A Tar Heel Jewish Soldier at Gettysburg: Extracts from the Diary of Private Louis Leon, Company B, 53rd Regiment N.C. Troops

May 17-July 15, 1863

edited by Greg Mast

Louis Leon was born in Mecklenburg, Germany, probably in 1842. He migrated to New York City with his parents on an unknown date prior to 1858. In that year Leon moved to Charlotte, in Mecklenburg County, North Carolina, and found employment as a clerk; he would not see his parents again until released from prison in 1865. That Charlotte's small Jewish community participated in the military duties of its citizenry is indicated by the presence of Second Lieutenant Solomon A. Cohen of the "Charlotte Guards," a volunteer company of the 85th Regiment N.C. Militia.1 Louis Leon enlisted in the "Charlotte Grays," subsequently Company C, 1st Regiment N.C. Volunteers, on April 19, 1861, and fought at Big Bethel. Among other members of the "Grays" were men with the surnames of Engle, Israel, Katz, Leopold, Levi, and Oppenheim. One cannot be sure, of course, that all of these men were Jewish.2

During his service with the 1st N.C. Volunteers, Leon began keeping a diary, which he maintained for the duration of the war. Leon published his diary, with some obvious revisions, in 1913 as Diary of A Tar Heel Confederate Soldier (Charlotte, Stone Publishing). At that time Leon was an officer in the United Confederate Veterans and was commander of the Charlotte Camp. The frontispiece is a photograph of him, bespectacled and with a large white mustache, in the UCV uniform. The Maltese cross of the United Daughters of the Confederacy is prominently displayed on his breast and his collar bears the single star of a major--presumably his rank in the UCV.

When the 1st N.C. Volunteers, a six-month regiment, disbanded in November 1861, Leon returned home for the winter but enlisted again on April 14, 1862, as a private in Company B, 53rd Regiment N.C. Troops. Five members of that company have been identified as Jewish. They are:

Private Jacob Donau.

Private Jonas Engel. Sergeant Major Aaron Katz.

Private Lous Leon.

Corporal Henry Wertheim.

Leon's experiences during the Gettysburg campaign are recounted in the extract of his diary presented below. He served until he was captured at Wilderness, May 5, 1864. Incarceration at Point Lookout and Elmira followed until, according to his compiled service records, he took the Oath of Allegiance on February 7, 1865, and was released. However, Leon states in his diary that he remained in prison until April 12: "we heard that Lee had surrendered on the 9th, and about 400, myself with them, took the cursed oath and were given transportation to wherever we wanted to go."4

The historian of the 53rd North Carolina, W. T. Jordan, Jr., observes that "As far as one can judge from his diary, Leon's experiences as a Jew in the Confederate army were singularly lacking in episodes of prejudice, discrimination, or rejection. To all appearances he was a high-spirited soldier of exceptional skill and courage who was accepted, liked, and respected by his officers and comrades."5 In closing his diary, Leon expressed the following sentiments:

When I commenced this diary of my life as a Confederate soldier, I was full of hope for the speedy termination of the war, and our independence. I was not quite nineteen years old. I am now twenty-three. The four years that I have given to my country I do not regret, nor am I sorry for one day I have given--my only regret is that we have lost that for which we fought. Nor do I for one moment think that we lost it by any other way than by being outnumbered at least five if not ten to one. . . . to the last I will say that, although but a private, I still say our Cause was just, nor do I regret one thing that I have done to cripple the North.6

The Diary

(Editor's note: Page breaks from the original are given in brackets, thus: { }.

May 17: {27} Up to to-day nothing. But this morning at 4 we were ordered to cook up all our rations, and be ready to march in one hour. We left Kinston by rail at 12 M. Got to Goldsboro at 3, went through to Weldon, left here at 5 P.M., and got to Petersburg, Va., on the morning of the 18th; left there at 6 P.M. Katz and myself went uptown--ate two suppers. Had a very good time while in town. We camped all night on Dunn's Hill.

May 19: Left here at 5 this morning, got to Richmond at 8, and are stationed at Camp Lee. We will have to march to Fredericksburg. Our brigade is {28} transferred to the Army of Northern Virginia.7 William Cochran8, myself and several of our company ran the blockade to-night, went uptown to a theatre, and got back to camp at 2 o'clock. We had a fine time while uptown.

