Essays

“Giving our all to the poor soldiers”: Jewish Women in the Civil War

By Dr. Pamela S. Nadell

“[W]rite…long loving letters…to a Soldier…whose whole soul is home, home, Sweet home...”  In February 1862, from Paw Paw, Virginia, Marcus Spiegel wrote these words to his beloved Caroline. Two months earlier he had enlisted in the Union Army. The Spiegels’ separation mirrors one of the paramount experiences of women, North and South, Christian and Jew, during the Civil War. As men went off to war, they left behind wives, mothers, and daughters. At home, women, whether of the Union or of the Confederacy – and the greater number of American Jews lived behind Union lines – found themselves shouldering unexpected responsibilities and sharing in the mandate to sustain, in women’s ways, their cause. As others have noted, in times of war women and men led very different lives.[1]

Of the more than two million men who fought in the Civil War, only eight to ten thousand were Jews; of these, two to three thousand fought for the Confederacy. Geography fanned “the flame of patriotism.” It determined the army to which mothers sent their sons.  Richmond’s Moses Ezekiel recalled that his mother Catherine “would not own a son who would not fight for his home and country.” August Bondi, who served with the Fifth Kansas Cavalry, recalled his mother saying that “as a Jehudi [Jew] [he] had the duty…to defend the institutions which gave equal rights to all beliefs.”[2]

Northern women suffered neither the “ravages of battle” nor the “material deprivation” Southerners faced as the war and its blockade dragged on, nor did they ever have to face the hostility of an occupying army. As the “Confederate homefront became a world of white women and of slaves,” Southern ladies discovered just how much the lives they had known before the war depended on the protection of their fathers, husbands, and sons and on the labor of the slaves their men had managed.[3]

Wartime meant new household responsibilities: weaving, spinning, sewing and knitting for their families and, as Eugenia Levy Phillips expressed, “giving our all to the poor soldiers.”  It meant new women’s organizations – more than a thousand appeared across the South.  For some it meant paid employment. For many in the South it meant rage against the Union and against its occupation.[4] In all this, Jewish women took part.

The rare Civil War diary of a Jewish teen living in New Orleans, by far the largest city in the South, offers a glimpse into the world of the Confederacy. Three months after the opening salvo at Fort Sumter, South Carolina, Clara Solomon copied the following from the Daily Delta into her new diary: “The time for idle threats and bravado is over. We are in the midst of a great conflict, from which we can not back out if we would. We must conquer or perish. There is no alternative…” Charleston’s Phoebe Yates Levy Pember shared Solomon’s patriotism. Later Pember would remember the “women of the South had been openly and violently rebellious from the moment they thought their states’ rights touched …They were the first to rebel – the last to succumb.” That was certainly true of Ophelia, Emma, and Carrie Mayer. After the occupation of Natchez, Mississippi, they smuggled clothing destined for Confederate soldiers, hanging it over the hoops under their skirts, as they drove past unsuspecting Union guards at the city limits.[5]

Clara Solomon followed the war and its battles closely. Soon, however, her family felt its effects. Clara’s father, Solomon Solomon, was called away to supply clothing and equipment to the troops in Virginia, and Clara missed him terribly: “My tears blind me.  Oh! God! Answer our prayers & waft to us tidings of him whom our hearts adore.”[6]  

The economic blockade of the South and the loss of many families’ chief breadwinner increased women’s burdens. Within a few months, Clara spent her day mending, “renovating” last year’s garments. Coffee soared to a dollar a pound. Her mother stretched it with rye and warned that soon they would have to do without.[7]

