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American Jews and the Civil War: Leadership and Military Service

Peter Egill Brownfeld
Winter 2001

(Part I of this article exploring the role of Jewish Americans in the Civil War, “The Civil War: A Crucible of Jewish Acculturation,” appeared in the Fall 2000 Issues. Part II explores their role in the military and in government.)  



During the Civil War, Jewish Americans served in the military in impressive numbers. Simon Wolf, author of The American Jew As Patriot, Soldier and Citizen, writes that, “The enlistment of Jewish soldiers, North and South, reached proportions considerably in excess of their ratio in the general population.”  

Wolf estimates that approximately twelve hundred Jews served in the Confederacy, including twenty-four army officers and eleven navy officers. Other accounts claim that Wolf grossly underestimates the number, placing the actual number as high as ten thousand. Wolf estimates that almost six thousand Jews served the Union - a number that also may be higher.  

A far greater proportion of Southern Jews fought for the Confederacy than Northern Jews fought for the Union. This could have been because Southern Jews were better assimilated and therefore their interests were more similar to those of their Christian countrymen, or merely because, out of necessity, a far higher percentage of Southerners were under arms. Entire families of Southern Jews rushed to join the Confederate ranks: including the five Moses brothers of South Carolina, the six Cohen brothers of North Carolina, the three Levy brothers of Louisiana, and the three Levy brothers of Virginia.  

Jewish Companies  

Jewish companies were recruited and formed in both the Union and the Confederacy. Units were raised in West Point and Macon, Ga., as well as in Syracuse and Chicago. However, most Jewish soldiers served in regular units, and in fact the largest Jewish community-New York City-declined to form such a unit, feeling that isolating Jews within the army was not appropriate. Korn writes, “The fact that so few Jewish companies were organized did not stem from any lack of patriotism among Jews, but from a reluctance to form Jewish enclaves in the army. Of course, there were companies like the Light Infantry Blues of Richmond and Company D of the Eighth New York National Guard Regiment in which large numbers of Jews served-but their enlistment in these outfits was on the basis of personal friendship or geographic location, not on the basis of a preference to serve with Jews. In the final analysis, the men who enlisted in the service of the Union and Confederacy exhibited no desire for a segregated minority status...The majority of American Jews consciously sought to avoid clannish or restrictive actions.”  

There are many individual stories of heroism and sacrifice. Recounting a few of these illustrates just how integrated Jews were in American society.  

Of the estimated six thousand Jewish soldiers who served in the Union army, six received the Congressional Medal of Honor. One recipient was Abraham Cohn, a former medical student at the University of Berlin, who enlisted as a private in the 68th New York Regiment. He received the medal “for conspicuous gallantry displayed in the battle of the Wilderness, in rallying and forming, under heavy fire, disorganized troops; also for bravery and coolness in carrying orders to the advance lines under murderous fire in the battle of the Mine, July 30, 1864,” as stated in the letter from S.N. Benjamin, Assistant Adjutant General. Cohn rose to be captain of the regiment. As a result of sickness, Cohn received an honorable discharge. But he recovered, and re-enlisted as a private in the 6th New Hampshire Volunteers, and ultimately was appointed to the post of Adjutant.  

Union Generals  

There were several Jewish generals in the Union army, the most well known of whom was Edward S. Solomon, who later became Governor of Washington Territory. Solomon was a native of Germany who moved to Chicago in 1854 at the age of 18. He joined the 24th Illinois Infantry as second lieutenant. By 1862 he had advanced to the rank of major. He took part in the action at Chancellorsville and his conduct in the Battle of Gettysburg led Major General Carl Schurz to write in a dispatch to General Howard, commander of the 11th Corps, Solomon “displayed the highest order of coolness and determination under very trying circumstances.”  

After the war, when Schurz was a U.S. Senator from Missouri, he said of Solomon, “He was the only soldier at Gettysburg who did not dodge when Lee’s guns thundered; he stood up, smoked his cigar and faced the cannon balls with the sang froid of a Saladin.”  

He also participated in the hard fighting around Chattanooga, Lookout Mountain and Missionary Ridge. Solomon was promoted to Colonel, and then to brevet Brigadier General because of his meritorious service, admirable coolness, conspicuous energy and sound judgment in the campaign against Atlanta. Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton appointed Edward S. Solomon brigadier general, and after the war President Grant appointed him governor of Washington Territory.  

Another Jewish soldier who answered his nation’s call to arms and quickly rose through the ranks was Frederick Knefler. With no prior military training, he enlisted as a private in response to Lincoln’s first call for volunteers. He saw a great deal of combat, and because of his heroics, he advanced to the rank of brevet Major General-the highest rank of any Jewish soldier in America until that time. At least twelve Jewish officers achieved the temporary rank of Adjutant or Brevet General.  

