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The Civil War: A Crucible of Jewish Acculturation

Peter Egill Brownfeld
Fall 2000

(This is Part I of a two-part article about the role played by Jewish Americans in the Civil War, North and South.)  

Much of American Jewish history is presented in terms of the emigration of East European Jews to the urban centers of the Northeast and Midwest in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Too little attention has been paid to the established American Jewish community which these immigrants found upon their arrival and, in particular, to the important role played by the Civil War in advancing the acculturation of Jews to the larger American society.  

At the time of the Civil War there were about 150,000 Jews in the United States. Many had become Southerners, some running stores or acting as peddlers; others owning plantations and slaves. Like gentiles from Dixie, many of them argued for secession, against Northern oppression, and in defense of the Southern way of life. The Confederate army saw its ranks swell with thousands of Jewish troops. In the North, the same phenomenon occurred. Jews held many of the same political and social views as their neighbors. They expressed outrage at the institution of slavery, and argued eloquently for abolition. They believed that the Union had to be kept together, and offered their sons to help heal the bloody rift that divided the nation.  

Thousands of Jews arrived in the waves of immigration of the 1850s. As newcomers to the nation many were more rooted in the old country that they had left, yet the Civil War brought many out of this isolation. Jews, like all Americans, became caught up in the patriotic fervor on both sides. They became intimately involved in the struggle, and without their contributions...North and South—the war effort would have greatly suffered.  

Sectional Strife  

Many issues led to the sectional strife that finally erupted in war in 1861. Divisions between the North and South had existed since the nation's inception, and had only exacerbated as industry and the cities grew in the North, while cotton and tobacco remained vital to the South. The South's agrarian economy based on trade with England and France, and rooted in slavery, was in many ways in conflict with the more modem economy in the North, which was based on manufactured goods in competition with Europe, and depended on a steady wave of immigration.  

These regional differences led to legislative arguments on tariffs, which could have sent the nation into war years earlier. And to disputes over the expansion of slavery, which caused bloody skirmishes in Kansas in the late 1850s.  

Jews were involved in this early battleground over the same issues that would lead to the Civil War. The Indian territory in Kansas had just been opened to white settlers, and Northerners and Southerners fought over whether it would be a slave state or a free state. Theodore Weiner, Jacob Benjamin, and August Bondi set out from St. Louis to open a store in Kansas. They soon got involved in the violent politics of "Bleeding Kansas." John Brown, the abolitionist leader who led a quixotic attempt to capture the federal garrison at Harper's Ferry, Va., called for volunteers. Among the first to respond were Bondi and Weiner. Benjamin also entered the fight in Kansas, joining another band or forming a company of his own.  

Their store was burned down, and the three men participated in the fighting, burning and looting that occurred in Kansas over two years. Most Jews were recent immigrants from European oppression, and hardly acclimatized to America, yet here they were plunging into the most divisive issue in the nation's history.  


It is impossible to ignore the role that slavery played in the war. The war was not solely about slavery, yet the agricultural system that the South was trying to preserve was largely based on slavery.  

It is interesting to note that on this issue of such great importance in the Civil War, Jews held a wide array of opinions. The Old Testament stories of slavery, and the heroism of Moses leading the Hebrews away from their Egyptian captors did not sway Southern Jews away from defending the practice that their livelihoods and the livelihoods of their fellow Southerners depended upon.  

Rabbis around the country used their sermons to express views on slavery, support secession, or argue against the breakup of the union. There was no religious boundary on the issue of slavery. Jews, like Christians, held all views on the legality and morality of slavery.  

Each congregation and rabbi made their own decision on slavery. The Annual Report of the American and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society stated, "The Jews of the United States have never taken any steps whatever with regard to the slavery question. As citizens, they deem it their policy `to have every one choose which ever side he may deem best to promote his own interests and the welfare of his country.' They have no organization of an ecclesiastical body to represent their general views; no General Assembly or its equivalent It cannot be said that the Jews have formed any denominational opinion on the subject of American slavery."  