Meanwhile, the war came closer. Clara joined her teachers and schoolmates packing boxes of bandages, medicines, and preserves to send to the wounded in hospitals. Her “heart ache[d]” as daily she read the “long lists of death.” She cried, “This slaughter of human lives – this, this is war; war, with all its horrors.” Her growing despair echoed that of Emma Mordecai, half-sister of Rachel Mordecai Lazarus, as she mourned a death in the Petersburg, Virginia, entrenchments, “A true Israelite without guile – a soldier of the Lord & a soldier of the South.” As fires raged in the city of Columbia, South Carolina, after its defeat, Eleanor H. Cohen found her family “houseless, homeless, and without food or clothing. In one night we were brought from comparative wealth and luxury to abject poverty. …I never imagined I should be so near actual starvation.”[8]

For Clara Solomon, the fall of New Orleans and its occupation by Yankee troops brought the greatest humiliation. Even while “indispensable articles….from Yankee Land” eased material deprivation, Clara railed against General Benjamin F. Butler’s occupation. She confided to her diary: “If he could only have as many ropes around his neck as there are ladies in the city & each have a pull! Or if we could fry him!”[9]

Clara was not the only New Orleans young woman to wish harm to “Beast” Butler. He was ruthless – firing on civilians, hanging a man for destroying a Union flag, seizing the shops of those who refused Yankee business, condemning the rich men of the city to labor in chain gangs – all to bring hostile civilians under control. Nevertheless, the women of New Orleans continued to display anger and hatred toward his men. Consequently, in May 1862, he “ordered that hereafter when any female shall, by word, gesture, or movement, insult or show contempt for any officer or soldier of the United States, she shall be regarded and … treated as a woman of the town plying her avocation.”  If the women would not behave like ladies, he would treat them just as they behaved. This insult to the honor of Southern womanhood unleashed a “war upon the women of the land.” [10]

Its most famous Jewish victim was Eugenia Levy Phillips, an ardent secessionist who boasted of her Southern sisters, “Our women were all heroines.” Employing the rhetorical conventions of her day, she described herself as “only a wretched, weak woman.” Nevertheless, this “weak woman,” wed at sixteen, bore nine children, was imprisoned twice for her Confederate sympathies, and lived to the age of eighty-one.[11]

When war broke out, the Phillipses lived in Washington. In August 1861, Eugenia was arrested on suspicion of espionage. As soldiers began combing through her home, she whispered to her Irish maid to destroy her correspondence. Nevertheless, for the next three weeks, she and her older daughters were confined to a garret, where these “virtuous, refined, pure-minded women” endured the indignities of being “arrested, searched, shipped, shut up as prisoners.”  Not one to give in easily to despair, when Eugenia fell ill, she “determined to live to plague mankind a little more and in the hope of seeing a few of these ’detectives‘ hung.”[12]

After her release, the family settled in New Orleans. There, “Beast” Butler arrested her. Eugenia Phillips assumed he would accuse her of raising a subscription for the widow of the man executed for desecrating the Union flag. Instead he charged her with laughing and mocking the funeral procession of a Federal officer. When Eugenia responded that she “was in good spirits” that day, Butler screamed, “I do not call you a common woman of the town, but an uncommonly vulgar one,” and he sentenced her to imprisonment on Ship’s Island, a disease-ridden, bug-infested sandbar off the coast of New Orleans. There, accompanied by her loyal Irish maidservant, Eugenia spent the next three-and-a-half months in tremendous want and deprivation, “treated worse than the vilest felon.” Eventually, she was released purportedly “to prevent the sufferings of the wholly innocent.” By intimating that Eugenia was pregnant, Butler found a convenient pretext for her release.[13]

Eugenia Levy Phillips was not the only Southern patriot in her family. Her sister Phoebe Yates Levy Pember also served the cause. During the war, women North and South, bereft of breadwinners and living in economies enduring labor shortages, took up paid employment. In the South, women became teachers in far greater numbers than before. For women North and South, the U.S. publication of Florence Nightingale’s Notes on Nursing in 1860 made female nursing respectable. In September 1862, the Confederate Congress, recognizing the superior care the wounded received when women did the nursing, designated matrons’ positions for women in military hospitals. Pember, a thirty-nine-year-old widow, living unhappily with relatives, became matron of hospital number two in the sprawling Chimborazo complex in Richmond, Virginia. By war’s end, its 150 wards had treated 76,000 patients.[14]

