment or the number of casualties it suffered. What made the 120th Ohio unique among all the Union regiments that laid siege to the city in the summer of 1863 was its colonel’s religion.
Spiegel, the immigrant son of a German rabbi, was a practicing Jew serving in an army of Christian soldiers. Indeed, he was one of the few Jewish officers to be found in either the Union or Confederate armies.
Spiegel didn´t live to see the Union restored. He died May 4, 1864, at age 35, one day after a thousand dismounted Confederate cavalry with four or five cannons ambushed his regiment as it traveled aboard the unarmored steamer City Belle at Davide´s Ferry near Snaggy Point, on the Red River in Louisiana.
Spiegel, fatally wounded in the abdomen, was carried ashore and treated by his regimental surgeons. While much of Spiegel´s regiment was marched off to prison camp, he was buried in the river´s muddy bank. However, the meandering course of the Red River eventually washed away the grave, and his family never recovered the body.
Spiegel left behind a thriving dry-goods business, a wife, two children and a remarkable cache of descriptive letters he had penned to his family throughout his military service. These letters, often written for publication in his local newspaper in Ohio, the Millersburg Holmes County Farmer, give a vivid and detailed picture of military life in camp, on the march and under fire.
The letters also show the evolution of Spiegel the man, from an uncertain officer to a veteran leader, from a lifelong Democrat who signed up only to preserve the Union to a firm believer that the war also must abolish the South´s “peculiar institution.”
Spiegel also reveals a tender side of his nature, constantly asking after the welfare of family and friends back home and worrying about his “boys,” to whom he showed unwavering loyalty. They reciprocated by exhibiting none of the anti-Semitic bias so common at that time. Indeed, Spiegel experienced remarkably little overt discrimination because of his religion.
A good meal
Spiegel´s military life began in December 1861 at Camp Chase near Columbus, Ohio, the training ground for most of the state´s troops. He gives a detailed description of camp life and proudly announces that he has been appointed captain in Company C of the 67th Ohio Volunteer Infantry.
Company C is the color company, so when the regiment formed in line of battle, his soldiers carried the flag. “My company is making very efficient progress in drill,” Spiegel reported. “There is no company in the regiment who can beat them.”
After a brief home leave, Spiegel´s regiment was ordered to the western counties of Virginia, where Gen. Thomas Jonathan “Stonewall” Jackson was menacing Federal forces along the South Branch of the Potomac River. Although the 67th did more marching than fighting, Spiegel learned what it was like to bivouac in the field.
“We commenced pitching [tents] and last night I slept in my own bunk on a lot of fine spruce and pine sprouts, 3 quilts over them and 4 blankets over me,” he wrote to his wife from camp near Paw Paw, Va. “I slept like a baby and feel good.”
In the field, most of a soldier´s time was spent setting up and maintaining camp, drilling and standing picket. Other than letters from home, a good meal was the most welcome diversion to an otherwise monotonous routine. In the early days of the war, Spiegel dined sumptuously with fellow officers.
“We had fresh beef soup with desicated vegetables and desicated potatoes in fried hominy, fried desicated potatoes, beef, blackberry pie (which the boys traded for cream). … A bully, bully dinner of which I eat harty [sic].”
For someone who tried to adhere to his religion´s dietary restrictions, he admitted, “It is hard sometimes on account of getting nothing but pork for weeks and still if we had bread instead of the sole leather crackers [hard tack], I think we would do bully.”
‘In an awful place’
After fighting well against Jackson at the Shenandoah Valley hamlet of Kernstown on March 22, 1862, Spiegel´s regiment was ordered to join Gen. George B. McClellan´s Army of the Potomac, then threatening Richmond. On the way, Spiegel stopped in Washington, where he listened to debates in the House of Representatives.
After hearing a speech by Rep. Charles B. Sedgwick advocating that the war should not end until slavery was abolished, Spiegel wrote to his hometown newspaper: “If it is the object of Congress to prolong the war until this is accomplished, I wish they would be honest enough to say so at once, and give us who have engaged in this war for a different purpose a chance to go home.”
Spiegel´s regiment missed most of the fighting on the Peninsula, and when the Army of the Potomac was recalled to the defenses of Washington, the 67th Ohio was sent by boat to Suffolk, Va., for garrison duty. There Spiegel met another Jewish officer, who reminded him of the upcoming religious holidays. In a letter to his wife, he urged her to celebrate them with the children and assured her “there is a synagogue in Norfolk 12 miles from here. I shall go in all events.”
