At the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861, Jewish family loyalties mirrored what occurred throughout the United States where brother fought against brother. Jews also found themselves on opposite sides of the battlefield. Out of 150,000 Jews in the United States at the outbreak of war, estimates are that 6,700 fought on the side off the Union, and 3,000 for the Confederacy. It is thought 600 Jews died in battle.
The fact that there were Jews in the Confederacy was largely forgotten until the publication in 2000 of Robert Rosen’s book, “The Jewish Confederates,” which meticulously documented how Jews participated in every aspect of the Confederacy from the battlefield to home life.
“Frequently ethnic minorities enlisted as a unit on both sides, but that was not so for Jewish soldiers,” says Civil War historian Jack Powell. “Jews were only half a percent of the overall population, and they were not living in one concentrated area. As a result it was unusual for enough Jewish men to be able to form a solely Jewish unit. Most served alongside their Christian counterparts.”
Like most Americans, Jews were divided on the issue of slavery. According to the Encyclopedia of the American Civil War, Jews basically followed in the ways of their neighbors.
However, the topic was vigorously argued for and against by Jewish scholars. Rabbi Jacob Raphall denied any biblical opposition to slavery in a highly publicized sermon called “The Bible View of Slavery.” Rabbi David Einhorn and others, concerned that Raphall’s highly publicized opinion would be construed as the official policy of American Judaism, strongly repudiated his position.
The Jewish experience in the Civil War included battlefield leadership, valuable administrative guidance, anti-Semitism, and a struggle to observe Passover.
Jews and the Union
There were several Jewish generals in the Union Army, according to Herb Geduld, a Jewish historian. During the war military promotion was through political influence or to recognize heroic acts on the battlefield. Geduld’s research revealed the Jewish generals he discovered all attained the rank through battlefield bravery.
“Perhaps the most notable Jewish Union general was Frederick Salomon,” Powell says. “He started the war as a captain in the 5th Missouri Infantry, and was involved in the largest Civil War battle in Missouri at Wilson’s Creek in August, 1861. By June of 1862 he had been promoted to a brigadier general.”
“The Salomons were quite a family,” Powell says. “A cousin was also a Civil War General, and another was Governor of Wisconsin during the war.”
General Order No. 11:
One of the most flagrant anti-Jewish decrees in U.S. history occurred during the Civil War Dec. 17, 1862. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant issued an order from his headquarters in Holly Springs, Miss., ordering all Jews out of the geographical area he commanded. Known as General Order No. 11, it read, in part as follows:
“The Jews, as a class violating every regulation of trade established by the Treasury Department and also department orders, are hereby expelled from the department within twenty-four hours from the receipt of this order.”
Several historical accounts indicate Grant was attempting to expel a group of illegal speculators from the area who were trying to take advantage of his soldiers, and that he chose to target the local Jews as the cause of all the activity.
When President Abraham Lincoln became aware of the order he declared: “I do not like to hear a class or nationality condemned on account of a few sinners,” and it was rescinded Jan. 4, 1863.
A Passover Seder:
In 1866 after the Civil War had ended, Union Army Pvt. J. A. Joel penned a remembrance of a Passover seder he and 20 other Jews had celebrated on the battlefield in West Virginia in 1862. Excerpts from his original text follow:
“We were now able to keep the Seder nights, if we could only obtain the other requisites for that occasion. We held a consultation and decided to send parties to forage in the country.”
“We obtained two kegs of cider, a lamb, several chickens and some eggs. Horseradish or parsley we could not obtain, but in lieu we found a weed, whose bitterness, I apprehend, exceeded anything our forefathers ‘enjoyed.’ ”
“The herb … excited our thirst to such a degree, that we forgot the law authorizing us to drink only four cups, and the consequence was we drank up all the cider. Those that drank more freely became excited, and one thought he was Moses, another Aaron, and one had the audacity to call himself Pharaoh.”
Jews and the Confederacy
The Brains of the Confederacy:
Born to Jewish parents in the West Indies in 1811, Judah Philip Benjamin immigrated with his family to the United States and grew up in the South. In 1834 he became a commercial lawyer in New Orleans, and owner of a Louisiana sugar plantation with 150 slaves. By the time the war began, Benjamin had been elected to various public legislative positions and had become an acquaintance of Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederacy.
Davis appointed Benjamin attorney general of the Confederacy Feb. 25, 1861, remarking he chose Benjamin because he “had a very high reputation as a lawyer, and my acquaintance with him in the Senate had impressed me with the lucidity of his intellect, his systematic habits, and capacity for labor.”
In November 1861, he became the Confederate secretary of war, and then secretary of state in 1862. As a result of these appointments and Davis’ reliance on Benjamin for advice, he has been referred to as the “brains of the Confederacy.”
“Benjamin was the most reliable man in Davis’ entire cabinet,” Powell says. “He may also have been the most prominent Jewish citizen in the country at the time.”
After Robert E. Lee’s surrender, Benjamin fled south with Jefferson Davis and the rest of his cabinet. Eventually he ended up in England where he enjoyed a successful career in law.
The Jewish Military Confederate Cemetery:
The Hebrew Confederate Cemetery in Richmond, Va., is thought to be one of only two Jewish military cemeteries in the world outside of Israel. When Confederate military cemeteries refused to allow the burial of Jewish soldiers who had perished in battle, 30 bodies from six different southern states were interred in a self-contained plot within the 1816-era Hebrew Cemetery.
The ornamental fence surrounding the “cemetery within a cemetery” dates to 1866 and is considered a unique work of art. Each of the posts are furled Confederate flags with stacked muskets, with a Confederate soldier’s cap perched on top. Railings connecting each post are crossed swords and sabers hung with wreaths of laurel.
In the 1930s, the eroded headstones were removed and replaced with a bronze plaque with the names of those interred and the inscription “To the glory of God and in memory of the Hebrew Confederate soldiers resting in this hallowed spot.”
Today the Confederate cemetery is maintained by Congregation Beth Ahabah in Richmond.
At the outbreak of the war, Moses Ezekiel was the first Jewish cadet at Virginia Military Institute. He and his fellow cadets suspended their education and formed a battalion, experiencing the agony of war in several battles against Union forces. After the New Market battle in which Ezekiel’s cadet battalion suffered 24 percent casualties, his sad mission was to recover his dead and wounded comrades.
After the war he re-enrolled at VMI and his artistic talent came to the attention of Robert E. Lee, who had commanded the Confederate Army of northern Virginia. Lee encouraged him to pursue his artistic talents.
Ezekiel traveled to Europe to study art, eventually becoming one of the 19th century’s greatest sculptors. Later in his life, the king of Italy and the kaiser of Germany knighted him.
One of Ezekiel’s works was dedicated on the campus of VMI in 1903. Titled “Virginia Mourning Her Dead,” but commonly known as the “New Market Monument,” it sits above six of the cadets who died in the battle fighting alongside him.
After his death in 1917, Ezekiel’s remains were returned to Arlington National Cemetery where they now lay at the base of an elaborate, 32-foot monument he sculpted.
(Jim Winnerman, a St. Louis-based freelance writer, can be reached at