Pember proved unusual. Southern women of her social class generally eschewed matrons’ positions, fearing they would, as she reflected, be “injurious to the delicacy and refinement of a lady.” Further, the pain and misery a lady would face and the physically challenging work she would have to perform would cause “her nature [to] become deteriorated and her sensibilities blunted.” Nevertheless, as Pember reveals in her memoir A Southern Woman’s Story, as matron she did what she had to do, keeping house, cooking, and nursing thousands of men over the next several years. Not surprisingly, this first female administrator at Chimborazo encountered opposition from those who resented female authority, among them the surgeons who wanted to dispense whiskey’s medicine by themselves and often for themselves.[15]

Pember shared her compatriots’ hatred of the Yankees. Describing an evening spent among “good Christians” excoriating the enemy, where one woman asked her for a ”Yankee Skull to keep her toilet trinkets in,” Pember explained that she took refuge in

being born of a nation, and religion that did not enjoin forgiveness on its enemies, that enjoyed the blessed privilege of praying for an eye for an eye, and a life for a life, and was not one of those for whom Christ died in vain…I proposed that till the war was over they should all join the Jewish church. …It was a very agreeable evening…I certainly had the best of the argument.[16]

As the war turned against the Confederacy, the situation at Chimborazo became increasingly desperate. When Richmond was evacuated in April 1865, Pember stayed on determined to do her duty. In the chaos of the withdrawal, when “hospital rats” tried to steal her whiskey, the stalwart matron met them with pistol cocked in her pocket. Pember continued to nurse the sick until all “were either convalescent or dead, and at last my vocation was gone.” [17]

In many ways, the women’s wartime experiences in the North mirrored those in the South. Women North and South “trembled in suspense and fear,” as did Caroline Spiegel, “to learn of [the] fate” of their loved ones. Northern women too nursed the wounded, although no northern Jewish woman left a record of wartime nursing to match that of Phoebe Pember. Yet, when Union General Charles H. T. Collis had pneumonia, Septima Levy Collis managed to get permission to go to the front in Culpeper, Virginia, to nurse her husband.[18] 

Northern women also organized for soldiers’ aid. But, with larger numbers of Jewish women in the North, they sometimes did so in distinctively Jewish groups in the tradition of the benevolent societies, which were by now a well-established part of Jewish communal life. As war broke out, “the Ladies of the Congregation, Shearith Israel” prepared “to assist the families of their fellow-citizens, who have volunteered in defense of their country, its constitution and laws.” In Philadelphia, the Ladies Hebrew Association for the Relief of Sick and Wounded Union Soldiers sought “to obviate the sufferings of the brave soldiers …while they lie in the army hospitals …irrespective of religious creed.” In New York, Boston, and Chicago, Jewish women rolled bandages together and packed boxes for the wounded. At New York’s Temple Emanu-El, they sewed uniforms.[19] 

Their soldiers’ aid work formed but a tiny part of a far-reaching network of Northern women massed to help sustain “the largest military operation on American soil.” Just as men from every sector of the Union responded to the call to defend the nation, so too women from all over the North, Christian and Jew, the well-to-do and those struggling to make ends meet, did their part for the cause.  Much of this women’s work was coordinated through the United States Sanitary Commission, established by the federal government in 1861 to centralize, as much as possible, local relief efforts. Philadelphia’s Ladies Hebrew Association for the Relief of Sick and Wounded Union Soldiers appointed Matilda Cohen its representative to the Commission.[20]

In addition to directing the dispensing of supplies and medicines, the Commission also promoted, starting in the fall of 1863, fundraising events called sanitary fairs. They were modeled on women’s antebellum charity and church fairs, among them Jewish women’s modest fairs, like the one held in 1857 to benefit Philadelphia’s Jewish Foster Home. Thanks to the urging of the Sanitary Commission, during the Civil War, “fair mania” took hold,[21] with blockbuster fairs in some cities raising enormous sums for relief. Charging admission, selling homemade goods – pin cushions, potholders, and pencil cases – offering refreshments and entertainments like art exhibitions and Indian dances, these spectacles welcomed wide participation and gave women, especially those of the middle and upper classes, a crucial venue for displaying their patriotism.