Immersed in Southern Society  

One example of a Southern Jew who was entirely immersed in the society that he lived in was Moses Ezekiel. He attended the Virginia Military Institute and took part in the Battle of New Market on May 15, 1864. In this engagement Sergeant Ezekiel, along with 247 other young cadets marched 75 miles from their barracks in Lexington to New Market and heroically repulsed the superior Union force.  

After the battle Ezekiel showed his devotion to his comrades by helping his wounded roommate, Thomas Garland Jefferson, to a nearby farmhouse owned by Lydie Clinedinst. She wrote about the event in her diary:  

“They told me about a poor little cadet lying down at the Lightfoot farm, badly wounded. I told them to bring him to my home, where he would be comfortable. He lay there all night, but in the morning after the battle, [he] brought him to my home in an ambulance and carried him in...  

“His name was Thomas Garland Jefferson...I will never forget him and his sweet, boyish face. He was shot in the breast, and the bullet was cut out of his back. His suffering was intense, but he bore up so well and never complained. Cadet Ezekiel nursed him very tenderly. His own mother could not have done more for him...  

“The evening before he died he called Cadet Ezekiel to read to him. He read the fourteenth Chapter of Saint John. What a death-bed scene - The little Jew cadet reading the New Testament to his Christian comrade in his last hours. Could anything be more touching? ... He died about midnight in Moses Ezekiel’s arms.”  

Career as an Artist  

Ezekiel went on to have a successful career as an artist. Ezekiel’s bust of Thomas Jefferson sits above the Speaker’s desk in the Capitol. His statue of Admiral David Glasgow Farragut is at the Navy Yard. He has twelve statues of great artists of the world in the Renwick Gallery - the old Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. His Confederate monument at Arlington Cemetery honors the Civil War dead on both sides, and serves as a symbol of reconciliation between North and South. He even received international accolades, and was given the title “Sir” when he was honored with the Cavalere Ufficale della Carona D’Italiea from the King of Italy and the Cavalier’s Cross of Merit for Art and Science from the Grand Duke of Saxe-Meiningen and the emperor of Germany.  

After the war he enjoyed the frequent companionship of Robert E. Lee, who urged him to continue his interest in art: “I hope you will be an artist, as it seems to me you are cut out for one. But whatever you do, try to prove to the world that if we do not succeed in our struggle we were worthy of success...”  

Ezekiel resolved to follow Lee’s advice, and defended the Confederacy and the cause for which he fought. When the Italian patriot Giuseppe Garibaldi accused him of fighting for slavery, Ezekiel responded, “None of us had ever fought for slavery, and, in fact, were opposed to it. The South’s struggle was simply a constitutional one, based upon the Doctrine of State’s Rights and especially on free trade and no tariffs.”  

Confederate Soldiers  

Lee recognized the importance of Jewish soldiers in his army. They formed such a significant portion of his force that he could not afford to allow high holy days furloughs to “soldiers of the Jewish persuasion in the Confederate States army.” He wrote in 1861 to Rabbi M.J. Michelbacher, “Preacher Hebrew Congregation, House of Love, Richmond, Virginia,” that “I feel assured that neither you or any other member of the Jewish Congregation would wish to jeopardize a cause you have so much at heart by the withdrawal even for a season of a portion of its defenders.”  

Jews rose to leadership roles in both the North and the South. This was particularly true in the South where Jews played a major role in running the fledgling government of the Confederacy.  

At the outbreak of the war two Jewish U.S. Senators represented Southern states. The first elected Jewish Senator was David Levy, later Yulee, of Florida. The other was Senator Judah P. Benjamin, who was elected twice from Louisiana, was one of the most respected politicians in the South, and became a leading figure in the Confederacy, holding a number of important posts.  

Jews were very much a part of Southern society, and so when the Southern states seceded, it was natural that Jews would play a significant role in the new nation. Major Raphael J. Moses of General Longstreet’s staff sat at Robert E. Lee’s mess table. Moses carried out the last order of the Confederacy while serving as chief commissary of Georgia by surrendering $30,000 in gold to the Federal general in Augusta to be used for the rehabilitation of Southern soldiers in hospitals. Captain David Camden De Leon resigned from Union forces to serve as Surgeon General of the Confederacy and organize the entire medical department of the army.  

Significant Roles  

The list of Jews with significant roles in the Confederacy is a long one, with Abraham C. Myers of Georgia serving as the Confederacy’s Quartermaster-General, and Edwin De Leon representing President Jefferson Davis in Europe appealing to France and Britain to recognize the Confederacy.  

