Adam D. Mendelsohn is Director of the Pearlstine/Lipov Center for Southern Jewish Culture and Associate Professor of Jewish Studies at the College of Charleston. His most recent book, The Rag Race: How Jews Sewed Their Way to Success in America and the British Empire, is now available. He will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council’s Visiting Scribe series.
When historians describe their profession they often liken themselves to detectives. Although the comparison is flattering to historians – the mysteries we solve are rarely matters of life and death – our methods of evidence-gathering and deduction are closer to real life crime squads than the sleuthing done by most television gumshoes. We track down leads, corroborate and cross-reference, and sift endless quantities of evidence. We dream of the source that voluntarily confesses all of its secrets, but more often pry the truth loose by building a painstaking case.
And yet there are rare moments amidst the many, many hours spent in archives when we too experience the thrill of the chase, that exhilarating sense of excitement when the mysterious and unexpected is suddenly within reach.
For me, one such moment of serendipity came when investigating the roots of Jewish involvement in the modern garment industry. After months of focusing on the role of Jewish suppliers to the Union Army – many of the uniforms worn by soldiers in the first year of the Civil War were manufactured by Jewish firms – I switched my attention to the Confederacy. Some southern Jews featured among Confederate contractors, but these were mostly small bore. Since the Confederate States of America had little of the industrial capacity of the Union, it relied heavily on materiel imported from Europe. And cursory investigation revealed little evidence that any of the major European exporters had anything to do with Jews. I discounted one such firm, Isaac Campbell & Company, on the strength of its name. The firm, based in London, was one of the leading buyers of munitions for the Confederacy, and a major blockade runner to boot. It was much written-about by historians, in part because it almost certainly defrauded the CSA on a massive scale.
But for a serendipitous lead, I would have pursued my investigation into Isaac Campbell & Company no further. That is, until I discovered that the name atop the firm was perhaps intentionally chosen to mislead. One of the services supplied Dugald Forbes Campbell, a Scottish attorney who represented the firm, was to supply a name for the masthead that may have obscured the fact that Samuel and Saul Isaac, two Jewish brothers who had started in the boot-making business, were its owners and prime movers.
Suddenly the game was on! So many new leads to chase down. And a new quarry was in my sights. This is what historians live for.
Check back on Thursday to read more from Adam D. Mendelsohn.
Adam D. Mendelsohn is Associate Professor of History and Director of the Kaplan Centre for Jewish Studies at the University of Cape Town. He is the author of The Rag Race: How Jews Sewed Their Way to Success in America and the British Empire and co-editor of Jews and the Civil War: A Reader and Transnational Traditions: New Perspectives on American Jewish History.