The following biographical sketch was written by Jean Powers Soman in commemoration of the sesquicentennial of the American Civil War and to honor the memory of her great-great grandfather, Colonel Marcus M. Spiegel, a German-Jewish immigrant who became one of the highest-ranking Jewish officers in the Union Army. Tragically, he was killed during this fratricidal conflict.  A longer version appeared in the American Jewish Archives Journal LXV, nos. 1 & 2 (2013): 31-42.


From the battlefields, Spiegel wrote more than one hundred detailed and eloquent letters to his family and friends. Fortunately his wife, Caroline, preserved these letters and mounted them in a leather album, which was passed down in my family from mother to daughter for five generations. As a child, I was intrigued by this old, leather album, perched high on a shelf in the closet of my mother, Caroline Frances Alschuler Powers. Years later, I would spend more than a decade transcribing these letters, doing research, and writing on the life of my heroic ancestor.

After completing a manuscript, I spent a few more years working with Civil War historian Frank L. Byrne on a book containing biographical and background information and, more important, Spiegel’s letters. These letters are historic eyewitness accounts that describe the trials and tribulations of war, Spiegel’s love for America and his family, his views on politics and religion, and, perhaps most interesting, his evolution into an ardent abolitionist. Jacob Rader Marcus, historian of American Jewish history and the founding director of the American Jewish Archives in Cincinnati, wrote the foreword for the book.

Spiegel was born in the Hessian city of Abenheim on 8 December 1829, the eldest son of Rabbi Moses and Regina Spiegel. Antisemitism was increasing in the German lands during the 1840s, and life was very difficult for the Jews. In 1846, his parents and siblings journeyed across the ocean to new lives and greater freedom in America. Spiegel, a well-educated and idealistic young man, remained behind and fought for liberal reforms in the Revolution of 1848. When the revolution failed, he sought refuge in America, where, in 1849, he was reunited with his family in New York City. After a short time in New York, this adventurous young man, who spoke little English, travelled to Chicago where his sister, Sarah, lived with her husband, Michael Greenebaum, who was also her first cousin. Like many other immigrants, Spiegel, with the help of his relatives, was outfitted as a peddler and sent to Ohio to sell his wares. While in Ohio, he fell in love with the beautiful Caroline Frances Hamlin, daughter of Stephen and Elizabeth Hamlin, respected members of the Stark County, Ohio, Quaker community. Spiegel, the son of a Reform rabbi, and Caroline were married by a justice of the peace in Ohio in 1853. Shortly after, the newlyweds moved to Chicago, where he worked as a clerk in a dry-goods emporium and Caroline studied the Jewish religion. On 21 August 1853 she converted to Judaism—likely the first person in Chicago to do so. Spiegel helped to organize the Hebrew Benevolent Society in Chicago and served as its president.

The young couple returned to Ohio to start a family. When the Civil War erupted in 1861, Spiegel, his wife and their three children were living in the village of Millersburg, Ohio, where he had gone into business as a merchant. He decided for patriotic reasons—as well as some economic concerns—to join the Union Army. Fervently believing that it was his duty to fight for the United States of America, he volunteered in late 1861as a soldier in the 67th Ohio Volunteer Infantry.

In November 1862, Spiegel changed regiments and joined the newly organized 120th Ohio Volunteer Infantry (OVI), which would be involved in the vitally important Union effort to capture the rebel fortress of Vicksburg, Mississippi, strategically located on bluffs high above the Mississippi River. While in Cincinnati, he attended a service at the synagogue and heard a sermon by Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise, one of the main architects of Reform Judaism in America.

On 17 December 1862, General Ulysses S. Grant issued the infamous General Orders Number 11, expelling the Jews as a class from the territory under his command. Numerous historians have expressed the belief that Grant issued this order because he was upset with the illegal trade in cotton, which he felt was interfering with the war effort. Grant became irate after his father, Jesse, had been involved in a bad business deal with some Jewish merchants from Cincinnati; he then issued this unjust order and “expelled the Jews as a class.” Although cotton smugglers came from many different ethnic and religious backgrounds, the Jews became the scapegoat. Fortunately, President Abraham Lincoln revoked this antisemitic order on 4 January 1863. Nothing in any of Spiegel’s letters indicates that he knew about the order. During most of the brief time that the order was in effect, Spiegel was with his regiment aboard the USS Key West (No. 2) on the Mississippi River.

