Virginian Jews in the Civil War

by Dr. Melvin I. Urofsky

Virginia Jews differed little from their neighbors regarding the desirability of secession in the winter of 1860-61 but once the decision had been reached, they too rallied to the cause. Men flocked to the Stars and Bars, and the two leading Richmond militia groups both had significant Jewish membership. In Petersburg, Norfolk, and elsewhere, the story was the same: whether they owned slaves or not, nearly all Virginia Jews supported the decision to secede, and the men joined the army to defend that decision. Myer Angle, the first president of Congregation Beth Ahabah in Richmond, watched all six of his sons go off to fight for the Confederacy. Many Jews gave their lives, and Richmond set apart a special Soldiers' Section in the Hebrew Cemetery containing 31 graves of both Richmond and non-Richmond men. Until after World War II, it was the only Jewish military cemetery in the world.

Just before the war, Henry Gintzberger arrived in Salem, Virginia. An itinerant peddler in his mid-twenties, he may have been the first Jew ever seen in that small community, and his arrival became a legend in town. Soon after his appearance in Salem, he fell sick with a high fever. The local townspeople would not allow a stranger to go unattended, and a resident took Gintzberger into his house, where the family nursed him through a long illness. By the time he recovered, the war had broken out. Perhaps to show his gratitude to the people of Salem, Gintzberger enlisted with the other men of the town in the Salem Flying Artillery. He served with the unit until killed in action at Cold Harbor in 1864.

The great sculptor Sir Moses Ezekiel remembered all his life his experiences as a cadet at the Virginia Military Institute, when he and his unit participated in the battle of New Market. "Ten of our boys were killed in the battle of Newmarket," he recalled. “It was later one of the most sacred duties in my life to remodel my bronze statue of Virginia Mourning Her Dead to be placed on the parade ground of the V.M.I., overlooking the graves of my dead comrades, so that their memory may go on in imperishable bronze, sounding their heroism and Virginia's memory down through all ages and forever."

If Ezekiel remembered the gallantry and pageantry, others recalled great anguish. Isaac Hirsch of Fredericksburg joined Company A of Virginia's 30th Infantry Regiment in May 1861, and he kept a diary of his wartime experiences. He saw action at minor skirmishes at Aquia and Manassas, but after a particularly bloody fight near Warrenton, he wrote, "I left the field (of blackened bodies) with a heavy heart, as I had never seen the Romance of War in this shape before. ... I got back to camp a wiser man than I had left it." After he mustered out in the fall of 1863, his last entry read, "Got home last night. Thank God. Home once more."

Families throughout Virginia and the South often faced internal tensions about secession. Jacob A. Levy had two sons who fought for their state:  Captain E. J. Levy of the Richmond Blues and Private Isaac J. Levy, who fell in battle near Petersburg in 1864. Two of Levy's nephews, however, Abraham I. Levy and Jacob E. Hyneman, chose to serve in the Union army. Jacob Ezekiel, despite his son's passion for the war, remained a staunch Unionist, but because both his sons had enlisted in the Confederate Army, he could not leave Richmond. He remained in business, doing what he could to help Yankees captured and incarcerated in Libby Prison. In Charlottesville, Isaac Leterman fought for the Union and his younger brother Simon for the rebellion, while Simon's wife, Hannah, served as a Confederate nurse.

Jews made up a significant portion of some units, and on two occasions Robert E. Lee had to refuse High Holiday furloughs for Jewish troops on the grounds that their absence would greatly weaken his forces. On at least one occasion, the request came from Maximilian Michelbacher.  Michelbacher also pleaded with Lee to commute the sentence of a young Jewish soldier, Private Isaac Arnold of the 8th Alabama Regiment, whom a court-martial had found guilty of cowardice under fire and sentenced to death. Michelbacher did not question the integrity of the court but asked that justice be tempered with mercy. On this occasion, he succeeded, at least in regard to the unfortunate Arnold. However, Michelbacher could not persuade Lee to allow Jewish troops furlough for Passover. As the general noted, "I think it more than probable that the army will be engaged in active operations, when, of course, no one would wish to be absent from its ranks."