Bible and Slavery  

At the end of President James Buchanan's term, as the division of the Union was appearing to be increasingly inevitable, Morris J. Raphall, the Orthodox rabbi of B'nai Jeshurun in New York, was invited to open a morning session of the House of Representatives. Wrapped in a talith, and wearing a skull cap, he preached a sermon on "The Bible View of Slavery," which declared: "The New Testament nowhere, directly or indirectly, condemns slaveholding, which indeed is proved by the universal practice of all Christian nations during many centuries...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...that all these men were slave-holders, does it not strike you that you are guilty of something very little short of blasphemy?" Raphall's sermon was reprinted in many newspapers. Slave owners were delighted to see evidence from the scripture quoted before Congress and on a national stage. His words were widely acclaimed in the South. Some abolitionists attacked Raphall, not based on his arguments, but rather resorted to anti-Semitic name-calling.  

There are many examples of Jewish leaders arguing the other side with equally vigorous rhetoric. Rabbi David Einhorn, leader of Har Sinai Congregation in Baltimore, took one of the strongest abolitionist stands of a clergyman. Maryland was very pro-South, and likely would have seceded except that Lincoln's Secretary of War, Simon Cameron, had members of the state legislature arrested before they could take the vote. In this pro-slavery atmosphere, Rabbi Einhorn took the strongest stand possible against the institution.  

Einhorn argued against clergymen like Raphall and clergymen of other religions who argued that the Bible never expressly prohibited slavery, and by extension approved of, or at least tolerated it. He editorialized in his newspaper Sinai, "Scripture merely tolerates this institution as an evil" in the hope that it will gradually disappear. There is no passage in the Bible, Einhorn wrote, that explicitly "favors, approves of and justifies and sanctions [slavery] in its moral aspects...Is it anything 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...to tear them away from the hearts of husbands, wives, parents and children...?"  

Stir in Baltimore  

Einhorn created a big stir in Baltimore because of his bold stance. On April 19, 1861, rioting broke out between Unionists and Confederate sympathizers. The rioters set fire to Unionist homes and smashed the press of the Sinai. Union soldiers warned Einhorn that he was on a list of intended victims. He refused to be intimidated, and a group of men from Har Sinai guarded his home. After four days, out of consideration for the safety of his family and Har Sinai itself he left Baltimore for Philadelphia. In Philadelphia he continued his abolitionist writings, and after the war went so far as to say that Lincoln's one fault was that he was "too mild to the Rebels."  

Although Einhorn expressed one of the more extreme views, he was not identified as a Jew, but as an abolitionist. He may not have fit into the political culture in Baltimore, but in making his stance, he was only criticized for his politics, not his religion.  

Sectional Division  

Historian Arthur Hertzberg notes that Jews did not hold distinct views because of their religion, but rather reflected the opinion of their region: "As was to be expected, the Jewish clergy in the South, without exception, endorsed the Confederacy. These preachers, most of whom were quite recent immigrants from Germany, summoned up great passion in their defense of state's rights. They repeated conventional Southern platitudes of that day, that the black race was incapable of taking care of itself, that slavery was a way of discharging the responsibility of whites...and, to quote J.H. Michelbacher of Richnond, that the North was inciting the slaves `to assassinate and slay men, women, and children.'"  

B'nai B'rith, which had chapters by 1861 in both the North and the South, avoided taking any position on slavery.  

Slavery and other regional issues divided the country as well as dividing many families. Although two-thirds of the 150,000 American Jews were recent immigrants, just like all Americans, they suffered through the heart wrenching process of seeing brother fight brother, of having to raise arms against their former nation, or against their state. It was not an easy time for any American.  

Brother v. Brother  

Many Southerners opposed secession, but once their state seceded, they were faced with a dilemma about what course of action to take. When war broke out many soldiers struggled with which side to take. Robert E. Lee had been serving in the United States Army, but when the Old Dominion seceded, he felt duty bound to follow his state. Some Southerners remained in the Union Army, while some Northerners, primarily from the border states, left the U.S. Army to fight for the Confederacy.  

Facing this same difficult decision, Jewish families were split just like many families were during this War. The War divided the Ochs family of Chattanooga, Tennessee. Julius Ochs, the father of Adolph Ochs who purchased and built the New York Times, joined the Union army, but his wife Bertha stayed loyal to the Confederacy and was once arrested for trying to smuggle quinine in a baby carriage to wounded Confederate soldiers. Bertha became a charter member of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, and when she died, she requested that a Confederate flag be draped over her coffin. Julius was buried beside her in a coffin draped with the American flag.  