Jewish women stood side-by-side with their neighbors at these fairs. New York’s 1864 Metropolitan Fair included Jewish representatives on all its organizing committees. At a Sanitary Fair in Cincinnati in 1863, the Jewish community set up four stands including one run by the “Independent Ladies.” At Washington, D.C.’s Sanitary Fair in 1864, the Hebrew Society’s Table raised $756.95, almost one-tenth of the total receipts for the day. “All honor to our fair Jewesses!” reported the Jewish press with obvious pride.[22]

For many women in the North, however, as for those in the South, their paramount experience of war was not a sanitary fair, but rather the absence of their men. Surely, Caroline Frances Hamlin Spiegel’s experiences were typical. She tried to ease her husband’s life in the field. The Quaker who had learned German cooking to become a Jewess sent her immigrant husband a box filled with goose meat, pfeffernüsse (peppernut cookies) and “zuker” (sugar) cookies. She arranged to have a family portrait taken so that Marcus could gaze upon his loved ones. For his part Marcus managed to secure a furlough in time to be with Caroline during the birth of their fourth child; a subsequent leave left her pregnant.[23]

Septima Maria Levy Collis, born in Charleston, South Carolina, “became a Union woman by marrying a Northern soldier.” To her dismay, the war caused him to miss the birth of their first child. While their early wartime separation was not atypical for a soldier’s family, Septima Collis’s later wartime experiences, recounted in a ‘few brief incidents of my army life,” were rather unusual. Because of her husband’s rank – eventually he rose to major general – she and her daughter were permitted to join him in the field. There the Northerner by marriage who mourned the battlefield death of her brother, the Confederate lieutenant David Cardoza Levy, generally found life at headquarters, among the wives of the other generals, including Mrs. Ulysses S. Grant, “very gay … with dinners, balls, reviews, races, and calvacades…” Once, Septima Collis even came under fire as she rode out with her orderly. Later she was “quite proud” to have entered the “beleaguered city” of Richmond just after its evacuation.[24]

The war also presented Yankee women with new economic and political challenges: they assumed greater autonomy in running their households.[25] Caroline Spiegel was no exception. Now she shared in managing the family finances; she asked Marcus about money he was owed and how she should go about getting it. He wrote of how much of his Army pay he was sending home. Septima Levy Collis too recalled how “expensive” things were, and how after an officer had “paid for his ‘mess’ and his servant, there was little left for his family at home.”[26] 

The war also compelled Northern women to deal with government officials in new ways. Marcus Spiegel, unable to accomplish what he wanted from his post in the field, asked his wife to intercede for him to get a command in a new regiment. To a private audience with President Lincoln, Septima Collis wore a “pale-pearl silk dress … immense hoops … a long train … lace shawl … pearl-colored bonnet … [and] illusion veil,” remembering years later every detail of her dress for that momentous occasion as she asked the president to promote her husband. When Lincoln responded that he was too young, Mrs. Collis replied, “He is not too young to be killed in the service, and make me a widow.”[27]

For the Spiegels, the wartime separation challenged the marriage. Caroline confessed that she had “the blues.” Marcus recognized “the Heroism” his wife required “to lead the life” she was “compelled to live” since he went into the army. When the heroine pleaded for the soldier to resign his commission and come home, the colonel lectured on duty to country and wished his wife were “a little more incoraging [sic] as to [his] military career.”[28] Caroline was not alone in wishing her husband would leave the battlefield. Historians find Union husbands and wives arguing over “priorities as women asked men to come home and men lectured women on the imperatives of national duty.”[29]

