Religion in the Civil War: The Jewish High Holidays

By Sara Willen and Ben Shapell | September 15, 2020

September 15, 2020
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Robert E. Lee, "No Confederate Jew Would Wish to Jeopardize the Sacred Cause."

When antebellum Jews came to America to escape Old World oppression, persecution, and disenfranchisement, they found themselves, by virtue of skin color alone, citizens in a democracy. And, in the South, especially welcome. There, in numbers small enough to be unthreatening, these Europeans, often cosmopolitan and, in a fervently religious region, biblically literate, enhanced the quality of life. By 1860, many of the 25,000 Jews who had made their homes in the South identified with “the southern way of life” and its “peculiar institution.” (Doesn’t the Talmud, after all, teach that “the law of the land is the law”?) So when the War came, Jewish Southerners fought just as their Gentile neighbors did to preserve that way of life – and, too, the pernicious enslavement and exploitation of other human beings.

Here, then, is a letter about Jewish Confederates, and it addresses two realities: Jews bound to observe sacred commandments, and soldiers bound to serve a sacred cause. The writer is none other than the South’s greatest General, Robert E. Lee, eloquently trying to balance what is owed both….

Richmond’s Rabbi Michelbacher

On August 29th, 1861 General Robert E. Lee, his army having just routed the Federals at First Bull Run, was busy preparing for whatever surprise victory might come next. If, that is, it would ever stop raining: supplies couldn’t get through the mud. Lee was worried about his men: they were hungry and sick. But he also had, that cold dismal day, a letter to answer. Little did he know it would be the first of several during the course of four years of the Civil War, all from the same correspondent, and all about the same thing: Jewish Confederates.

Slightly over a hundred miles away, in Richmond, Maximilian J. Michelbacher, a German-born, non-ordained religious leader, and the self-described “Senior Minister of the Hebrews of the State”, was likewise preparing for the immediate future. The Jewish High Holidays – Judaism’s holiest time of the year – was fast approaching, beginning September 5th, and as the spiritual leader of Richmond’s German synagogue Beth Ahabah, “Max” was busy indeed. An ardent secessionist, he supported slavery, the Confederacy, and the Ladies’ Hebrew Benevolent Association turned war-charity. But his most fervent cause was the furloughing of Jewish troops to observe Jewish holidays. Which is why, on August 23rd, he had written Lee to ask that Jewish soldiers be given leave for the approaching High Holidays. “Excuse me that I intrude on you,” he beseeched in his poor English, “but the case is important to a class of citizens, being Israelites, who take the greatest interest in the welfare of this confederacy. … These ten days from the 5th to the 14th of September … are the 10 days of Penitence & Prayer, the most sublime of the holiest days of the year.” God, he added, would bless Lee for it. 

What Michelbacher thought he was doing, in petitioning Lee, was leading all the Jewish soldiers in the Confederate armed services. What he was really doing was merely acting, de facto, as a Jewish chaplain – something, in fact, only the Union Army officially provided its troops. But Lee, who believed both in unswerving devotion to duty and in humble submission to God, had then, in answering Michelbacher, to delicately thread being a commanding general with a man of deep faith:

It would give me great pleasure to Comply with a request so earnestly urged by you; & which I know would be so highly appreciated by that Class of our Soldiers.  But the necessities of War admit of no relaxation of the efforts requisite for its Success, nor can it be known on what day the presence of every man may not be required.  I feel assured that neither you or any member of the Jewish Congregation would wish to jeopardize a Cause you have so much at heart by the withdrawal even for a Season of a portion of its defenders.  I cannot therefore grant the general furlough you desire, but must leave to individuals to make their own application to their Several Commanders, in the hope that many will be able to enjoy the privilege you seek for them, & should any be deprived of the opportunity of offering up their prayers according to the rites of the Church, that their penitence may nevertheless be  accepted by the Most High, & their petitions answered. That your prayers for the Success & welfare of our Cause may be granted by the great ruler of the Universe is my ardent wish.

CSA Commanders, it is worth noting, who turned down such individual requests for furloughs fared poorly when their refusals were brought to Lee’s attention.  Characteristically, he was known to have overruled a Captain who turned down a Jewish soldier’s request for leave with this rebuke: one should, he said, “respect the religious views and feelings of others.”

But Michelbacher, ardent Southern patriot that he was, would in return prove no respecter of military norms. He regularly continued to petition Lee – and other leaders of the Confederate armed forces – on behalf of Jewish Confederates throughout the  War. For this, in Richmond at least, he was beloved and honored for many, many years.

Shown here, in continuation of Lee’s letter that enabled individual soldiers to petition their commanders for furlough during the Jewish High Holidays, is one example of such a pass to travel, issued to Isaac Cohen. (As it happens, Cohen would eventually be related by marriage to Michelbacher’s family.) Cohen, who was unknown to Lee, had his application to his commander was approved. But in 1861, Cohen was not, save for 2 ½ hours, a Confederate soldier. (He had enlisted at 15 in Richmond one evening and, his father discovering his uniform and musket in the early morning, returned them to the recruiting officer the next day.) Nonetheless, a military pass allowing him to travel to Nashville on September 11, 1861 – a day falling between the Jewish New Year (Rosh Hashanah) and Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur) – accompanies, for reasons unknown, this letter.

ROBERT E. LEE. 1807 -1870. Commander-in-Chief of the Confederate Army.

MAXIMILIAN J. MICHELBACHER. 1830 – 1879. Jewish religious leader in Richmond, Virginia.

Autograph Letter Signed (“R.E. Lee”), as Confederate general, 2 pages, quarto, Headquarters, Valley Mountain, August 29, 1861; to Rabbi M. J. Michelbacher, Preacher Hebrew Congregation, “House of Love,” Richmond Va. With accompanying envelope addressed in an unknown hand.

Accompanied by a Document (signed on behalf of CSA Secretary of War LeRoy Pope Walker by a secretary), partially-printed and accomplished in manuscript, being a furlough pass. 1 page, oblong octavo, Confederate States of America, War Department, Richmond, September 11, 1861, authorizing one Isaac Cohen to travel to Nashville, perhaps to celebrate the Jewish High Holidays.

Read more about Jewish service in the American Civil War.

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