May 21: Left this morning, marched twenty-one miles, halted at 5.30. It is a very hilly country, warm and dusty.

May 22: Marched twenty miles to-day, and halted at 6 P.M.

May 23: Marched fifteen miles and halted. On our to-day's march we saw any amount of dead horses, which did not smell altogether like cologne.

May 24: Laid here all day, it being Sunday.

May 25: Resumed our march this morning at 6. Got six miles and halted. We pitched our camp here on a hill two miles from Fredericksburg.

May 26 and 27: Rested. I went to see my brother Morris9, who belongs to Dowles' [Doles'] Brigade, 44th Georgia Regiment. Did not see him, as he was on picket.

May 28: Morris came to see me to-day. We are both in the same division and corps. Our corps is commanded by General Ewell.

May 29: Had a general review to-day. General Rodes is our division commander. He and General Lee reviewed us. I see a great change in the appearance of General Lee. He looks so much older than when I saw him at Yorktown. Then his hair was black. Now he is a gray-headed old man. We have five brigades in our division. The commander of {29} my brigade is General Daniels [Daniel], of North Carolina. One brigade of Georgians is commander by General Dowles. Iverson, of North Carolina, has another brigade; also General Ramseur, of North Carolina has a brigade; and General Battle, of Alabama, has a brigade. Our corps is composed of three divisions, ours by General Rodes, one by General Early, and the other by General A. Johnson.

May 30: We see the Yankees in balloons every day, reconnoitering our lines.

June 1 and 2: Nothing new.

June 3: Saw my brother Morris several times.

June 4: Got orders to cook three days' rations immediately. We left our camp at 3 this morning, marched fourteen miles and halted. We march one hour and rest ten minutes.

June 5: Marched until 4 o'clock this evening--twenty miles to-day.

June 6: Marched five miles and halted for the day.

June 7: Left at 5 A.M., got to Culpepper Court House 3 P.M., and marched four miles on the east side of town. Twenty miles to-day. We waded Rapidan River, which is forty yards wide, two feet deep and very swift.

June 8: Stayed here all day.

June 9: We were ordered to Beverly Ford, to support Gen. Jeb Stewart, who is engaging the Yankees, and they are having a very hard cavalry fight. Got here in a roundabout way, and formed in line of {30} battle, with two lines of skirmishers in front. When we got to the Army of Northern Virginia we were told that each company must furnish one skirmisher out of every six men, and there was a call for volunteers for that service. So I left the colors and went as a skirmisher, whose duty it is in time of battle to go in front of the line and reconnoitre and engage the enemy until a general engagement, then we fall in line with the balance of the army. As soon as the enemy saw that the cavalry was reinforced by infantry, they fell back. This was altogether a cavalry fight. We took quite a number of prisoners, and camped two miles from the battlefield. We marched twelve miles today.

June 10: Left here at 2 P.M., marched until 8 o'clock to-night--twelve miles.

June 11: Resumed our march at 5 A.M., passed over three creeks that formed the Rappahannock river, passed through a town called Flint Hill, and camped one mile on the north side of the town. Marched sixteen miles to-day.

June 12: Left at 5 A.M., marched over part of the Blue Ridge, and crossed the head of the Rappahannock River--eighteen miles to-day. We marched through Front Royal, where the ladies treated us very good. Camped one mile north side of town, and waded the Shaninoar [Shenandoah], both prongs.

June 13: Marched to Berryville, a Yankee post. Heard firing before we got there. We took the left {31} flank a half mile this side of town, and marched to the Winchester Turnpike. We then formed in line of battle with sharpshooters in front. We gave the Rebel yell and charged. But when we got to their breastworks the birds had flown. They did not take their nests with them. Their camp, with all their cooking utensils, quartermaster and commissary stores, were left in our hands. They were evidently cooking a meal, for plenty of pots full of eatables were still on the fire when we got into camp. We ate up all we could, and filled our haversacks and pushed on four miles further, and halted for the night. It is raining very hard, and there is, of course, no shelter for us.

