by Jonathan D. Sarna

The Civil War that divided the Washington community and the nation as a whole divided American Jewry as well. The bulk of America’s 150,000 Jews, most of them new immigrants, lived in the North and supported the Union. The rest, something over 25,000 Jews, lived in the South and supported the Confederacy. Some on both sides, including the foremost Jewish religious leaders of the day, Isaac Leeser and Isaac Mayer Wise, would have compromised over slavery or acquiesced to secession rather than go to war in defense of principle. They sought to promote peace.

Jews, as this book demonstrates, fought on both sides of the Civil War. Some eight to ten thousand Jews, mostly recent immigrants, donned uniforms, and at least fifty rose through the ranks to become officers. Religion generally posed no barrier to military promotion. Indeed, one Union officer actually won his position because he was a Jew. Observing that “we have not yet appointed a Hebrew,” Abraham Lincoln in 1862, ordered the Secretary of War to assign C. M. Levy, the son-in-law of Rabbi Morris Raphall of New York, to the post of Assistant Quarter-Master, with the rank of Captain.

In the Confederacy, of course, one of the most brilliant and accomplished Jews of the 19th century, Judah P. Benjamin, reached the pinnacle of power. He served at different times as the Confederacy’s Attorney General, Secretary of War, and Secretary of State, and, despite his intermarriage and complete lack of personal religious observance, always acknowledged his Judaism and always was known as a Jew.

On the homefront, too, Jews in Washington and across the country actively supported their comrades in arms. Men contributed thousands of dollars to relief activities. Women sewed clothes, prepared bandages, tended the wounded, staffed booths and tables at “sanitary fairs,” and collected funds for the needy.

Whatever pride Jews took in the military and civilian achievements of their fellow Jews was offset by the sadness, anger, and bewilderment engendered by the sectional cleavage, especially as it pitted Jew against Jew and family members against one another. As the invading Northern armies moved into the South, such problems multiplied. One Southern Jew found his house guarded by two Jewish soldiers from Ohio. “They felt very sorry for us,” he recalled, “but could afford us no help.” Another memoirist related the stir that took place when Northern soldiers attended worship services at the synagogue in Natchez, Mississippi. Still another account – this one in a contemporary letter – described how frightened some local Jews in Memphis, Tennessee, became when Colonel Spiegel of Ohio, dressed in full northern military regalia, wished them a “Happy Sabbath” and inquired as to where he might find a kosher lunch.

Maintaining traditional Jewish observances under wartime conditions proved immensely difficult, though commensurately satisfying for those who lived up to the challenge. Two brothers named Levy who fought for the Confederacy reputedly “observed their religion faithfully . . . never even eating forbidden food.” The awe with which this was recounted at the time that one of the brothers was killed suggests that such scrupulousness was extremely rare. The same was true of the Northern soldier who described for readers of the Jewish Messenger how Jewish men in his outfit met for worship each Saturday on the outskirts of their camp in the Virginia forests. More commonly, Jewish soldiers strove to observe Judaism’s major annual holidays, notably Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur in the fall as well as Passover in the spring. One Jewish soldier planned to journey twelve miles to attend High Holiday services in Norfolk, Virginia, then in Union hands. Two years later, Jews stationed near Vicksburg, Mississippi, elected a young rabbi, Max del Banco, to conduct High Holiday services especially for them. The unfortunate rabbi was killed in a steamboat accident on his way back home. Many other soldiers received passes for the holidays. General Robert E. Lee, himself a committed Christian, pledged in 1864 to do all in his power “to facilitate the observance of the duties of their religion by the Israelites in the army,” and to allow them “every indulgence consistent with safety and discipline.”

We possess two lengthy accounts, one from the Union and one from the Confederacy, concerning the observance of Passover in 1862 – a sure sign of how significant commemoration of the holiday of freedom was to Jews on both sides of the struggle. The Southern soldiers purchased the requisite matzo in Charleston and cooked a fine traditional dinner, complete with “a pound and a half of fresh kosher beef.” The Northern soldiers, stationed in West Virginia, obtained from Cincinnati some of the supplies that they needed for their seder, and then went out and foraged for the rest. “We consecrated and offered up to the ever-loving God of Israel our prayers and sacrifice. . . ,” one of the participants recalled four years later, “there is no occasion in my life that gives me more pleasure and satisfaction then [sic] when I remember the celebration of Passover of 1862.”

Given the strong evangelical character of some Civil War units and the rapidity with which some Jews had abandoned Jewish practices following their immigration, it comes as no surprise that the Civil War also found many Jews who, while serving as soldiers, hid their Jewish identities, maintaining no Jewish rituals whatsoever. Isaac Leeser, who in 1864 visited soldiers recovering from wounds, found that some “would scarcely confess their Jewish origin” and “even refused prayer-books when tendered to them.” In the military as in civilian life, American Judaism thus covered a broad spectrum, embracing the meticulously observant, the totally non-observant, and all points in between.

