Jewish Confederates

The Jewish people have endured much throughout their long history, yet have always continued to hold on to their religious and cultural identity. Finding a safe harbor from persecution was perhaps the main justification for the formation of the State of Israel in 1948. Yet before this monumental event, amidst the often tumultuous sea of the diaspora, there did briefly exist another corner of the world in which calm waters were found for the Jewish people. Robert N. Rosen tells us in his book The Jewish Confederates that “the Old South was remarkably free of prejudice against Jews.”[1] Though there were less than 25,000 Jewish people living in the South, they enjoyed comparatively unprecedented freedom and exercised considerable influence. “Numerous Southern Jews served in state legislatures, city councils, and in other positions of authority” including three Jewish members of congress before the war. This is not to say antisemitism did not exist in the Old South, but, according to Rabbi Bertram Korn “Nowhere else in America – certainly not in the Antebellum North – had Jews been accorded such an opportunity to be complete equals as in the old South.”[2] Historian  Howard Sachar affirms:

For Southern Jews, loyalty to the Confederacy often was a matter of intense personal gratitude. Nowhere else in America had they experienced such fullness of opportunity or achieved comparable political and social acceptance.[3]

Adj. Gen. Samuel Cooper estimated that between 10,000 and 12,000 Jewish soldiers served in the Confederate Army, though this number is probably inflated by including some Germans.[4] A more accurate estimate most likely puts the number of Jewish servicemen at around 2,000.[5] These men served for the same reasons as their Christian compatriots. As Moses Jacob Ezekiel, a cadet at Virginia’s Military Institute, stated, “We were not fighting for the perpetuation of slavery, but for the principle of States Rights and Free Trade, and in defense of our homes which were being ruthlessly invaded.”[6]

Joseph Goldsmith, a resident of Richmond, made this observation after the war:

I am still a living witness and can, from my own memory, give you many names of gallant Jewish soldiers of the confederate Army. I had ample opportunity to see and to know. Many a wounded Jew have I met in the hospitals of Richmond and administered to his wants, and many a Jewish soldier have I seen walking on his crutch or having his arm in a sling, traveling to and from his command during the war. And I know further that it was simply a sense of loyalty to their homes and their neighbors that prompted them to fight for the South. If not, they could readily have left this country at any time as I myself could have done, had I so chosen. But love for our adopted country kept us here and we offered all we had in its behalf.[7]

One of the most important officials in the Confederate government was Judah P. Benjamin who, after leaving his position as a state senator of Louisiana, served as Attorney General, Secretary of War, and Secretary of State during the war. His fervor for the Confederacy is clearly evident in his farewell speech from the U.S. Senate:

What may be the fate of this horrible contest none can foretell; but this much I will say . . . you may carry desolation into our peaceful land, and with torch and firebrand may set our cities in flames . . . but you never can subjugate us; you never can convert the free sons of the soil into vassals, paying tribute to your power; you never can degrade them to a servile and inferior race. Never! Never![8]

Gen. Robert E. Lee consistently permitted Jewish soldiers to observe their holy days. In a correspondence from 1864 Lee made the statement, “I will gladly do all in my power to facilitate the observance of the duties of their religion by the Israelites in the army, and will allow them every indulgence consistent with safety and discipline.”[9] When a captain under Lee’s command disapproved of a Jewish soldier leaving to go to a synagogue in Richmond, Lee reversed the command and instructed the captain to “always respect the religious views and feelings of others.”[10]

Contrast this with Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s General Order Number 11 which ordered that all Jews in areas under Union control in Kentucky, Tennessee and Mississippi be expelled within 24 hours of the order. The order reasoned that: “The Jews, as a class [are] violating every regulation of trade established by the Treasury Department.” Abraham Lincoln reversed this order less than a month after it was given.

In contrasting the Northern and Southern treatment of Jewish people, historian Leslie R. Tucker states:

The first known Jew in Boston was “warned out” in the 1640s. They flourished in Charleston but were not allowed to live in liberal Boston. . . As the war approached, the Boston Evening Transcript “blamed secession on the Southern Jews.” The New York Times referred to Senators Benjamin and Yulee as “president and vice president of a Southern Jerusalem.”[11]

A few years ago, I had the privilege of visiting the Skirball (Jewish) Cultural Center near Los Angeles, California. While there I noticed an exhibit focusing on Jewish involvement and treatment during the Civil War. Not surprisingly, General Order Number 11 was portrayed as an example of typical racial attitudes for the time while Lincoln’s revocation of the order was hailed as a monumental progressive accomplishment. What was missing from the exhibit was the Confederacy. It was as if that portion of Jewish history had been erased. When I asked a docent why this was the case she told me that at one time there was a whole section on Judah P. Benjamin, but things had to be “moved around.” I knew what that meant. Someone likely complained. Not only has Confederate history been whitewashed but so has Jewish history.

We must ask ourselves the question, “Are we going to allow political correctness to surgically remove significant aspects of Jewish history from the social record?” Will we forget major contributions made by Jewish Americans simply because they wore the gray?  Let our words like Judah P. Benjamin’s be, “Never! Never!”

 

Bertram W. Korn. “The Jews of the Confederacy.” American Jewish Archives, April 1961.

Ezekiel, H.T., and G. Lichtenstein. The History of the Jews of Richmond from 1769 to 1917. H. T. Ezekiel, 1917.

Ferris, M.C., and M.I. Greenberg. Jewish Roots in Southern Soil: A New History. Brandeis Series in American Jewish History, Culture, and Life. Brandeis University Press, 2006.

Guernsey, A.H., and H.M. Alden. Harper’s Pictorial History of the Great Rebellion. Harper’s Pictorial History of the Great Rebellion, pt. 1. McDonnell Bros., 1866.

Rosen, R.N. The Jewish Confederates. University of South Carolina Press, 2000.

Sachar, H.M. A History of the Jews in America. Vintage Books, 1993.

Tucker, L.R. Magnolias and Cornbread: An Outline of Southern History for Unreconstructed Southerners. iUniverse, 2010.

 

[1] Rosen, R.N. The Jewish Confederates. (University of South Carolina Press, 2000). 34.

[2] Bertram W. Korn. “The Jews of the Confederacy.” American Jewish Archives, April 1961. 4.

[3] Sachar, H.M. A History of the Jews in America. (Vintage Books, 1993). 72.

[4] Rosen, R.N. The Jewish Confederates. (University of South Carolina Press, 2000). 161.

[5] Ferris, M.C., and M.I. Greenberg. Jewish Roots in Southern Soil: A New History. Brandeis Series in American Jewish History, Culture, and Life. (Brandeis University Press, 2006). 118.

[6]  Rosen, R.N. The Jewish Confederates. (University of South Carolina Press, 2000). 161.

[7]  Ezekiel, H.T., and G. Lichtenstein. The History of the Jews of Richmond from 1769 to 1917. (H. T. Ezekiel, 1917). 164.

[8] Guernsey, A.H., and H.M. Alden. Harper’s Pictorial History of the Great Rebellion. Harper’s Pictorial History of the Great Rebellion, pt. 1. (McDonnell Bros., 1866). 32.

[9] Ezekiel, H.T., and G. Lichtenstein. The History of the Jews.168.

[10] Ibid., 164-165.

[11] Tucker, L.R. Magnolias and Cornbread: An Outline of Southern History for Unreconstructed Southerners. (iUniverse, 2010). 163.

 

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