Home  Principles & Statements  Positions of the ACJ  Articles  DonationsAbout Us  Contact Us  Links                                         

Commemorating Jewish Soldiers in Blue and Gray on the Civil War’s 150th Anniversary

Allan C. Brownfeld
Spring - Summer 2011

April 12 marked the 150th anniversary of the firing on Ft. Sumter, the opening shot of the Civil War. From that time through the anniversary on April 9, 2015 of Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Court House and five days later of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, every major event will be recounted and re-enacted.  
The role played by American Jews in the Civil War is also being celebrated. Jews took part in the Civil War in greater numbers than their percentage of the American population in the 1860s would have warranted. Approximately 7,000 Jews fought for the North, while 3,000 served in the Confeder-ate Army — out of an estimated national population of 150,000. A film produced by Jonathan Gruber and Robert Marcus, “Jewish Soldiers in Blue and Gray: Faith Under Fire in the American Civil War,” was released for this anniversary, and premiered at New York’s Lincoln Center.  
The program for the screening of the film by the Virginia Historical Society in Richmond in May declares: “In 1864, Robert E. Lee wrote, ‘I shall do all in my power to facilitate the observance … of their religion,’ in reply to a letter from Rabbi Maximilian Michelbacher of Richmond’s Congregation Beth Ahabah. The correspondence is part of the collection of rare photographs, artifacts and documents featured in the film … Highlights include stories of Judah P. Benjamin, appointed to three Confederate cabinet positions — Attorney General, Secretary of War and Secretary of State, the inspiring Phoebe Yates Pember, matron of Chimborazo Hospital; Moses Ezekiel, a young Virginia Military Institute cadet who fought at the Battle of New Market, later becoming a world-renowned sculptor whose work includes the statue of Thomas Jefferson at the Rotunda of the University of Virginia; and the 10,000 Jews who fought in the Confederate and Union Armies, five of whom were awarded the Medal of Honor.”  
Jews and the Civil War  
An important book, Jews and the Civil War (New York University Press), edited by Jonathan D. Sarna, Professor of American Jewish History at Brandeis University, and Adam Mendelsohn, Director of the Center for Southern Jewish Culture at the College of Charleston, was published at the same time.  
Individual stories of heroism, of families divided, of rabbis debating the question of slavery, of Jewish abolitionists fighting with John Brown, as well as Jewish slave traders, shows the variety of Jewish experience in these years and the very close association Jews had with the regions in which they lived.  
In a series of thoughtful essays, the many aspects of Jewish involvement in the war are explored.  
Eli Evans notes that, “In the South, Jews even organized two Jewish companies — at West Point, Georgia, in the first month of the war, and at Macon, Georgia in 1862, for the stated purpose of the defense of Savannah. Jewish companies were also organized in the North — in Chicago and Syracuse. However, most Jews, Northern and Southern, were reluctant to separate themselves as Jews and chose to enlist in regular army units.”  
Joining the Confederate Army  
In Charleston, 180 Jews joined the Confederate Army. M.C. Mordecai’s steamer Isabel was outfit-ted into a blockade runner. In Montgomery, Alabama, Meyer Lehman was cut off from his brother Emanuel in New York City, but because the Lehman family was so trusted by the Governor of Alabama, Emanuel was sent to England to raise funds for the Confederacy. Mayer named his eighth child after his friend Hillary Herbert, Confederate colonel and congressman from Alabama. Herbert Lehman, many years later, would become Governor and U.S. Senator from New York.  
In Chattanooga, Tennessee, the war split the Ochs family. Julius Ochs, the father of Adolph Ochs, who would ultimately buy and build The New York Times, joined the Union Army, but his wife Bertha remained loyal to the Confederacy and was once arrested for trying to smuggle quinine in a baby carriage to wounded Confederate soldiers. Bertha was a charter member of the Chattanooga Chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, and when she died she requested a Confederate flag be placed on her coffin. Julius was buried next to her in a coffin draped with the Stars and Stripes.  
