Passages Through the Fire: Jews and the Civil War

August 21, 2017
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Yeshiva University Museum
New York City, NY
March 2013 - August 2013
October 2013 - February 2014


Co-presented by the American Jewish Historical Society and Yeshiva University Museum, Passages Through the Fire brings to life the active roles Jews played in all aspects of the American Civil War. A crucible for American Jews, the war laid the groundwork for their integration and Americanization on a large scale. It enabled the full participation of Jews in American life – militarily, politically, economically and socially – and set the stage for massive Jewish immigration decades later. This online exhibit features items from the Shapell Manuscript Foundation on display at the Passages Through the Fire exhibition.

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Jewish Leadership

A Lecture on International Jewry

Here Rabbi Fischel, leader of New York’s Shearith Israel Congregation and the first known chronicler of American-Jewish history, writes leading rabbi and educator, Philadelphia’s Rabbi Morais, about a lecturer “on the present condition of Jews in Civilised Countries,” who requires information on the “social and political position” of Jews in Rabbi Morais’ native Italy.

“My friend, Mr. R. di Cordova, is planning a lecture…in which he intends to give a truthful account of their social and political position in Europe as well as in America. As he himself has not had an opportunity of hearing what their condition is in Italy, you will confer a personal favor on me by affording him the required information in regard to your country.”

It seems likely that the “R. di Cordova” being accommodated was in fact the popular Jewish lecturer, Raphael de Cordova – who soon afterward would, like Fischel, be active in the Union cause.

Benjamin Mordecai, Benefactor of the Confedrate Cause, is Honored by and Praises the Famed Palmetto Riflemen

The Palmetto state, South Carolina, was the first to secede, and its proud son, Jewish merchant Benjamin Mordecai, the first to ante up: his $10,000 donation, was the single largest personal contribution to the cause of the Confederacy. Within weeks of secession, Mordecai wrote this letter to the famed Palmetto Riflemen militia – which later had a greater than usual component of Jewish soldiers – in light of, assumedly, his generous donation.

Mordecai went on to generously serve his beloved home – running blockades, buying Confederate bonds, and most notably, underwriting a significant portion of the “Free Market of Charleston”, a fund which supported more than four hundred families of volunteer soldiers. Even after the war, Mordecai spent his remaining money on the Cause: in 1870, running a steamship line, he brought back to Charleston, at no charge, the bodies of the South Carolinians who fell at Gettysburg.

Rabbi Isaac Leeser is Begged to Convince Abraham Lincoln to Stop the Civil War

Leeser’s correspondent, “R.A.L”, writes that a missed issue of The Occident caused him to wonder whether during “the terrific Civil (most probably uncivil) War,” Leeser had suspended publication of his monthly periodical. He offers up first a plea, and then a suggestion that Leeser write President Lincoln and reason with him to stay the war.

“R.A.L.” did not sway Leeser from his public posture of neutrality. Leeser did not believe the War was really necessary, and could have been averted, had the present leadership been truly interested in peace. That Jews, North and South, would kill one another, was anathema to him. Throughout the conflict, then, Leeser confined himself to strictly Jewish issues – and when he finally did write to Lincoln, it was merely to request the appointment of a Jewish hospital chaplain in Pennsylvania.

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Antisemitic Writing of Union General George McClellan

To the litany of disagreeable adjectives used to describe General George Brinton McClellan – vain, arrogant, demanding, intrusive, self-serving, paranoid, messianic, insecure, contentious, petty, unreliable and inept – may be added, as evidenced here, anti-Semitic. Traveling back from Germany to the United States, he describes his shipmates thusly:

“We have lots of Germans and Jews on board – but fortunately there are enough Christian gentiles to make it pleasant for us. The Stribleys, a family from Baltimore…. a son of Chas Francis Adams, a Col. Fredenberg… & a few others enable us to be quite independent of the sons of Jacob.”

Running for President, Ulysses S. Grant Works to Remove Antisemite Label Assigned to him Due to his Infamous Civil War “Jew Order”

Ulysses S. Grant issued his notorious General Orders No. 11, on December 17th, expelling the Jews from Tennessee. Although the immediate flow of protest from Jew and Gentile alike resulted in its swift revocation, it called down upon his head the accusation of virulent anti-Semitism. This issue was a non-starter until Grant was nominated for the presidency. The Democrats made the issue their own, and Jewish leaders throughout the country directed anguished letters to him, seeking an explanation. In this letter to his father Jesse Grant, Grant discusses the “Jew order” and his efforts to combat its effect.

