August Bondi, Jewish Soldier and Fighter for Freedom

January 24, 2023
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Hopkins, T. E. August Bondi, Photograph, circa 1884-1889, Kansas State Historical Society

On June 2, 1855, abolitionist leader John Brown and his men were under heavy fire from the pro-slavery border ruffian snipers. As they slowly advanced through the tall dry grass of the Kansas prairies, the man beside Brown called out to a man several yards behind them as the bullets whizzed overhead, “Nu, was meinen Sie jetzt?” Yiddish for “So? What do you think about this?” Behind Brown came the sardonic reply, “Was soll ich meinen?” or “what should I think?” before continuing “Sof odom muves,” which literally means “the end of man is death,” but in current parlance would be something more akin to “we’re screwed.” [1]

One would be forgiven for assuming that this is a fictional scene from a Mel Brooks movie. But, if the legend is true, this actually happened during what would be later known as the Battle of Black Jack, according to most historians, considered the first proper battle against slavery in the United States. The Kansas-Nebraska Act the year before had stoked the flames of American internecine conflict over slavery, bringing thousands of northern abolitionists to Kansas, where they skirmished with pro-slavery factions. This period lasted for seven years, and is commonly known as “Bleeding Kansas.” The Battle of Black Jack was an abolitionist victory that would foreshadow the Civil War’s ultimate preservation of the Union. As the Shapell Roster demonstrates, Jewish participation in the Civil War is well documented. Less known is that amidst the whistling of bullets in the chaos of battle, abolitionists shouting in Yiddish could probably also be heard on the Kansas prairies that day. One of these men, August Bondi, led a life that encapsulated the arc of the struggle for emancipation, stretching from Europe, encompassing John Brown’s early fight for freedom, and including the American Civil War.

Bondi told the amusing story of he and Wiener speaking Yiddish over Brown’s head to Leon Huhner, a historian and former curator of the American Jewish Historical Society. Bondi had been beside Brown, and trailing behind, “puffing like a steamboat”, and calling out in Yiddish to Bondi was Theodore Weiner.[2] To Bondi, fighting with John Brown was a crucial part of his life and legacy. Though a veteran of the Civil War, Bondi had stipulated when planning his government-issued tombstone that it not only reflects his service in the 5th Kansas Volunteer Cavalry, but his participation in the battles of Black Jack and Osawatomie, as well. Another critical experience of Bondi’s life that he had engraved on his tombstone predates his move to America, and even of becoming an adult: his participation in the Revolutions of 1848

August Bondi was born in Vienna on July 21, 1833, to a relatively affluent family. He received a solid education, and though he was raised as an Orthodox Jew, his parents felt it important that he be well-versed in the New Testament, as well. When the revolutions in Europe broke out in 1848, Bondi, who was all of fourteen years old, joined the fray. He enlisted in the Academic Legion, and was standing right behind one of the first casualties of the revolution in Austria, 18-year-old Heinrich Spitzer, a fellow Jew. As the Czech guards opened fire on the students, Spitzer was shot through the heart, bringing Bondi down with him as he crumpled to the ground. Another student was shot and fell on top of Bondi and the lifeless Spitzer. As Bondi attempted to crawl out from under the two corpses of his comrades, he was pistol-whipped and bayoneted by soldiers, who just managed to pierce his coat giving young Bondi a superficial gash on his back. The blood that soaked his hat and coat was Spitzer’s.

For Bondi, his experiences of the 1848 Revolutions shaped not only his legacy, but his outlook. Bondi’s retelling of the events of the revolution simultaneously conveys the immediacy and action he experienced, but also provides a coda to the people who partook in the revolutions, lending a bird’s eye perspective to his memoir. Many of the people who Bondi met and who influenced him were “eminent political writers and speakers, all members of the Legion.”[3]

Bondi notes that most of the students who partook in the Revolution were so traumatized by the experience that most of them were unable to finish their education.[4] Those who weren’t imprisoned or executed following the failed revolution in Austria continued to fight for freedom across Europe. Bondi himself told his parents of his intention to fight for the Magyars against the Habsburgs for a free Hungary. It was at this point that Bondi’s parents understood the downward trajectory of Europe and informed him that they intended to emigrate to the United States. Bondi was conflicted, but his comrades persuaded him that “the time was near when the revolution in Vienna and Hungary would be drowned in blood,” and encouraged him to not oppose his parents’ decision.[5]  

The Bondis departed Europe for America in September of 1848, six months after their teenage son was nearly killed in the revolution in Vienna. A scheduled stop in Belize was August’s first encounter with slavery. He describes the enslaved people as recent “imports from Africa, men and women clad only in coffee sacks, open at both ends, slipped on and tied around the waist.”[6]  From there, the Bondis continued to New Orleans, and then on to Missouri, where they settled. 

