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The American Civil War: Grounding Jewish Immigrants in Their New Country

Peter Egill Brownfeld
Winter 2003

American Jewry and the Civil War  
by Bertram W. Korn,  
The Jewish Publication Society,  
376 Pages,  

Bertram Korn’s classic American Jewry and the Civil War has been reprinted in a new edition, offering his extensive research, fascinating anecdotes, and excellent overview to a new generation of readers. The original book appeared in 1961 and was based on his doctoral dissertation.  

As the title indicates, Korn is concerned with the experience of the Jewish community, not Jews as individuals. He does not have a regional focus, although because the Jewish community in the North was larger, he necessarily spends more time on it. He traces the entire Jewish experience, focusing on attitudes to slavery, opinions at the outbreak of war, the controversy over Jewish chaplains and other stories of anti-Semitism, and Lincoln’s attitude towards the Jews. There is no specific military focus, although the story of Jewish service is present in some of the discussion.  

Korn spends a great deal of time discussing anti-Semitism and the various forms it took. This focus seems somewhat contradictory when he clearly argues that there was no division in attitudes, loyalties, or service between the Jewish and gentile communities. His focus on anti-Semitism at times seems to depict a community apart, while the overall conclusion is the opposite.  

Regarded as his magnum opus, American Jewry and the Civil War continues to be a valuable record of the Jewish community during this period. His intriguing stories of close friendships between Jews and Lincoln, of fiery rabbinical sermons in the North and South, and of the anti-Semitism that erupted and was squelched make this book lively reading and will continue to attract readers.  

State of American Jewry at the Outbreak of War  

In 1860 there were 150,000 Jews and at least two-thirds of them were immigrants. During the 1850s the Jewish community sought ways to Americanize the newcomers. Jewish young men’s literary associations were quite popular. While their membership was almost entirely Jewish, their programs were practically void of Jewish content. The religion itself began to take on a unique American flavor. Korn writes: Rabbis “instituted regular preaching in the vernacular (German as well as English) to combat religious ignorance; they wrote and preached and organized new institutions in the effort to perpetuate that kind of Judaism which they believed to be true.”  

Korn continues: “Motivated by a desire to modernize Judaism through the use of the vernacular, to harmonize traditional ideas and practices with nineteenth century rationalism, and to supplement the ancient ritual with attractive innovations such as the confirmation ceremony, the reformers found a favorable climate in the free and fluid American civilization. American democracy seemed to invite the development of Judaism into a more modern and Westernized faith.”  

Both Sides on Slavery  

Although the American Jews were largely newcomers, they quickly became involved in the issues of the day, and their religion did not dictate their opinions. Jews came down on both sides of the slavery issue. While Mordecai M. Noah’s New York newspapers took a strong pro-slavery position and Senators Judah P. Benjamin and David Yulee defended slavery, Moritz Pinner’s Kansas Post opposed it, and Jews active in politics like Isidor Bush of St. Louis and J. Joachimsen of New York were anti-slavery. Because of these differing opinions, there was no uniform Jewish position, unlike some Christian denominations.  

Rabbis taking opposite sides argued with great vehemence. Dr. Morris J. Raphall of New York City was one of the best known orators in the rabbinate at that time. He denied any Biblical proscription of slavery. Raphall said: “How dare you ... denounce slaveholding as a sin? When you remember that Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Job - the men with whom the Almighty conversed, with whose names he emphatically connects his own most holy name ,.. were slaveholders, does it not strike you that you are guilty of something very little short of blasphemy? And if you answer me, ‘Oh, in their time slaveholding was lawful, but now it has become a sin,’ I in my turn ask you, ‘When and by what authority you draw the line? Tell us the precise time when slaveholding ceased to be permitted, and became sinful?”  