War’s end signified different things for Jewish women depending on where they stood in the years of the War between the States. Southerners like Emma Mordecai, despairing over defeat and war’s ravages, felt “as if there was nothing more to live for in this world.”[30] Surely, many, North and South, heaved a collective sigh of relief. During the war Philadelphian Rebecca Gratz felt “constant agitation” over the fate of loved ones on both sides of the divide.  Now she could cease her worrying.[31] But for many, many others, Caroline Hamlin Spiegel among them, surrender brought no respite from her sorrows. War’s end left her a soldier’s widow with four children. She was forced to turn to Washington Jewish communal leader Simon Wolf to help her secure the pension the U.S. Government gave to the families of those who had made the greatest sacrifices of all in the war fought “to make men free.”[32]

Article is copyright by Pamela S. Nadell. All rights reserved © 2009.

Dr. Pamela S. Nadell is the Inaugural Patrick Clendenen Professor of History and Director of the Jewish Studies Program at American University. She is the author of Women Who Would Be Rabbis: A History of Women’s Ordination, 1889-1985 (1998) and Conservative Judaism in America (1988), and editor of American Jewish Women’s History: A Reader (2003) and Women and American Judaism: Historical Perspectives (co-edited with Jonathan D. Sarna, 2001). Past chair of the Academic Council of the American Jewish Historical Society, she now chairs the Academic Advisory Council of the Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington.

 


[1]  Marcus M. Spiegel, Frank L. Byrne, ed., and Jean Powers Soman, eds., Your True Marcus: The Civil War Letters of a Jewish Colonel (Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 1985), 51. Little is written about Jewish women and the Civil War; see Hasia R. Diner, "Civil War in the United States," in Jewish Women in America: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia (CD-ROM), ed. Paula E. Hyman and Dalia Ofer (Jerusalem: Shalvi Publishing, 2006); Drew Gilpin Faust, Mothers of Invention: Women of the Slaveholding South in the American Civil War (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996), 10.

[2]   “American Civil War." Encyclopædia Britannica. 2008. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Accessed 22 Mar.  2008,  http://www.search.eb.com.proxyau.wrlc.org/eb/article-229879; Jonathan D. Sarna, American Judaism: A History (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004), 113; Robert N. Rosen, The Jewish Confederates (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2000), 162, 50; Elliott Ashkenazi, ed., The Civil War Diary of Clara Solomon: Growing up in New Orleans, 1861-1862 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1995), 322; August Bondi, Autobiography of August Bondi, excerpted in Jacob Rader Marcus, ed., Memoirs of American Jews, 1775-1865 (New York: Ktav, 1974), vol. 2, 203.

[3]  Faust, Mothers of Invention, 31, 5-7.

[4]  Ibid., 49, 24, 197-98; Eugenia Levy Phillips, "Defiant Rebel," in Memoirs of American Jews, 1775-1865, ed. Jacob Rader Marcus (1955; rpt. New York: Ktav, 1974), 161-96, 179.

[5]  Ashkenazi, ed., The Civil War Diary of Clara Solomon, 77. Pember quoted in Robert N. Rosen, "Jewish Confederates," in Jewish Roots in Southern Soil, ed. Marcie Cohen Ferris and Mark I. Greenberg (Hanover, NH: Brandeis University Press/University Press of New England, 2006), 109-133, 114; cited in Jacob Rader Marcus, ed., The American Jewish Woman: A Documentary History (Cincinnati: American Jewish Archives, 1981), 257.

[6]  Ashkenazi, ed., The Civil War Diary of Clara Solomon, 1861-1862, 79, 84, 3, 335.

[7]  Ibid., 350, 233.

