Immigrant soldiers

by David Geffen

What becomes very clear in ‘Jews and the Civil War’ is that Jews, depending, supported the ideology of their close neighbors.

For Jews in America,” Eli Evans, noted historian of Southern Jewry, begins his essay reprinted in this volume, “the Civil War was a watershed that involved Jewish soldiers from all over the nation.” He emphasizes that “Jews served in both armies and helped in the war effort in many other ways. Serving their countries under fire and fighting side by side with their gentile comrades in arms accelerated the process of acculturation, not only through their self-perceptions, but also because of the reactions of the community around them.”

Then Evans makes this key point about what the Civil War accomplished in terms of identity. “Jewish immigrants who had only recently arrived in America and thought of themselves as Germans came to see themselves not only as Americans, but as Americans who belonged.” Significantly, “the veterans, who were Jews, were largely treated that way when they returned home.”

This essay by Evans entitled “The war Between Jewish Brothers in America” is but one of many that Jonathan D. Sarna, a leading American Jewish historian at Brandeis University, and Adam Mendelsohn, a young scholar at the College of Charleston and director of the Center for Jewish Culture there, have gathered for study as the 150th anniversary of the beginning of the Civil War arrives next year. What they make clear is that since Dr. Bertram Korn, the first modern historian of Jews in the Civil War, challenged academics to study this war seriously a half century ago, much has been written. Now it is all together in one volume.

One of the main issues elucidated is the role of Jews in the slave trade and the Jews and slavery in the Old South, 1789-1865. Growing up in the South in the 1940s and ’50s, I was taught in religious school that Jews of the Confederacy treated their slaves kindly. Academically, at Emory University, I learned from a noted Civil War historian that this was the case as well. Dr. Bertram Korn’s essay demonstrates that Southern Jews had different approaches to the slaves they owned. Some were loving; others did not act that kindly. Korn’s evidence is one of the eyeopeners here.

The headings of the other groups of essays are “Jews and Abolition,” “Rabbis and the March to War,” “Jewish Soldiers during the Civil War,” The Home Front,” “Jews as a Class” and an aftermath dealing with post-Civil War economy in the South and Ulysses S. Grant as a candidate for president.

What becomes very clear in these essays is that Jews, depending on what part of the US they lived in, supported the ideology of their neighbors. So Confederate Jews were still anxious to maintain the old ways of life; Yankee Jews wanted the slaves freed and the nation reunited. There were Yankee rabbis who held that the Bible advocated slavery, but congregational pressure soon drove them out of their pulpits. There were Jewish abolitionists and those who opposed them. Jews in both armies held Sedarim on Pessah.

Clearly delineated in two essays is the anti-Semitism that Jews in the North and South experienced during the Civil War. This is seen in the 1862 edict by Grant expelling Jewish merchants from a particular territory in the South, and only president Abraham Lincoln could rescind that order. Also problematic were the caricatures of Northern and Southern Jewish merchants and manufacturers, whose goods were depicted as being “shoddy.”

Sarna and Mendelsohn might have included more about Judah P. Benjamin, the leading Jewish figure in the Confederacy. Still awaited is a study of the Hebrew dispatches to the Magid magazine by Rabbi Henry Vidaver of New York and St. Louis written throughout the Civil War.

From The Jerusalem Post.

The original article may be found here.

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