Rabbi David Einhorn of Baltimore took a different tack, believing that Jews should be most concerned with the spirit, not the letter of the Bible. Slavery, he thought, was cruel and heartless and should not be identified with God. “Is it anything else but a deed of Amalek, rebellion against God, to enslave human beings created in His image, and to degrade them to a state of beasts having no will of their own? Is it anything else but an act of ruthless and wicked violence, to reduce defenseless human beings to a condition of merchandise, and relentlessly to tear them away from the hearts of husbands, wives, parents, and children ... ?”  

Varieties of Thought  

Korn sums up the divide among Jews on the question of slavery: ‘They adopted no single political formula, but, to the contrary, all the varieties of political thought then current on the national scene. Personal background and environment, rather than Jewish teachings, determined their views; their version of Judaism was cut to fit the pattern of the conclusions which they reached independently. As with the Christian denominations, so with Judaism; religious ideals and principles were interpreted in widely disparate ways when a crucial issue faced the entire nation.”  

When the war broke out American Jewry showed no religious unity, but rather followed their respective communities to war. Korn notes that as Presidents Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis asked their citizens to attend religious services on Days of Humiliation and Prayer and on Thanksgiving Days, the synagogues of both sections cooperated fully.  

Korn illustrates the many different opinions in the Jewish community by highlighting some of the most outspoken individuals. Korn identifies Sabato Morais, an Italian immigrant from Philadelphia, as the most dynamic rabbi to support the Union. Morais said: “When dearly bought freedom is in jeopardy; when the angry billows of a political sea impede the march of civilization, and the adversaries of human brotherhood are skillfully marshaled for the onslaught, deeds of self-denial more than psalmody, will sanctify the life of man ... Let him, therefore, who values his country’s honor, speed on, let him trustingly follow the path which leads to national deliverance, and when the happy goal shall have been attained, raise the anthem which will be reverberated from sea to sea, even from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean ...”  

Pro-Union Sermons  

Morais gave pro-Union sermons at every opportunity, including National Fast Days, Thanksgiving, Jewish holidays, and on the Fourth of July. He also offered his services to the military as a chaplain. Korn writes that Morais “explained the reason for his passion, indirectly, in many of his sermons. He had been born and educated in Italy. His father had been imprisoned for republican activities. Mazzini and other Italian revolutionaries were his personal friends. He knew at first hand the effects of political strife and disunity, the evils of autocratic regimes. He knew how difficult it was to regain freedom once it was lost. He knew, also, how profoundly the example of democratic America had inspired irredentist and revolutionary movements all over Europe. How could he remain silent when the great shining beacon of freedom was threatened with extinction? Risk displeasure, indeed, he would have said; his father had risked his freedom! He felt he had good reason to lecture his congregation on the value of democracy.”  

Isaac Mayer Wise of Cincinnati believed that once the South had seceded, the North had no right to use force to prevent its departure. “Force will not hold together this Union,” he said; “it was cemented by liberty and can stand only by the affections of the people.”  

Confederate Advocates  

Naturally Korn found vigorous advocates of the Confederacy in the South to illustrate the full division of Jewish opinion. One of the leading rabbis of the South was James K. Gutheim who began his rabbinical career in New Orleans. When the North occupied New Orleans, Washington required the citizens to take an oath of loyalty to the Union. While many patriotic southerners took the oath, believing it simply did not reveal their true emotions, Gutheim refused to betray the southern cause, which he regarded as “the cause of right and justice.” He went into exile in Alabama, became the rabbi in Montgomery, and circuit rode to Columbus, Ga. to serve the congregation there. He continued to be a patriotic Confederate. The following is part of a prayer he delivered in Montgomery: “Regard, O Father, in thine abundant favor and benevolence, our beloved country, the Confederate States of America. May our young republic increase in strength, prosperity and renown; may the helm of state be piloted with judgment; may wisdom resound in the halls of legislation, and harmony, obedience to the law, fortitude in trials and a self-sacrificing devotion prevail among the people.”  