In Missouri, the Bondis found a lively political scene, in which many fellow immigrants and Forty-Eighters actively and vociferously engaged. In describing the supercharged political landscape in Missouri, Bondi very candidly explains why so many European Forty-Eighters supported the anti-slavery candidate for the 7th Missouri Congressional District: “It was not sympathy with the negro slave, it was antipathy against the degradation of labor which made us a solid unit to back Thomas H. Benton.”[7]  Bondi reinforces these sentiments in reflecting on a stint working in Texas: “Had I staid [sic] south I would have joined the Confederate army, but while really I did not have much sympathy for the negroes, I felt that my father’s son was not to be a slave driver.”[8]  Bondi seems to imply that though he didn’t morally have an issue with slavery at the time, he still had some kind of consciousness informed by his roots that slavery was a corrupting force. Bondi goes further and describes an incident of his participation in the system of oppression in which he prodded an enslaved person on a ship and was gently chastised by the man. Bondi tells his readers that the incident “cut me to the heart.”[9] This wake-up call and his youthful thirst for adventure set the scene for the next chapter in his life: joining John Brown. 

Like the students in Europe who could not continue their studies owing to the political unrest, Bondi’s experience after working in Texas and returning home to Missouri in the spring of 1852 to study was remarkably similar. He lasted two months before quitting his studies and devoting himself to canvassing for Benton, along with many other Forty-Eighters. Benton’s defeat for reelection in 1854, a consequence of his opposition to the Kansas-Nebraska Act, dovetailed with Bondi’s restless thirst for adventure and meaning. He set out for the Kansas territory, full of hostile pro-slavery men, where he soon encountered John Brown and in 1855 joined him in the fight for abolition. Though John Brown remains a controversial figure, Bondi never wavered in his admiration for the man and the means he used to try to eradicate slavery.[10]

Bondi parted ways with Brown in 1856 and focused on establishing his home in Kansas. He and other abolitionists had claimed land and residence there to impact voting outcomes. In 1860, he married Henrietta Einstein, the sister of his friend George, in a ceremony at George’s house. Henrietta and August’s home became a stop on the Underground Railroad from 1860 to 1861.

With the outbreak of the Civil War, Bondi felt duty-bound to continue the fight against slavery, despite having a wife and child. Bondi’s mother pledged to take care of his young family when he enlisted, reminding her son that “as a Jehudi I had the duty to perform, to defend the institutions which gave equal rights to all beliefs.”[11] Bondi served in the 5th Kansas Cavalry from April 1861 until December 1864. He had an eventful service, including being shot by enemy fire and left for dead both by his own men and soldiers of the Confederacy.

Even after the war, Bondi retained his restless spirit and pursued a variety of occupations in order to sustain his family. He ran his own grocery store, farmed, invested in real estate, studied law, and became a probate judge and postmaster in Salina, Kansas. Before his death at age 73, in 1907, he returned to Europe and left a fascinating account of his impressions, experiences, and thoughts about the place he had called home so long ago in his autobiography. En route to Europe, he reunited with John Brown’s sons; Jason in San Francisco, and Salmon in Portland. By that time, he had become one of Salina’s most famous and celebrated citizens. Bondi’s obituary reflected his own vision for his legacy. The bulk of it was concerned with his role in John Brown’s crusade for abolition and mentions Bondi’s involvement in the Revolutions of 1848. One sentence is devoted to his service in the Civil War. To Bondi, his wartime service was one aspect of his lifelong struggle for freedom, which transcended language, country, and time.



  1. Manuscript letter to the American Jewish Historical Society, 1903, August Bondi papers, 1883-1906, P-178, Collection of the American Jewish Historical Society, New York, NY.
  2. In addition to being much older than Bondi and the other men (he was 37, Bondi 21), Wiener was a massive 200 pounds and was described by John Brown’s son as a “big, savage, bloodthirsty Austrian.”Wiener participated in the Pottawatomie Massacre and Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry.
  3. Bondi, A. (1910). Autobiography of August Bondi. Wagoner Printing Company. p 21
  4. Ibid, p. 16
  5. Ibid, pp. 22-23
  6. Ibid, p.24
  7. Ibid, p.27
  8. Ibid, p.30
  9. Ibid, p.31
  10.  Bondi defended Brown’s character and actions at Harpers Ferry: “Old Capt. Brown was a good, square man, a man steadfast to principles which he had accepted as just and righteous, and if the Border Ruffians had not developed a tiger-like inhumanity the Harper’s Ferry raid could never have taken place,” p. 69
  11. Bondi, p.72