The story of Joseph De Castro: The first Hispanic to ever win a U.S. Medal of Honor
De Castro fought for the Union in the Civil War and took part in the Battle of Gettysburg.
It is estimated that up to approximately 10,000 Hispanics served throughout the course of the American Civil War.
From Mexican-Americans in the South and West, Cubans, Puerto Ricans, and immigrants from Spain and Portugal, they found themselves on either side of the battle.
In the case of Joseph De Castro, the son of a Spanish father and American mother from Maine and the first Hispanic to ever win a Medal of Honor, he enlisted in the Union Army’s volunteer forces at 16 years old.
He was born on Nov. 14, 1844 outside of Boston, Massachusetts. Not much is known of his early life, but his father passed away of tuberculosis in 1858, when De Castro was 14.
This had a profound effect on the adolescent, as the next time he appears in records, it is as an inmate of the State Reform School in Westboro, near Worcester, MA in 1860, at 16.
“He apparently became a handful,” wrote Historian Darlene Richardson in a Facebook post about his life on the VA Boston Healthcare System page.
His time at the Westboro Reform School was also likely filled with more trauma, as an 1860 investigation of the facility in the summer of that year revealed the cruel treatment of boys in the institution’s care.
“Older boys, like Joseph, were often confined to dark, dirty cells for weeks at a time with only bread and water for sustenance,” wrote Richardson.
De Castro was released after the investigation and only three months after the start of the Civil War, he joined the Union Army on July 12, 1861.
He was initially a private in the 19th Massachusetts Infantry, but rose to a corporal over time and became a color-bearer for his regiment. In other words, De Castro was the flag-bearer everytime the regiment went into battle, and it is where his heroism would be best remembered.
The 19th Massachusetts fought in a number of historic battles throughout the Civil War, including the Second Manassas, Antietam and Fredericksburg.
But it was at the Battle of Gettysburg that De Castro would earn his Medal of Honor.
The story goes that during the battle, De Castro separated from his unit amid Pickett’s Charge — ordered by Confederate General Robert E. Lee on the forces of Union Major General George G. Meade.
Rather than flee, he stuck with other Union soldiers in the fray and eventually captured the flag of the Confederate Army’s 19th Virginia Regiment, delivering the flag and his own back to his commanding officers.
For his heroism, De Castro was awarded the Medal of Honor a year and a half later by President Abraham Lincoln. He was the first of three Hispanics or Latino soldiers that would be awarded a Medal of Honor by the Civil War's end.
He was discharged from the army as a sergeant on June 30, 1865. De Castro died at the age of 47 on May 8, 1892.