November 9, 2023

Young Honors Hoosier Veteran Frederick Knefler in Floor Speech

knefler speech

Click here or above to watch Senator Young’s floor speech.

WASHINGTON – Today, U.S. Senator Todd Young (R-Ind.) spoke on the Senate floor about the life and legacy of Hoosier General Frederick Knefler, the highest-ranking Union officer of Jewish descent during the Civil War and an instrumental leader in the construction of the Soldiers and Sailors Monument in Indianapolis. 

In his remarks, Young praised Knefler and Hoosier veterans for their service and commitment to freedom’s cause.

To watch the full floor speech, click here.

Senator Young’s full remarks, as prepared for delivery:

Days before he died, Frederick Knefler composed a letter of instruction to be read once he was gone.

There was, he wrote, to be no memorial service or expensive coffin. 

His funeral should be private and simple, attended only by a handful of his fellow Hoosier veterans. 

And when it was lowered into the ground, his body should be wrapped in an American flag. 


Republics such as ours are uncommon; it is of great value for us, its citizens, to recall our blessings. And it is our heroes who provide the reminder. 

Though he was born an ocean away from America, Frederick Knefler dedicated his life to defending those blessings. He was one of those heroes. 

As a contemporary remarked after his death, “No descendent of a Mayflower Pilgrim was ever more wholly and more intensely American than he.”

As we mark Veterans Day, his story is worth sharing. 

He was a Jewish immigrant, one of the soldiers who saved our Union, a private citizen who spent his final days building a still-inspiring monument to their example.  

Before he ever set foot in America though, as a teenager he had already fought in a civil war: the Hungarian Revolution. 

Its failure, and the sorry state of liberty across Europe, inspired Knefler to look elsewhere for freedom. He found it across the Atlantic.

He and his family arrived in New York and then settled in Indiana in 1850. 

There, they were among the earliest members of the Indianapolis Hebrew Congregation, the city’s first and today its oldest synagogue family.

Knefler fell in love with America. He embraced it laws, customs, and institutions.

He even taught himself English by reading Shakespeare. Then he moved on to military history and tactics.  

In 1861 when the southern states deserted the Union, Abraham Lincoln called for volunteers to form an army to bring them back. 

Knefler, whose adoration of America was equaled only by his hatred of slavery, answered the call.

He vowed he would not do a days’ work until the war was over and the nation reunited.  

True to his word, he left his job as a clerk and enlisted in the spring of 1861, after the bombardment of Fort Sumter and did not return to civilian life until the summer of 1865, after the surrender at Appomattox Courthouse.  

He joined Indiana’s 11th Regiment, serving as a lieutenant to Lew Wallace and then was later promoted to colonel of the 79th Indiana Infantry. 

Knefler’s language was notoriously gruff: Governor Oliver Morton was so offended by his profanity that he was hesitant to offer him a military appointment. 

He was man of strong opinions. “A talk with him was like a stiff breeze” a friend said. 

His men labored greatly under relentless discipline and constant drilling but came to admire their leader.   

And he whipped the 79th into a formidable fighting machine. 

From their organization in Indianapolis in 1862 till they mustered out in Nashville in 1865, as part of the Armies of the Ohio and then the Cumberland, these Hoosiers saw action:

… at the deadly Union victory at Stones River, which emboldened Lincoln to issue the Emancipation Proclamation…

…at the disaster at Chickamauga, which sent a damaged Army of the Cumberland into retreat…

…with William Tecumseh Sherman as he marched through Georgia, captured Atlanta, and cut off Confederate supplies…leading to Lincoln’s reelection and the South’s defeat. 

But it was in November 1863 from the foot of Missionary Ridge that the 79th ascended into history.  

At that time, the Army of the Cumberland was cornered and cut off in Chattanooga.

Winter neared, rations were low, soldiers were starving and disheartened. 

The Confederate Army arrayed its artillery and waited for the Yankees to surrender. 

Jefferson Davis himself even arrived to take in the scene and predicted that victory was near. 

As Knefler recalled, the “gift of prophecy” was not the Confederate president’s “strong point.” 

Desperate to break the siege, General Joseph Hooker’s men climbed and took Lookout Mountain on November 24th.

On following afternoon, the 25th, Union soldiers mounted an offensive and cleared the rebels from the base of Missionary Ridge. 

Then, without orders, they spontaneously – Knefler said they were guided by a “mighty impulse” – followed the retreating enemy up the steep ridge. 

When the Confederates looked down, they saw a flood of blue rising up.   

The Rebels unleashed shells, shot, and rifle balls down the mountain. 

Soon the entire ridge was enveloped in a cloud of gray smoke shooting off lightning bolts of musket fire.

The 79th, joined by another Indiana regiment, the 86th, charged up through it. 

Through fierce fighting and incredible determination, they took Missionary Ridge, sent the enemy into retreat, and broke its lock on Chattanooga. 

The defeat heralded, a rebel lamented, the death knell of the confederacy.

General Ulysses S. Grant later recalled that Frederick Knefler was the first field officer to reach the top of Missionary Ridge. 

At the conclusion of the conflict, Knefler was breveted a Brigadier General, the highest-ranking Jewish officer to fight in the Civil War. 

He returned to Indianapolis and settled into private life, practiced law and advocated for his fellow veterans. 

Fittingly, the final years of his life were dedicated to the construction of a monument to them in Indianapolis. 

In 1895, when the long-discussed project reached an impasse, Indiana appointed Knefler to lead the board of regents responsible for rescuing the project. 

He threw himself obsessively into the work, raising money, scrutinizing design plans, fixating on details, dealing with temperamental artists. 

When a sculptor complained the model of a figure representing “peace” was not wearing an overcoat, as he had intended, Knefler reminded him that when the Union men came home in 1865, it was summer.

“Whoever heard of a soldier wearing a big overcoat in July?” he snapped at the sculptor.   

Because of his exertions and urgency – he desperately wanted the monument finished while veterans of the Civil War remained – the Soldier and Sailors Monument was dedicated on May 15, 1902. 

On that day bands played, battle flags waived, soldiers marched, statesmen delivered speeches, and crowds wept at the foot of a towering column–built of Indiana limestone, of course.   

Among the thousands of attendees, Knefler was absent: He had died the year before. 

But in the days leading up to his death, stricken with disease, he worked to honor his promise that the monument would be “as great a work of art as the world ever saw.” 

He did not live to see it complete, but that work of art would have been neither great nor completed without him. 


We do not celebrate Veterans Day in order to venerate war but rather to reflect on its horrible costs. 

But we also honor our veterans like Frederick Knefler on this holiday for the same reason we build monuments to them. Doing these things remind us what is precious and that what is precious is fragile. 

For over two centuries, this nation, however imperfectly, has been a rare outpost of freedom and tolerance in a world where both, throughout history, were the exception, not the norm.  

Look to the monument Knefler worked so hard to raise, the focal point of Indiana’s capital city. On its crown sits a bronze statue of Lady Victory, her arm outstretched, the torch of liberty in her hand.

Below stand statues of the Hoosier soldiers and sailors who risked and gave their lives to protect it, to preserve the sacred pledge that all men are created equal.

This nation, with its singular values, has endured thanks to our veterans…men and women, to use Knefler’s words, of “heroic mold” who have “held it with fire and steel.”

On Veterans Day we give them our deepest gratitude and pledge to do our part to guarantee what they have held is never lost.