Korn provides a number of further examples of eloquent rabbis who vigorously advocated their northern and southern sympathies. The American rabbinate was divided. In general southern rabbis spoke for secession, while northern rabbis preached for the Union. No universal Jewish policy could have survived because the loyalties of American Jews were already too deeply rooted in their communities.  

Community Support  

Community activity in support of the war effort took many forms. Korn writes: “Jewish welfare societies, social organizations, and synagogues, as well as individuals, took an active role in the war relief and patriotic activities. Wherever there were Jewish women’s societies, in New York, Philadelphia, Rochester, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Mobile - to name only a few - they met regularly in synagogue vestry rooms and private homes, devoting a major portion of their time to the preparation of bandages and lint, the collection of funds for the relief of soldiers’ families, the organization of booths and tables at Sanitary Fairs, and other such activities. Many women’s groups were organized specifically to meet war-time needs.”  

While Jewish institutions and publications gave steady support to relief activities, there was some controversy over Jewish group participation. Mrs. W. Barron Williams, president of the Ladies’ Hospital Association in Rochester, New York, asked the women of Congregation B’rith Kodesh to participate in a benefit bazaar as a group. But S. Stettheimer, president of the congregation, rejected what he perceived as segregation, insisting in a letter to Williams that Jews have no nationality other than American - “the only national character in which they wish to appear would be under the Star Spangled Banner, the glorious flag of the Union - the banner of civil and religious liberty.” The congregation thus declined the invitation as a group, but to show their patriotism sent a check of $400 to “help to relieve the sufferings of our wounded patriotic soldiers, and soon return them to their brave comrades in the field, to give the final blow to that criminal attempt to destroy this Union, in the maintenance of which none are more interested than our Jewish fellow-citizens.”  

Opposed Separation  

The Jewish Messenger and the Jewish Record also opposed such separation. The Record stated that relief campaigns should not result in “Ghettoes” or “Judenstrassen.” It asked why “pretty Jewesses” should be set apart from other women. After all, “Pretty Catholics,” “demure Quakeresses,” and “smiling Presbyterians” did not have their own stands.  

Jews did look with charity upon their co-religionists despite the national divide. However, Korn does not offer any significant examples of charity crossing the border until the war was over. Then, Jews joined others in calling for a national reconciliation and offered food and other assistance to Jews in the destroyed South.  

Military Service  

Korn provides little information on Jewish military service, explaining this gap as outside of the focus of his book. This volume records the story of American Jewry, not of American Jews, who enlisted and fought as individuals, not as Jews. Yet there were attempts to raise Jewish units. The Jewish Record appealed for one, editorializing: “Arise, then, ye men of wealth and power, stir from your comfortable couches, and if you cannot enlist yourself, call a war meeting of Israelites and create a Jewish bounty fund, to promote enlistments in a regiment which you ought to call ‘your own.”‘ This call fell on deaf ears. As Korn writes: “individuals enlisted, but there was no Jewish war meeting. New Yorkers apparently did not approve of Jewish enclaves within the army.”  

Ultimately there were four Jewish companies organized for the Union and Confederate armies. Chicago and Syracuse offered units to the North and Columbus and West Point, Georgia offered units to the South. Overall, 4 or 5 percent of the Jewish population served in the two armies according to Simon Wolf, author of The American Jew as Patriot, Soldier and Citizen. Korn writes: “The fact that so few Jewish companies were organized did not stem, then, from any lack of patriotism among Jews, but from a reluctance to form Jewish enclaves in the army. ... In the final analysis, the men who enlisted in the service of the Union and Confederacy exhibited no desire for a segregated minority status.”  

Avoiding Clannish Actions  

Jews rejected separation in the military and in charity work. They also displayed apathy and indifference to the suggestions to create a Jewish military hospital and a national Jewish war service organization. Korn writes: “The majority of American Jews consciously sought to avoid clannish or restrictive actions; the hospital idea undoubtedly struck most of them as unnecessary segregation. Indeed, it would appear that most Jews were quite willing to ignore religious observances such as the dietary laws which tended to require separate Jewish facilities, rather than create ‘ghetto’ institutions.”  