June 14: Left at 7 A.M., passed through Smithfield and Bunker Hill. The Yankees are still retreating in our front, on their way to Martinsburg, our own destination. We got there about 9 o'clock at night and drove them through the town, and, in fact, we felt like driving the devil out of his stronghold, as this was a very warm day. We had to march in quick time all day, a distance of twenty-five miles. Therefore we were not in the best of humor. This is a good sized town.

June 15: Left here at 11 A.M., and got to the Potomac River at dusk, a distance of twelve miles. We have as yet been very fortunate. Have driven the enemy from the Rapidan to the Potomac, captured prisoners, arms, camps, quartermaster and commissary sores, and the Yankees were any moment as {32} strong in numbers as we, with the advantage of having breastworks to fight behind. Still they always ran at our appearance.

June 16: Resting to-day.

June 17: We crossed the Potomac River today at 1 P.M., and camped in Williamsport, Maryland, on the banks of the Potomac. Two miles to-day. The river is knee-deep.

June 18: The people are mixed in their sympathies, some Confederates and some Yankees.

June 19: Left at 8 A.M., and seven miles took us to Hagerstown, Md. Here the men greeted us very shabby, but the ladies quite the reverse. This town has 5,000 inhabitants, and is a very pretty town. We camped on the Antietam.

June 20 and 21: Raining hard.

June 22: Left this morning at 8 o'clock, got to Middleburg, Pa., at 11, passed through it, and got to Green Castle at half past one. Eleven miles to-day. The people seemed downhearted, and showed their hatred to us by their glum looks and silence, and I am willing to swear that no prayers will be offered in this town for us poor, ragged rebels.

June 23: Here all day. Tom Tiotter10 and myself went out to buy something to eat, but when we came to a house, they would close their doors in our faces, or let us knock and not open. We got the ear of one or two ladies, and after proving to them that we were not wild animals or thieves, they gave us what we wanted, but would not take pay for anything.

June 24: {33} Left here this morning, got to Chambersburg at 12 M. Went three miles on the north side of town on picket--14 miles to-day. We passed through Marion, a small village. Chambersburg is a very fine place, 10,000 inhabitants, but nary a smile greeted us as we marched through town. There are a plenty of men here--a pity they are not rebels, and in our ranks. This city is in Franklin County, Cumberland Valley. We were woke up in the middle of the night and marched off; waded a river which was so cold that it woke us up. Passed through Greenville to-day at dawn. This town has, I should judge, about 5,000 inhabitants. Nine miles to-day.

June 25: Marched on, passed through Leesburg, Canada, Hockinsville, and Centerville, all small villages. We got to Carlisle, Pa., at sundown. Marched 21 miles to-day. this city is certainly a beautiful place. It has 8,000 inhabitants, and we were treated very good by the ladies. They thought we would do as their soldiers do, burn every place we passed through, but when we told them the strict orders of General Lee they were rejoiced. Our regiment was provost guard in the city, but were relieved by the 21st Georgia Regiment, and we went to camp at the U.S. barracks. So far we have lived very good in the enemy's country. We stayed here until the 30th, when we took the Baltimore pike road, crossed South Mountain at Holly Gap, passed through Papertown and Petersburg. We then left the Pike and took the Gettysburg road--17 miles today. This {34} has been a hard day for us, as we were the rear guard of the division, and it was very hot, close and very dusty, and a terrible job to keep the stragglers up.

July 1: We left camp at 6 A.M., passed through Heidelsburg and Middleton. At the latter place we heard firing in the direction of Gettysburg. We were pushed forward after letting the wagon trains get in our rear. We got to Gettysburg at 1 P.M., 15 miles. We were drawn up in line of battle about one mile south [sic!: north] of town, and a little to the left of the Lutheran Seminary. We then advanced to the enemy's line of battle in double quick time. We had not gotten more than 50 paces when Norman11 of our company fell dead by my side. Katz was going to pick him up. I stopped him, as it is strictly forbidden for anyone to help take the dead or wounded off the field except the ambulance corps. We then crossed over a rail fence, where our Lieutenant McMathews and Lieutenant Alexander12 were both wounded. That left us with a captain and one lieutenant. After this we got into battle in earnest, and lost in our company very heavily, both killed and wounded. This fight lasted four hours and a half, when at last we drove them clear our of town, and took at least 3,000 prisoners. They also lost very heavily in killed and wounded, which all fell into our hands. After the fight our company was ordered to pick up all straggling Yankees in town, and bring them together to be brought to the rear as prisoners. One fellow I took up could not speak one word of English, and the first thing he asked me in German {35} was "Will I get my pay in prison?" After we had them all put up in a pen we went to our regiment and rested. Major Iredell13, of our regiment, came to me and shook my hand, and also complimented me for action in the fight. At dusk I was about going to hunt up my brother Morris, when he came to me. Thank God, we are both safe as yet. We laid all night about the dead Yankees, but they did not disturb our peaceful slumbers.

