I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? Fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer as a Christian is?
The Merchant of Venice (Act 3, Scene 1) / William Shakespeare
Abbeville author Dave Benner recently told the story of one of the South’s forgotten Jewish patriots, Judah P. Benjamin, the able statesman who first served Louisiana as its senator and then the Confederacy as its attorney general, secretary of war, and finally his greatest role as its secretary of state. Deeper within the files of Southern patriots, however, are the names of many thousands of other forgotten Jews, both great and small, who have served the South in numerous capacities over the past five centuries, as well as those who fought and died to first free America from British rule and then to defend the Confederacy against Northern aggression. The story of these sons and daughters of Abraham is one that also deserves to be told, as it is an important part of the South’s heritage and history.
Most history books tell us that the first Jewish settlers to arrive in North America were the twenty-three refugees . . . four men, six women and thirteen children, who, in September of 1654, sailed from Cape St. Anthony in Spanish Cuba aboard the tiny French barque “Ste. Catherine” and landed on Manhattan Island in the Dutch Colony of New Amsterdam. These who had fled from the Spanish Inquisition were a mixture of mainly Sephardic Jews who originally came from Spain and Portugal and a few Ashkenazic Jews from various German States. While the basic facts are substantially correct, like much of history which involves the South, the historians overlooked one vital detail . . . these Jews were not the first of their religion to settle in North America. That honor belongs Joachim Ganz, a metallurgist from Prague in Bohemia, who sailed with Sir Walter Raleigh in 1585 to the British colony Raleigh had founded on Roanoke Island in North Carolina. Since Ganz remained with the colony for over two years, he actually became the first Jewish settler . . . and it took place in the South, not in New York. The next Jew to arrive in the South occurred in 1695 when the Spanish-speaking interpreter of South Carolina’s colonial governor, John Archdale, settled in Charleston.
The most substantial group of Jewish settlers to North America during the early colonial period also arrived in the South . . . these were the forty-two men and women who landed in the British colony at Savannah, Georgia, aboard the schooner “William and Sarah” on July 11, 1733, only a month after the colony had been founded by Colonel James Oglethorpe. Among this group was the first physician to settle in America, a Sephardic Jew named Dr. Samuel Nuñes, who saved the lives of many in the Georgia Colony, and perhaps the entire Colony itself, during an early outbreak of yellow fever. The forty-two settlers, thirty-four Sephardic Jews and eight Ashkenazim, organized the first Jewish community in America two years later, which they named Kahal Kadosh Mickve Israel. The same year the congregation rented a house on Market Square (now Ellis Square) in Savannah to serve as America’s first synagogue. In 1742, however, Spanish troops from Florida attempted an invasion of Georgia and the Sephardic members of the congregation, all of whom had originally come from Spain and Portugal, feared that, if captured, they would be taken either to a Spanish colony in the Americas or back to Europe to stand trial before the Inquisition where they would first face the auto-da-fé, the Catholic Church’s court to test a prisoner’s Christian faith, and then most likely be burned at the stake. These Jews, therefore, all fled to Charleston in the neighboring British colony of South Carolina, with only the Minis and Sheftall families remaining in Savannah. The families that went to South Carolina from Georgia helped to form the nucleus of the large Jewish community that soon developed there, as well as helping to found Charleston’s Kahai Kadosh Beth Elohim Synagogue in 1749. During the latter half of the Eighteenth Century, the Jewish population of South Carolina continued to expand, and by 1800 there were some 2,000 Jews living in the Colony, mainly in Charleston which remained the center of Jewish life in North America until being surpassed by New Orleans about 1830.
In another area of the Colony, two wealthy London families which had been involved in sending the Jewish settlers to Savannah, the Salvadores and DaCostas, purchased 200,000 acres in the western part of South Carolina in 1748 which became known unofficially as “Jew’s Land.” Joseph Salvadore then purchased an additional 100,000 acres seven years later for £2,000 and in 1773, Joseph Salvadore’s nephew Francis acquired another 7,000 acres in the area and immigrated to the Colony to establish a plantation. The following year, Francis Salvadore became the first Jew in the thirteen American Colonies to be elected to public office as a member of the First South Carolina Provincial Congress. He was re-elected to the Second Congress as the clouds of the Revolutionary War were beginning to gather and was given several key assignments, including chairman of the Ways and Means Committee and membership on the select committee handling all matters relating to the Colony’s militia. On July 1, 1776, British Tory troops and their Cherokee Indian allies attacked South Carolina’s western frontier, and Salvadore joined the 300-man militia force headed by a neighboring plantation owner, Major Andrew Williamson, which had gathered to defend the area. The British force was driven off, but during the fighting, as Salvadore lay wounded, he was found and scalped by the Cherokees . . . thus becoming the first Jewish colonist to die in the American Revolution. In 1779, an entire Jewish infantry corps was raised in Charleston under General William Moultrie which saw action throughout the South, and took part in the final major battle of the War at Yorktown, Virginia.