Spiegel had been lobbying his political friends back home for an appointment to one of the new regiments then being formed. He was thrilled to learn that he would be lieutenant colonel of the 120th Ohio Volunteer Infantry, a regiment destined for service in the West.
In a Dec. 17, 1862, letter to his wife written from a camp near Memphis, Tenn., Spiegel boasts: “General [William T.] Sherman said before all his staff and officers ‘this 120th Regiment is the best new regiment I have yet seen in the field in regard to appearance, drill, and discipline.´”
That discipline was tested during Sherman´s ill-conceived attack at Chickasaw Bluffs on Dec. 28, 1862. “Our regiment was in an awful place,” Spiegel wrote, “and for a new regiment behaved like veterans and just then I became perfectly enraptured … the fear of death had perfectly left me.” The 120th did not participate in the main assault but suffered 20 men wounded nonetheless.
A proud leader
In its next action, the 120th would be in the thick of the fight. As part of Gen. John A. McClernand´s Army of the Mississippi, the regiment led the attack on Arkansas Post, a Rebel fort on the Arkansas River.
Proud that his regiment was first to plant its flag on the enemy´s ramparts on Jan. 11, 1863, Spiegel boasted: “Our regiment was the first to charge and we charged up to the ditch of the powerful fort and then fought them under the most terrific fire for an hour and a half.”
To his wife, he asserted: “I believe I am a soldier, every inch, no fear, perfectly cool, yet snap enough to encourage my men.” The regiment suffered two killed, nine wounded and 11 men missing.
McClernard´s army, including Spiegel´s regiment, soon became part of the 13th Corps in the juggernaut Maj. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant had marshaled for his campaign to capture Vicksburg, the last Confederate stronghold on the Mississippi River.
In February, Spiegel was promoted to full colonel of the regiment, and one of his first acts was to address the regiment on dress parade. He had heard of some disloyal sentiments being expressed in the ranks and wanted to stop that immediately.
“If there is one man in the regiment who would refuse to shoot a rebel, in an engagement,” Spiegel announced, “let him step three paces to the front in order that he can be marked as a coward and receive the reward of a traitor.”
Spiegel´s address left a strong impression. In his report on the May 1, 1863, battle at Port Gibson, he recounted: “I discovered the exact position of the enemy´s advance, toward the left, on the opposite bank. I then charged upon them with the regiment, and quickly drove them from the bank to the knoll. … Rushing up the bank, we drove them from behind the knoll, taking 8 prisoners.”
He closed his report by saying “that the men of the 120th Ohio have not only justified their former reputation, but have even excelled it.”
Just after the fall of Vicksburg, the 120th was among the Union forces under Sherman laying partial siege outside the Confederate earthworks at Jackson, Miss. Spiegel´s July 12 letter home was written from a division hospital.
“This morning I was very severely, but not in the least dangerously wounded in my left leg by a shell,” he wrote. A defective artillery round from the 7th Michigan Battery had exploded near Spiegel. On Aug. 1, after an arduous journey by river and rail, Spiegel returned home to Millersburg, lying on a cot in a freight car, to a hero´s welcome.
By the time Spiegel was ready to rejoin his regiment in November, it had been assigned to Maj. Gen. Nathaniel P. Bank´s expedition up the Red River in northern Louisiana, a possible launching point for an invasion of Texas. While the regiments assembled in Plaquemine, La., Spiegel´s views about slavery underwent a significant change.
“I have learned and seen more of what the horrors of slavery was than I ever knew before,” he wrote, “and I am glad indeed that the signs of the times show, towards closing out the accursed institution.” He assured his wife “this is no hasty conclusion but a deep conviction.”
When Spiegel and his regiment boarded the transport City Belle on April 30, 1864, for its trip up the Red River, he had no idea that he would soon give his life to help make his “deep conviction” a reality. His last letter home, never finished, spoke lovingly of his family and his love of his regiment.
“I send you a few pictures and I hope you will by and by get familiar with every face in the regiment,” he wrote, “they are truly good boys and I love them and I believe the feeling is mutual.”
His “boys” showed their devotion to their colonel by placing his name prominently on the regimental monument standing eternal picket on the field of honor where he led them.
cGordon Berg is former president of the Civil War Round Table of the District of Columbia.