July 2: Our division was in reserve until dark, but our regiment was supporting a battery all day. We lost several killed and wounded, although we had no chance to fire--only lay by a battery of artillery and be shot at. The caisson of the batter we were supporting was blown up and we got a big good sprinkling of the wood from it. Just at dark we were sent to the front under terrible cannonading. Still, it was certainly a beautiful sight. It being dark, we could see the cannon vomit forth fire. Our company had to cross a rail fence. It gave way and several of our boys were hurt by others walking over them. We laid down here a short time, in fact no longer than 10 minutes, when I positively fell asleep. The cannonading did not disturb me. One of the boys shook me and told me Katz was wounded by a piece of a shell striking him on the side, and he was sent to the rear. We went on to the Baltimore Turnpike until 3 in the morning of the 3d.

July 3: When under a very heavy fire, we were ordered on Culps Hill, to the support of Gen. A. {36} Johnson. Here we stayed all day--no, here, I may say, we melted away. We were on the brow of one hill, the enemy on the brow of another. We charged on them several times, but of course, running down our hill, and then to get them was impossible, and every time we attempted it we came back leaving some of our comrades behind. Here our Lieutenant Belt lost his arm. We have now in our company a captain.14, All of our lieutenants are wounded. We fought here until 7 P.M., when what was left of us was withdrawn and taken to the first day's battlefield. At the commencement of this fight our Brigade was the strongest in our division, but she is not now. We lost the most men, for we were in the fight all the time, and I have it from Colonel Owens15, that our regiment lost the most in the Brigade. I know that our company went in the fight with 60 men. When we left Culps Hill there were 16 of us that answered to the roll call. The balance were all killed and wounded. There were 12 sharpshooters in our company and now John Cochran16, and myself are the only ones that are left. This day none will forget, that participated in the fight. It was truly awful how fast, how very fast, did our poor boys fall by our sides--almost as fast as the leaves that fell as cannon and musket balls hit them, as they flew on their deadly errand. You could see one with his head shot off, others cut in two, then one with his brain oozing out, one with his leg off, others shot through the heart. They you would hear some poor friend or foe crying for water, or for "God's sake" {37} to kill him. You would see some of your comrades, shot through the leg, lying between the lines, asking his friends to take him out, but no one could get to this relief, and you would have to leave him there, perhaps to die, or, at best, to become a prisoner. Our brigade was the only one sent to Culps Hill to support General Johnson. In our rapid firing today my gun became so hot that the ramrod would not come out, so I shot it at the Yankees, and picked up a gun from the ground, a gun that some poor comrade dropped after being shot. I wonder if it hit a Yankee; if so, I pity him. Our regiment was in a very exposed position at one time to-day, and our General Daniels ordered a courier of his to bring us from the hill. He was killed before he got to us. The General sent another. He was also killed before he reached us. Then General Daniels would not order any one, but called for volunteers. Capt. Ed. Stitt, of Charlotte, one of his aides, responded, and he took us out of the exposed position.

July 4: We laid on the battlefield of the first day, this the fourth day of July. No fighting to-day, but we are burying the dead. They have been lying on the field in the sun since the first day's fight; it being dusty and hot, the dead smell terribly. The funny part of it is, the Yankees have all turned black. Several of our company, wounded, have died. Katz is getting along all right. The battle is over, and although we did not succeed in pushing the enemy out of their strong position, I am sure they have not any {38} thing to boast about. They have lost at least as many in killed and wounded as we have. We have taken more prisoners from them than they have from us. If that is not the case, why did they lay still all to-day and see our army going to the rear? An army that has gained a great victory follows it up while the enemy is badly crippled; but Meade, their commander, knows he has had as much as he gave, at least, if not more. As yet I have not heard a word from my brother Morris since the first day's fight.