Grant would attempt to make amends to the Jews during his presidency. For example, he appointed Jews to high government positions and helped the plight of Jews in Romania. A number of years ago it was discovered that in 1870, Hamlin Spiegel, the eldest son of Marcus and Caroline, was recommended by President Grant to an appointment as a cadet at West Point. He never attended, probably because he was too young. Simon Wolf, a prominent Washington attorney and cousin of Marcus Spiegel and General Edward Salomon, had written letters to Grant requesting that Hamlin be appointed a cadet.

Well-respected by his men and superior officers, Spiegel was promoted to colonel of the 120th OVI on 18 February 1863. In America, he was able to rise in rank from captain to colonel in a little over a year. Jews in German lands during this time were not permitted to become officers in the military at all.

Finally, on 4 July 1863, Vicksburg surrendered to the Union Army. This monumental victory split the Confederacy; the Northern forces now controlled most of the Mississippi River.  Spiegel wrote a letter praising the commanding general, Ulysses S. Grant, for this great military success. A few days after the fall of Vicksburg, Spiegel was severely wounded by friendly fire.

After spending a short time in a hospital in Mississippi, he made the difficult journey home via boat and freight train. Colonel Spiegel spent a few months at home recuperating from his wounds and then travelled to Louisiana to lead his regiment and continue fighting to win the war.

Like other soldiers in his regiment, Spiegel entered the Army primarily to fight to preserve the Union; initially, he was not in favor of the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation, but he became a very strong supporter. While stationed in Louisiana during the winter of 1864, he observed the horrendous conditions that slaves were forced to endure and also had the opportunity to meet many freed blacks.

Spiegel and his regiment were on the transport City Belle on the Red River in Louisiana when it was ambushed by rebel forces on 3 May 1864, and he was shot in the abdomen. Twenty-four hours later, on the bloody banks of the Red River, he breathed his last and was buried along the shore of the river in an unmarked grave. Joseph, his younger brother and the regiment’s sutler, was by his side when he died. Joseph was captured and remained in a Confederate prison camp in Texas until the war ended. He then returned to Chicago, where he opened the small dry-goods store that he and Marcus had planned to operate together. Eventually, after many years of hard work and ingenuity this store evolved into the Spiegel Catalogue Company.

Two months after her husband’s death, Caroline gave birth to their fifth child. In February 1865, the young widow moved with her five small children from Ohio to Chicago, to be near the Spiegel relatives. Raising her family on a modest widow’s military pension, she never remarried, remained true to Judaism, and raised her children in the Chicago Jewish community. In Chicago years later, Spiegel’s niece, Hannah Solomon, founded the National Council of Jewish Women with the help of her first cousin, Lizzie Spiegel Barbe, the eldest daughter of Marcus and Caroline Spiegel.

On the battlefield at Vicksburg today stands an impressive granite monument that was erected by the state of Ohio after the war to honor the soldiers of the 120th Ohio, who bravely fought to capture Vicksburg. Col. Marcus M. Spiegel’s name is prominently etched on the front of the monument. This American patriot, a German-Jewish immigrant, sacrificed his life to preserve the United States and emancipate the slaves. His story of immigration, of familial devotion, of patriotism and heroism, is at once a personal story and a national story. It is part of the narrative that has shaped America and thanks to the rich legacy he etched in letters, it is a story that will never be forgotten.

JEAN POWERS SOMAN is a writer, who co-edited, with Frank L. Byrne, the book, “A Jewish Colonel in the Civil War, Marcus M. Spiegel of the Ohio Volunteers” with a Forward by Dr. Jacob Rader Marcus: (University of Nebraska Press, 1995) The book was originally published by (Kent State University Press, in 1985,) as: “Your True Marcus, the Civil War Letters of a Jewish Colonel”, edited by Frank L. Byrne and Jean Powers Soman with a Forward by Dr. Jacob Rader Marcus.

Jean’s articles have been published in newspapers, magazines and an academic journal. She has served as Interim Chairperson of the National, Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission Foundation, on its Advisory Board and on the Board of Directors of its successor organization, the Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Foundation. For many years she has been a member of the  Ezra Consortium of the American Jewish Archives, a lifetime member of the National Council of Jewish Women and on the Advisory Board of the Lincoln Forum. Over the years, she has helped organize and support programs in Miami , at Historymiami, the Jewish Museum of Florida, the Alper JCC  and at local synagogues.

Jean is very grateful to her wonderful family. She is married to William Soman, an attorney.  They have two daughters and four grandchildren:  Jill and Jack Reiter, their sons, Gabriel, Noah and Joseph Reiter; Jennifer Soman and Andres Dereser, their daughter, Sarah Caroline Dereser Soman.

In blessed memory  of Jean’s parents; Caroline and Gabriel Powers and her sister, Susan.