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First Latino to Earn Medal of Honor Fought In Civil War

Corporal Joseph H. De Castro, 20, distinguished himself at Gettysburg during Pickett’s Charge. He was the first Latino to earn the country’s highest military decoration for valor in combat, the Medal of Honor. De Castro was a member of Company I, 19th Massachusetts Infantry.

Pickett's Charge

Early Life

Joseph De Castro was born in Boston, Massachusetts in 1844. By age 18, he worked as a waiter helping his family. In July of 1861 he heard the military was asking men to enlist, so he signed up to be part of the all-volunteer 19th Massachusetts Infantry. The regiment trained at Camp Schouler in Lynnfield, Massachusetts under Colonel Edward W. Hinks.

On August 28, 1861, the unit was ordered to Washington and assigned to picket duty along the Potomac River. Six months later, the 19th joined the Army of the Potomac in time for the Union movement toward the Confederate capital at Richmond, Virginia, known as the Peninsula Campaign. The unit took part in the Seven Days Battles for Richmond and lost 145 men on Day Six at the Battle of Glendale. 

At Antietam, the 19th suffered heavy losses in the West Woods, and their commander, Colonel Hinks was badly wounded.

The regiment continued on to fight at Fredericksburg. In the assault on Marye’s Heights, the 19th Massachusetts sustained heavy losses. Eight of the color bearers were killed or badly wounded. This is likely the point at which Private Joseph De Castro was promoted to be a flag bearer.

Color Bearer

Serving as color bearer was both prestigious and dangerous. The color bearers carried no weapons, and the flags the men carried provided the pace and the direction for their regiment. The din of a battle meant that no drumming or bugle call could be heard by the soldiers, so the flag gave the men guidance as to where their unit was going and how quickly. 

Color bearer with tattered flag after battle

But the flag also placed a mark on the color bearer—these men were highly visible to the enemy. The color bearers knew the enormity of their charge. Dropping or losing the flag was a disgrace, so they did all they could to hold on to their colors throughout the battle. 

New Commander

With the loss of Colonel Hinks, the 19th Massachusetts Infantry was put under the command of Colonel Arthur Devereux in early 1863. Devereaux was Harvard-educated and a former business partner of Elmer Ellsworth. Ellsworth was the first Union martyr of the War, but he is also well-remembered for his Zouave marching unit and his love of precision drilling. Devereaux brought with him to the 19th the disciplinary attitude he practiced with Ellsworth.

  In May of 1863, the 19th joined the Army of the Potomac to march North. Though they didn’t know it at the time, they were on what would become a 150-mile march to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. One Union general observed how well ordered the 19th were under Devereaux. After two very hard weeks of marching, they reached Uniontown, Maryland. They stopped to rest and await further orders.

Tension Builds Near Gettysburg

In the meantime, Confederate soldiers in Cashtown, Pennsylvania, spotted Union troops arriving in Gettysburg on June 30. Confederate General A.P. Hill was not too concerned as he believed there were not many Union soldiers nearby, but on July 1, he sent men on reconnaissance to be sure.

Gettysburg

Union cavalry officer John Buford feared this would occur. He needed a way to slow the Confederate forces while more of the Union Army arrived. Though he had a relatively small number of soldiers at that time, Buford placed his men in defensive positions on three ridges west of town in a show of strength.

Skirmishes began at 7:30 a.m. on July 1. The Union commanders sent word to regiments in the area to get to Gettysburg quickly. Devereaux started out with the 19th Massachusetts at 4 a.m. The men still had 20 miles to march, arriving in Gettysburg about 9 pm that evening.  They were dismayed to be met by wounded and discouraged men going the other way in retreat. It had been a bad day for the Union, and the 19th Massachusetts must have feared what awaited them.

Day Two

On the second day of battle, the 19th Massachusetts regiment held its position along Cemetery Ridge near a soon to be famous clump of trees. The men encountered limited fighting that day but they had a clear view of the horror in nearby, blood-soaked ground around a peach orchard. Union General Sickles moved his men out of his position on Cemetery Ridge without permission. Their presence in the Peach Orchard was a massive mistake, and the Union suffered badly.

Devereaux—commanding both the 19th Massachusetts and the 42nd New York at this time—received orders to move positions to support the Third Corps fighting in the Peach Orchard.

Devereaux saw the disaster awaiting them, but he wasn’t a man to ignore an order. He maneuvered his men to a knoll between Cemetery Ridge and Emmitsburg Road and waited while more Union men retreated. 

When the way was clear for his men, Devereaux ordered one volley from the New York unit followed by another from 19th Massachusetts. Soldiers from the 1st Minnesota provided more firepower. Devereaux followed orders without sacrificing his men.

