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Letters of Marcus M. Spiegel: Preface

A historical event as related through the voice of a participant is vibrant and alive; it becomes human. The historian writing a century later can seldom capture the aura of excitement as did the person writing about the events as they occurred. Such an eyewitness to history was Marcus M. Spiegel, one of the few Jewish colonels during the American Civil War. During the two and a half years he served in the Union army, he wrote more than one hundred and fifty letters to his wife Caroline and to others. Caroline Spiegel wisely had his letters mounted and bound in a black leather album. For five generations, this album has been preserved and passed down from mother to daughter. Jean Soman vividly remembers how, as a child growing up in Miami, Florida, she saw this great old book of letters, covered with dust, perched high on a shelf in her mother’s closet. Despite the heat and humidity, the letters remained in miraculously good condition and, for the most part, legible. Along with the letters was a box containing relics belonging to the Spiegel family, the family Bible, and a Hebrew prayer book.

It is hard to believe that only twelve years prior to the writing of these letters, Spiegel arrived in America from Germany with little, if any, knowledge of English. He very rapidly developed an extensive vocabulary and an impressive command of his new country’s language. At times his writing is almost poetic and his vivid narrative descriptions are often works of art. He is able to paint a detailed picture of the day-to-day life of a Union soldier in camp and on the battlefield. The trials and tribulations of war are brilliantly described in his eloquent and lucid letters. Living conditions good and bad; sweet victory and agonizing defeat; many aspects of the war in both its eastern and western theaters can be seen in Spiegel’s letters. This perceptive observer comments in great depth on politics, including the issue of the abolition of slavery. Especially revealing is his gradual change in attitude toward emancipation. Interwoven through Spiegel’s writings are his extreme feelings of patriotism, his love for his family and fellow man, and his general philosophy of life. Never did he abandon his belief in God or in the Jewish religion.  A Renaissance man in his interests, he was adventurous and brave, hard-working and dutiful, compassionate, romantic, and to his beloved wife ever true. Despite all the hardships he remained an eternal optimist.

The historical importance of the letters became apparent to Colonel Spiegel’s great-great-granddaughter, Jean Soman, after her freshman year at the University of Wisconsin. Her brother-in-law, James Soman, a Civil War buff, read the letters in their entirety and encouraged her to do something of significance with them. As a junior majoring in history, she wrote a paper based on them for a course on the Civil War. Intrigued by the writings of Marcus Spiegel, she continued to research his life. The idea of compiling this book of letters became an obsession for Jean. For more than a decade, the project has dominated her free time. Her most difficult task was deciphering these difficult to read, handwritten letters and putting them into typed form. Caroline Frances Powers, Jean’s mother, who was named after Marcus’s wife, instilled in her an early appreciation for history and a great interest in her great-great-grandfather. Unfortunately, Caroline passed away before the publication of this book, but her encouragement and assistance will be forever appreciated. Marcus Spiegel has given Jean a feeling of deep respect for her American Jewish heritage and extreme love for her country. For this she will be eternally grateful.

It has been especially rewarding for Jean to travel with her husband and daughters to many of the locations mentioned in the letters. While touring the battlefield in Vicksburg, Mississippi, she walked through the area where the Ohio regiments were stationed. She approached a large, handsome granite monument and was completely astonished when she read the engraving across the front: “One Hundred and Twentieth Infantry, Col. Marcus M. Spiegel.” It was absolutely thrilling to discover this historic remembrance located on the exact piece of land that Colonel Spiegel had described in his letters during the siege of Vicksburg.

Frank L. Byrne, a Civil War historian, has spent the four years coediting the letters with Jean Soman. While studying the life and times of Marcus Spiegel, he too has become a sincere admirer of the colonel.

Letter to Moses Spiegel, Dec. 21, 1862
Letter to Caroline Spiegel, June 7, 1863
Colonel Spiegels Address to the Regiment, Feb. 22, 1863