Meanwhile, back in Savannah, the remaining Minis and Sheftall families were slowly being joined by other Jews from the German States, and Ashkenazic religious services were held regularly in the homes of Benjamin Sheftall and his son Mordecai just prior to the Revolutionary War. The Sheftalls remained the most influential Jewish family in Savannah, and several of them became Savannah’s leading business and civic leaders, as well as playing major roles in the coming conflict with Great Briton. The patriarch of the family, Benjamin Sheftall, was one of founders of the Union Society, the oldest charitable group in Georgia, and one son, Mordecai, became the second highest-ranking officer in the Continental Army as deputy commissary general for all the American troops in Georgia and South Carolina. There were also Jews who settled in other parts of Georgia snd had an impact on the state’s history, such as David Emanuel who in 1756 immigrated to an area above Savannah that would become Burke County in 1777. Just prior to the Revolutionary War, Emanuel was elected a justice of the peace and after serving in the Continental Army, he was elected to the State Assembly in 1783, became a member of the Constitutional Conventions of 1789 and 1795, was president of the State Senate in 1797, and was appointed governor of Georgia in 1801 . . . the first Jewish governor in America. Before the Revolutionary War, German Jews were also beginning to arrive in Virginia, and the third Jewish congregation in the South was established in Richmond in 1759. A little-known fact of history was that in 1783, two members of that congregation, Jacob Cohen and Isaiah Isaacs, employed frontiersman Daniel Boone to explore and charter vast tracts of land for settlement in the western part of Virginia, an area that was to become the Commonwealth of Kentucky a decade later.
At the beginning of the Eighteenth Century there were only two to three hundred Jews in all of North America, with most of those in the British Colonies of Georgia and South Carolina. By the start of the Nineteenth Century that number had increased ten-fold, and again the majority were in the Southern states, with Louisiana, Virginia, Alabama and Mississippi rapidly gaining on Georgia and South Carolina. Just prior to the War Between the States, there were almost 200,000 Jews in the United States, with about a third of them residing in Louisiana. It is estimated that during the War as many as 10,000 Jews served in the Confederate government and military, and a number of all-Jewish companies were raised in Georgia, Louisiana, North and South Carolina and Virginia. Six brothers named Cohen from North Carolina all enlisted in such a unit, and another North Carolinian, Albert Lurie Moses of Charlotte, became the first Jewish Confederate to die in battle. While there were no Jewish generals, several did rise to the rank of colonel . . . three of them from New Orleans alone, S. M. Hymans, Edwin Kunchedt and Ira Moses. The Jew who attained the highest military rank, however, was the person for whom Fort Meyers, Florida, was named, Col. Abraham Myers of Georgetown, South Carolina, a West Point graduate and classmate of General Robert E. Lee. Myers resigned his commission as lieutenant colonel in the U. S. Army in 1861 and was appointed quartermaster general of the Confederate Army. Another Jewish military figure who attained a similar rank was Dr. David C. DeLeon of Camden, South Carolina, who had gained the sobriquet of “the fighting doctor” while serving as a U. S. Army surgeon during the Mexican War. Like Col. Meyers, Dr. DeLeon also resigned his Union Army commission at the start of the War to serve the Confederacy, and was appointed as the Army’s first surgeon general by President Jefferson Davis.
Louis Schmier, the author of many books on Jews and the South, and a professor of history at Valdosta State University in Georgia, wrote . . . “Though Jews never comprised more than one per cent of the South’s population, few phases of the Southern experience and few places in the South escaped their influence.” While the Jewish immigrants to the North showed a desire to move from their initial places of residence, those in the South demonstrated a strong desire to put down roots where they had landed and unlike those in the North, the Southern Jews were more likely to become farmers, planters and local entrepreneurs. Furthermore, while it would be disingenuous to say that anti-Semitism did not exist in the South, the Southern Jews were far more likely to not only be left alone by their Christian neighbors, but to be more widely accepted in the communities in which they lived. Even those that did act as itinerant peddlers in the Southern wilderness were recognized as performing the important service of bringing much needed goods and much wanted news to the residents of those remote areas. Dozens of towns throughout the South were named for such traveling merchants, such as Kaplan, Louisiana; Marks, Mississippi; and Manassas, Virginia. Many other Jews helped to create major businesses in the South, as well as to aid its political and social life . . . one of these was Henry Lehman who came to Montgomery, Alabama, from Bavaria in 1844. Six years later, he and his brothers Emanuel and Mayer formed the Lehman Brothers cotton brokerage firm and after the War Between the States, the company helped finance Alabama’s reconstruction. Lehman Brothers ultimately rose to become the world’s fourth largest brokerage house before its failure in the 2008 crash.