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Those Who Served

Jewish Colonel Max Friedman Certifies Cameron Dragoons Enlistment

Into this largely Jewish regiment, the Cameron Dragoons, is enlisted one Joshua Pickering, on or about August 10, 1861; he served with Company G until his death, at Darbytown Road, Virginia, on October 7, 1864. His Commanding Officer, the Jewish immigrant Max Friedman, certifies his enlistment.

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An Early Civil War Treatise on Gunshot Wounds by Surgeon General P.J. Horwitz

Of all the harrowing facts which lend themselves to explaining how 360,000 Union soldiers died of wounds and disease, there is one, perhaps, that is especially telling: at the outset of the war, the Union medical corps consisted of 83 surgeons and assistant surgeons, few if any of whom had ever treated a gunshot wound. This early wartime treatise on gunshot wounds represents the learning curve. Here J.P. Horwitz, a Baltimore Jew appointed Surgeon General of the Navy, describes in detail the variety of wounds, and their treatment.

Rare Civil War 25 Cent Sutler Token, L. Goldheim, Union's 1st West Virginia Cavalry

Lazarus Goldheim, a Jewish peddler from Baltimore, became L. Goldheim, a Cavalry sutler in Virginia, with the advent of Civil War – and thus an integral, if unglamorous, part of the one of the Confederacy’s most celebrated fighting units, J.E.B.  Stuart’s 1st Virginia Cavalry. This token, stamped “L. Goldheim – 1st Virginia Cavalry” bears witness to that marvelous transformation.

Soldiers were paid in the field, in gold and silver coins, in denominations as large as possible. There was, as a direct result, a terrific shortage of small change. Sutler coins were created so that soldiers could exchange part of their monthly salary for coins in the small amounts necessary to purchase the 5, 10, 25 and 50 cent items they were mostly likely to want.

Jewish Civil War Union Surgeon Morris Asch Rules on Another Surgeon’s “Exorbitant” Bill

When the Union marched to war in 1861, it was staggeringly flat-footed. The medical corps was particularly lame: at the outset of the war, it consisted of 83 surgeons and assistant surgeons, few if any of whom had ever treated a gunshot wound. This state of confusion is evident in the correspondence sent to Assistant Surgeon Asch, upon which he has indited an endorsement. A Dr. McCoy has had his bill cut in half and here objects. He was, he says, responsible for as many as 916 men; in attendance every day and on call many nights; treating men in his office, because there was no hospital; and providing medicines, as well.

Asch, who enlisted in August 1861, served on Sheridan’s staff and was his personal surgeon. He remained in the Army after the war, and saw active service in the Indian wars. In the early seventies, he resigned his commission, and went on to a distinguished practice in New York City.

Jewish Confederate Hero Alexander Hart, Grants Leave to Officers During a Brief Spring Lull in the Civil War

A veteran of numerous battles, Hart led his men at the Second Battle of Winchester, the Second Battle of Kernstown, at Smithfield Crossing, Strasburg, Monocacy, and Gettysburg. He was wounded at Antietam, captured at Opequon – and for this and more, the former store clerk was presented with a sword by the citizens of New Orleans, in recognition of his valor.

Here he directs, and signs off on, 30 day leaves for officers.

Jewish General Edward S. Salomon Accepts an Invitation to Meet with His “Old Comrades in Arms”

Of the 7,935 Jews who fought in the Civil War, few had a better war than Edward Selig Salomon, a German-Jewish immigrant who enlisted in the 24th Illinois as a First Lieutenant.  A hero of Gettysburg and Atlanta, he won quick promotions for battlefield bravery, and rose to command the 82nd Illinois, Heckler’s German and Jewish regiment organized in Chicago. Brevetted a Brigadier General, he remained active in veterans affairs for the rest of his life.  Here he accepts an invitation “to meet the officers of the late Army of the Cumberland.”

Simon Wolf's Original Contract for the Book "The American Jew as Patriot, Soldier and Citizen"

This contract between author and scholar Simon Wolf, and publisher and editor Louis E. Levy, is a seminal document of a seminal work, The American Jew as Patriot, Soldier and Citizen,first published in 1895 and still in print, and use, over one hundred years later.

A remarkably comprehensive book, The American Jew as Patriot, Soldier and Citizen lists the names of thousands of Jewish soldiers and patriots who served in the American armies as officers and regular soldiers, with accompanying historical sketches of the periods and wars in which they served. The book also includes chapters on Jews in the armies of Europe, and a series of chapters on the crimes of Russia against the Jews, and the Russian Jewish refugees in America.