Max Frauenthal, from Port Gibson, Mississippi, served as a member of the l6th Mississippi Infantry and distinguished himself at Bloody Acute Angle during the Battle of Spottsylvania Court House in Virginia. A veteran from the company remembered Frauenthal as “a little Jew who, though insignifi-cant, had the heart of a lion in battle. For several hours, he stood at the immediate point of contact amid the most terrific hail of lead, and coolly and deliberately loaded and fired without cringing … I now understand how it was that a handful of Jews could drive before them a hundred kings — they were all Fronthals.”  
Congressional Medal of Honor  
Simon Wolf tracked down the stories of six Jewish soldiers of the Union Army who received the first Congressional Medal of Honor, created by President Lincoln “to reward non-commissioned officers and privates as shall most distinguish themselves by their gallantry in action.” Pvt. Abraham Cohen of the 78th New York Regiment rose in the ranks to be a sergeant major and won the Congres-sional Medal “for conspicuous gallantry displayed at the Battle of the Wilderness, in rallying and forming, under heavy fire, disorganized troops.” Sgt. Leopold Karpeles was born in Prague and in l850, at the age of 12, came to the U.S. to live with his brother in Texas. He joined the Union Army at Springfield, Massachusetts and received the Congressional Medal “for rallying the men of the 57th Massachusetts Volunteers around the flag” in a major battle, “turning retreat into victory.”  
The two highest ranking Jews in the Union Army were Brigadier Generals Edward Solomon and Frederick Knefler. As a major, Solomon was instrumental in organizing the all-Jewish company for the new 82nd Illinois with a full complement of 96 men, supported by funds raised by the local community. Praising the patriotism of “our Israelite citizens,” the Chicago Tribune trumpeted “the rapidity with which the company was enlisted has not its equal in the history of recruiting … Can any town, city or state in the nation show an equally good two days’ work?” Solomon led his company through the battles of Chancellorsville and the three-day battle of Gettysburg. Looking back 30 years later, Major General Carl Schurz recalled: “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.”  
Judah Benjamin and Isachar Zacharie  
Eli Evans writes of the private meeting in 1863 in Richmond of Confederate leader Judah P. Benja-min and Isachar Zacharie, who was the closest Jewish friend of President Lincoln: “Lincoln had personally issued Zacharie a pass to cross Confederate lines to make an unofficial visit to explore peace talks after Gettysburg and the fall of Vicksburg and had sent one of his closest confidants on the mission. The two Jews closest to their respective presidents met for the discussions, and subsequently with other members of the Confederate Cabinet as well … Zacharie was also able to befriend and help Jewish visitors from the North who had been unable to return home from New Orleans after the Union capture of the city, as well as numerous concerned Southern Jewish families who had relatives there now living under Union rule. Among them had been the sister of Judah Benjamin for whom General Banks had arranged safe passage out of the city. One of Zacharie’s missions to Richmond was to obtain the South’s approval to allow Banks to discuss possible peace negotiations, and Zacharie wrote back to General Banks, ‘Benjamin … spoke of you in the kindest manner and said…he was under obligation to you for your kindness toward his sister.”  
Robert Rosen, author of “Jewish Confederates,” notes that, “There were dozens of Jewish officers in the Confederate service, including the quartermaster general of the Confederate Army, Col. Abraham Charles Myers, the great-grandson of the first rabbi of K.K. Beth Elohim in Charleston. After graduating from West Point, Myers became a career army officer and served in the Second Seminole and Mexican Wars. Fort Myers, Florida was named in his honor by his father-in-law General David Emanuel Twiggs.”  
Fiercest Battles  
Adolph Proskauer of Mobile was among the few Jewish immigrants who became a high ranking Confederate officer. Captain Proskauer participated in some of the fiercest battles of the war, such as the Siege of Yorktown in the late spring of 1862. He also helped lead the l2th Alabama at the Battle of Seven Pines, where it made “a gallant charge…into the very jaws of death.” Proskauer and his regiment marched north in Lee’s Maryland campaign as part of Rodes’s brigade. He was in combat at the Battle of South Mountain and Sharpsburg (Antietam), where he was wounded.  
