Medal of Honor: Lewis Brest

Lewis Brest, Citizen’s Cemetery, Mercer

The Medal of Honor symbolizes the ideals of patriotism, courage, sacrifice, and integrity and is the highest award presented for military valor in action. These recipients have shown bravery in combat, going above and beyond the call of duty, risking – and often sacrificing – their lives for the welfare of others.

First introduced for the Department of the Navy in 1861, the Medal of Honor was created for the Department of the Army’s Medal of Honor in 1862. The Department of the Air Force, which originally used the same Medal as the Department of the Army, introduced their own Medal of Honor in 1965. Since its inception during the U.S. Civil War, more than 3500 recipients have been honored with the Medal of Honor.

This is the story of a Medal of Honor recipient.

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I slowed as I approached Mercer on Route 19. I had exited Interstate 80 a couple minutes before and as I entered town, I knew behind the wall of green on my right was a cemetery. Although there was an entrance along Route 19, it was normally blocked off by a cable and on this trip, the chain remained stretched across the entrance. I passed the cemetery, turned right onto South Street, then right again on Route 258, also known as South Pitt Street, and entered the cemetery through the first entrance.

I followed the roadway to the second roadway and turned left and parked at the next intersection. As I stepped out of the vehicle, I could see the grave of the man I came to honor located just a couple steps from the intersection of the two roadways.

The grave of Lewis Brest is marked by two stones. The original stone has his name, the Company he served with in the U.S. Civil War, and birth and death dates. Behind this older stone stood a government issued stone that remembered not only his service, but recognized him as a recipient of the Medal of Honor.

Lewis Francis “Frank” Brest was born May 15, 1842 in Mercer County to David and Catherin Brest. He trained as a carpenter before he enlisted on December 13, 1861 to serve in the U.S. Civil War. Brest was officially mustered into service December 31 as a private in Company D of the 57th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry. Note: Interestingly, in the Pennsylvania Digital Archives’ “Civil War Veterans’ Card File, 1861-1866,” Brest’s first enrollment is not listed. His veteran card only mentions his reenlistment in December 1963 and states his original mustering into service was not known.

Brest saw action in the Peninsular Campaign, Seven Days Battle, Second Bull Run, Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville. While his unit saw action at Gettysburg, Brest himself did not participate in the battle. Shortly before the Battle of Gettysburg, Brest contracted typhoid fever and would not rejoin his unit until late 1863.

Brest barely escaped death in the spring of 1864 during the Battle of the Wilderness when he was struck in the neck by enemy fire. Brest recovered from the wound and would be involved in the lengthy Siege of Petersburg from June 1864 to April 1865.

It was in the final days of the siege, when Brest’s actions would be recognized with the Medal of Honor. On April 6, 1865, during hand-to-hand combat during the Battle of Sailor’s Creek, also spelled Sayler’s Creek, Brest captured a Confederate battle flag. The capture of the flag may seem insignificant now, but at the time, the flag was the object the unit rallied around – on the battlefield, if a soldier became separated from his unit, he would look for the flag and head there. The battle flags also allowed commanding generals to see where units were at and made directing them easier from a distance. The capture of the flag was a mental defeat in the unit’s mind and morale.

Brest’s bravery earned him a Congressional Medal of Honor and he was granted a thirty-day furlough on April 18. His Medal of Honor would be presented to him on May 10, 1865. The citation reads: “The President of the United States of America, in the name of Congress, takes pleasure in presenting the Medal of Honor to Private Lewis Francis Brest, United States Army, for extraordinary heroism on 6 April 1865, while serving with Company D, 57th Pennsylvania Infantry, in action at Deatonsville (Sailor’s Creek), Virginia, for the capture of flag.” Unfortunately, the Confederate unit which the battle flag belonged has disappeared through the years.

After the war, Brest returned to Mercer County, married and had a family. At Thanksgiving in 1915, Brest was visiting his daughter, Rebecca Michal, in Mercer when he took ill. His illness continued to grow worse until his passing on December 2 at the age of seventy-three. He was placed to rest in the Mercer’s Citizens Cemetery in the G.A.R plot, under a donated stone that did remember him as a recipient of the Medal of Honor.

Note: The G.A.R, or Grand Army of the Republic, was a fraternal group, that brought together U.S. Civil War veterans after the war. In larger communities, the G.A.R Post would purchase land within the cemetery, so veterans were guaranteed a burial place if the family was unable to afford it at the time of death. But only the veterans were permitted to be buried there – the family members of the veterans were not permitted to be buried in the plot.

Interestingly, his obituary in the December 3, 1915 edition of the New Castle News (New Castle, Pa) does not mention Brest a recipient of the Medal of Honor. It would not be until 1997 his grave was marked with a military stone recognizing him as a recipient of the Medal of Honor.

I finished remembering Lewis Brest for his bravery and service as another vehicle pulled in behind mine. The older couple got out and removed flowers from their car. I watched as they walked over to an older grave and began preparing it for the Memorial Day celebration. I left Brest’s grave, leaving him resting in the sacred grounds of Mercer Citizen’s Cemetery.

Note: Lewis Brest was one of three soldiers of the 57th Pennsylvania whose actions were recognized by the Medal of Honor. The other two were Private Francis A. Bishop and Captain John Wallace Scott.

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