By: CSM Sam Yudin, CA ARNG
PVT Benjamin Levy was the first Jewish American awarded the Medal of Honor, for actions under fire when he was barely seventeen-years-old.
Benjamin Levy was born on February 22, 1845, in New York City. When he was only sixteen, he enlisted as a drummer boy in Company G, 1st New York Infantry. He would quickly gain a reputation for being fearless under pressure. While his unit was in Newport News, Virginia, he worked as an orderly for General Joseph K. Mansfield. His chief duty was carrying dispatches between General Mansfield and General John E. Wool at Fort Monroe. One day, he was carrying his dispatches aboard a steamboat named Express, which was towing a schooner. A Confederate gunboat named Seabird attacked the Express. In order to evade capture, PVT Levy took out his knife and cut the schooner free. The Seabird captured the schooner, but the Express was able to get away. Several officers commended him for this action.
That wouldn’t be his last courageous act by any means. At the battle of Charles City Crossroads in Glendale, Virginia, on June 30, 1862, Levy’s activities would garner him the Medal of Honor. Levy, as the drummer boy, did not need to participate in the fighting. At the time of his action, his unit was on picket duty to cover the retreat from Richmond. His tent-mate, Jacob Turnbull, was ill with malaria and ready to give up. But Levy abandoned his drum, took Turnbull’s rifle, and confidently joined the battle. When most of the regiment’s color bearers were killed, Levy grabbed one of the colors. When the last color bearer – Charley Mahorn – was shot, he grabbed those colors as well and retreated with colors over each shoulder, becoming slightly wounded in the retreat. General Phillip Kearny saw him emerge from the woods with the two colors, and promoted him to Color-Sergeant on the spot. Eventually, he would be awarded the Medal of Honor for this act.
Later, at the Battle of Malvern Hill (July 1, 1862), Levy once again found himself a crucial role. That day, his unit’s uniforms were so dusty that Union artillery was not able to distinguish them from Confederate troops. As the artillery barrage began, Levy’s Colonel ordered him to advance alone into the field, and unfurl the colors so the artillery could tell they were Union troops, and stop firing. Confederate sharpshooters took aim at Levy and struck the flagstaff and Levy’s equipment, but Levy miraculously avoided being struck. The artillery redirected their shooting, thereby saving their fellow Union soldiers.
Afterwards, Levy fought in various battles with the Army of the Potomac unit, and eventually mustered out in June of 1863.
Apparently seeking more excitement, Levy reenlisted in January 1864 with the 40th New York Volunteers and distinguished himself at the Battle of the Wilderness, fought from May 4-7, 1864, in Virginia. In this battle, he was seriously wounded, receiving a compound fracture of the left thigh, and captured, and held in primitive conditions for two weeks until he and his fellow captives were recaptured by Union troops. Levy recuperated from his wounds until nearly the end of the war. Before rejoining his regiment, he was awarded the Medal of Honor on March 1, 1865. Numerous officers under whom he served recorded his heroic acts of gallantry in letters.
His Medal of Honor citation reads with deceptive simplicity: This soldier, a drummer boy, took the gun of a sick comrade, went into the fight, and when the color bearers were shot down, carried the colors and saved them from capture. His younger brother, Robert Levy, also served as a drummer boy in the Union Army with the 7th New York Volunteer Regiment. Benjamin Levy died at the age of 76 on July 20, 1921 in New York City, and was buried in Cypress Hills Cemetery.
For more great stories and information about Jewish American Military History please visit the Jewish American Military Historical Society website at jewishmilitary.com.
Originally published in the Chanukah 2020 issue of The Jewish American Warrior.