[8]  Ibid., 334-35, 341, 323. Quoted in Rosen, The Jewish Confederates, 199.  On Emma Mordecai’s wartime experiences, see Dianne Ashton, "Shifting Veils: Religion, Politics, and Womanhood in the Civil War Writings of American Jewish Women," in Women and American Judaism: Historical Perspectives, ed. Pamela S. Nadell and Jonathan D. Sarna (Hanover, NH: Brandeis University Press, 2001), 81-106, 86-89; Quoted in Belinda and Richard Gergel, In Pursuit of the Tree of Life: A History of the Early Jews of Columbia, South Carolina, and the Tree of Life Congregation (Columbia, SC: Tree of Life Congregation, 1996), 41.

[9] Ashkenazi, ed., The Civil War Diary of Clara Solomon, 419-20.

[10] Phillips, "Defiant Rebel," 191. General Order No. 28 quoted in Faust, Mothers of Invention, 208-10.

[11] Phillips, "Defiant Rebel," 188.

[12] Ibid., 170, 168.

[13] Ibid., 189, 194.

[14]  Faust, Mothers of Invention, 82, 97-98.  For example, Clara Solomon’s sister Alice was already teaching in a girls’ public elementary school, and Clara was studying to become a teacher; Ashkenazi, ed., The Civil War Diary of Clara Solomon, 5-6; Rosen, The Jewish Confederates, 297.

[15] Pember quoted in Faust, Mothers of Invention, 98-101; Rosen, The Jewish Confederates, 296-303.

[16] Pember letter quoted in Rosen, The Jewish Confederates, 300.

[17] Pember quoted in Ibid., 303.

[18]  Spiegel, Byrne, and Soman, Your True Marcus, 226; Septima Maria Levy Collis, A Woman's War Record, 1861-1865 (1889; reprint, http://docsouth.unc.edu/fpn/collis/collis.html; accessed 15 May 2008), 23.

[19] Newspaper account of the Ladies Hebrew Association for the Relief of Sick and Wounded Union Soldiers,” 26 June 1863, in Marcus, ed., The American Jewish Woman, 246-47; Philip S. Foner, The Jews in American History, 1654-1865 (New York: International Publishers, 1945), 70-71; Diner, "Civil War in the United States."

[20]  On the women’s work cutting “across class, ethnic, and religious lines” and on the U.S. Sanitary Commission, see Nina Silber, Daughters of the Union: Northern Women Fight the Civil War (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2005), 163, 173, 176-193; Diner, "Civil War in the United States."

[21]  Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, "The Moral Sublime: Jewish Women and Philanthropy in Nineteenth-Century America," in Writing a Modern Jewish History: Essays in Honor of Salo W. Baron, ed. Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett (New York and New Haven: The Jewish Museum and Yale University Press, 2006), 36-54, 38; Silber, Daughters of the Union, 185.

[22]  Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, "The Moral Sublime: Jewish Women and Philanthropy in Nineteenth-Century America," 41; Silber, Daughters of the Union, 163.  The United States Sanitary Commission, formed in 1861, coordinated this work.

[23]  Spiegel, Byrne, and Soman, Your True Marcus, 56, 268, 109, 292, 311.

[24]   Collis, A Woman's War Record, 1861-1865, 17, 32-33, 46, 54, 58.

[25]  Silber, Daughters of the Union, 9.

[26]  Spiegel, Byrne, and Soman, Your True Marcus, 129; Collis, A Woman's War Record, 1861-1865, 16.

[27]   Silber, Daughters of the Union, 9; Spiegel, Byrne, and Soman, Your True Marcus, 129-30, 170-71; Collis, A Woman's War Record, 1861-1865, 19-22.

[28]  Spiegel, Byrne, and Soman, Your True Marcus, 136, 276, 285, 289.

[29]  Silber, Daughters of the Union, 26.

[30]  Quoted in Myron Berman, Richmond's Jewry, 1769-1976 (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia for the Jewish Community Federation of Richmond, 1979), 196-97.

[31]  Ashton, "Shifting Veils," 100.

[32]  Spiegel, Byrne, and Soman, Your True Marcus, 338. The closing words are from Julia Ward Howe’s “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” 1861.