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Medal of Honor Monday: Army Lt. Col. Charles E. Capehart

Army Lt. Col. Charles E. Capehart took command of his regiment during a crucial moment of the Civil War. Shortly after the Battle of Gettysburg, he chased down fleeing Confederate troops, leading to the capture of hundreds of prisoners and supplies. For his effort, he received the Medal of Honor.

A man in uniform and holding white gloves poses for a photo.
Charles E. Capehart
Army Lt. Col. Charles E. Capehart, a Civil War Medal of Honor recipient.
Photo By: Army
VIRIN: 240625-A-D0439-0037

Capehart was born in 1833 just outside of Johnstown, Pennsylvania, to John and Sophia Capehart. He had an older brother named Henry. When both boys were still young, their mother died, so their father moved the family to Pittsburgh.

By the time the Civil War broke out, Capehart was living in Du Quoin, Illinois, according to the Congressional Medal of Honor Society. He enlisted in the Army's 12th Illinois Volunteer Infantry on April 18, 1861, but he mustered out within a few months due to illness.

Six weeks later, however, he reenlisted, serving as an adjutant for the 31st Illinois Infantry. He remained in that role until May 16, 1862, when he was commissioned as a captain and assigned to the 1st Virginia Cavalry — a regiment that eventually changed its name to the 1st West Virginia Cavalry when West Virginia became a state in June of 1863. Capehart's brother, Henry, also served in the unit as a regimental surgeon.

Less than a month before the Battle of Gettysburg began, Capehart was promoted to major. On the third and final day of that campaign, he helped lead a charge against firmly entrenched Confederate troops. His regiment suffered severe casualties, including the death of their brigade commander, Army Gen. Elon Farnsworth. A colonel in command of the 1st West Virginia Cavalry took Farnsworth's place, so Capehart moved in to command the regiment.

By July 4, 1863, the Confederates had lost the Battle of Gettysburg and had begun to retreat via two paths toward the southwest, heading for Virginia.

According to historians, a civilian who saw the Southerners moving through one of those routes, an area known as Monterey Pass, tipped Union troops off to their movements. The Union Army sent about 5,000 cavalry soldiers to intercept the long train of wagons and troops retreating through the mountain pass. Capehart's regiment was one of those units.

When some of the cavalry troops reached the mountain at night and began climbing it, a Confederate cannon fired at them, causing confusion and chaos among the soldiers. A fierce battle ensued and was worsened by a raging thunderstorm with driving rain and lightning.

Capehart and his regiment arrived at the peak of the chaos, according to the Congressional Medal of Honor Society. Both sides were trying to gain control of the high ground through the darkness, only catching glimpses of light when lightning struck or when flashes from the muzzles of their guns or cannon fire went off.

"The rainstorm had blotted out any light from the moon, and smoke from the battle made it nearly impossible to see," a Congressional Medal of Honor Society historian wrote in a 2022 blog. "Fearing his men could be shot by either side in the darkness, or even by their own comrades, Capehart ordered his troopers to draw their sabers so they would be able to identify each other."

He then ordered his troops to charge, running down the mountainside at midnight during heavy rain toward the enemy's fleeing wagon train. Historians said the charge took the Confederates by surprise. Many of them began to retreat, allowing Capehart's men to gain ground.

"By the time the fighting ended, Capehart and his men had captured or destroyed 300 wagons, 15 ambulances and captured 1300 prisoners, 200 of them commissioned officers, as well as a large number of horses and mules," the Congressional Medal of Honor Society blog said.

According to Army Corps of Engineers research, the Confederates suffered 1,300 casualties during the skirmish and lost nine miles of wagons from its 50-mile-long wagon train. The Union suffered fewer than 100 casualties.

Capehart was promoted to lieutenant colonel on Aug 1, 1864. By the time the war ended, and he mustered out of the Army, Capehart had taken part in more than 100 battles, the Congressional Medal of Honor Society said.

A five-point medal hangs on a short ribbon.
Medal of Honor
A Civil War-era Army Medal of Honor.
Photo By: National Museum of American History
VIRIN: 191119-O-D0439-435

Capehart received the Medal of Honor more than two decades later. He was bestowed the nation's highest award for valor on April 7, 1898 — three years after his brother received the same medal for saving the life of a drowning soldier in 1864.

Throughout the Medal of Honor's existence, the Capeharts are one of only seven sets of brothers to have received it.

Charles Capehart married a woman named Louise in 1901, according to various newspapers of the time. They had two sons and two daughters, according to his obituary in The Washington Herald.

Capehart died on July 11, 1911, in Washington, D.C.; he is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

On the land where Capehart's Medal of Honor actions took place, Monterey Pass Battlefield Park and Museum now preserves the history of the battle through maps and artifacts.

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