Lee apparently tried to help on such requests whenever he could. When a Richmond soldier asked leave to attend services at the synagogue, his captain refused and marked on the letter: "Disapproved. If such applica­tions were granted, the whole army would turn Jews or shaking Quakers." When the papers came to Lee's desk, however, he granted the request and returned it to the captain "with the advice that he should always respect the religious views and feelings of others."

Because so much fighting took place in Virginia, women often knew that their husbands or sons were encamped in the vicinity and would visit them, or at least try to do so. Years after the war, Rosena Levy recalled going to the camps, getting permission from the officers, worrying when she learned her husband had been captured, and then, after he had been exchanged and quite ill, bringing him home to nurse. Mary Gerst, on the other hand, declined her husband's suggestion that she come to see him at his camp in Ashland, declaring that "I do not think a military camp is any place for ladies."

Women did much of the nursing during the war. Jewish women did not minister only to wounded Jewish soldiers nor did Christian women only take care of their own. Major Alexander Hart of Louisiana suffered a severe leg wound. The surgeon, believing recovery was impossible, wanted to amputate the limb immediately. But the woman to whose house he had been carried begged the doctor to hold off for a few days, saying she would tend to the patient herself. So young and handsome a man, she declared, should not lose a leg. The doctor reluctantly agreed. When he returned a few days later he discovered that the leg had started to heal, and eventually Hart regained full health. After the war, Hart always tried to see his benefactress whenever he came to Richmond.

This act of selfless kindness by a Christian woman to a young Jewish soldier seems a far more accurate reflection of what most Virginians felt toward their Jewish neighbors than the mindless diatribes of a handful of bigots.

Nevertheless, in both the North and South, the war triggered antisemitic sentiments that had been, for the most part, relatively absent before 1861. Economic tensions, personal fears and frustrations, and the mass passions generated by war required an outlet, however, and in the past the victims of these conditions often had been Jews. Given the ferocity of the war, the manifestations were comparatively mild – there were no pogroms on either side – and, perhaps more important, not only did Jews openly oppose the prejudice, but non-Jews also came to their defense.

Charles Francis Adams noted in his diary a conversation he had had on the eve of the war in which Senator Andrew Johnson of Tennessee ranted against Jews:  "There's that [David] Yulee, miserable little cuss! I remember him in the House – the contemptible little Jew – standing there and begging us – yes! begging us to let Florida in as a state ... and now that despicable little beggar stands up in the Senate and talks about her rights." After finishing with Yulee, Johnson started in on Judah P. Benjamin:  "There's another Jew – that miserable Benjamin! He looks on a country and a government as he would on a suit of old clothes. He sold out the old one; and he would sell out the new if he could in so doing make two or three millions." The prominence of Yulee and Benjamin in Rebel ranks led some Northerners to assert that all Jews were secessionists and that there would never have been a rebellion had Jewish bankers not planned it in order to enhance their profits.

There were instances of antisemitism in the Confederacy as well. Senator Henry S. Foote of Tennessee proposed to amend that state’s constitution to ban Jews from coming within twelve miles of the capital. Such expressions, however, were rare. The Confederate Congress did not exclude non-Christians when establishing chaplaincies, and no Southern general attempted to exile Jews from areas under his command. In Virginia, invitations went to rabbis as well as to Christian ministers to offer prayers at the beginning of the legislative day, and when some groups tried to secure special privileges for Christians, the efforts always failed under a barrage of criticism invoking the names of Jefferson and Madison.

Antisemitism did exist, some of it, ironically, sparked by the same Judah P. Benjamin who so angered Andrew Johnson. Benjamin had been born in the Virgin Islands of British parents who later moved to Charleston, South Carolina. Although he never converted or denied his Jewish birth, Benjamin took no interest in Jewish affairs; nonetheless, he was identified by both friend and foe as a Jew. Elected to the United States Senate in 1852, Benjamin sided with the secessionists and served in the Confederate cabinet as attorney general, secretary of war, and secretary of state. After the war, he moved to England rather than live in the defeated South, and there he became a distinguished barrister.

