Jews and the Civil War (A Reader)

by | Dec 7, 2012 | Book Reviews

Jews and the Civil War (A Reader)
Edited by Jonathan D. Sarna and Adam Mendelsohn
New York University Press, 2010
435 pages

April 12, 2011 marked the 150th year anniversary of the Civil War, with the attack on Ft. Sumter triggering the bloodiest internal conflict ever to confront the American nation. Along with the not too far off Sesquicentennial Anniversary due on April 9, 2015, recalling Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, we are presented here with an eclectic and eloquent collection of essays exploring the Jewish connection with a monumental challenge to a young nation, threatening to tear it apart.

This fruitful collaboration of the two editors, Dr. Jonathan D. Sarna, and Dr. Adam Mendelsohn, has produced both a readable and academic volume. Sarna, the senior partner, is professor of American Jewish History at Brandeis University, as well as chief historian of the National Museum of American Jewish History. He is the foremost living authority in his field. Mendelsohn is assistant professor of Jewish studies and director of the Center for Southern Jewish Culture at the College of Charleston.

This authoritative book is divided into seven parts: 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; An Aftermath. Each part is accompanied by an illuminating introduction.

Some salient facts and factors: In the midst of the U.S. population in 1860 of about 31 million, 150,000 Jews resided, whereas in 1850 there were less than 50,000. Most of the newcomers were from Germany. Jews participated in the fighting on both sides and in that patriotic effort and sacrifice their identity as Americans was shaped. Between 2,000 and 3,000 Jews served in the Confederacy and 6,000 in the Unions ranks, with six Jews earning the Congressional Medal of Honor. More Jewish officers, however, served in the Confederacy. While there were Jewish companies on both sides, Jews preferred to be part of mixed units. Jewish families were split not only along the North and South divide, but in the very same household as with the Ochs in Chattanooga, Tenn. Julius Ochs, the father of Adolf Ochs of New York Times fame, was with the Union Army, while his wife, Bertha, helped the Confederacy.

A highly controversial and embarrassing topic was General Order No. 11 issued by General Ulysses S. Grant on December 17, 1862, ordering all Jews to depart from The Department of Tennessee within 24 hours for breaking trade regulations. This overarching and shocking order held an entire group of people responsible for the acts of some, while there were gentiles as well, including many soldiers, who participated in the illegal and profitable speculation in cotton which became a scarce commodity.

Grant was characterized by historian Bertram Korn as “the most sweeping anti- Jewish regulation in all American History.” The New York Times described it as “one of the deepest sensations of the war.” The quick response of Jewish leaders and others led President Lincoln to immediately intervene, instructing that Order No. 11 be rescinded. The controversy followed Grant into his presidential campaign, and even his wife Julia Dent Grant referred to that order as “the obnoxious order,” though Grant himself never apologized, but did intimate that it was issued in haste without review.

Concerning the explosive theme of slavery, the Jews reflected by-and-large the particular environment in which they lived. However, the point is made that were it not for the enslavement of the blacks the Jews would not have fared as well as they did in the South, which overall was better than in the North. The reason given is that in the South they were considered as part of the white community. Even a wealthy merchant Jew such as Aaron Lopez who was engaged in heavy trade had only very limited participation in the slave trade, as reflected in the William and Mary Quarterly of 1975. In the matter of accepting Jewish chaplains into military service, the South was kinder and presented no legal impediments as was the case in the North untill July 1862, where chaplains had to be only of the Christian faith and one already serving Jewish chaplain from Philadelphia was forced to resign.

The enlightening volume of Jews and the Civil War brings together invaluable and credible source material under one cover, enriching those who seek full account of the multi-faceted Civil War whose ramifications and lessons are still with us today.

—Dr. Israel Zoberman is founding rabbi of Congregation Beth Chaverim.