July 5: Left this morning at 5 o'clock. Only marched ten miles to-day. The enemy being in our rear, and skirmishing very strong.

July 6: Our company was ordered out as skirmishers today, as our regular skirmish corps was broken up during the fight. We were the rear of the army, and therefore had a very hard job before us. Fighting all day in falling back we certainly had fun. We were close enough to the enemy to hear their commands. We would hold them in check and give them a few rounds, then fall back again. They would advance until we would make a stand, fight again, and so it was until we reached Fairfield, six miles from Gettysburg. I don't think there were many lost on either side in this skirmish. We crossed South Mountain at Monteray Gap. When we came to the above town I pressed into service a citizen's coat, in this way: We were ordered to rest, and, as usual, we would sit on fences and lay about on the road. Some of the boys jumped on an old hog pen. It broke {39} through. They fell in, and, lo and behold, there were boxes of clothing, dresses, shawls, blankets, and, in fact, everything in the line of wearing apparel. I, being a little fellow, crawled through some of the boys' legs and captured the coat. If the fool citizen would have left his things in his house they would have been safe, but to put it in our way was too much for us to leave behind. We also passed through Waterboro, and Waynesboro, Pa., where the Maryland line commences. We then passed through Latisburg, and halted at Hagerstown, Md., on the evening of the 7th. We marched yesterday and all night up to 11 o'clock--twenty-four miles.

July 8: We are resting, and, goodness knows, we need it very much. I sold my coat for twenty dollars and a gray jacket. We lost in the last fight in our company eleven killed and twenty-six wounded; three of the latter will not live, and nine of our company became prisoners, besides the wounded.17 Our three lieutenants are all wounded and prisoners. Katz is also a prisoner. Nothing further up to the 10th.

July 10: Moved four and a half miles on the other side of town. We have fortified ourselves here.

July 11: Orders read out to-day from our father, R. E. Lee, that we would fight the enemy once more on their own soil, as they were now in our front. That order got to them, and fulfilled its mission, as we were then our way to the Potomac. They still thinking we could not cross the river, because the river was very high from the recent rains, and we {40} had but one pontoon bridge. At 10 in the night we formed in line of battle, got to our position, when our regiment was ordered to support a battery. Laid on our arms all night.

July 12: Went back to our brigade this morning. Skirmishing very heavy on the left and center.

July 13: News came to us to-day that Vicksburg had fallen on the 4th. Heavy skirmishing, fighting all day. Our brigade again acted as the rear of our corps, our regiment being its rear. We started our retreat at dark and marched to Williamsport, six miles, through mud and slush ankle-deep, and raining very hard. We marched one mile to the right of and crossed the Potomac at midnight, after wading through the canal, which we destroyed. The river was up to my chin, and very swift. We crossed in fours for protection, as otherwise we could not have crossed. Our cartridge boxes we carried around our necks to keep the powder dry. On the south bank tar was poured so that we would not slip back in the river, as the mud was very slick. J. Engle, of our company, was stuck in until some of the boys pulled him out. We went six miles further, and I honestly believe more of us were asleep on our night's march than awake. But, still, all kept up, for the rear was prison. We then halted, made fire to dry ourselves, just as day was breaking on the morning of the 14th.

July 14: The roads are so bad that it is hard work to trudge along. I stuck in the mud several times, and lost one shoe in a mud hole, but of course took {41} it out again. One consolation we have got, it is raining so hard that the mud is washed off our clothing, therefore they were not soiled too bad. But the devil of it is there is no blacking to shine our shoes with. Marched sixteen miles and halted. We are now, thank God, on Confederate soil, but oh, how many of our dear comrades have we left behind. We can never forget this campaign. We had hard marching, hard fighting, suffered hunger and privation, but our general officers were always with us, to help the weary soldier carry his gun, or let him ride. In a fight they were with us to encourage. Many a general have I seen walk and a poor sick private riding his horse, and our father, Lee, was scarcely ever out of sight when there was danger. We could not feel gloomy when we saw his old gray head uncovered as he would pass us on the march, or be with us in a fight. I care not how weary or hungry we were, when we saw him we gave that Rebel yell, and hunger and wounds would be forgotten.

