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Jews play major role in the American Civil War

 
4 january 2013

Here in Fredericksburg Virginia they are re-enacting a battle which was won by the southern Confederacy because they held the high ground almost exactly on this spot. And on the 150th of this battle, there's also a move afoot to better understand the role that Jews played on both sides of the divide.

 

One and a half centuries after the American Civil War there are still disputes about what it was all about: the abolition of slavery, the preservation of the union, or the right of the southern states to govern their own affairs. Some re-enactors here are still sympathetic to the southern cause.


James Jasper, Confederate Civil War Re-Enactor:


"Oh my father said when we was young, brother and I were about ten years old. He gave us a little lesson there. And he said 'I'm going to give you a lesson and this is the order to keep them. You're a Virginian first, a southerner second and then you're an American and don't never get them out that order. And we haven't.'"

 

Many Jews living in the south had strong sympathies with such sentiments and were willing to fight for separation from Washington's control.


Dr. John R. Sellers, Project Director, Jewish Civil War Roster, Shapell Manuscript Foundation:


"The Jews were simply absorbed by southern culture. They adopted the prejudices and leanings and political feelings of the people around them. And that's common, north south, same thing. There were about 3,000 that fought for the confederacy."

 

Judah P. Benjamin was the first Jew to serve in a cabinet role in North American history, serving as Attorney General, Secretary of War and Secretary of State of the Confederate government under Jefferson Davis.


Dr. John R. Sellers, Project Director, Jewish Civil War Roster, Shapell Manuscript Foundation:


“He's not in the army, he's not a military man, but he is an extremely talented advisor to Jefferson Davis.”


- Did he aid confederacy cause as a whole?


Dr. John R. Sellers, Project Director, Jewish Civil War Roster, Shapell Manuscript Foundation:


“Oh yes, yes he did.”


- In what ways?


Dr. John R. Sellers, Project Director, Jewish Civil War Roster, Shapell Manuscript Foundation:

 

“Well it's actually helping them with loans, with money from foreign countries, acquisitions.”

 

David McKenzie, Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington:


"His main duty as Secretary of State was seeking international recognition for the Confederacy. He had agents in Europe, even supported Napoleon the Third's invasion of Mexico, so hoping that the new emperor Maximilian would recognize the Confederacy and perhaps convince Napoleon the Third to do so as well."

 

The perception among many of the Civil War re-enactors here is that there was very little anti-Semitism among the ranks of ordinary soldiers.


Charles Ross, Re-Enactor:


"There were different religions and they always found time to be able to partake in their religion. Jews, gentiles, you know. But the parallel to that is that on that battlefield is that it wasn't a Jew, it wasn't a gentile, they were brothers in arms. And then when their church services came, you know, the Jews would do theirs, the gentiles would do theirs. So yes, it was a good conglomerate."

 

But Jews from both sides were concerned about a tendency to be blamed for high prices within the trade in black market goods, like cotton.

 

It led to one of the most significant acts of official anti-Semitism in American history, when the Union army's top General, Ulysses S. Grant, issued General Order Number 11. Grant never clarified why he’d issued the order, but historians have interpreted the circumstances in various ways.


David McKenzie, Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington:


"150 years ago this past week, Ulysses S. Grant's father Jessie showed up at his son's headquarters in Mississippi with 2 businessmen who happened to be Jewish named Mack from Cincinnati, looking to secure permits to trade cotton with the south. Grant flew into a rage, scapegoat Jews, issued order no. 11 expelled Jews in areas under his control, in northern Mississippi, western Tennessee, western Kentucky and southern Illinois."

 

Because telegraph wires had been cut by the Confederates the order took a long time to filter through, enabling Jewish leaders to protest to Lincoln before mass expulsions began. The President tactfully ordered Grant to rescind the order.


David McKenzie, Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington:


"The Jewish population in the United States grew significantly in the previously twenty years. 15,000 in 1840, 150,000 in 1860. This represented the first time that the Jewish community had really organized around an issue. It also showed that the United States was extremely different from the countries from which many Jews had come in Europe. Not only was the Jewish community able to organize, the community was able to get an anti-Semitic order reversed within two weeks of its passage."