Jews supported the war effort at home and volunteered in great numbers. They refused to be uniquely recognized for their patriotism, but rather wanted to be noted just as Americans - whether this was in the United States of America or the Confederate States of America. For a community largely composed of immigrants, the Civil War proved to be a major impetus for assimilation. Korn makes this clear in his discussion of Jewish political activity, military service, and charitable work. Yet, with such a background, he seems to inordinately focus on wartime anti-Semitism. He devotes three of his seven chapters to this discussion - and two of them center around relatively minor incidents. This magnification of anti-Semitism distorts the larger picture. The story of Jews and the Civil War is not one of anti-Semitism, but of assimilation. Korn’s focus likely leaves many readers with an impression of rife anti-Semitism, although the experiences of Jews outlined in the rest of his book seem to contradict this idea.  

Chaplaincy Controversy  

Korn devotes one chapter to what he calls the “chaplaincy controversy.” Korn has a natural interest in the subject as he was a military chaplain and the first American Jewish chaplain to rise to the flag rank (admiral) in any branch of the armed forces. Korn discovers no evidence of a discussion of Jewish chaplains prior to the Civil War. Jewish chaplains were allowed to serve in the South, but in the northern army, according to the original Volunteer Bill as reported to the floor of the House, chaplains had to be “regularly ordained minister[s] of some Christian denomination.”  

On July 12, 1861, Clement L. Vallandigham, a Democratic congressman from Ohio who would later became famous for his role in the Copperhead movement, spoke out in defense of Jewish rights. “There is a large body of men in this country, and one growing continually, of the Hebrew faith, whose rabbis and priests are men of great learning and piety, and whose adherents are as good citizens and as true patriots as any in this country.” Vallandigham failed in his appeal for Jewish chaplains, and several months afterwards, one Jewish chaplain who had been ministering to troops from Pennsylvania was compelled to resign after a zealous YMCA worker spotted him.  

To combat this discrimination, the Jewish community organized, submitted petitions, and ultimately sent a representative, Reverend Arnold Fischel, to meet with the president. After studying the matter, Lincoln wrote to Fischel the following day on December 13, 1861: “I find there are several particulars in which the present law in regard to chaplains is supposed to be deficient, all which I now design presenting to the appropriate committee of Congress. I shall try to have a new law broad enough to cover what is desired by you in behalf of the Israelites.”  

A bill was introduced in Congress a month later, but lengthy congressional meetings and reconciliation between the, House and Senate delayed passage until July 17, 1862, when the law was changed to allow Jewish chaplains. The language went from requiring a “Christian denomination” to requiring “a regularly ordained minister of some religious denomination.”  

Expulsion Order  

The second instance of official anti-Semitism that Korn illustrates is much more serious. On December 17, 1862, General Grant’s headquarters in Holly Springs, Mississippi issued an order stating: “The Jews, as a class violating every regulation of trade established by the Treasury Department and also department orders, are hereby expelled from the department within twenty-four hours from the receipt of this order.” This command affecting the Department of Tennessee was the most sweeping anti-Jewish regulation in American history. Jews were accused of speculating in cotton and trading with the enemy, and thus Grant ordered all of them removed from the border region.  

Trade was not banned across the border, as the North needed southern cotton and hoped to win over the loyalty of some element of the Confederate population. Yet the policy was unclear and at times permits were required and different regulations were in force. Korn describes the situation as one of “anarchy.” Speculators flooded the region and made enormous profits. Among the speculators were the family of Grant’s wife and many officers in the Union army. While Jews were certainly among these speculators, Grant’s order unfairly singled them out and condemned all Jews, not just the guilty.  

Korn describes the result of Grant’s order in Paducah, Kentucky, where the citizens still tell stories of the expulsion: “of the hurried departure by riverboat up the Ohio to Cincinnati; of a baby almost left behind in the haste and confusion and tossed bodily into the boat; of two dying women permitted to remain behind in neighbors’ care. Thirty men and their families were expelled from Paducah.”  