On Sept. 17, 1862, the single bloodiest day in the Civil War, Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia faced George S. McClellan’s Army of the Potomac; 4,710 men were killed; 18,440 were wounded. Proskauer was shot in the abdomen during intense fighting along the Sunken Road, later called the “Bloody Lane.” He recuperated and later returned to his company at Orange Court House, Virginia. Proskauer was also at the Battle of Chancellorsville in May 1863, when the 12th fought as part of Stonewall Jackson’s famous flanking attack on Major General Hooker’s Union Army. Proskauer led the regiment as Col. Pickens assumed leadership of a portion of the brigade after the commander was wounded. Wounded in battle. Proskauer was promoted to major by Col. Pickens while he was in the hospital, and his promotion was later confirmed by the Confederate Congress in 1864.  
Some in the military had divided loyalties. One interesting case is that of Major Alfred Mordecai. Stanley Falk writes that, “When Confederate batteries opened fire on beleaguered Ft. Sumter … Major Alfred Mordecai, a senior officer in the Ordnance Department, U.S. Army, was testing artillery carriages at Ft. Monroe, Virginia. He immediately hurried back to his post as commanding officer at Watervliet Arsenal, a major ordnance installation located just outside Troy, New York. Like many other Americans, he found himself faced with the problem of divided loyalties.”  
Distinguished Army Scientist  
Major Mordecai was a distinguished army scientist who had made great contributions in weapons development and ballistics during a military career that spanned more than four decades. Born in North Carolina in 1904, he had entered the U.S. Military Academy in 1819. After graduating at the top of his class, he held a number of important positions and commands. In April, 1861 he was at the height of his career. Along with many of his fellow Army officers, Mordecai was forced by the advent of the Civil War to make a most difficult choice.  
He desired the preservation of the Union and saw “no hope for the country if divided” and looked upon slavery “as the greatest misfortune and curse that could have befallen us.” Mordecai’s Southern relatives had been slaveholders at least as far back as he could remember. His brother George, a wealthy Raleigh businessman, owned about 100 slaves.  
There were efforts to bring him South. North Carolina’s Governor John W. Ellis offered him “a good position and a good salary” if he would resign from the Army and take on “the work of putting North Carolina on a war footing.” There was also talk in Virginia of asking Mordecai to head an Ordnance Corps in a new state military organization. Col. William Hardee of the new Confederate Army, a former U.S. cavalry officer and a good friend of Mordecai’s, wrote to extend an offer from President Jefferson Davis. Davis, who had known and respected Mordecai for many years, did not want to “seduce any officer from his allegiance,” but he believed that Mordecai was “a true Southerner in his feelings,” and might prefer service in the Army of the Confederate States. In the end, Mordecai resigned from the U.S. Army and was determined to “avoid all connection with military affairs.” He and his family lived quietly in Philadelphia during the war years. He turned to teaching to support himself, but the bulk of the family income came from a school run by his three daughters.  
Debate Over Slavery  
Of particular interest is the heated debate within the Jewish community about the question of slavery. In the South, writes Bertram Korn, there was “a pattern of almost complete conformity to the slave society … Jewish citizens participated in the buying, owning and selling of slaves and the exploitation of their labor, along with their neighbors … No Jewish political figure of the Old South ever expressed any reservation about the justice of slavery or the rightness of the Southern position.”  
Discussing Jewish abolitionists in the North, Jayme A. Sokolow writes that, “With one exception all of the Jewish abolitionists were Reform Jewish émigrés.” Some of them had “fled to America because they had participated in the l848 revolutions…the general principles of equality, rather than the peculiar situation of the Jews, was consistently invoked by protagonists of emancipation. This was the attitude that the émigrés who became abolitionists would take to America.”  
Probably the most dramatic and adventurous abolitionist was August Bondi. When the March 1848 Vienna revolution occurred, August had been in the Academic Gymnasium for 5 years and was accepted into the Students Legion at age l4. After the revolution, his family prudently left Austria and moved to St. Louis where August quickly became involved in anti-slavery rallies and activities. He migrated to frontier Kansas to start a farm and soon afterwards fought with John Brown in Kansas and participated in the battles of Black Jack and Osawatomie with two other Jewish immigrants, Theodore Wiener and Jacob Benjamin. When the Civil War began, Bondi enlisted in the Union Army and served with distinction and was wounded in 1864.  
Fighting Slavery in Missouri  
Isidor Busch’s greatest contribution, notes Sokolow, to the anti-slavery cause “came at the Missouri state convention held between 1861 and 1863 to decide whether the state should remain in the Union or join the Confederacy. He led the abolitionist forces at the convention and consistently argued that the ‘the position of our national affairs, the preservation of the Union…imperatively demand speedy emancipation.’ His oratory and leadership were instrumental in keeping the state within the Union, and he helped develop the plan which freed Missouri slaves without compensating their masters.”  
When it came to rabbis, the voice of Morris Raphell of New York rang out louder than the rest. Speaking on the National Fast Day (Jan. 4, 1861) called by President James Buchanan to promote national unity, Rabbi Raphall, in a widely publicized address, concluded that even if Southern slaveholders had acted wrongly, slaveholding as such was “no sin,” for slave property was “expressly placed under the protection of the Ten Commandments.” He promoted a literal reading of selected biblical texts and sanctioned slavery.  
In response, a Reform rabbi, David Einhorn of Baltimore, published four articles in his journal Sinai against Rabbi Raphall. He wrote: “A Jew, a sapling of that stem which praises the Lord daily for deliverance out of the Egyptian yoke of slavery; undertook to defend slavery …’Alas for ears that hear such things.’ We are obliged to reject such words because they are ‘a profanation of God’s name.’” Einhorn, because of his vocal opposition to slavery, was forced to flee Baltimore.  
Reform Opposition to Slavery  
“Except for the Orthodox rabbi Sabato Morais of Philadelphia,” writes Jayme Sokolow, “there were no Orthodox Jews in the anti-slavery movement. Reform Judaism accentuated those elements of Biblical and even Talmudic Judaism that had universalistic elements and neglected or omitted conflicting notions that were no less a part of that tradition … For the Reformers, Judaism was now a confession of faith, and the Reform Jewish community was united by its adherence to an abstract body of teachings … In America, Reform Judaism rapidly captured the majority of American congregations … By the Civil War, most American Jews believed that their religion was a form of ethical monothe-ism capable of infinite development and expansion … and believed that Reform Judaism was in the vanguard of mankind’s progress toward a universal religion of humanity.”  
Rabbi David Einhorn summed up the new creed when he said that Reform Judaism believed in “one humanity, all of whose members, being of the same heavenly and earthly origin, possess a like nobility of birth and a claim to equal rights, equal laws, and in an equal share of happiness.”  
On Dec, 17, 1862, General Ulysses S. Grant issued what Bertram Korn called in his volume Ameri-can Jewry and The Civil War, “the most sweeping anti-Jewish regulation in all American history.” General Order No. 11 provided that “the Jews, as a class violating every regulation of trade established by the Treasury Department and also departmental orders, are hereby expelled from the department (of Tennessee) within 24 hours from the receipt of this order.”  
Arrival of Grant’s Father  
Both Generals Ulysses S. Grant and William Sherman considered all the speculators as leeches on the system, bringing in gold for cotton that would be convertible into arms. John Simon writes that, “The timing suggests that Grant’s rage was ignited by the arrival of his father in Mississippi to buy cotton for a Jewish firm in Cincinnati in return for one-quarter of the profits. Jesse Grant was no simpleton ensnared by crafty speculators. A shrewd and aggressive businessman, he rose from poverty to affluence through attention to business … Jesse’s attempts to use his paternity as a source of cotton profits was the last straw.”  