The De Leon brothers of South Carolina were all in the trying position of deciding whether to fight against their state, or their former country. David Camden De Leon served as a doctor in the Mexican War, and accumulated a distinguished record. Despite having no martial training, when all of the American officers were killed in a furious battle, De Leon took the responsibility of leading the men. He turned an almost certain defeat into a victory, earning the nickname of "Fighting Doctor."  

Divided Loyalties  

When South Carolina seceded he wrote to his brother Edwin about his divided loyalties: "Treason and patriotism are next door neighbors and only accident makes you strike the right knocker. Revolution is treason, even if right, if unsuccessful...A Southern Confederacy seems as near a fact as human foresight can divine in the future. The wire pullers have fixed their line so that the electricity has been infused into the masses. Interest has been superseded by pseudo patriotism and they do not count the pecuniary loss, the loss of country, or the status we will occupy as separate confederacies; love of country is merged into unnatural hate of section...I have loved my country, I have fought under its flag, and every star and stripe is dear to me...But I am still convinced that no man can be a patriot who is afraid of being thought a traitor."  

When war broke out, De Leon decided he could not turn against the South. His former commander, General Winfleld Scott, offered him a post in the Northwestern frontier where he would not have to fight against his native state, but De Leon joined the Confederate forces, serving throughout the war, and at one point as Surgeon General. His older brother Edwin De Leon held the diplomatic post of Consul General for Egypt when the South seceded. Like his brother, he resigned his post. He then offered his diplomatic services to the Confederacy. Jefferson Davis appointed De Leon his personal representative and special adviser in Europe.  

The youngest brother, Thomas Cooper De Leon worked as a clerk in the bureau of typographical engineers in Washington. When South Carolina seceded he left Washington and enlisted in the Confederate army. He served throughout the war. De Leon moved in the highest elements of Southern society, and after the war wrote a book about it titled Belles, Beaux and Brains of the '60s.  

Tough Decision  

Another Jew who had to face this tough decision was Major Alfred Mordecai. A native of North Carolina born to German Jewish parents, Mordecai graduated first in his class from West Point as an engineer and ordnance expert. When Jefferson Davis was U.S. Secretary of War in the 1850s Mordecai was a trusted aide. When war broke out, Davis offered Mordecai the position of Chief of General Ordnance for the Confederacy. At the same time, political leaders in North Carolina asked Mordecai to become general of the state armies. He agonized over the decision, and after a period of deliberation decided he was unable to fight against his state, or against his nation, and decided to live as a civilian teacher of mathematics in Philadelphia.  


Jews contributed mightily to the war effort in financial matters. Uriah P. Levy offered Lincoln his entire fortune for the United States, and when the President refused, he bought Federal bonds with his money. Financiers like Joseph Seligman and August Belmont helped to obtain loans and sell bonds. President Lincoln recognized the service of such men, saying, "No class of citizenship in the United States was superior in patriotism to those of the Jewish faith."  

In the South, Judah Benjamin, who held a variety of posts in Davis' cabinet, spearheaded the effort to obtain European financing. Benjamin worked out a deal to obtain European credit with Emile Erlanger, the Jewish banker who headed the most distinguished banking house in France.  

Wealthy Jews aided the war on an individual scale offering their resources, and their economic wisdom. Jewish communities also aided the war effort through welfare societies, social organizations, and synagogues, as well as individuals, who all took active roles in war relief and patriotic activities.  

Women's Societies  

Jewish women's societies in all the major cities, such as New York, Philadelphia, Rochester, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Charlotte, and Mobile, met regularly in synagogue rooms, devoting much 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 events.  

Rabbis encouraged their congregations to participate in these activities. Rev. Sabato Morals of Mikveh Israel Congregation of Philadelphia preached in his synagogue on the necessity of organizing a women's war relief society: "While we dwell here securely, in the fruition of God's bounty, thousands of our fellow-beings are exposed to dangers and privations. They are the defenders of our Union. But even on the battlefield, where many lie wounded, and on their couch sickness, charity-the handmaid of religion-can soften their pangs. More I need not say in order to strike a sympathetic chord in Jewish hearts. But, as many a generous gift has been wasted, for want of a systematic distribution, I would urge the ladies of my persuasion to join hands with their sisters of a different creed in the discharge of a philanthropic task..."  