Meeting Lincoln  

Cesar Kaskel of Paducah conferred with Jewish leaders about how to respond to this order. With Congressman Gurley of Ohio as his escort, Kaskel went to Washington to meet with Lincoln. Kaskel described what was happening, and according to Korn, “it was obvious that Lincoln knew little or nothing of the facts of the case.” Korn reports Lincoln’s reaction, but fails to cite the source:  
LINCOLN: And so the children of Israel were driven from the happy land of Canaan?  
KASKEL: Yes, and that is why we have come unto Father Abraham’s bosom, asking protection.  
LINCOLN: And this protection they shall have at once.  
Lincoln made good on his promise and less than three weeks after the order was issued, Washington ordered it to be revoked. A delegation of rabbis visited Washington to thank Lincoln, at which time Lincoln said he had always believed that “to condemn a class is, to say the least, to wrong the good with the bad. I do not like to hear a class or nationality condemned on account of a few sinners.”  

Many newspapers responded to the order with outrage. The New York Times editorialized: “We rely on the general principles of republican right and justice for the utter reprobation of Grant’s order. Men cannot be condemned and punished as a class, without gross violence to our free institutions.” In Philadelphia, the Public Ledger stated that the order has been issued “thoughtlessly” and must be repealed immediately “for the honor of the country and of humanity and the nineteenth century.” The Louisville Journal asked “How many thousand patriotic soldiers of Jewish descent have laid down their lives upon the altar of this country? And is this miserable, ungrateful order to be the price of their blood?” The Louisville Democrat described the regulation as “certainly the most extraordinary, unwarrantable order we have ever heard of.” Korn cites several newspapers usually not reticent about printing anti-Jewish remarks still condemning the order as un-American.  

Voting as Individuals  

A footnote to the story is the Jewish reaction to Grant’s bid for the presidency in 1868. “As we have already discovered,” Korn writes, “there had been no single Jewish attitude on slavery and abolitionism, war and peace, Democracy and Republicanism. ... There were as many different political notions (even anti-alienism) among Jews as there were facets to American political life. ... Even under so great a provocation as the nomination of a presidential candidate who was, to all intents and purposes, anti-Jewish, [Jews] appear to have been more concerned about the national political and economic issues of the day than they were about an insult to the Jewish name. They campaigned and voted as individuals, not as members of the Jewish group. Whatever the factors which lead men to vote for a particular candidate in a particular election - economic class interest, social pressure, habit, personal relationships, honest thought - these same factors operated upon the minds of the Jews.”  

The chaplaincy controversy and Grant’s order were both rectified relatively quickly and Jews were accorded the same rights as other Americans. Korn does cite other examples of anti-Semitism that creeped into American politics especially as wartime nativism rose. Korn’s analysis in the chapter “American Judaeophobia 1861-1865” probably leaves many readers with a feeling of widespread anti-Semitism in America. After briefly outlining a history of anti-Semitism in America, Korn writes: “Practically every Jew who rose above the ordinary level had to realize that he would pay for his conspicuous position by suffering attacks on his background and the faith of his folk.”  

Korn cites anti-Semitic lines from publications in the North and South. He shows how leading Jewish figures on both sides of the border were castigated for their religion. Jews became scapegoats and were accused in the North of being Copperheads (southern sympathizers) and in the South of having northern allegiances and being eager to trade with the enemy. The Evansville Journal editorialized that “it is a fact that our fellow citizens of the Hebrew persuasion are, with a few honorable exceptions, all afflicted with the Copperhead mania.” Critics routinely attacked the religion of Judah P. Benjamin, a Jewish member of the Confederate cabinet.  

