Lib­er­ty Street: A Savan­nah Fam­i­ly, Its Gold­en Boy, and the Civ­il War

  • Review
By – May 21, 2024

After years of liv­ing in San Fran­cis­co, writer Jason K. Fried­man pur­chased an apart­ment in Savan­nah, Geor­gia to be near his fam­i­ly. Despite hav­ing grown up there, Fried­man had a com­pli­cat­ed rela­tion­ship with his home­town and knew sur­pris­ing­ly lit­tle about South­ern Jew­ish his­to­ry. When he fell for a charm­ing, run-down con­do locat­ed on the some­what iron­i­cal­ly named Lib­er­ty Street” in the city’s his­toric dis­trict, he was amused by the building’s des­ig­na­tion as the Solomon Cohen House,” which seemed incon­gru­ous with the more con­ven­tion­al South­ern sur­names dis­played on near­by his­toric homes. After he moved in, Fried­man opened a kitchen cab­i­net to find a short his­to­ry of the home’s orig­i­nal own­er, who was described as a wealthy slave own­er” with exten­sive busi­ness inter­ests,” as well as a bio of his son, Gratz Cohen, who enlist­ed in the CSA and was killed in the Bat­tle of Ben­tonville in the clos­ing months of the war.”

Intrigued by this brief descrip­tion, Fried­man did a deep dive into the archives to learn every­thing he could about the Cohen fam­i­ly and their life in nine­teenth-cen­tu­ry Savan­nah, which led him to uncov­er the larg­er sto­ry of the Jews in the region — some of whom, like Solomon Cohen, achieved great wealth and influ­ence in the Ante­bel­lum South. Solomon’s list of titles and accom­plish­ments is long: real estate devel­op­er, banker, US attor­ney, alder­man, post­mas­ter, state sen­a­tor, and founder of the Hebrew Benev­o­lent Soci­ety, among oth­ers. And the cat­a­log of Cohen fam­i­ly friends and rela­tions reads like a Who’s Who” of nine­teenth-cen­tu­ry Amer­i­can Jew­ry. Philadel­phi­an Rebec­ca Gratz, founder of sev­er­al phil­an­thropic orga­ni­za­tions, was the aunt and sur­ro­gate moth­er of Solomon’s accom­plished wife, Miri­am. Solomon and Miri­am were mar­ried by Isaac Leeser, the most impor­tant Ortho­dox rab­bi of his era. Solomon assist­ed cel­e­brat­ed Jew­ish nov­el­ist Grace Aguilar with the dis­tri­b­u­tion of her books in the South.

Solomon and Miriam’s son, the doomed Gratz Cohen, began life as a thought­ful, depres­sive lit­tle boy, who bore his soul in his jour­nals and in let­ters to a beloved aunt in Rich­mond. Con­sid­ered too sen­si­tive and effem­i­nate in his youth, Cohen wrote of his love and long­ing for his col­lege friends (he was the first Jew­ish stu­dent at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Vir­ginia) as well as for his slave, Louis. As a gay man, Fried­man rec­og­nizes and empathizes with Cohen — his self-loathing, his fear of not being man­ly enough and dis­ap­point­ing his father.

Cohen had a roman­tic view of the war. He dreamed of a man­ly death for a noble cause,” but he also des­per­ate­ly want­ed his rich father to help him avoid con­scrip­tion. Unspec­i­fied prob­lems with his feet, as well as oth­er vague Vic­to­ri­an mal­adies like tor­por of the liv­er,” kept him out of harm’s way for the first few years. How­ev­er, after the fall of Savan­nah, he was called up as a gen­er­al’s aide-de-camp, a plum and usu­al­ly safe assignment.

Though Lib­er­ty Street was pub­lished by a uni­ver­si­ty press, and Fried­man con­duct­ed exten­sive research, he is not by and large a his­to­ri­an. He brings a fic­tion writer’s sen­si­bil­i­ty to his sto­ry­telling, which results in a rich and sen­si­tive por­tray­al of Cohen fam­i­ly dynam­ics. Friedman’s book is also a mem­oir: we fol­low him as he jour­neys into Savannah’s past. The result is an engross­ing and thought­ful inves­ti­ga­tion of a slave-own­ing Jew­ish fam­i­ly in the Amer­i­can South, with all of its atten­dant con­tra­dic­tions, self-jus­ti­fi­ca­tions, and cog­ni­tive dissonances.

Lau­ren Gilbert is Direc­tor of Pub­lic Ser­vices at the Cen­ter for Jew­ish His­to­ry in New York City, where she man­ages the Lil­lian Gold­man Read­ing Room and Ack­man & Ziff Fam­i­ly Geneal­o­gy Insti­tute and arranges and mod­er­ates online book discussions.

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