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A handful of the Jewish soldiers who served during the American Civil War were very young; children by 21st century standards. Yet they stepped into uniform and performed beyond reasonable expectations. Edmund Louis Gray Zalinski was one such child. If not a prodigy then he was at the very least an imaginative thinker with an above-average intelligence. He was the youngest Jewish officer in the Union Army, and is credited with numerous artillery-related inventions that influenced modern warfare. Additionally, research reveals the company he kept included more than a few well-known persons, some famous, and some, rather infamous…
Born in Kornik, then Prussia, now Poland, on December 13, 1849, Edmund immigrated to the United States in 1853 with his parents, Michael Isaac Gray and Mina Zalinski, and his sisters, Anna, Sophia, Rosalia and Bertha. The family settled in Seneca Falls, NY, where, per the 1860 and 1870 Censuses, Edmund’s father worked as clothier. Edmund attended school in Seneca Falls, and upon completion of his studies in 1861, he enrolled in the new high school at Syracuse, one of the very few high schools in existence in the state of New York at the time.
Edmund entered the war in November 1864, at age fourteen, volunteering as an Aide-de-Camp to General Nelson A. Miles. In a letter dated February 11, 1865, Miles wrote to then Massachusetts Senator Henry Wilson:
“I have a young friend, Lt. Edward [sic] Zalinski (the youngest officer in the army) who has been here since November and is very desirous of obtaining an appointment (at large) to the West Point Academy. His papers were presented to the President by the Hon. Isaac Newton, Commissioner of Agriculture. He is a young man of fine education and excellent character, has been under fire with me, and I can vouch for his bravery. Any assistance you can afford him will greatly oblige me.”
Wilson would later serve as the 18th Vice President of the United States under Ulysses S. Grant from 1873-1875.
Zalinski’s official commission as a 2nd Lieutenant on January 18, 1865 is attributed in multiple post-war biographical notes to gallantry displayed in action at Hatcher’s Run (the lesser-known engagement on December 9 – 10, 1864, and not the battle on February 5, 1865) with General Miles, which is supported by Miles’ letter to Wilson. Instead of enrolling at West Point, however, Zalinski enlisted in the 2nd NY Heavy Artillery, Company F on February 23, 1865 at Petersburg, VA. On March 10, 1865, he was detached to General Miles’ staff, rejoining his friend and high-ranking comrade in the field.
Edmund served beyond the end of the war, honorably mustering out on September 29, 1865. Prior to his discharge, in June of 1865, his Company was stationed at Fort C. F. Smith, Arlington, VA, where photographer William Morris Smith documented the men of the 2nd NY Heavy Artillery.
It’s one thing to know that someone born in December of 1849 was fifteen years of age in June of 1865, but to see a photograph (see above) of said person, standing confidently with his fellow officers, some of whom were old enough to be his father, is, to our eyes, quite sobering. And, he’s wearing the “officer of the day” sash, so, despite his age, “E. L.” as he signed his correspondence, was clearly respected by his comrades.
Edmund sought a commission as an officer in the post-Civil War Regular Army, which he received, being appointed a 2nd Lieutenant with the 5th US Artillery on February 23, 1866. In early April of 1867, Edmund wrote from Fort Monroe, VA, requesting permission to delay his arrival at his next post. His request was approved by General Ulysses S. Grant for 30 days, after which he reported for duty at Key West, FL.
News of the Yellow Fever outbreak at Fort Jefferson, in the Dry Tortugas, in September of 1867 was reported in all the major newspapers, with the Key West Herald reporting “it is estimated that one-tenth of the entire number of soldiers and prisoners on the island have died.” Zalinski went to Fort Jefferson to fill in for the sick and the dead, and as a result, contracted Yellow Fever himself.
In October of 1867, his father wrote to the War Department requesting more information about his son’s condition.
Edmund was among the survivors when the epidemic abated (although he would suffer from poor health for the rest of his life because of it), and consequently, he was in debt to a most unlikely person for his life – Dr. Samuel Mudd. Serving out a life sentence at Fort Jefferson for his role in aiding John Wilkes Booth, Dr. Mudd took the Hippocratic Oath seriously, and saved the lives of many of his wardens. Zalinski turned his gratitude into action; he drew up a petition for Mudd’s pardon, which was signed by 299 officers and enlisted men, and submitted it to President Andrew Johnson. It stated, in conclusion, “We do therefore in consideration of the invaluable services rendered by him during the calamitous and fatal epidemic – earnestly recommend him to the well merited clemency of the Government and solicit his immediate release from here and restoration to liberty and the bosom of his family.” His efforts were successful and Mudd was freed.
By August 15, 1868, Zalinski was officially stationed at Fort Jefferson, and in need of another leave of absence. The Post Surgeon, however, thought Zalinski needed more than a vacation. In the Certificate of Disability he submitted on Edmund’s behalf, he noted, “I am of the opinion that removal is absolutely necessary for his full recovery and that permanent disability is liable to follow his remaining here.” His request was granted.
Zalinski’s next assignments with the U.S. Army were at colleges, universities, and military schools, as an instructor and a student. He served as a Professor of Military Science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; was both a student and then an instructor at the United States Artillery School at Fort Monroe, VA; and studied Submarine Mining at the Engineer School of Application at Willets Point, NY. Noted in multiple newspaper accounts as one of the US Army’s top military minds, Zalinski is credited with numerous combat-related inventions, including the pneumatic dynamite torpedo-gun that bears his name, an intrenching tool, a ramrod-bayonet, a telescopic sight for artillery, and a system of range-and position-finding for sea-coast and artillery firing. In 1887, Zalinski was promoted to Captain, and from 1890-1894, he travelled abroad to study warfare for the US Army. His studies took him to Russia, China, Japan, and numerous countries in Europe and South America. Upon his return, he retired from active duty, but maintained his interest and involvement in artillery and warfare innovations for the rest of his life.
In 1904, Zalinski’s friend, artist Winslow Homer, sent him drawings he made during the Civil War with a note that said, “There are six of them that will interest you.” At least one of these six is likely to be Sutler’s Tent, 3rd Pennsylvania Cavalry (1862), since Zalinski was General Miles’ aide-de-camp at Hatcher’s Run and Miles’ command included the 3rd PA Cavalry.
Another likely candidate is Soldiers and Cannon (1862), given Zalinski’s life-long love of all things artillery.
It may never be known which six illustrations Homer meant. A facsimile copy of Homer’s note to Zalinski and eighteen drawings were donated to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC in 1996 by Zalinski’s grandson, who died in 2005. The note does not specify how many drawings Homer gifted to Zalinski, but Homer wrote that he would see Zalinski at the Century Association, where they were both members.
If Edmund Zalinski’s father was a Forty-Eighter, as claimed in the obituary* of Edmund’s only brother and fellow career military officer, Moses, it is not surprising that the Zalinski children were not overtly Jewish. Edmund’s marriage was officiated by a fellow soldier in a Unitarian ceremony. He was not buried in a Jewish cemetery. Nevertheless, he was a member of the American Jewish Historical Society from the second year of its founding until his death, his obituary was featured in the Jewish newspapers, and his sisters, Sophia and Anna, both married Jewish men. Edmund died March 11, 1909 in New York, NY. He was laid to rest at Mount Hope Cemetery in Rochester, in the Zalinski family plot.
This brief overview barely scratches the surface of Edmund Louis Gray Zalinski’s life, but like so many of the Jewish immigrant soldiers who served in the Civil War, his contributions to American history are numerous, his bravery worth noting, and his life worth remembering.
To learn more about Edmund Zalinski:
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