Whereas Northerners attacked Benjamin as a secessionist, Southern antisemites tended to blame him for all the ills of the Confederacy. A letter to the editor of the Richmond Enquirer believed it blasphemous for a Jew to hold so high an office and maintained that Southern prayers would be better received by the Almighty if Benjamin were ousted from the cabinet. President Jefferson Davis once found himself assailed in violent language by a Virginian for appointing a Jew to his cabinet. Davis steadfastly opposed this and all other attempts to get rid of Benjamin, whose abilities he recognized and valued and whom he counted as a friend.

Many Southerners even charged Benjamin and other Jews with profiteering. The Union blockade of southern ports led to severe shortages, and many people engaged in smuggling and profiteering. Although blockade running has often been depicted as a romantic high adventure, in fact it was dangerous and far from glamorous. Philip Whitlock, a tailor in private life and quartermaster clerk with the Richmond Grays who had been present at the hanging of John Brown recounted in his diary how he and his brother-in-law, Ellis Abram, ran the blockade along with four colleagues. They had no trouble getting to the Potomac, where they found a black man willing to row them over. Moving with muffled oars, they spotted a Union gunboat when they were halfway there. The hired oarsman wanted to turn back, but one of the passengers convinced him to continue by putting a revolver to his head. Whitlock and Abram made their way to New York, where they stayed for nearly a week buying fine-toothed combs, tobacco pipes, pins, needles, pencils, and other small goods that would fit in their hand luggage and then headed home.

This proved an even more arduous journey than they had expected. The two hid in a tobacco barn in Maryland for nearly two weeks before they could cross over to Virginia where they were arrested by a Confederate captain. After their release, they discovered that about half their purchases had disappeared. By the time they got back to Richmond and sold the other half, they had just about broken even.

Whitlock's blockade-running escapade was a minor event, and from all evidence, Jews played a relatively small role in smuggling. But the high prices for such contraband led to widespread anger among the populace.  This anger led at times to efforts to make Jews the scapegoats. During the 1863 bread riots in Richmond, agitators charged that Jewish speculators had caused the shortages and were lining their own pockets at the expense of true patriots. In a sermon preached in Fred­ericksburg on a Confederate fast day (May 27, 1863), Michelbacher rebutted the accusations and declared flatly that "the Israelites are not speculators nor extortioners.” The sermon was widely reprinted in both the North and the South.

The Richmond Examiner often charged that Jews had no loyalty to the Confederacy and merely wanted to make money out of the war, primarily by providing inferior goods to the army. A cartoon, "Shoddy or the Vulture of the Camp," was popular north and south of the Mason-Dixon line, and the Examiner asserted that Jews "flocked as vultures to every point of gain." Allegations by the Examiner led the U.S. House of Representatives to appoint a special committee in early 1864 to look into the charges. They were found totally baseless.

Although Union troops had tried to capture Richmond almost from the beginning of the war, the city withstood conquest until the end. Other sections of the state proved less fortunate. Parts of the Shenandoah Valley and much of northern Virginia were occupied by federal troops through most of the war. In early 1862, Northern forces under the command of Marcus M. Spiegel, a German immigrant who had settled in Ohio, occupied Woodstock. In a letter to his wife, he wrote of surprising Jews he met in towns under his jurisdiction. When he recognized a Jew, he would use a few words of Hebrew or Yiddish and then smile at their reaction. They would ask in return if he was Jewish, and upon receiving a firm yes, they would invite him and his officers to their home for dinner and do all they could to treat him with respect.

Although Jews had not lived in Alexandria as long as they had in Richmond or Norfolk, many of the Jewish families there had strong Southern sentiments, and several of the young men served with the Confederate army. On the day that Virginia voted to secede from the Union, Henry Schwarz ran an advertisement in the Alexandria Gazette.  Despite its efforts at lightheartedness, there was an underlying tone of despair that affected many of the city’s residents:

The War has certainly begun.

Go to SCHWARZ's you'll see there is no fun;

He'll sell you for 25 cents the 'Panic Envelope',

Containing Hose, Handkerchiefs, Mitts, Combs, and Soap.

In others are Pocket Books, Cravats, Collars and Sleeves,

And everything that mortal can conceive; The motto of selling so cheap,

Is simply as he needs money a heap

As there is trouble all over the land,

He is anxious to dispose of Goods on hand; Call and see him or send in your order,

And get the 'Panic Envelope' for only a quarter.

