Jews at the Time of the Civil War

    January 2012          
Search the Jewish Magazine Site: Google


Search our Archives:

Opinion & Society


Book Review: Jews and the Civil War: A Reader

By Jay Levinson

It is very common to write histories of how Jews participated in key events, and the U.S. Civil War is no exception, even though Jews played a small role in the conflict. This book, however, does not fit the common mould. It is not a rewrite of history, applying post-Civil War and modern ethical values to past events. It is an even-handed yet critical analysis through a carefully selected compilation of essays of how Jews both justified and decried slavery. The war tore apart Jewish unity, just as it pitted American against American.

If a generalization can be made (and generalizations are frequently dangerous, because there is almost always an exception), Jews sided with the society in which they lived. After all, Jews were a distinct minority. There were, however, those who tried to stay neutral.

Major Alfred Mordechai was one of those who "was horror-stricken by the knowledge of what lay before him and his country" as fighting erupted in April, 1861; he did not fight. Born in North Carolina, he was a graduate of West Point and a recognized expert in weaponry. He was sympathetic to the Confederacy, where many of his family lived, but he believed in the Union, which he had served during a 40 year career. Philosophically he was opposed to slavery, which he viewed as "the greatest misfortune and curse that could have befallen us." Simple? No. "Mordechai believed that Negroes were better off as slaves in America than 'as savages in Africa." He was determined not to be part of the conflict despite a personal offer of rank and honor from President Jefferson Davis. Mordechai resigned from the Army and spent the war years as a school teacher in Philadelphia.

Not all Jews stayed neutral. Judah Benjamin, a Sephardic Jew and lawyer from the Carolinas to whom President Millard Fillmore had once offered a Supreme Court nomination (Benjamin declined), served in three positions in the Confederate cabinet, including Secretary of State. He was motivated by a position was that as the war dragged on, the North would tire both of Abraham Lincoln and of the fighting, then declare a cease fire. Some of his ideas were what we would call racist today, for example not entrusting slaves with the operation of complicated agricultural equipment. One proposal seems na´ve if not outright ludicrous in retrospect --- the arming of slaves to fight for the Confederacy in exchange for their emancipation. After the war Benjamin fled the defeated Confederacy and re-established his legal career in Europe.

The decade before the Civil War was a period of immigration, and the Jewish population of the then-United States grew quickly. One immigrant was David Einhorn, a Reform rabbi from Germany, who established a pulpit in Baltimore. The leading rabbi of Baltimore at the time, Bernard Illowy, was in favor of both the religious and political status quo, but quietly he had a definite sympathy for the Southern cause, "Who can blame our brethren of the South for there being inclined to secede from a society under whose government those ends cannot be obtained.?"

Rabbi Benjamin Szold, a young clergyman in Baltimore, preached reconciliation. This was not at all the approach of David Einhorn. From his arrival in Baltimore in 1855 he called slavery the "cancer of the Union" and derided rabbis who supported it, sometimes stooping to name calling. Were we not emancipated from Egypt? If so, how can we justify forcing people to be slaves? Maryland had definite pro-Confederacy leanings, and it was kept in the Union only by the large presence of Northern troops. Einhorn was preaching against popular sentiment. After the outbreak of fighting he fled for his life, first to Philadelphia, then after the war to New York.

Was there anti-Semitism in the United States at the time? This book gives examples, both in the North and in the South. Certainly the most blatant acts were the various anti-Jewish proclamations of General U.S. Grant, later to become President of the United States. Fortunately, some of his restrictions on Jews caught the attention of Abraham Lincoln, who quickly rescinded them.

This book brings a new understanding, perhaps not to the "Jewish role in the Civil War," but to "Jews in the United States at the time of the Civil War." It is a well-edited compilation of essays that also make interesting reading.


from the January 2012 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

Material and Opinions in all Jewish Magazine articles are the sole responsibility of the author; the Jewish Magazine accepts no liability for material used.

Please let us know if you see something unsavory on the Google Ads and we will have them removed. Email us with the offensive URL (