July 15: We marched five miles to-day, and were compelled to halt, as our wagon trains had to get in our front. I and two of our mess killed three turkeys, took them with us to one mile from Martinsburg, Va., where we camped, and the bones of those turkeys were left behind.

1. Stephen E. Bradley, Jr., North Carolina Militia Officer's Roster, (Wilmington: Broadfoot Publishing Company, 1992), 233.

2. All service record information on Leon and other soldiers is taken from Leon's book, Diary of a Tar Heel Confederate Soldier (Charlotte: Stone Publishing, 1913); and from volumes three and thirteen of Louis H. Manarin and W. T. Jordan, Jr., comps. North Carolina Troops, 1861-1865: A Roster, (Raleigh: Division of Archives and History, Department of Cultural Resources, 1966--). Readers interested in the 53rd North Carolina are particularly directed to volume thirteen of North Carolina Troops, which contains a full scholarly history of that regiment by Mr. Jordan.

3. Manarin and Jordan, North Carolina Troops, 13:78-88.

4. Leon, Diary, 70.

5. Manarin and Jordan, North Carolina Troops, 13:28.

6. Leon, Diary, 71.

7. The 53rd North Carolina belonged to Brigadier General Junius Daniel's Brigade, which also included the 32nd, 43rd, and 45th Regiments N.C. Troops, and the 2nd Battalion N.C. Infantry.

8. Private William R. Cochran, a twenty-seven-year-old Mecklenburg County clerk, was wounded in action at The Crater, returned to duty, and surrendered at Appomattox Court House. Manarin and Jordan, North Carolina Troops, 13:81.

9. Private Morris Leon enlisted on March 17, 1862, in Company I (the "Morgan and Henry Volunteers"), 44th Regiment Georgia Infantry. He was captured at Spotsylvania Court House and resided in Augusta, Georgia, after the war. Henry W. Thomas, History of the Doles-Cook Brigade, Army of Northern Virginia, C.S.A., (Dayton, Ohio: Morningide Books reprint of 1903 edition), 580.

10. Corporal Thomas B. Trotter had served as second lieutenant in Company C, 1st N.C. Volunteers. Enlisted in Company B, 53rd North Carolina in June 1862. Wounded in action at Gettysburg and was present or accounted for through April 1864. Manarin and Jordan, North Carolina Troops, 13:87.

11. Private Alfred A. Norment of Mecklenburg County enlisted on February 20, 1863. Killed in action at Gettysburg. Manarin and Jordan, North Carolina Troops, 13:85.

12. Third Lieutenant Marshal E. Alexander and Second Lieutenant William McGill Matthews, both of whom were wounded and captured at Gettysburg and imprisoned for the remainder of the war. Manarin and Jordan, North Carolina Troops, 13:78.

13. Major James Johnston Iredell of Wake County, son of a former governor of North Carolina. Killed in action at Spotsylvania Court House. Manarin and Jordan, North Carolina Troops, 13:64.

14. First Lieutenant Samuel E. Belk was wounded and captured at Gettysburg. Exchanged in March 1864 but disabled by wounds and illness. Captain Joseph Harvey White was wounded at Gettysburg, returned to duty, and was killed in action at Spotsylvania Court House. Manarin and Jordan, North Carolina Troops, 13:78.

15. Colonel William Allison Owens, wounded in action at Spotsylvania Court House and killed in action at Snicker's Ferry, Virginia, July 18, 1864. Manarin and Jordan, North Carolina Troops, 13:64.

16. Private John McKinley Cochran, a twenty-three-year-old railroad conductor, served in the 53rd North Carolina until he was promoted to second lieutenant and transferred to Company D, 37th Regiment N.C. Troops, October 27, 1863. Manarin and Jordan, North Carolina Troops, 13:81.

17. According to a casualty database of the 53rd North Carolina, compiled by the editor, Company B lost ten men killed or mortally wounded in action at Gettysburg; thirteen men wounded in action; and sixteen men captured (of whom thirteen were also wounded).