Benjamin was the most prominent Jew, North or South, during the Civil War. He played a part in every major decision in Richmond during the war. Serving in Davis’ cabinet as Attorney General, later as Secretary of War, and during the final years held the office of Secretary of State, Benjamin was Davis’ most trusted advisor.  

Benjamin was born in the Caribbean, then his family moved to Wilmington, N.C., and later to Charleston, S.C. With assistance from a Jewish philanthropist, he obtained his education at Yale, and then settled in New Orleans. He quickly became a prominent lawyer and was elected to the U.S. Senate. His eloquent defense of slavery was considered the most brilliant and logical of all Southern leaders.  

Farewell Speech  

Historians consider Benjamin’s farewell speech to the U.S. Senate on New Years Eve, 1860 one of the great speeches in American history. The gallery was packed to hear “the most eloquent voice of the South,” as Eli Evans, author of Judah P. Benjamin: the Jewish Confederate, called Benjamin. He pleaded against the seemingly inevitable Civil War to come: “And now, Senators, within a few weeks we part to meet as Senators in one common council chamber of the nation no more forever. We desire, we beseech you, let this parting be in peace ... indulge in no vain delusion that duty or conscience, interest or honor, imposes upon you the necessity of invading our States or shedding the blood of our people. You have not possible justification for it.”  

Varina Davis, Jefferson Davis’ wife, wrote that “his voice rose over the vast audience distinct and clear ... he held his audience spellbound for over an hour and so still were they that a whisper could have been heard.”  

He warned his colleagues: “What may be the fate of this horrible contest, no man can tell ... but this much, I will say: the fortunes of war may be adverse to our arms, you may carry desolation into our peaceful land, and with torch and fire you may set our cities in flame ... you may, under the protection of your advancing armies, give shelter to the furious fanatics who desire, and profess to desire, nothing more than to add all the horrors of a servile insurrection to the calamities of civil war; you may do all this-and more too, if more there be-but you never can subjugate us; you never can convert the free sons of the soil into vassals, paying tribute to your power; and you never, never can degrade them to the level of an inferior and servile race. Never! Never!”  

Davis and Benjamin  

In The Rise and Fall of the Confederacy, Davis explained his reasons for appointing Benjamin to his cabinet: “Mr. Benjamin of Louisiana had a very high reputation as a lawyer, and my acquaintance with him in the Senate had impressed me with the lucidity of his intellect, his systematic habits and capacity for labor. He was therefore invited to the post of Attorney General.” Benjamin spent twelve to fourteen hours a day with Jefferson Davis while he served in his Cabinet. He was not just another Cabinet officer, but an intimate of the Davis family.  

Benjamin also served as Secretary of War, and his service was regarded as highly competent, although he had some disputes with the Confederate Congress and General Stonewall Jackson. He was made the scapegoat for the Confederate defeats at Fort Donelson and Roanoke Island. His detractors claimed that he refused to send aid. However, because of a lack of men and munitions, he had no aid to send, but rather than reveal this fact to the Union, Benjamin took the blame.  

Generals who would not attack the President publicly had a convenient target in his Secretary of War. Benjamin relayed orders from the President, who has often been criticized as a micromanager, and generals, resenting this, criticized Benjamin, a man of no military experience, thinking him the originator of such commands. Benjamin regularly accepted the blame for Davis’ micromanaging, as well as for the failure to provide supplies that simply were not available.  

Reputation Assaulted  

A letter from Benjamin shows that he allowed his reputation to be assaulted for the good of the country. In discussing the Confederate defeat at Roanoke Island, Benjamin writes: “I consulted the President whether it was best for the country that I should submit to unmerited censure or reveal to a Congressional Committee our poverty and my utter inability to supply the requisitions of General Wise, and thus run the risk that the fact should become known to some of the spies of the enemy, of whose activity we were well assured. It was thought best for the public service that I should suffer the blame in silence and a report of censure on me was accordingly made by the Committee of Congress.”  

Benjamin suffered as the scapegoat for problems beyond his control, and often the attacks degenerated into anti-Semitic slurs. Henry Foote, the most vituperative opponent of the Davis administration, breathed much of his fire in Benjamin’s direction. Foote was a longtime political enemy of Davis, once having engaged in a fistfight with him while they were both U.S. Senators, and at another occasion defeating Davis by just 999 votes out of the 50,000 cast in an election for governor of Mississippi. Now, as Confederate Congressman from Nashville, he assaulted Benjamin by calling him “Judas Iscariot Benjamin,” the “Jewish Puppeteer” behind the “Davis tyranny” and the cause of the South’s hardship. Foote also declared that he intended to amend the Constitution so that “no Jew will be allowed within twelve miles of the capital.”  