Finally the Confederate men rested.

Night Before Day 3

That night Devereaux’s men remained in position. They did their best to scrounge for food and sleep as they could, all the while fearing what the next day would hold.

General Alexander Webb

By this time, General Lee was calculating his next step in what became known as Pickett’s Charge. He planned to launch a thunderous volley of artillery on the Union men along Cemetery Ridge early in the day. Lee still held the edge on numbers, so planned an all-out assault by his men on the Union men who remained.

July 3

On the morning of July 3, the Confederate artillery was having difficulty. The barrage did not start until after 1 p.m. This delayed Lee’s plan for the assault. By the time the Confederates began crossing the field for their attack, the temperature was 87 degrees and humid. Each step was a struggle.

From the Union viewpoint, the men did their best to withstand the artillery fire. Then they saw the next plan…the Confederates started across the undulating field, calling and firing. Many of the Confederates were shot as they ran, but some reached the low stone wall and clambered over it. Those who ventured that far engaged in bayonet- and hand-to-hand combat with the Union soldiers.

Union General Hancock rode behind his troops, encouraging them all: “Now, men, forward! Now’s your chance! Go at them!”

De Castro Shines

During this time, Corporal De Castro was out in front of the regiment carrying the Massachusetts state colors. When a Virginia color bearer neared, De Castro met him face-to-face and used his own flag to attack. In hand-to-hand combat, he victoriously wrested the flag away from the Confederate color bearer. Now carrying both flags, he turned to find his nearest general.

General Alexander S. Webb described what happened next: “At the instant a man broke through my line and thrust a rebel battle flag into my hands. He never said a word and darted back. It was Corporal Joseph H. De Castro, one of my color bearers. He knocked down a color bearer in the enemy’s line with the staff of the Massachusetts state colors, seized the falling flag, and dashed it to me.”

De Castro Continues in the War

DeCastro then went right back into the fighting at Gettysburg, returning to his position as regimental flag bearer.

Despite the fact that the Union men were greatly outnumbered by the Confederates, the misguided Confederate plan of storming through the center of the Union line proved disastrous for the Confederacy. They lost roughly half of the 12,000 men in the attack. The Union suffered far fewer casualties.

General Robert E. Lee began a long slow retreat, some of it in pouring rain. Lee’s men would never come back to Pennsylvania in force.

Medal of Honor

De Castro was one of seven men from the 19th Massachusetts Infantry to be awarded the Medal of Honor for their valorous fighting at Gettysburg.

19th Massachusetts Continues

DeCastro continued on with the 19th Massachusetts regiment. When his tour of duty was up, he re-enlisted on December 20, 1863.

During the autumn of 1863, the 19th Massachusetts went on to see action at Bristoe Station, Robertson’s Tavern and the Wilderness.

The following spring they were in action at the Bloody Angle, North Anna, Cold Harbor, and Petersburg. In June of 1864 near Petersburg, the 19th lost all but 40 of its officers and men in the fighting along Jerusalem Plank Road. In July they went on to Deep Bottom and Reams’ Station, only to be brought back to Petersburg for more fighting.

War Concludes

In April of 1865, the Army of Northern Virginia surrendered thereby bringing the Civil War to a close. At that time, the 19th Massachusetts marched back to Washington City. On June 30, the men mustered out. Much of the regiment then marched on to Massachusetts. At Readville, they were officially paid and discharged.

Joseph H. De Castro served through the entire length of the war. He had been promoted to be a Sergeant of Company I, 19th Massachusetts.

De Castro After War

Joseph De Castro likely enjoyed some time in the Boston area with friends and family, but he clearly missed the military life. In 1870, he enlisted with the 6th U.S. Cavalry, Regular Army. They were primarily assigned to the West. After four years of service with the cavalry unit, he returned East. 

Civil War

De Castro married, and in 1882, he and his wife moved to New York City where he worked for an unspecified barge company.

He continued the military tradition as an active member of the Phil Kearny Post in New York City. De Castro also enjoyed attending Grand Army of the Republic reunions to help keep the memory of the war alive for the next generation.

On May 8, 1892, he died at home at 244 W. 22nd Street. His funeral was held at the 18th Street Methodist Church, and he was buried at Fairmount Cemetery in Newark, New Jersey. His grave is marked with a U.S. Medal of Honor bronze marker.

And for more information on Latinos during the Civil War, visit the American Battlefield Trust website: Hispanic Americans in the Civil War.

To read more about the Civil War, read about The Signal Corps and the importance of veterinary medicine during this time.

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