They served at Bunker Hill, Valley Forge and Gettysburg.
They fled when the enemy captured their cities.
Generally speaking, they had as much to lose (or gain) as any other American at war.
Yet many, perhaps most, American Jews simply don’t consider the Revolutionary and Civil Wars to be part of their history, even though many Jews played significant roles in both conflicts.
“Most Jews in America are not deeply aware of American Jewish history, especially history prior to the 20th century,” said Jonathan Sarna, professor of American Jewish history in the Department of Near Eastern and Judaic Studies at Brandeis University. “I think in most cases their own families arrived in the 20th century, and they assume that’s when American Jewish history began, which is deeply unfortunate.”
For his part, Sarna has tried to change that perception, writing and lecturing about Jews who lived through the wars. (He recently wrote an article for The Forward about the Jews who fought at Gettysburg, a battle that will mark its sesquicentennial July 4.)
Other historians are chiming in. Civil War historian Robert Marcus is compiling a comprehensive listing of Jews who served in the conflict.
But the challenge is daunting.
“Too often, young Jews grow up studying the Revolution and the Civil War and imagine that’s somebody else’s country,” Sarna said.
Nothing could be further from the truth:
• Francis Salvador — a Jewish revolutionary from South Carolina and the first Jew to hold elected office in the British colonies. On July 1, 1776, when the Cherokee nation rose up against frontier settlements, Salvador, in an act similar to Paul Revere’s, rode 30 miles to spread the alarm before joining his militia. He was shot in the subsequent battle and scalped.
• Gershom Mendes Seixes — the first native born chazan in what would become the United States. The spiritual leader of Congregation Shearith Israel in New York, Seixes is remembered for evacuating with many of his congregants and holy books from the city as the British were occupying it, later moving to Philadelphia, where he became chazan of Mikve Israel. He supported the revolution in his sermons, beseeching God to bless the cause, the Continental Congress and George Washington. He would go on to lobby for changes to the Pennsylvania constitution, which required a religious exam for those who sought public office, and was one of 14 recognized clergy in New York in 1789 when Washington took the oath of office as the first president.
• Hayim Solomon — perhaps the best- known Jewish patriot during the Revolution. Solomon, a financier from Philadelphia, not only went broke extending interest-free loans to the Continental Congress, but, in a lesser known activity, helped American prisoners of war to escape the British and encouraged German soldiers to desert.
• Lt. Col. Edward Salomon — a Jewish Union Army officer who commanded the 82nd Illinois Infantry, including the all-Jewish C Company. Salomon and his men distinguished themselves at Gettysburg, covering the Union retreat on the first day fighting, which contributed to the North’s ability to occupy Cemetery Ridge and other high ground, repulse attacks on the second and third days and ultimately win the battle.
• On the other side, Major Adolph Proskauer of the 12th Alabama Regiment, led a company of Confederate troops. His men took part in the failed attempt to take Culp’s Hill.
• Judah P. Benjamin — the Confederacy’s secretary of war and of state during the Civil War. Prior to that, while a U.S. senator from Louisiana, President Millard Fillmore offered to appoint him to the Supreme Court, which would have made him the first Jew to be nominated for that office, but he declined.
Approximately 1,500 to 2,000 Jews lived in the colonies at the time of Revolution, Sarna said, “so their role was not decisive, although it’s true individual Jews were known to have participated in various battles.”
By the time of the Civil War, the population had ballooned to 10,000, and a significant number of Jews fought at Gettysburg alone.
“At least 1,000 Jews took part in the Battle of Gettysburg; this is conservative,” Marcus said. “Approximately three fourths were in the Union Army, one quarter from the Confederacy. The 82nd Illinois Infantry contained over 100 Jews including the regiment’s commander, Lt. Col. Salomon. Many regiments in the battle included substantial numbers of Jews. Several regimental commanders were Jewish. Many Jews were killed, wounded or captured at the battle.”
(How many Pittsburgh Jews were at the battle isn’t clear, he added. “I found an Internet resource stating there were 750 Jews in Pittsburgh in 1864 including 10 Union soldiers. [But] this has to be substantially understated.”)
The Jewish experience fighting for America was unlike anything Jews had experienced in Europe.
“There was no discrimination against Jews in the Army,” Sarna said. “Jews could rise up through the ranks, which was not true in many European armies, and there were no fears that a Jew might give orders to a Christian, which would be ‘shameful.’ ”
Even though their numbers were few compared to their non-Jewish countryman, Sarna said their participation in the wars cemented the Jewish narrative in American history.
“The revolution had a greater impact on the Jews more than the Jews did on the Revolution,” he said, but they participated, and shed blood on behalf of the Revolution, which allowed them to claim rights later. They shed blood; they expected to be treated as equals and, they certainly were.”
(Lee Chottiner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)