Home » 8th Season: 2020-2021 » 2020-2021 v.02 » The Civil War & A Microcosm of Jewish History

The Civil War & A Microcosm of Jewish History

By James Nichols-Worley, IV Form

The Civil War & A Microcosm of Jewish History

The American Civil War is a conflict unlike many others in modern, and especially American, history, not just because of the battles fought in America’s fields and cities, but also because of the battles that occurred in the pulpits and the hearts of the nation. While the role of Christian denominations in the war has been analyzed extensively by historians, the role of Jewish Americans during the conflict remains inspected to a far lesser degree. From civil to military to religious life, Jewish Americans affected, and were affected by, almost all parts of the war, from slavery to the battles themselves. The participation of Jewish Americans in the United States Civil War represents a more nebulous Jewish experience: that of the persecution and discrimination against Jewish peoples, oppression perpetrated by some Jewish Americans, and especially the interaction of Judaism and the Jewish faith with the harsh reality of life.

As in many other periods of duress and strife in history, Jewish Americans were not free from discrimination and antisemitism during the Civil War, even in the Northern States. In 1861, the Union’s military chaplaincy law barred chaplaincy to all but “regular ordained minister[s] of some Christian denomination” (Green). Only after appealing to Lincoln himself did the Union relax its restrictions on the chaplaincy. Even as pop history looks back to the North as an egalitarian society compared to the regressive South, anti-semitism was not missing from America. In an act of more heinous discrimination, Union General Ulysses Grant issued an order that gave “all Jews… just 24 hours to leave their homes, businesses and lives behind” (Blakemore) because of what he later admitted were baseless accusations that Jewish merchants were aiding the Confederate cotton trade. Grant’s order was spurred by anti-Semitic tropes. Even though the general later tried to atone for his mistake, Grant’s order was built by, and contributed to, anti-Semitic conspiracy theories. Common anti-Semitic tropes were also used to pin Jewish Americans for sabotage against the Union.  Northern magazines and newspapers blamed Jewish Americans, some of whom were wartime contractors, for “subversive motives and conduct inimical to the union military cause,” and portrayed these contractors in cartoons as “villains with elongated noses,” one of the most famous anti-Semitic stereotypes (Bunker and Appel 44, 49). While it is well known that Jewish Germans were blamed in an incredibly similar way in the antebellum of the second world war, the horrific similarities to the American Civil War are not nearly discussed as much. While not surprising, it is disturbing how little anti-semitism changed in the century between the Civil War and the beginning of the contemporary period. Anti-semitic tropes that spanned from cartoons even infiltrated the U.S. government.

Some Jewish Americans, however, were not entirely victims of society’s oppression but were instead perpetrators of it. Morris Raphall, a Jewish Swede who served as a rabbi in New York, delivered an anti-abolitionist statement “[p]lacing Judaism squarely in opposition to abolitionism,” insisting that “biblical law granted the right to own slaves.” (“Raphall, Morris Jacob.”) The participation of Jewish Americans in slavery and the Atlantic slave trade is a fraught subject, and although it’s definitive that they did not “control the slave trade” like some anti-Semitic claims suggest, “not many of them found slavery objectionable” (Grossman). Like their Christian counterparts, some Jewish Confederates seemed to use the Bible to retroactively justify slavery (Shattuck). Likewise, one Jewish American became one of the Confederacy’s most important leaders. Judah Benjamin, a former slave owner, was the Secretary of War and State for the Confederacy, the first Jewish American to hold a cabinet-level position (“Judah Benjamin.”). Benjamin’s faith is still unclear to the modern onlooker and muddled with dubious stories from his associates (Evans 91-92). But because of, or perhaps in spite of, the anti-Semitic attacks against him both during and after the war, one could wonder as to how a person with Jewish ancestry could aid in a system and government so terrible. The legacy of Jewish Americans on oppression did not end in postbellum America, nor, of course, did America’s systemic oppression. Moses Ezekiel, who “considered himself an Orthodox Jew, [but] didn’t practice many of the rituals” was one of the artists who proliferated “The Lost Cause… a romanticized vision of the South and the Confederacy in which soldiers fought honorably … rather than treasonously for the cause of slavery” (Moehlman). Ezekiel’s statues, rallied around by white supremacists not just in the aftermath of the civil war, but even today, are just one of the still-standing testaments to the legacy of Jewish Americans participating in a heinous system. Perhaps most surprising, though, is that the same white supremacists who rally around monuments like Ezekiel’s are also the most hostile towards Jewish Americans. Jewish Americans were not able to completely cast themselves away from participation in oppression. That is not to say it was because of their faith, it seems explicitly that that is not true. However, it is important to notice how they acted in spite of their heritage, ancestry, or faith. It is not impossible for one to see a parallel between some of the State of Israel’s actions in the past half-century and the ambivalence of many Jewish Southerners towards slavery.

The Civil War is not completely devoid of something brighter, although it is mired with the microcosms of America’s greater and longer-lasting problems. The faith, piety, and perseverance of Jewish Americans were not all lost in the conflict. Soldiers fighting on both sides of the conflict tried to keep their traditions during the brutal war. “Many … Jews found ways to observe some traditions… Soldiers on both sides found their Passover celebrations of 1862 so memorable that they wrote about them in letters and memoirs” (Imhoff). Judaism is a religion that some consider to be more about the actions of its followers than about their beliefs. That Jewish soldiers were motivated and able to continue their traditions even during the war attests to their commitment. The Civil War may also have been a period of increasing acceptance of Jewish Americans despite the coeval anti-semitism. Historian Steven R. Weisman describes that “the war marked a great turning point because the Jews were integrated into the war effort on both sides. In some ways, it’s comparable to World War II, where the second wave of Jews got integrated into the military and therefore American society in a dramatic way.” (Rothman) Weisman explains that even though Jewish Americans were integrating and being more accepted into the broader American society, they were also concurrently standing up for their rights as followers of the Jewish faith. Far less dwelt on, even by Civil War historians, Jewish American historians, and historians who focus on the cross-section between the two, is the role of Jewish American women. Jewish women in several cities “participated… in a wide range of charitable functions to support war efforts across America” like fundraising, embroidery, and supporting both the soldiers and military families of the conflict. These altruistic acts were not merely ecumenical; these women were also acting “specifically as Jews” (Diner). Driven by Judaism’s propensity for doing charitable work and especially their faith, Jewish women sent their help. The Civil War is undeniably a tragedy in American history, if not for nothing else than its toll on life, yet Jewish Americans were not left completely to out dry, and in some places, they were even able to strengthen their faith, unlike in some of the later wars in the 19th and 20th centuries.

The history of the Jewish people is a long and ever-evolving story; however, the role of Jewish Americans in the Civil War captures many of its key aspects. The anti-semitism that was active in all parts of the country is not unlike that discrimination done throughout history. The role of some Jewish Americans in the Confederacy and the institution of slavery demonstrate how faith can be used as a tool not for good, but instead for evil. Most importantly, though, is the faithful acts displayed by the Jewish men and women who continuously practiced their faith and channeled that faith into altruistic actions. Jewish Americans in the Civil War are not entirely unlike their counterparts in other religions; but the group’s experience is one of a certain uniqueness that deserves to be studied, especially with consideration to the role of other minorities both during the war and after, even to today.

James Nichols-Worley is a IV Form day student living in Southborough. He’s in an uphill battle to get people to spell his name correctly. The rest of his time is spent as a proponent of accurate research and artless presentation.

Works Cited

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