2 pages | SMC 2235
Simon Wolf, a Jewish 19th century German-American immigrant, fashioned himself the de facto Ambassador of the Jews to Washington, and did much good in his long life, almost all of which is forgotten. Yet somewhere between his pleading with President Lincoln in the middle of the night to spare the life of a young Jewish deserter and pressing President Wilson about the abrogation of the Russo-American Treaty of 1832, he managed to write the only 19th century book about Jewish soldiers in the Civil War. This somewhat scattershot labor of love is why his name is known today, for the book was so important that it has been the Ur-text on the subject for well over a century. The American Jew as Patriot, Soldier and Citizen is a landmark of both Jewish-American and Civil War scholarship, and until the 2022 publication of The Shapell Roster, has been the sole, if not quite definitive arbiter, of who, in the armies of the North and South, was Jewish.
Wolf’s magnum opus – unlike, say, his 1918 memoir The Presidents I Have Known From 1860-1918 - was not inspired by extraordinary achievement so much as denial of the same. Apparently, it didn’t matter that as many as 10,000 Jews served in the Civil War: someone still took pen in hand to record that he had never met a single Jew in uniform and couldn’t find any old solider who had either. This calumny was published in the North American Review in 1891, and like most public assaults of American Jewry, raised Wolf’s fiery ire. Mindful of Jewish Civil War Medal of Honor winners, Jewish military leaders, and a century of Jewish participation in American civic life, Wolf immediately took to the pages of The Washington Post to put forward a rebuttal: as many as 8,000 Jewish soldiers, he averred, served in the Union Army alone. Of course, having made that claim, he forthwith saw it must be proven – which, naturally, he set out to do. Four years later, in 1895, he published The American Jew as Patriot, Soldier and Citizen. The reviews, apparently, were glowing, with New York’s Brentano’s Booksellers hitting the nail on the head: what Wolf’s work did, it applauded, was combat “one of the most obstinate of prejudices… concerning which ignorance has become unpardonable.” No less a literary luminary than Mark Twain, in fact, learned the lessons of Wolf’s book – the hard way. Twain, having in 1899 made a remark reflecting unfavorably on Jewish loyalty (they evinced an "unpatriotic disinclination to stand by the flag as a soldier," he wrote in his essay Concerning the Jews), was soon corrected by Wolf. Receiving a gift copy of Wolf’s book, he wrote back that it seemed to him that the Jews sent at least 5% of their population to fight. Twain retracted the falsehood. That slur, he said, “cannot hold up its head in presence of the figures of the War Department.”
But there was one person, at least, who received the book from Wolf with perfect equanimity: Wolf’s friend President Cleveland. He wrote:
Please accept my thanks for a copy of your book entitled "The American Jew as Patriot, Soldier and Citizen," which you kindly sent me a short time ago. I hope I may be able at a future time to read the volume carefully for the slight acquaintance I have already given it, convinces me that it challenges fairness and justice for a class of our citizens to whom they have not always been accorded.
Cleveland, always a straight shooter, had no use for anti-Semitism: in his first term he appointed his friend the prominent Jewish businessman Oscar Solomon Straus the United States envoy and minister to the Ottoman Empire. Indeed, so close was he to Straus that, during his second administration, he offered Straus the Postmaster Generalship, only to have Straus turn it down in favor of serving in Congress (Straus, for his part, not only befriended Cleveland, but sent him a case of matzo every year.) But it wasn’t just to the great and good of American Jewry to whom Cleveland extended his friendly hand; he also vetoed an immigration bill which would have excluded many illiterate Eastern European Jews from entering the country. Even after his presidency Cleveland spoke out for Jews, publicly denouncing Russia’s Tsarist-sanctioned pogroms of “wholesale murder” by “a professedly civilized government.” For this and more, the adamantly Republican Wolf considered the Democrat Cleveland one of the greatest presidents ever. He was, and would ever be, Wolf declared, “an inspiration and an example.”
Autograph Letter Signed, as President, 2 pages, octavo, Executive Mansion, Washington, December 30, 1895. To SIMON WOLF (1836-1923; American Jewish leader and author of seminal study of American Jewry, The American Jew as Patriot, Soldier and Citizen.)
all pages and transcript
Dec 30. 1895
Hon Simon Wolf
My dear Sir:
Please accept my thanks for a copy of your book entitled "The American Jew as Patriot [sic] Soldier and Citizen", which you kindly sent me a short time ago. I hope I may be able at a future time to read the volume carefully, for the slight examination I
have already given it, convinces me that it challenges fairness and justice, for a class of our citizens to whom they have not always been accorded.
Yours very truly