Benjamin’s next post was as Secretary of State. In this position he sought to gain British and French recognition of the Confederacy. He tried every angle-emphasizing the importance of Southern cotton, bribing foreign leaders, and in the most extreme measure, he said the South would abolish slavery if that would bring about the recognition of this new nation. In 1862 Confederate success encouraged hopes of European recognition and possible intervention.  

Delphic Oracle  

When Benjamin managed to work out a financial deal with Emile Erlanger, a leading French banker, the gossip in Richmond reflected increased attention to Benjamin’s activities. Mary Boykin Chesnut wrote in her famed diary, “Everything Mr. Benjamin said we listened to, bore it in mind, gave heed to it diligently. He is a Delphic oracle. He is one of the innermost shrine, supposed to enjoy Mr. Davis’ unreserved confidence.” Benjamin ultimately failed to achieve European recognition-perhaps the most important undertaking of the Confederacy-because the European powers feared antagonizing the United States, which could emerge from the war as a powerful nation.  

Benjamin was entrusted with so much power that when Davis was absent from Richmond to settle a dispute among generals in Tennessee, Benjamin acted on his behalf and spoke for the Confederacy. He convened a meeting of the Cabinet to formulate a response to the British consulate in Savannah’s order that British subjects who had enlisted in the Confederate army could not “be brought into conflict with the United States.” The Confederate newspapers were outraged at this breach of sovereignty and Congress demanded action. With Davis out of Richmond, as his right hand man, Benjamin acted. In a move that would receive worldwide attention, he expelled the British consulate. Although Benjamin later wrote to Davis, hoping that his action would meet with the President’s approval, in a sense he was the acting President during this episode.  

Creating Plans  

Benjamin was the architect of two creative plans aimed at bringing a Southern victory. The first was the creation of a Canadian spy ring that would infiltrate the Union from the North. He sought to inspire an attack via Canada, using Confederate sympathizers-Copperheads-and escaped prisoners. This force would attack the prison camps, disrupt the Northern war machine, and ultimately march South. In the process, Benjamin hoped the Northern press and populace would turn against Lincoln, and oust him from office in the 1864 election. This plan turned out to be a massive failure, with unsuccessful attempts to set New York on fire, a botched effort at freeing prisoners from camps on the Great Lakes, a failure in inciting a riot in Chicago, and a raid in St. Albans, Vermont, where the Confederates did nothing but rob the town and set it on fire. This was perhaps Benjamin’s greatest embarrassment. After the war, the fact that he employed John Surratt as a courier, a man who was acquainted with John Wilkes Booth, caused some to link Jefferson Davis and the Confederacy with Lincoln’s assassination.  

Another major effort of Benjamin’s was to urge the Confederacy to emancipate the slaves and use them in the defense of the South. Benjamin had been a slaveowner in Louisiana, and he certainly was no abolitionist. Yet, by 1864, with the South’s manpower dwindling against increasingly daunting odds, he believed the Confederacy had nowhere to turn but to their slaves. After pushing and receiving approval from Lee and Davis, Benjamin sought the public’s acceptance in a speech in Richmond.  

Impossibility of Numbers  

Benjamin started by announcing the near impossibility of the numbers: “Our resources of white population have greatly diminished; but you had 680,000 black men of the same ages; and could Divine prophecy have told us of the fierceness of the enemy’s death grapple at our throats-could we have known what we now know, that Lincoln has confessed, that without 200,000 Negroes which he stole from us, he would be compelled to give up the contest, should we have entertained any doubts upon the subject?”  

Now that he had explained to the crowd the dire circumstances as well as the potential of black soldiers, he made the suggestion that slaves should be emancipated and armed to fight. “Let us say to every Negro who wishes to go into the ranks on condition of being made free-’Go and fight; you are free.’ If we impress them, they will go against us. We know that everyone who could fight for his freedom has had no chance. The only side that has had the advantage of this element is the Yankee-a people that can beat us to the end of the year in making bargains. Let us imitate them in this. I would imitate them in nothing else.”  

He reminded the crowd that he was no abolitionist, but a Southerner, a. slaveowner, who would do anything to win the war for independence. “My own Negroes have been to me and said: Master, set us free, and we will fight for you; we had rather fight for you than the Yankees.’ But suppose it should not be so-there is no harm in trying.”  