Latent Prejudice  

Confederate Congressman Henry S. Foote of Tennessee took a page out of Grant’s book by attacking Jews for their business practices. “Foreign Jews,” he said, “were scattered all over the country, under official protection, engaged in trade to the exclusion of our own citizens, undermining our currency ... by the end of the war they would have the control of all the cotton and tobacco.” Korn recognizes the similarity of the discrimination in the North and South, writing: “The same psychological, social, economic, and political factors which brought latent prejudice against Jews into the open in the North were creating a similar pattern of scapegoatism in the Confederacy. Economic tensions, personal fears and frustrations, and mass passions required an outlet and a victim in the South just as in the North.”  

Still, the clearest reason to place such examples of anti-Semitism in perspective is the Jews’ active and vocal patriotism. If they perceived their country (the Union or Confederacy) to be anti­Semitic, they would not have fought and died for it. They would not have sacrificed money, time, and blood. The San Francisco Morning Call recognized these contributions and refuted the notion that the Jews were an insular group without loyalty to their nation. Its editorial on “Religion and Patriotism” stated: “What is there in the faith of the Hebrew to make him a loyalist or a rebel? ... And how does it happen that some of the most ardent Unionists, both at the South and North, may be found in citizens of Hebrew faith, while [Judah] Benjamin and others of the same religious creed are aiders of rebellion? It is locality, and local institutions and teachings, the influence of surroundings, habits and tone of the community, which chiefly govern ... In this country there can be no classification of patriotism or treason, upon the basis of sectarian creeds. To attempt doing so would be as unjust as unphilosophical and neither likely to aid religion nor the causes of the Union.”  

Jews at Home  

Jews were at home in their communities, relishing the American freedom that had been unavailable in Europe. Because of the opportunities and freedoms in their new country they were willing to die for it. Bigots always emerge during wartime trying to turn fears into hatreds. While there may have been an upsurge of anti-Semitism, the Jews continued to see America as a haven and did not feel like outcasts.  

Despite this focus in certain chapters, overall Korn shows that far from isolating Jews, the Civil War actually aided in their assimilation. Korn writes: There was a “highly accelerated pace of Americanization which resulted from Jewish participation in the war on both the individual and communal levels. In less critical periods of the national life the immigrant tends to assimilate the atmosphere of his new home slowly, cautiously, unhurriedly. He savors the mores and manners and ideas of his environment gradually, as a stranger, with a mixture of fear and reluctance, retaining as a safeguard the bulk of his older heritage. In some periods and areas, several generations have had to pass through the assimilatory process before the changeover from immigrant to American has completed. 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 that was disrupting the nation. In the South and in the North, the average immigrant became a partisan - generally sharing the ideas and attitudes of his neighbors, opposing them in a few, rare instances, but making an emotional commitment whatever his stand. The national defeats and triumphs were part of his daily life; the high excitements of victory and the depressions of tragedy drove deeply into his nature. Enduring the hardships of battle, burying sons and husbands and friends, participating in the multifarious welfare activities of the home front, taking sides in political arguments - these and a thousand other aspects of life in a nation at war with itself Americanized the large immigrant population at a much more rapid rate than that of more peaceful times.”  

Assimilating Role  

Korn’s book has been reprinted for good reason: he offers an unparalleled portrait of the Jewish community during the Civil War. Korn sees the big picture and concludes that in sum the Civil War played a major assimilating role for Jews. It allowed them to show their patriotism for their new country to the rest of America.  

The Civil War spotlighted Jewish patriotism and how fully involved they were in American life. Korn writes: “Once a man staked his claim in the nation’s gamble for glory, all other impulses became secondary. So, from the very first, the freedom to join the race which America offered to the Jew (a comparative freedom, it is true, but one whose imperfections were insignificant to him, moulded as he was by a heritage of unbelievable terror and suffering), that freedom compelled him to abandon the religio­-cultural pattern which made him a Jew, and subjected him increasingly to the primary economic, cultural, political, and psychological factors operative in the environment in which he made his home. ... The character of American Jewish life for a whole century has been dominated by this one fact: The American Jew has been captured by the mood and modes of American life.”  

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