The Courage and Fidelity of a Jewish-American Civil War Hero

Stand for Israel  |  November 20, 2019

Frederick Knefler
Frederick Knefler

Like so many important figures in American history, Frederick Knefler was not born in the United States. Instead, Knefler was born in 1824 to a Jewish family in Hungary. His father was a doctor, and father and son fought together for freedom during Hungary’s War of Liberation. When their side was defeated, the Knefler family immigrated to America, settling in Indianapolis and helping found that city’s oldest synagogue. Frederick worked as a carpenter and also studied law, clerking for Lew Wallace, the attorney, author, governor, and future war hero, himself. When Frederick’s new home, the U.S., was plunged into war, he became an aide to newly minted General Lew Wallace.

Missing the Battle of Bull Run, Frederick first saw action when Ulysses Grant’s forces took Fort Henry and Fort Donelson. He was commended for his “prompt and efficient service in the field,” as well as for his “courage and fidelity.” But Frederick Knefler’s service during the war was only beginning.

General Wallace was removed from active service in 1862, and Frederick was named commanding colonel in his place. Leading the 79th Indiana Infantry, Colonel Knefler fought in the battles of Chickamauga, Stones River, and Missionary Ridge. At Chickamauga, his regiment helped repel the Confederates. At Stones River, his regiment lost one-third of its men, including one-half of its officers. But it was the Battle of Missionary Ridge where Frederick Knefler made his mark.

Commanding both his 79th Regiment, along with the 86th Indiana, Frederick led the surprise charge that took the eponymous ridge. For his actions, he was named Brigadier General Knefler.

For the rest of the war, Knefler continued to serve, taking part in General Sherman’s campaign and march to Atlanta, then showing gallantry in the Battle of Franklin and the Battle of Nashville. After the war ended, President Andrew Johnson and Congress made Knefler’s appointment to Brigadier General official. For the rest of his life, until his death at age 77, Frederick Knefler worked as an attorney in his adopted hometown of Indianapolis, but would always be remembered for the courage and fidelity he showed in service to his homeland of America.