Jews in the Civil War

"Both parties deprecated war, but one of them would make war rather than let the nation survive, and the other would accept war rather than let it perish. And the war came."  

- Abraham Lincoln, Second Inaugural Address, March 4, 1865

The Civil War was the central arena in which Lincoln came into contact with many more Jews and they with him. As newly arrived immigrants, Jews tended to be patriotic in order to integrate into society. As soldiers, they were generally loyal to their states, North and South. The Jewish soldiers who joined the Union military were influenced, in part, by Lincoln’s values. Many earned distinguished records of service, particularly at the Battle of Gettysburg. There were a number of largely Jewish regiments, and Jewish soldiers on both sides strove to maintain their Jewish identity and practice their religious rituals in the field. In one grisly instance, the war also demonstrated religious pluralism as Catholic, Protestant and Jewish deserters alike were executed while a priest, minister and rabbi looked on.

Executions at Beverly Ford

“ . . . the troops were massed on the side of a hill about one mile from Beverly Ford, the graves of the condemned men were dug under a tree on the rise of ground opposite a small stream running between the troops and the place of execution . . .”

- James Clossen to his mother, September 3, 1863

On August 29, 1863, 25,000 soldiers assembled at Beverly Ford, Virginia, to witness the execution of five soldiers convicted of deserting. They were “bounty jumpers,” who were paid to enlist as substitutes for draftees and who then deserted, only to repeat the process. Rabbi Benjamin Szold of Baltimore lobbied Lincoln in person to commute the sentence of George Kuhne, a Jewish soldier. But Lincoln had already deferred the decision to General George Meade, and the executions proceeded. Each man was accompanied by a clergyman of his own faith. The executions did not deter future desertions, but they did provide an important example of religious pluralism in the military: the faiths of soldiers and their clergy would be granted proper respect.

Courtesy: Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum

Lincoln responded to the appeal of the soldiers condemned to death by allowing General Meade, in the face of the “flagrant cases,” to proceed as he deemed fit.

Illustration from Harper’s Weekly for September 26, 1863 Showing Five Union Soldiers, Including a Jew, Executed for Desertion

The Jewish prisoner, along with Rabbi Benjamin Szold, occupied the right–most position and marched out first, for Judaism was recognized as being “the most ancient of religious creeds.”