Two extraordinary episodes distinguished the Northern Jewish experience during the Civil War, both of long-lasting significance. The first was the battle to amend the military chaplaincy law, passed in 1861, which stipulated that a regimental chaplain be “a regular ordained minister of some Christian denomination.” An amendment to substitute the more inclusive phrase “of some religious society” had been voted down; significantly, the Confederate law, which employed the phrase “minister of religion,” was more inclusive.

Protestant chaplains and – to the extent that they could – Catholics made the most of their opportunities to exert a religious influence on warring troops. At their best, these chaplains tended to soldiers’ spiritual needs, helped them to overcome personal and family problems, and modeled virtuous and courageous behavior under fire. Jewish chaplains, by contrast, were officially barred from the field, greatly disadvantaging Jewish soldiers and, in effect, delegitimizing the Jewish faith.

At least two elected Jewish chaplains (one of whom was not “regularly ordained”) were rejected on account of the discriminatory law, setting off a national debate involving Christians and Jews alike. Although many supported a change in the law, one evangelical paper complained that if the law were changed, “one might despise and reject the Savior of men . . . and yet be a fit minister of religion.” It warned that “Mormon debauchees, Chinese priests, and Indian conjurors” would stand next in line for government recognition – a tacit admission that the central issue under debate concerned the religious rights of non-Christians.

To further the Jewish cause, one of the rejected chaplains, Rev. Arnold Fischel, came to Washington at the behest of the Board of Delegates to lobby personally on behalf of a change in the chaplaincy law, and President Lincoln promised him support. After substantial wrangling, a revised bill that construed “some Christian denomination” in the original legislation to read “some religious denomination” became law on July 17, 1862. This represented a major political victory for the Jewish community and remains a landmark in the legal recognition of America’s non-Christian faiths. In this case, as in so many others, American religious liberty was broadened by the demands of those who stood outside the American religious mainstream.

The second episode involving Jews was far uglier. On December 17, 1862, a general order went out from Ulysses S. Grant’s headquarters in Oxford, Mississippi, which read as follows:

1. 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.

2. Within twenty-four hours from the receipt of this order by Post Commanders, they will see that all of this class of people are furnished with passes and required to leave, and any one returning after such notification, will be arrested and held in confinement until an opportunity occurs of sending them out as prisoners unless furnished with permits from these Head Quarters.

3. No permits will be given these people to visit Head Quarters for the purpose of making personal application for trade permits.

By Order of Maj. Gen. U.S. Grant

Known as “the most sweeping anti-Jewish legislation in all American history,” General Orders #11, as it came to be called, blamed “Jews, as a class” for the widespread smuggling and cotton speculation that affected the entire area under Grant’s command. Numbers of Jews in Northern Mississippi and Paducah, Kentucky, were forcibly expelled as a result of the order; some were refused rail transportation and had to travel on foot, and at least one was briefly jailed.

Historians have since determined that “Jews were neither the most numerous nor the most iniquitous of the legion of sharpers following the army: their peccadilloes were certainly no greater than the misdeeds of any number of crooked Yankees, Treasury agents and army officers.” Indeed, a group of Cincinnati Jewish merchants formed a cotton speculating partnership with Grant’s own father, Jesse Grant. At the time, however, Jews were “easily identifiable by their manners, accents, and surnames,” and also stigmatized by age-old stereotypes, so that they came to symbolize all who were attempting to profit from wartime speculation and cross-border trading. The tensions and frustrations of war, which elsewhere found their outlet in persecutions of Catholics and African Americans, were directed – in this case – at “Jews as a class.”

For their part, Jews lost no time in protesting Grant’s order. Not only did they send letters and telegrams to the White House, but one of those expelled, Cesar Kaskel of Paducah, rushed to Washington and accompanied by Cincinnati’s Congressman John A. Gurley went directly to President Lincoln’s office. The President turned out to know nothing of the order, which he had never seen. According to a revealing but unverifiable later tradition, he resorted to biblical imagery in his interview with Kaskel, a reminder of how many 19th-century Americans linked Jews to Ancient Israel and America to the Promised Land:

Lincoln: And so the children of Israel were driven from the happy land of Canaan?

Kaskel: Yes, and that is why we have come unto Father Abraham’s bosom, asking protection.

Lincoln: And this protection they shall have at once.