Cesar Kaskel of Paducah, Kentucky had seen 30 men, some with Union military service, and their families deported, without trial or hearings and hastened to Washington, D.C. to see President Lincoln. Congressman Gurley of Ohio organized an appointment with the President, and Kaskel brought affidavits from leading Republican Party members and military authorities. The following conversation is reported to have taken place:  
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 wrote a note to General-in-Chief of the Army, Henry W. Halleck, directing him to telegraph instructions canceling the order. He wished Kaskel well and told him that he was free to return home. When a delegation of rabbis and other Jewish leaders called on the president to thank him, Lincoln told them that he could not understand what compelled the general to issue it. “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.” In the words of Civil War historian Allan Nevins, “All honor to Lincoln.”  
Jewish Chaplains  
When it comes to the question of Jewish chaplains, in the Confederacy equality between Judaism and Christianity was recognized immediately upon the outbreak of hostilities. The acts providing for appointment of chaplains in the Confederate military merely stipulated that they should be “clergymen” with no denominational specifications. In the North, the original Volunteer Bill required that regimental chaplains be “regularly ordained ministers of some Christian denomination.” In July of 1862, Congress finally modified the chaplaincy requirements so that any “regularly ordained ministers of some religious denomination” might seek appointment as a chaplain. On Sept. l8, l862, the Rev. Jacob Frankel, minister of Rodeph Shalom Congregation of Philadelphia, became the first American rabbi to be appointed a military chaplain.  
In Eli Evans’s view, Lincoln’s immediate reversal of General Order No. 11 and the appointment of Jewish chaplains showed Jews that America’s “paper promises as the protector of minorities were real and concrete. The war itself had given Jews on both sides the opportunity to stand and fight with their neighbors … The Civil War had been a totally American battle without foreign troops or clash of foreign ideology — only brothers could fight. Bitter as that experience was for the nation, it enabled Jews in the North and South to taste the fire of American dissension and be welcomed by other Americans into the bosom of the nation.”  
Jews and the American Revolution  
The Jewish role in the Civil War was hardly new. Jews have been an intrinsic part of America from the voyage of Christopher Columbus to the 21st century. At the time of the American Revolution, almost the entire young adult Jewish male population of Charleston served in Capt. William Lushington’s company, which accordingly became known as the “Jew Company.” Col. Solomon Bush became Adjutant General of the Pennsylvania militia. Lt. Col. David S. Franks served as adjutant to Gen. Benedict Arnold. Dr. Philip Moses Russell, George Washington’s surgeon, endured the hardships of Valley Forge.  
During World War II, 550,000 Jews served in the armed forces, approximately 11% of the Jewish population. They suffered 35,000 casualties, including l0,000 deaths, and won 36,000 deocrations. Maj. Gen. Maurice Rose, son of a Denver rabbi, commanded the Third Armored Division in the Normandy invasion. He was subsequently killed in action. More recently, 37 Jewish service members have lost their lives in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.  
Lack of Interest in Civil War Anniversary  
Sadly, notes Professor Jonathan D. Sarna, “The American Jewish community … has expressed little interest in these commemorations (of the Civil War) … When I suggested a talk on the Civil War and the Jews in one setting, the organizers questioned the relevance of the whole topic. … Fifty years ago, for the Civil War centennial, the level of interest within the Jewish community seemed noticeably higher. New York’s Jewish Museum mounted a grand exhibit titled ‘The American Jew In The Civil War’ … it was the largest display of Jewish Civil War memorabilia ever held.”  
The focus of so much of the organized American Jewish community upon Israel and the idea repeatedly promoted by Zionists that Israel is the “homeland” of all Jews and that American Jews are, somehow, in “exile,” ignores the historical reality that the commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the Civil War so clearly illustrates. Jews have been an intrinsic part of American history from the very beginning of our country. They have never doubted their identities or loyalties, as this anniversary so clearly shows. •

< return to article list
© 2010 The American Council For Judaism.