Overcrowded and Undermanned  

Hospitals were overcrowded and undermanned. They were desperate for volunteers, and many Jewish women answered this call. Phoebe Yates Pember of South Carolina, a fiery Jewish woman who moved to Richmond to be with her wounded husband, stayed to preside over a section of Chimborazo Hospital. She wrote defiantly in A Southern Woman's Story: "At last I lifted my voice and congratulated myself at being born of a nation and religion that did not enjoin forgiveness of its enemies, that enjoyed the privilege of praying for an eye for an eye."  

Jews were well aware of the demands of wartime. Their nation was divided. Their homes and farms were being burned and destroyed. Their husbands and sons were risking their lives. According to historian Bertram Korn, author of American Jewry and the Civil War: "No estimate can be made of the amount of contributions by Jewish groups and organizations to [charitable] societies because no systematic record was kept, but all indications point to the conclusion that the organized American Jewish community strove to the utmost to fulfill its duty in this time of need."  


Despite Lincoln's recognition of the Jewish financial help for the war, and the generosity that they exhibited in equal degree to their gentile countrymen, this was still the topic that anti-Semites chose to assail them with. Jews were criticized as speculators and thieves. They were charged with failing to be patriotic. Korn writes that the nation, both North and South experienced the "greatest outpouring of Judaeophobia in its history." Newspapers that had previously expressed little bias ran editorials calling Jews traitors and war profiteers. Some communities that had been free of anti-Semitism, looked to the Jewish community to find scapegoats for the hardships of war. And the most anti-Semitic governmental action in the history of the United States occurred during the Civil War when General Grant ordered the expulsion of Jews from the Department of Tennessee. General Order No. 11, issued on December 17th, 1862 stated: "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 (Tennessee, Mississippi and Kentucky) within 24 hours from the receipt of this order."  

Grant explained his reasoning behind the order to the War department: "The Israelites especially should be kept out...The Jews seem to be a privileged class that can travel anywhere...If not permitted to buy cotton themselves they will act as agents for someone else, who will be at a military post with a Treasury agent to receive cotton and pay for it in Treasury notes which the Jew will buy up at an agreed rate, paying gold." When Northern Jews called the obvious injustice of the order to the attention of Lincoln, he immediately rescinded it.  

Anti-Semitism in North  

Grant's order projected anti-Semitic feelings across the North. It made such sentiments more acceptable, allowing bigots to express their biases. Senator Henry Wilson said in a Senatorial debate on fiscal measures: "you will have every curbstone Jew broker and the class of men who fatten upon public calamity...using all their influence to depreciate the credit of the government." He described the issue of the nation's financial structure as "a contest between those curbstone brokers, the Jew brokers, the money changers, and the men who speculate in stocks, and the productive, toiling men of the country."  

Cesar Kaskel, from Paducah, Kentucky, was a friend and supporter of Lincoln. When he became aware of Grant's order, he went to Washington to discuss it with Lincoln, who promptly revoked it.  

It is possible that Jews were overrepresented in the smuggling trade. Many of them were after all small businessmen and peddlers. Rabbis seem to have felt that this was the case, as they frequently criticized the practice. Rabbi Jacob Peres wrote from Memphis to Isaac Leeser, that more than twenty Jews had been jailed in Memphis for smuggling. Peres called such activity a "profanation of the name of God." It is likely that while Jews may have been overrepresented in the number of smugglers, they were conducting small operations, while the military was protecting much larger ones.  

Hertzberg writes: "it is beyond doubt that some Jewish fortunes and many more Gentile ones have roots in profits that were made in smuggling during the Civil War."  