 

After the war when General Grant ran for the White House, he made amends with the Jewish community, visiting an historic synagogue in Washington, now the home of the Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington.

 

President Lincoln was popular with Jews in Washington. 125 members of Washington Hebrew Congregation marched down Pennsylvania Avenue during Lincoln's funeral procession and Jews were among the first to contribute to the very first statue of Lincoln.

 

There were also several fascinating Jewish figures trusted by Lincoln, including a chiropodist, Dr. Isachar Zacharie. Lincoln sent him on spying missions to New Orleans and covert diplomatic trips to the confederate capital Richmond, aided in his journeys by passes signed by Lincoln.


Dr. John R. Sellers, Project Director, Jewish Civil War Roster, Shapell Manuscript Foundation:


"Oh Zacharie? (laughs) Yes, he is a mysterious figure. There are several researchers working adamantly on him. And it's questionable whether he was a turncoat, whether he is loyal, just someone who is just an entrepreneur looking out for himself."

 

Someone whose loyalty was entirely questionable was prominent Jewish society figure Eugenia Levy Phillips, a southerner who found herself living in Washington DC with her husband Philip during the war. He was a former Alabama Congressman who adopted the Union cause despite the fact that his wife was known as “a fire-eating secessionist in skirts.”


Dr. John R. Sellers, Project Director, Jewish Civil War Roster, Shapell Manuscript Foundation:


"She really was a fervent southern lady, in the sense that her sentiments were totally with the Confederacy. And she was considered a spy; you know carrying information to them."

 

After being arrested and detained in Washington DC, her husband helped secure her release. Fleeing to New Orleans she was then banished to a nearby barrier island when she enraged the notoriously fierce Union General Benjamin "Beast" Butler for laughing during a funeral procession.


Dr. John R. Sellers, Project Director, Jewish Civil War Roster, Shapell Manuscript Foundation:


“She was her own person, very strong personality and she was outspoken to the point where she could not be ignored by the command, by the military establishment. So it was just too obvious and they had to act, embarrassing for her husband, yes.”


- But he still managed to get her out of a fix?


Dr. John R. Sellers, Project Director, Jewish Civil War Roster, Shapell Manuscript Foundation:

 

“He did, he did.”

 

But some Jews living in the south felt compelled to move north to join the union cause out of genuine convictions to oppose slavery like Leopold Karpeles....


David McKenzie, Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington:


"He was an immigrant from Prague, had lived in Texas for over a decade. In 1861 when Texas was the seventh state to secede, he moved north to Massachusetts and joined the Union army. He was a flag bearer and participated in many battles including Gettysburg and Wilderness. 1864 he was wounded, he later won the medal of honor for his actions."

 

Dr. John Sellers and a team of researchers are now updating the records on Jewish involvement in the Civil War. The numbers are much larger than previously estimated, with between 10,500 to 11,000 Jewish Union soldiers, compared with around 3,000 Jewish Confederates.


Dr. John R. Sellers, Project Director, Jewish Civil War Roster, Shapell Manuscript Foundation:


"In numbers, in percentages, in volunteering for service, they surpassed any other ethnic group, so that's significant, in that they earned their place in American society. And so that's quite obvious in all of it. And there are companies, interestingly, that are almost all Jewish. And there are regiments that have an astounding number of Jews. And often gentiles will change their name to a Jewish-sounding name when they're enlisting in a near all-Jewish company, which is quite interesting."

 

Dr. Sellers and his team are updating a list of Jewish soldiers compiled by Simon Wolf, a prominent Jewish activist of the Civil War era. The process is unearthing many more compelling stories that have yet to be brought into the public eye.


Dr. John R. Sellers, Project Director, Jewish Civil War Roster, Shapell Manuscript Foundation:


"I find that their lives are, their dedication to the cause, both north and south is really admirable. Some of them fight to the death. There are some parents who lose one son and they have three more in the services and they are trying to keep them alive."

 

Dr. Sellers says there are also many cases where Confederate Jewish soldiers pleaded for leniency after the war, saying they had been forced to fight.

 

So as more work is done to better unearth the truths, the historical truths of Jewish involvement in this Civil War, it's clear that they shared the same profound experiences as the rest of the population.

 

Daniel Ryntjes, JN1, Fredericksburg, Virginia

 

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