Jewish-Americans in the Civil War

        Most Jews living in the United States in the years preceding the Civil War came from Western Europe, perhaps the bulk of them from Germany. They brought with them a rich heritage in religion, art, folklore, and food. For the first time in their long history, the Jews found themselves in a land where they were not required to live in separate sections of the city (known as ghettos in Europe), or be forced to wear distinctive clothing to mark them as different. They were treated on an equal footing with their fellow immigrants and were some of the first white settlers to arrive in the New World. They founded synagogues for their worship, filling them with the rich religious treasures so carefully brought from their homelands; they built schools, or their children attended local schools and academies as any other children did.
        Some of the oldest synagogues in North America were founded in the South, in coastal cities such as Alexandria, Virginia, and Charleston, South Carolina. Whether farmers, businessmen, politicians, or religious leaders, the Jews were determined not to lose the heritage they had maintained over so many difficult centuries. During the Civil War, Jewish men fought in both the armies of the North and of the South, and the women and children they left behind raised money, tended the sick and wounded, and worked for the relief of widows and orphans on both sides.
        Perhaps the most prominent Jewish-American in the Civil War period was Judah R. Benjamin. Born on the island of St. Croix while his parents were attempting to get through a British blockade to emigrate to New Orleans in August 1811, Benjamin was a U.S. senator from Louisiana at the beginning of the Civil War; he had the interesting honor of having almost duelled then-Senator Jefferson Davis, later President of the Confederacy, owing to some argument between them. Benjamin believed in the legality of slavery, which led Senator Wade of Ohio to comment that Benjamin was a "Hebrew with Egyptian principles." Upon Louisiana's secession, Benjamin and his fellow senator (who had also been his law partner) James Slidell withdrew from the U.S. Senate on February 4, 186 1. Benjamin was named the first attorney general of the provisional government of the Confederate States, and by late summer he had replaced the Secretary of War, Leroy Walker. Accused of incompetence, Benjamin resigned in anger-and was immediately given the post of Secretary of State, which he held until the collapse of his government in 1865. Known as the "Brains of the Confederacy," Benjamin's tireless intellect led him to absorb the duties left undone by other sections of the administration; Jefferson Davis relied on him heavily.
        One of the darkest tales of Jews during the Civil War bespeaks the prejudice this religious and ethnic group has historically faced. On December 17, 1862, General Ulysses S. Grant issued an order from his headquarters in Holly Springs, Mississippi, ordering all Jews out of the area over which he had command. Known as General Order No. 11, it read, in part  as follows:

The Jews, as a class violating every regulation of trade established by the Treasury Department and also department orders, are hereby expelled from the department within twenty-four hours from the receipt of this order.

        Ordered by General Henry Halleck and President Abraham Lincoln to rescind the order on January 4, 1863, Grant immediately obeyed; but no apologies were forthcoming, and in any case would not have been accepted. Grant was attempting to expel from the area a group of illegal speculators who were trying to take advantage of his soldiers, and he chose to target the local Jews as the cause of that speculation. No Jews were actually sent away, but it was an embarrassing and humiliating moment the Jewish community never forgot, a stain upon their freedom and equality in the New World.
Source: The Civil War Society's "Encyclopedia of the Civil War."

This Page last updated 02/16/02

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