As for the worth of your money, you need not be mistaken.

It is as sure as Fort Sumter is taken.

Only a few weeks later, the New York Zouaves marched into Alexan­dria and occupied the city for the duration of the war. Those who remained found themselves subject to the indignities of occupation, and in 1863, Union officials drew up a list of Alexandria citizens, including several Jews, who were considered disloyal. They received an alternative of either proving their loyalty at once or facing deportation behind Southern lines.

The provost marshal's records described Joseph Rosenthal and his brother Albert, who owned a shoe store on King Street, as having been "formerly connected with all rebel movements while rebs were here." The report also labeled Simon Waterman, who had lived in Virginia for at least fifteen years, as "Secesh but guarded in conversation." Waterman's wife, Caroline, also found her name on the list. The Rosenthals managed to prove their loyalty, but the Watermans could not, and only a last-minute rescission of the deportation order by the secretary of war prevented their exile. Jews, however, were treated equally with their neighbors. In fact, the military-controlled city council named Peter Seldner to the wartime board of health in 1863, perhaps the first Alexandria Jew to hold public office.

Richmond escaped outright occupation during most of the war, but in April 1865, Lee's defense line at Petersburg collapsed, and he sent a message to Davis to evacuate Richmond. Many citizens fled. The majority of the Jews, who had clearly supported the Confederate cause, decided to remain and take their chances during the occupation.

On April 2, the day before Union troops entered the city, Confederate officials set fire to the large stores of tobacco that had accumulated in the city to prevent their falling into enemy hands. A strong wind blew up from the south, and before long, much of the downtown business district had been turned into an inferno. In her diary, Emma Mordecai recalled seeing the glow of the flames, hearing one explosion after another, and feeling concern for relatives and friends still in the city. Soon after, concern turned to fear as she and her sister-in-law had to deal with marauding troops and freed slaves and then the certainty of knowing that her beloved Richmond had been destroyed.

As the 4th Massachusetts Cavalry rode down Main Street, the men were greeted with scowls and jeers from the bystanders, but as they approached one house, a second-floor window opened, and a handsome young woman flung to the breeze a large flag showing the Stars and Stripes. Major Atherton H. Stevens and his men wheeled in front of the house and "gave a lusty cheer for Old Glory and another for the fair woman who had gladdened their hearts." Had they known the truth of this deception, they might not have cheered so lustily.

Rachel Semon Louis and her parents had lived in Richmond during most of the war, and as the end approached, the older Semons wanted to escape before Union troops arrived. But as Rachel Louis noted, "I had $10,000 worth of tobacco in my rooms and had determined to save it. Then the idea came into my head that as soon as the troops came into town I would hoist the flag, and would be assured protection." Her father believed that she would not dare to do it, but the strong-willed woman thought she had little to lose.

She had embroidered the flag in 1859, and during the war, lest she be thought a traitor, kept the flag concealed behind a mirror. The ruse worked, and although a number of surrounding houses were destroyed, the Semon residence survived intact. But the family lost the tobacco anyway; fearing the Union soldiers would seize it, her husband and father had hired draymen to move it to a safe warehouse, where the great fire consumed it.

And so Rachel Louis, like the other Jews of Virginia, faced the end of the war with little but her determination to begin life anew.

Condensed and adapted, by the author, from Melvin I. Urofsky, Commonwealth and Community: The Jewish Experience in Virginia (Richmond, Va.: Virginia Historical Society and Jewish Community Federation of Richmond, 1997).

Dr. Melvin I. Urofsky is Professor of Law & Public Policy and Professor Emeritus of History at Virginia Commonwealth University. He writes widely on constitutional history and current policy issues and has been editor of The Journal of Supreme Court History for 15 years. Co-editor of seven volumes of Brandeis letters, he also has written numerous books including The Levy Family and Monticello, 1842-1923: Saving Thomas Jefferson's House, and Commonwealth and Community: The Jewish Experience in Virginia. His recent biography of Justice Louis D. Brandeis was published by Pantheon in 2009.