Monday, December 6, 2010

Jewish soldiers in the Civil War

Greetings Cosmic Americans! And Happy Chanukah!!

I received an inquiry from a Twitter follower the other day (@LookBackMaps) that I thought was well suited for a blog post.

It had to do with Jewish soldiers fighting for both the Union and the Confederacy. He wanted to know numbers. How many fought for each side - how many from each state?

Well, the trouble is, exact numbers are a little hard to come by in the mid-nineteenth century. Record keeping departments were somewhat more relaxed (to say the least) than today - even more so in the Confederate States. And the destruction of records by retreating Rebels in the South only added to the problematic nature of the counting game.

We can, however, come up with some general figures. In 2008, a PBS documentary called The Jewish Americans cited 150,000 Jews living in the United States in 1860. Of these, roughly 3,000 fought for the Confederacy and 7,000 fought for the Union. That's approximately (based on the laws of higher mathematics) 10,000 Jewish soldiers taking up arms for their respective causes.

Jews held high ranks in the armies too. Their were 9 Jewish generals and 21 Jewish colonels in the war. Judah P. Benjamin, who from what I understand was a non-observant Jew, served as the Confederate Secretary of State and Secretary of War.

How about that.

But it's not all about names and numbers. In the news, U. S. Grant made headlines when he issued his infamous General Order no. 11 on December 17, 1862. This order essentially expelled all Jews from his military district (Tennessee, Mississippi, Kentucky) in an effort to curtail black market cotton trading, which Grant thought was being run "mostly by Jews and other unprincipled traders." Not Sam Grant's finest hour, to be sure. At least Abraham Lincoln had the good sense to immediately reprimand Grant (who then rescinded the order).

Many of the Jewish soldiers fighting in the Union armies were recent immigrants - from places like Germany and elsewhere in Central Europe. But not all were foreign born - especially in the Confederacy. A great number of these soldiers were native to the states (and country...I suppose) for which they fought. Some of the oldest synagogues in the prewar nation, for example, were in Virginia and South Carolina. There is a Jewish Confederate cemetery called Shockoe Hill in Richmond, Virginia, and Hollywood Cemetery (also in Richmond) has a Jewish section.

So there you have it. There are a couple of books worth checking out for further information. I recommend Jews and the Civil War: A Reader edited by Adam Mendelsohn and Jonathan Sarna as well as American Jewry and the Civil War by Betram W. Korn

Who knows...with all this info out there, maybe we can get Adam Sandler to write a new expanded version of his Chanukah song to include a few guys from the Civil War!


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