Jews and the Civ­il War: A Reader

Jonathan D. Sar­na & Adam Mendel­sohn, eds.

  • Review
By – August 31, 2011

I pre­dict that Jews and the Civ­il War: A Read­er will very quick­ly become one of the defin­i­tive schol­ar­ly texts on the Jew­ish role in the Civ­il War. Any one of the sev­en­teen arti­cles could stand alone as a fas­ci­nat­ing socio­cul­tur­al his­to­ry of the peri­od. The arti­cles are orga­nized around sev­en themes; Jews and Slav­ery,” Jews and Abo­li­tion,” Rab­bis and the March to War,” Jew­ish Sol­diers dur­ing the Civ­il War,” The Home Front,” Jews as a Class,” and After­math.” The impor­tant role Jew­ish women played in the Civ­il War peri­od is the focus of sev­er­al of the articles.

On one lev­el, the book is a source of fas­ci­nat­ing and lit­tle known facts about the role of Jews in the peri­od. For exam­ple, Eli N. Evans, in his Overview: The War between Jew­ish Broth­ers in Amer­i­ca,” describes how Pres­i­dent Lin­coln selects one of his clos­est con­fi­dants” as his emis­sary to explore peace talks after Get­tys­burg and the fall of Vicks­burg.” That emis­sary was Isachar Zaharie, his Jew­ish chi­ropodist.” This may sound strange, but Zaharie, a Jew­ish Eng­lish immi­grant, was used to cross­ing social and region­al lines because he treat­ed the feet of both Union offi­cials and Con­fed­er­ate high­erups and had already been involved in send­ing impor­tant infor­ma­tion about the South back to Lin­coln. In turn, Con­fed­er­a­cy Pres­i­dent, Jef­fer­son Davis, sent his right-hand man” to rep­re­sent the South. The Con­fed­er­ate emis­sary was Judah P. Ben­jamin. Ben­jamin was also Jew­ish and after Seces­sion, served as the Attor­ney Gen­er­al of the Con­fed­er­a­cy and moved on to become the Confederacy’s Sec­re­tary of War. He lat­er went on to be a Unit­ed State Sen­a­tor rep­re­sent­ing the state of Louisiana.

Accord­ing to Evans, there were approx­i­mate­ly twelve hun­dred Jews who served in the Con­fed­er­a­cy includ­ing twen­ty-four army offi­cers and eleven navy offi­cers. In the North, 6,000 Jews served in the Union Army, among them were six­teen offi­cers includ­ing two Union Army Jew­ish brigadier gen­er­als — Edward Solomon and Fred­er­ick Kne­fler. There were also Jew­ish spies for both sides and fam­i­lies were often split by dif­fer­ent region­al alle­giances. Evans described the con­flict­ing alle­giances in the Ochs fam­i­ly of Chat­tanooga, Ten­jew­nessee. The father, Julius Ochs, joined the Union Army. His wife, Bertha, on the oth­er hand, was a staunch sup­port­er of the Con­fed­er­a­cy and was once arrest­ed for try­ing to smug­gle qui­nine in a baby car­riage to wound­ed Con­fed­er­ate sol­diers.” Before her death, Bertha request­ed a Con­fed­er­ate flag be put in her cof­fin. Julius was buried next to her in a cof­fin draped with the Stars and Stripes. The Ochs couple’s son was Adolph, who ulti­mate­ly bought and built the news­pa­per The New York Times.

