by Laura Apelbaum
Civil War history is tangible in our city. Its tales are well known and connected to many local landmarks: the White House, Ford’s Theatre, Fort Stevens, President Lincoln's Cottage, and the Willard Hotel, among others. The story of Jewish life in our city and across the river in Alexandria, however, never has been fully told.
This website, based on an exhibition and book of the same title, was created as part of the celebration of the sesquicentennial of the Civil War. It introduces Jewish residents of both Washington and Alexandria who lived their lives during those tumultuous four years.
The idea of more fully exploring Jewish life during the Civil War was inspired by Dr. Gary Zola, Executive Director of the American Jewish Archives in Cincinnati. While visiting our exhibition, Jewish Washington, on display at the National Building Museum in 2005, Dr. Zola spoke of the upcoming 2009 bicentennial of Lincoln’s birth. Several stories in that exhibit hinted at the Jewish role in the Civil War, including tales of Jewish immigrant soldiers on both sides of the conflict, the early days of Washington Hebrew and Beth El Hebrew congregations, and the Lansburgh brothers, owners of the famed department store, who were the first contributors to the city’s first Lincoln statue.
Though more than 10,000 books and, recently, many websites have been published about Abraham Lincoln, this website adds a unique perspective. It contains the complete exhibition text accompanied by historic images, most from our archival collections. In addition we are pleased to our contributors permitted us to publish articles from our companion book that give a fuller view of Jewish life in the area and within the context of American life at the time.
Dr. Jonathan Sarna graciously provides an introduction to the history of Jewish life during the Civil War; Dr. Pam Nadell reveals the ways in which women’s lives were affected and how they participated in the war effort, North and South. Stories of Jewish life in Alexandria and other Virginia communities are provided by Dr. Mel Urofsky. Harold Holzer focuses on President Lincoln’s relationship with the Jewish community, including anecdotes about Lincoln’s Jewish friends.
We are indebted to each of our contributors for their advice, stimulating articles, and support of this volume. Their friendship and historical insight has enriched our work.
Robert Shosteck, of blessed memory, a past president of the Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington, wrote an article in 1967 about Jewish life in Washington during the Civil War that has become a primary text for researchers and historians of the era. We are delighted to reprint an edited version of that article with the permission of the American Jewish Historical Society, in whose quarterly that article first appeared.
We thank the family of Dr. John Y. Simon for permitting us to republish an article John wrote for us in 2005. Dr. Simon was the leading authority on Ulysses S. Grant and the editor of the U.S. Grant papers. His wit and wisdom enable us to understand a difficult chapter in American Jewish history -- Grant’s issuance of Orders No. 11 -- expelling “the Jews as a class” from areas under his authority in the West. John passed away in June 2008, and we still feel the sorrow of his loss.
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I was privileged to grow up in a household that valued history. The Civil War was a topic at our dinner table sparking my interest. Fuel was thrown on that spark by family friend Ralph G. Newman, proprietor of the famed Abraham Lincoln Bookstore in Chicago. My parents’ insistence that we travel with Mr. Newman to battlefields on Civil War Roundtable trips instilled in me a love of history in authentic places and a desire to pursue history as a vocation. Mr. Newman’s ability to make history literally come to life inspires me to dedicate this site to his memory.
Laura Apelbaum is Executive Director of the Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington