The Revolutions of 1848, the Jews, and the American Civil War

October 6, 2022
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On the barricades on the Rue Soufflot, Paris, 25 June 1848, Horace Vernet, 1848-49, Deutsches Historisches Museum

1848 Revolutions & the Jews

Though the term “Forty-Niners” might be a familiar one denoting the throngs of settlers who descended on California in search of gold in 1849, the year prior was also critical in shaping America’s character. In 1848 in Europe, failed Revolutions spurred the significant immigration of “Forty-Eighters” to America. A diverse group of these Forty-Eighters, including many Jews, would go on to leave their mark on America with their involvement in the Civil War.  As part of the research on identifying Jewish soldiers who fought in the Civil War, the Shapell Roster has clarified, contextualized, and restored the personal and service history of many of the men who made the journey from the aftermath of the 1848 Revolutions to the battlefields of the 1860s.

Between 1840 and 1850, the number of Jews residing in the United States jumped from 15,000 to 50,000.[1] Though the vast majority of Jews who turned to America during this time were not technically political refugees, they were often fleeing a fresh wave of antisemitism that had broken out in Europe as a result of the Revolutions of 1848. Sensing the glass ceiling of what could be achieved or obtained in Europe, the large migration of European Jews to America opened a new epoch in Jewish history: that of America being a major population center of the Jewish Diaspora. The cultural watershed that was the American Civil War both impacted the Jewish community and was reflected in the unique Jewish American experiences.

How Events Leading to the 1848 Revolutions Impacted European Jewry

In order to understand the path by which Jewish Forty-Eighters rose in the ranks during the Civil War, it is helpful to start much earlier, with the 1848 Revolutions themselves and the very particular way they impacted the Jewish population of Europe. In the early 19th century, Europe was a powder keg. Vast increases in population were followed by numerous crop failures (including the Irish potato famine) and inflation. Literacy was on the rise, which meant more people were able to participate in political debate. France, the cradle of nationalism, was the fuse that detonated Europe in the winter of 1848. Over the course of two days, the French dismantled their society, with King Louis Phillipe (a constitutional monarch) abdicating the throne and fleeing to England, ushering in the Second Republic. 

Every echelon of society in Europe was agitating for change. No one was satisfied: nobles wanted more power, the working class wanted higher wages, the middle class wanted more rights, constitutions, and representative legislation, and the nationalists in various countries wanted to break free from foreign monarchs and reconstitute their own cultures. For a very brief period, all of these interests aligned, and people of various echelons united to revolt all over Europe. By and large, the revolutions were quashed quickly with minimal lasting change. After the revolt in Paris, uprisings sprung up throughout Europe against the two other major monarchies.[2] The Italians and Hungarians rose up against the Austrian Empire, and the German nationalists rose up against the Prussian monarchy. The common theme or achievement of all these uprisings was replacing the feudal system with a new order focused on human rights, or the rights of the individual. 1848 was also the year that Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels published The Communist Manifesto, arguing that cycles of revolutions would never end until all people belonged to one class. 

Jewish Participation in the 1848 Revolutions

A natural outgrowth of this dismantling of the feudal system and the granting of equal rights was something that Napoleon had already enacted during the French Revolution in 1791: the emancipation of the Jews.[3] For their part, the Jews participated in 1848 fight for freedom writ large, and not specifically for their own emancipation. Yet Jews were vastly overrepresented in the revolutions, particularly in the Hungarian, Austrian, Italian, and German uprisings, as reflected not only in their participation and later emigration but also in their deaths for the cause.[4] Additionally, many Jews, not necessarily involved in the revolutions, found it necessary to flee. The Austrian Empire viewed Reform Judaism as a revolutionary entity and expelled people like Rabbi David Einhorn. Though Jewish emancipation was generally granted after 1848 (and in many cases, retracted), it was not substantial enough to make many Jews feel safe. 

When Marx stepped onto a bigger stage with his Communist Manifesto that year, his magazine correspondent in Vienna wrote that “tyranny comes from money, and the money belongs to the Jews.”[5] Richard Wagner cites Marx in his Jewishness in Music, published two years after the revolution, written (at the time anonymously) in exile in Switzerland. Wagner’s essay, considered a landmark of German antisemitism, dismisses Jewish emancipation as a red herring, arguing that “the Jew in truth is already more than emancipated” as he rules with money. Therefore, Wagner and many revolutionaries argued, it is Europe that must be emancipated of the Jews and of their God of money.[6]

Many revolutionaries turned on their Jewish brothers, viewing them as the source of oppression. Large-scale anti-Jewish riots and pogroms broke out all over revolutionary Europe, continuing after the revolutions were quelled in 1849.[7] On the other side of the fight, those in power who wished to retain their hegemony conflated all Jews with those agitating for social change and equal rights, and painted Jews as provocateurs, depicting Jews as paradigmatic of the revolutions. 

Time to Flee: Jewish Immigration to America & Civil War Enlistment

With various governments that had regained their power now executing revolutionaries, the only option for most who fought was to flee. For the Jewish population who felt increasingly less at home and more prone to discrimination, America beckoned. Just over a decade later, many of these immigrants (Jewish or not) were called on or enlisted to serve in both the Union and Confederate armies. For many Forty-Eighters in the Union, the Civil War was a second chance for them to fight for freedom and liberty. What was achieved by American Jews was something that was as of yet not available to the brethren they left behind in Europe. Jews were by and large welcomed by the armies of each side, and not turned on as the revolutionaries were in Europe. They fought for and obtained equality, in the form of Jewish chaplains in the Army, and equal rights as civilians. Moreover, the Jewish people had probably never known such an ally as President Lincoln in their history as a people in the Diaspora.

The experience of fighting in Europe often gave some Jewish Forty-Eighters an invaluable advantage in the Union, and a closer look at their service illustrates their historic path. The next article in this series will focus on some of those stories: Charles Mundee, who rose to the rank of Major Assistant Adjutant General, Frederick Kneffler, the highest-ranking Jewish soldier, who also served as adjutant to Lew Wallace, and on Leopold Blumenberg, a former first lieutenant of the Prussian Army who raised the 5th Maryland Infantry. 

  1. Jacob R. Marcus, To Count a People: American Jewish Population Data, 1585–1984 (Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1990), 237–240. Jack J. Diamond, “A Reader in Demography,” American Jewish Year Book 77 (1977): 251–319; 91 (1991): 209; 92 (1992): 143; 102 (2002): 255, 615.
  2.  The revolutions actually started in Sicily, but the momentum was caused by the events in Paris
  3. For more on Napoleon’s Emancipation of the Jews, see Newman, Aubrey. “Napoleon and The Jews.” European Judaism: A Journal for the New Europe, vol. 2, no. 2, 1967, pp. 25–32. JSTOR, Accessed 25 Aug. 2022.
  4. 20 Jews were killed in the Berlin street fights in March of 1848, working out to 7.5% of the  casualties. The Jewish population was approximately .25% at the time. Baron, Salo W. “The Impact of the Revolution of 1848 on Jewish Emancipation.” Jewish Social Studies, vol. 11, no. 3, 1949, pp. 195–248. JSTOR, Accessed 14 Jul. 2022. Kober, Adolf. “Jews in the Revolution of 1848 in Germany.” Jewish Social Studies, vol. 10, no. 2, 1948, pp. 135–64. JSTOR, Accessed 14 Jul. 2022.
  5. “Progress and Its Limits: The Revolution of 1848 and European Jewry”. Reinhard Rürup in Dowe, Dieter ed., Europe in 1848: Revolution and Reform (Oxford, 2001), pp. 758, 761
  6. Eric Nelson
  7. Baron, p. 226