During wartime, anti-Semitism emerged in the South where there had been virtually none before. When prices went up due to the Northern blockade, Jews, as shop-keepers, were often blamed. In the climate of suffering, with a lack of food and clothing, as well as an atmosphere where speculators seemed to thrive, Jews often became the scapegoats. As the impact of the war unsettled the economy even further, the atmosphere for Jews grew increasingly worse. Southern Punch magazine vented its rage against the Jews: "Who are our capitalists at the present time?...The dirty greasy Jew peddlar [sic], who might be seen, with a pack on his back, a year or two since, bowing and cringing even to Negro servants, now struts by with the air of a millionaire."  
German Jews, considered foreigners, were accused of avoiding conscription and suspected of harboring anti-Slavery sentiments. The Richmond Examiner editorialized: "While many of our people have been dragged from their homes and frequently from sick and needy families by the inexorable demands of conscription, thousands of Jews...have gone scot-free simply for the virtue of denying their allegiance to the country in which some of them were born and which many of them by the plainest acts have pretended to  
adopt...They have flocked here as vultures and birds of passage. One has but to walk through the streets and stores of Richmond to get an impression of the vast number of unkempt Israelites in our marts...Every auction room is packed with greasy Jews...Let one observe the number of wheezing Jewish matrons...elbowing out of their way soldiers' families and the most respectable people in the community."  
When an outraged Colonel Adolphus Adler, a regimental commander and native Richmondite, challenged the newspapers editor to a duel, he immediately printed a retraction.  
Benjamin As Archenemy  
Such prejudices were not limited to the beleaguered South, which was fighting a defensive war. From New England to California newspapers published anti-Semitic editorials. Judah Benjamin, the Jewish politician who served in several of the Confederacy's cabinet posts, was held up as the archenemy seeking to destroy the Union. In the South, political opponents seized on his religion as a way to criticize him. Northern papers accused Jews of pro-slavery sympathies as well as smuggling and trading with the enemy.  
There is no question that war time profiteering was rife, however there is little evidence that Jews were the primary culprits. In fact, at the time of Grant's order, many officers in the military were pursuing get-rich-quick schemes. Charles Dana of the New York Tribune wrote: "Every colonel, captain or quartermaster is in secret partnership with some operator in cotton, every soldier dreams of adding a bale of cotton to his monthly pay."  
The existence of such anti-Semitism did not disillusion Jews in what for many was their newly adopted country. Jews across both nations exhibited patriotism in levels at least as high as their Gentile countrymen.  
Several times during each year of the conflict Lincoln and Davis called upon the people to attend special services on Days of Humiliation and Prayer and on Thanksgiving Days to seek divine blessing for their respective armies. Korn writes: "The synagogues of both sections cooperated fully in this religio-patriotic activity. Wherever there were Jewish congregations-in Peoria, New Haven, Syracuse, Rochester, Easton, Memphis, Richmond, to name  
only a few-the Jews gathered together to pray for the success of the cause and the end of hostilities. Special penitential prayers were chanted and inspirational sermons were delivered by the rabbis."  
Jews were eager to display their patriotism and follow the instructions on the Days of Prayer. The Jewish Messenger of New York, edited by S.M. Isaacs stated: "By no class of people will this recommendation of the President be more faithfully acceded to, than to those whom we are particularly addressing. To no body of citizens has the Union been more prolific of good, of blessing untold, than to us; and by none is its present afflicted condition more deeply, earnestly deplored than by the Israelites of America. It is but natural, then, that a day set apart for national prayer should be observed with a due sense of its import, and that thereon should ascend to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, fervent aspirations for the deliverance of this hitherto most favored land from the evils surrounding it, and its speedy restoration to its wanted tranquility and prosperity."  
Loyal Citizens  
The Messenger generally avoided political discussion, but when it came to secession it could not remain silent. It editorialized: "We are not citizens of the North or of the South, we are not Republicans or Democrats, but loyal citizens of that great republic which has ever extended a welcome to the oppressed and has ever protected Israel...Stand by the flag!...whether native or foreign born, Christian or Israelite, stand by it, and you are doing your duty, and acting well your part on the side of liberty and justice."  
While this editorial may have met with approval in the North, it certainly was not well received by all Jews. In the South, Jews also felt patriotic sentiments, but instead of expressing their loyalty to Lincoln and the stars and stripes, they were devoted to Davis and the stars and bars. The congregation in Shreveport, Louisiana responded to the editorial: "We, the Hebrew congregation of Shreveport, scorn and repel your advice, although we might be called Southern rebels; still, as law-abiding citizens, we solemnly pledge ourselves to stand by, protect, and honor the flag, with its stars and stripes, and [the] constitution of the Southern Confederacy with our lives, liberty, and all that is dear to us."

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