Jews and the Civ­il War is much more than a com­pi­la­tion of lit­tle known facts. It is a schol­ar­ly analy­sis of Amer­i­can and Jew­ish his­to­ry. Each arti­cle is assid­u­ous­ly researched and fol­lowed by detailed end­notes iden­ti­fy­ing the source of the infor­ma­tion. This puts the book on the same lev­el as that land­mark study of Jews in the Civ­il War by Bertram Korn in 1951. Pri­or to Korn’s work, Mendel­sohn reports, many accounts of Jew­ish his­to­ry in the Unit­ed States were often writ­ten by ama­teur his­to­ri­ans” who pre­sent­ed over­ly lauda­to­ry accounts of Jew­ish achieve­ments intend­ed to coun­ter­act anti-Semit­ic depic­tions of Jews as cow­ards, and unpa­tri­ot­ic. Korn’s work changed that approach. Korn’s arti­cles, Jews and Negro Slav­ery in the Old South, 17891865” and Jew­ish Chap­lains dur­ing the Civ­il War” are includ­ed in this read­er. They are objec­tive and intrigu­ing his­tor­i­cal records of Jews as planters, own­ers, and traders and eman­ci­pa­tors of their slaves and war chaplains.

Many of the arti­cles cap­ture the eter­nal pre­car­i­ous­ness of the Jew­ish expe­ri­ence. Sey­mour Drescher’s arti­cle, Jews and New Chris­tians in the Atlantic Slave Trade,” debunks the notion that Jews were major play­ers in the slave trade. In his dis­cus­sion of the socio-his­tor­i­cal con­text for Jew­ish involve­ment in the slave trade, Dresch­er details the impact of the Inqui­si­tion on Jew­ish life. Span­ish Jews, includ­ing those who con­vert­ed to Chris­tian­i­ty, were nev­er safe. For exam­ple, in 1492, when the New Chris­tians fled to Por­tu­gal to escape the Inqui­si­tion, the Span­ish king ordered the abduc­tion of two thou­sand of their chil­dren. The chil­dren were bap­tized and deport­ed to the African island São Tomé, where most of them per­ished. Africa, as described by Dresch­er was soon to be coined the white man’s grave” when actu­al­ly it was first a white child’s grave” or more accu­rate­ly a Jew­ish child’s grave­yard. Some of the Sephardic Jews sought refuge in North and South America.

But Jew­ish life in Amer­i­ca could also be pre­car­i­ous. Sev­er­al arti­cles ana­lyze what John Simon called That Obnox­ious Order” which referred to Order No. 11” issued by Gen­er­al Ulysses S. Grant in 1862 expelling all Jews from the Ten­nessee Depart­ment, which includ­ed parts of Ten­nessee, Mis­sis­sip­pi, Ken­tucky, and Illi­nois. They had twen­ty-four hours to leave, accord­ing to Evans. Grant charged them with being prof­i­teers from manip­u­la­tions of cot­ton sales and there­by vic­tim­iz­ing North­ern­ers. His view was shared by Gen­er­al William Sher­man who com­plained of swarms of Jews and spec­u­la­tors’” despite the fact that many in their com­mu­ni­ty had lived in Ten­nessee for decades and includ­ed for­mer Union sol­diers. The order was rescind­ed by Pres­i­dent Lin­coln after a con­tin­gent of promi­nent Jews went to Lin­coln and informed him of the unfair­ness of the order.

I rec­om­mend this book to all read­ers who enjoy Jew­ish his­to­ry. Many of the arti­cles can eas­i­ly serve as spring­boards for teach­ers of Amer­i­can and Jew­ish his­to­ry who want to pro­vide arti­cles depict­ing the Civ­il War through mem­oirs, let­ters, diaries, rab­bini­cal talks, and pop­u­lar mag­a­zines as well as tra­di­tion­al his­tor­i­cal sources. End­notes, illus­tra­tions, index, rec­om­mend­ed read­ings list.

Car­ol Poll, Ph.D., is the retired Chair of the Social Sci­ences Depart­ment and Pro­fes­sor of Soci­ol­o­gy at the Fash­ion Insti­tute of Tech­nol­o­gy of the State Uni­ver­si­ty of New York. Her areas of inter­est include the soci­ol­o­gy of race and eth­nic rela­tions, the soci­ol­o­gy of mar­riage, fam­i­ly and gen­der roles and the soci­ol­o­gy of Jews.

Discussion Questions