As stated at the outset, the most influential Southern Jew of the Nineteenth Century was Judah P. Benjamin, but there were others, such as Lt. Governor Henry Hyans of Louisiana who served just prior to the War Between the States, and Edwin Moise, the speaker of Louisiana’s House of Representatives during the War. In Columbus, Georgia, an attorney and plantation owner, Raphael J. Moses, who started the commercial growing of peaches and was the first to ship them out of the state in 1851, became a leading advocate of Georgia’s secession. During the War, Moses served as the chief commissary officer for Generals James Longstreet and Robert Toombs, and attended the last meeting of the Confederate cabinet in 1865 where he accepted $40,000 in gold and silver to feed the remaining Confederate troops. Moses‘ three sons also served in the Confederate Army. However, perhaps the second most important political legislator in the South was one of Judah P. Benjamin’s cousins, and the first Jew to be elected to the U. S. Senate, David Levy Yulee of Florida. Yulee owned a 5,000-acre plantation and sugar mill near Jacksonville, and when Florida became a state in 1845, Yulee was elected as one of its first two senators, an office he held until the War Between the States when he resigned to become a leading member of the Confederate Congress. One of Yulee’s most important achievements was the construction of Florida’s first rail network in 1853, which by 1861 was operating between Jacksonville and Cedar Key on the Gulf of Mexico.
Another important development in the South took place in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1901 when John F. Queeny founded the Monsanto Chemical Works. The company was named after his Jewish wife, Olga Mendez Monsanto, whose father, Don Emmanuel Mendes de Monsanto of Puerto Rico, was the person who financed the company that was to become one of America’s largest agricultural conglomerates. Don Emmanuel was descended from the Monsantos who were early settlers in Louisiana and Mississippi, including Isaac Monsanto who immigrated to New Orleans in 1757 and who, along with his sons Manuel, Jacob and Benjamin, became leading merchants, shippers and plantation owners. Two of the sons, Manuel and Jacob, helped form the first Jewish congregation in New Orleans 1828, while Benjamin established a 500-acre plantation on St. Catherine’s Creek near Natchez, Mississippi, and his family later helped to create the first Natchez congregation in 1843. On the other hand, perhaps the most infamous name in the file of Southern Jews, and one that fails to appear as such in most history books, is John Wilkes Booth of Maryland. According to the family history written by Booth’s sister Asia, the family, whose name was originally Botha, were Jewish wine merchants from Portugal who immigrated to England in the Sixteenth Century, changed their name to Booth and became lawyers, silversmiths and finally actors. John Wilkes’ father, Junius Brutus Booth, immigrated to Virginia in 1821, and the following year established the family home near Bel Air, Maryland.
From the time of the post-War Reconstruction until World War One, more that 40,000 Jews, most of them from Germany, immigrated to the South. Many of them established businesses throughout the area, and names like Rich, Thalhimers, Godchaux, Levine, Neiman and Marcus would become household words in Georgia, Virginia, Louisiana, North Carolina and Texas. Others who began in their businesses in the South would move elsewhere to even greater fame, such as Isidor and Nathan Straus of Talbottom, Georgia, who, in 1895, became the co-owners of R. H. Macy’s department store in New York City. A third Straus brother, Oscar, served as the U. S. secretary of commerce and labor from 1906 to 1909 under President Theodore Roosevelt, and Isidore and his wife Rosalie would die in the sinking of the “Titanic” in 1912. Another such Southerner was Adolph Ochs, the publisher of the “Chattanooga Times” in Tennessee, whose mother, Bertha Levy Ochs, was a charter member of that city’s chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy. Ochs purchased the New York Times in 1896 and coined the paper’s still-used motto, “All the News That’s Fit to Print.” Over the years, the South’s Jewish population has continued to grow, and today stands at about one and a half million, with Atlanta, Georgia, now being the fastest growing Jewish community in America. In 1850, there were only twenty-six Jews living in that city and while the group made up only one per cent of the total population, Jews owned more than ten per cent of Atlanta’s business establishments. Today, well over 100,000 Jews call Atlanta home. To a lesser degree, the same pattern also holds true for several other Southern localities, such as Austin, Texas; the Durham-Chapel Hill-Raleigh area in North Carolina; and the Jacksonville-Orlando-Tampa area of Florida.
Perhaps, however, the late author, editor of the former “Carolina Israelite” in Charlotte, North Carolina, and self-styled “Bard of Southern Jewry,” Harold Golden, summed things up best when he said; “There were Jews in the South before there was a South.”