Lt. Col. Leopold C. Newman (1839-1863): a NY Jewish war hero

Posted on May 30, 2010

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Memorial Day was originally called Decoration Day for the custom of cleaning the graves of Civil War soldiers, but the location of a New York Jewish Civil War hero’s grave is uncertain. In 1861 22 year old Leopold Charles Newman, a  Columbia University alumnus who wrote poetry and fiction and read French and German literature, was a promising young lawyer and founder of Brooklyn‘s Young Men’s Democratic Association who was engaged to be married and resided at 177 Court Street in what is today Cobble Hill, Brooklyn. Unlike the Manhattan Democrats who opposed the war and held southern sympathies the Brooklyn Democrats whose editorial voice was none other than Walt Whitman were pro-Union. When Fort Sumter was attacked Newman, following the example of his father who served in the Mexican War, left his legal practice, political and oratory career, postponed his wedding and with two friends organized New York’s 31st Regiment of volunteers in which he enlisted as a lieutenant. (Much of what follows is adapted from Judith Greenwald’s 2006 article.)

The 31st fought at Fairfax Court House, BIackburn’s Ford, Bull Run, Munson’s Hill, Springfield Station, West Point, Gaines Mill, Garnett and GoIding’s Farm, Glendale, Malvern Hill, Burke’s Station, Fredericksburg, and Mary’s Heights and Salem Church in Virginia and at Crampton’s Pass and Antietam in Maryland. Newman saw action in all of these battles winning promotions for valor to the rank of Lt. Colonel. In 1863 with one week left in his enlistment Newman was home visiting family when the War Department called him back to duty. “I’II be home in a week father,” he said as he returned to Virginia for battle at Fredericksburg.

There, General Sedgwick ordered the 31st to carry Maryse’ Heights, saying “You may lose all your men, but you will save the corps.” Newman, turning to his men cried, “Now gentlemen, over with you” and with banner in one hand and sword in the other he dashed into battle. The effort was successful, with the 31st Regiment making two of the most brilliant charges of the entire campaign and its flag the first to reach the rebels’ works, but Newman suffered a severe grape shot wound in his left foot. The shot broke several bones. At that time such an injury required amputation. The pain of surgery could be ameliorated only by surgical speed, for there was never enough chloroform to go around. With skill a leg could be removed in twelve seconds, an arm in nine. [See, E. L. Doctorow, The March, p. 58.] It is not clear if Newman was operated on in the field or at the National Hotel, in Washington D. C. to which he was evacuated. His died there on June 7th. President Abraham Lincoln arrived at Newman’s bedside either as he lay dying or just after he died and reportedly delivered to him his commission as a Brigadier-General.

Newman’s family belonged to Congregation Baith Israel (which in 1905 would merge with Congregation Anshe Emes to form what is today Kane Street Synagogue) which owned cemetery plots in what was then called Union Field in Cypress Hills, and there Brig. General Newman was buried with military honors in a graveside funeral attended by the 28th Regiment with band and drum corps, together with numerous citizens and many discharged and furloughed soldiers. His tombstone read “He fought for his Country with the Army of the Potomac in every battle from Bull Run to that in which he fell leading his regiment in the storming of Morys Heights.”

Today we do not know in what part of the sprawling necropolis that abuts the Jackie Robinson Parkway Union Field was located or which of the many graves is that of Brig. General Newman. There are several cemeteries named Union Field in Cypress Hills. None of the cemeteries bearing the name Union Field has records of Newman’s interment. Many unsuccessful trips have been made to Cypress Hills to find the grave. The area is vast and the oldest stones, which are made of soft sand stone, are illegible. For example, the grave of Leopold Newman’s father, Charles, who died in 1885, is located in Kane Street Synagogue’s ground at Machpelah Cemetery in Cypress Hills. When first located in 1981 it was legible, but by 2006, it was not. Fortunately, through Rabbi Israel Goldfarb’s written histories and the preservation of records and documents by the New York State Division of Military and Naval Affairs and the National Archives, the heroism of our remarkable Jewish New Yorker Leopold C. Newman is preserved. As stated in one of his obituaries on file with the 31st Regiment New York Volunteers Civil War Newspaper Clippings, he was “a loving and dutiful son, a kind brother, a warm friend, an iron-hearted soldier …. ”

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