Even if no such conversation actually took place, Lincoln did instantly command the General-in-Chief of the Army, Henry Halleck, to countermand General Orders #11. “If such an order has been issued,” Halleck telegraphed Grant on January 4, 1863, “it will be immediately revoked.” In a follow-up meeting with Jewish leaders, including Rabbis Wise and Lilienthal, who had rushed to Washington to support Kaskel, Lincoln reiterated that “to condemn a class is, to say the least, to wrong the good with the bad. I do not like to hear a class or nationality condemned on account of a few sinners.” After a few weeks of recriminations and a failed move by Congressional opponents to censure Grant, the whole issue blew over.

Its implications, though, were profound. On the one hand, the episode reminded Jews that hoary prejudices against them remained alive – even in America. In fact, a dramatic upsurge in many forms of anti-Jewish intolerance, in the North as well as in the South, characterized the Civil War era, Grant’s order being the most notorious but far from the only example. On the other hand, the episode also empowered Jews with the knowledge that they could fight back against bigotry and win – even against a prominent general. The overturning of Grant’s order, especially on top of the victory in the chaplaincy affair, appreciably strengthened the Jewish community and increased its self-confidence. The successes also validated an activist Jewish communal policy that based claims to equality on American law and values while relying on help from public officials to combat prejudice and defend Jews’ minority rights.

The surrender of Confederate General-in-Chief Robert E. Lee at Appomattox Court House on April 9, 1865, coincided with final preparations for the eight-day Jewish holiday of Passover. Throughout the North that Passover, Jews gave thanks for the redemption of their ancestors from slavery in Egypt and for the restoration of peace to the inhabitants of the United States. The calendrical link between the anniversary of the biblical Exodus and the victory of the Union forces seemed to the faithful almost providential.

The assassination of Abraham Lincoln, five days after the surrender, came on the eve of the fifth day of Passover (coinciding that year with Good Friday) and was harder for Jews to reconcile with the holiday spirit. Synagogues the next morning were filled with grief-stricken worshippers, and mournful melodies replaced the customary Passover ones. In subsequent sermons delivered in Lincoln’s memory by rabbis across the United States, the President was compared to the patriarch Abraham, to King David, and above all to Moses, who died without entering the Promised Land. Isaac Leeser delivered the memorial address on April 22nd at Washington Hebrew Congregation. 

Southern Judaism became increasingly distinctive during the post-Civil War decades. As an example, Jews in Southern cities turned out together as a community to celebrate Confederate Memorial Day and set aside special sections of their cemeteries for Confederate War victims. The distinguished Jewish sculptor Moses Ezekiel, himself a Confederate veteran and a loyal Southerner (even though he lived in Rome), abetted this cult of martyrdom. He produced a whole series of “Lost Cause” monuments, including the “New South” monument to the Confederate War dead at Arlington National Cemetery, five busts of Robert E. Lee, a large bronze statue of Stonewall Jackson, and a monument entitled Virginia Mourning Her Dead. In his autobiography, Ezekiel described the latter in religious terms (“one of the most sacred duties in my life”) and explains that he wanted it to serve as a memorial to his fallen comrades, “sounding their heroism and Virginia’s memory down through all ages and forever.” While Northern Jews put the war behind them and moved on, Southern Jews, like their neighbors, thus made the Lost Cause the centerpiece of their faith. Focusing on the martyrdom of lost sons, they insisted that the cause that so many had fought and died for was right.

Washington, D.C., as this book demonstrates, was transformed by the Civil War. Its population, including its Jewish population, multiplied, and on July 31, 1863, Washington Hebrew Congregation dedicated its first synagogue, formerly the Methodist Episcopal church on Eighth Street.  The war years also witnessed the establishment of a Hebrew elementary school, a Jewish “Literary and Dramatic Association,” and a new B’nai B’rith Lodge, Elijah Lodge No. 50. Simon Wolf, a precocious 27-year-old Jewish lawyer in the city, recorded “a favorable change in the condition of the Jewish residents in the capital of the nation,” in 1864. By the end of the Civil War, the Washington Jewish community was firmly established and poised to grow.

Condensed and adapted from Jonathan D. Sarna, American Judaism: A History (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004), 112-124 by permission of the author.

Dr. Jonathan D. Sarna is the Joseph H. & Belle R. Braun Professor of American Jewish History at Brandeis University and Director of its Hornstein Jewish Professional Leadership Program. Named by The Forward as one of America's fifty most influential American Jews, he is a leading commentator on American Jewish history, religion, and life. Dr. Sarna has written, edited, or co-edited more than twenty books, including the acclaimed American Judaism: A History (recipient of the 2004 National Jewish Book Award from the Jewish Book Council), A Time to Every Purpose: Letters to a Young Jew (2009), and his most recent, When General Grant Expelled the Jews (2012).