Black Soldiers  

Benjamin believed that this was the only way to win the war. Lee accepted the idea of black soldiers, but was tentative about it. Davis also saw the merits of the idea, but was unsure that the South would accept such a revolutionary notion. Benjamin knew that if the idea were to succeed, he would have to lay his reputation on the line. He did, and he lost. The Senate rejected the idea, and was divided on a measure to censure Benjamin for proposing it.  

After Appomattox, as Benjamin and other Confederate leaders tried to elude capture, he feared that he would be put to death, and it was not an unreasonable fear. ­According to former Speaker of the House James G. Blaine, Senator Ben Wade of Ohio met with Andrew Johnson to discuss the treatment of Confederate leaders when and if caught. “I think if you could give me time,” Wade said, “I could name thirteen that stand at the head in the work of the rebellion. I think we would all agree on Jeff Davis, Toombs, Benjamin, Slidell, Mason and Howell Cobb.”  

Blaine called Benjamin the “Mephistopheles of the Rebellion, the brilliant, learned, sinister Secretary of State.” The Confederacy honored Benjamin, placing his portrait on the two-dollar bill in 1862. Benjamin unquestionably was recognized, both in the North and in the South, as a vital member of the Confederacy’s braintrust.  

Benjamin left to flee through Florida, while Davis attempted to reach Texas with the ultimate goal of Mexico. Varina Davis recorded their farewell: “Thus these two master minds which seemed to be the complement of each other parted with mutual respect and affectionate esteem as well as a hearty appreciation of the virtues and gifts his friend possessed, after breasting as one man the heavy storm which beat upon them for five bitter years.”  

Affection and Loyalty  

Davis’ prison doctor, Dr. John Craven, spent hours discussing with Davis news of the outside world and listening to him talk on many subjects. Craven also recorded the affection and loyalty that Davis felt for Benjamin. In his book, The Prison Life of Jefferson Davis, he reported that Davis told him, “Benjamin was the ablest and most faithful member of his advisory council; a man who realized that industry is the mistress of success, and who had no personal aspirations, no wishes that were not subordinate to the prosperity of the cause.”  

After the war Benjamin fled to England, where he began studying law, and at the age of 55 entered the English bar. He achieved phenomenal success and received the rare honor of Queen’s Counsel. At his retirement banquet Benjamin was toasted and eulogized as the only man “of whom it can be said that he held conspicuous leadership at the Bars of two countries.”  

The most significant outcome of the war for American Jews was the increased pace of Americanization. In less critical periods of the national life, immigrants assimilate unhurriedly, but during the Civil War, they were drawn into this emotional conflict. Korn writes, “During the fratricidal blood-bath of the Civil War, however, the most desperate, fearsome period in American history, almost every inhabitant-citizen, immigrant,. visitor-was drawn into the fray, emotionally even more than physically. Psychologically it was almost impossible for the alien to remain aloof from the strife which was disrupting the nation?’  

Well Integrated  

Southern Jews were well integrated into their communities. It was natural that they would be loyal to the Confederacy. Howard Sachar, author of A History of the Jews in America, wrote: “For Southern Jews, loyalty to the Confederacy often was a matter of intense personal gratitude. Nowhere else in America had they experienced such fullness of opportunity or achieved comparable political and social acceptance.”  

Jews in the North were often less integrated, as many were recent immigrants, or lived in Jewish communities in the big cities. Nevertheless, Jews readily volunteered in a struggle that had deep meaning for them. Many Jews felt that it was a war over slavery, and their abhorrence for this practice brought them to the military. Others, as new arrivals, saw that America’s experiment in democracy was in peril and must be protected.  

Jews in the North and South served their respective nations in every capacity imaginable. From Judah Benjamin, who was Davis’ right hand man, and the so-called “Brains of the Confederacy,” to the enlisted Jewish soldier who slogged through the war as part of Stonewall Jackson’s foot cavalry. In the North, Jews served as generals and won medals of honor.  

No Retreat  

Most Jews were recent immigrants, and now they were thrust into the bloodiest conflict in American history. They did not retreat into the background. They did not claim the fight was not theirs. Instead they formulated strong opinions, gave fiery speeches for and against slavery and secession. They made sacrifices, saw their property burned, their children go hungry, and their sons and husbands killed.  

Yet the sacrifices that Jews made and the strong convictions that they held were not unique. Rather, the Jewish community was like all American communities. Caught up in the most divisive period in American history, like their gentile neighbors they fought and spoke for the cause they believed in.  

During this period Jews became more fully integrated into their American communities. As they struggled through the five years of war with their neighbors, their fortunes became increasingly bound up with those of their communities. Jews did not try to avoid being drawn into this fight, but rather rushed headlong to show their allegiance to the North or the South.  

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