- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 8, 2003

Before the Civil War, the largely immigrant Jewish community threw itself into the debates over slavery and secession. When war broke out, Jews sacrificed and fought for their new loyalties in the North and South. This story of Americanization is outlined in Bertram Korn's classic "American Jewry and the Civil War," which has been reprinted in a new edition, offering his extensive research, fascinating anecdotes and excellent overview to a new generation of readers.
Regarded as his magnum opus, "American Jewry and the Civil War" continues to be a valuable record of the Jewish community during this period. His intriguing stories of close friendships between Jews and President Lincoln, of fiery rabbinical sermons in the North and South, and of the anti-Semitism that erupted and was squelched make this book lively reading.
In 1860, there were 150,000 Jews in the United States, and at least two-thirds of them were immigrants. Although the Jews were largely newcomers to America, they quickly became involved in the issues of the day, and their religion did not dictate their opinions. Jews came down on both sides of the slavery issue. Mordecai M. Noah's New York newspapers took a strong pro-slavery position and Judah P. Benjamin and David Yulee championed slavery. But Moritz Pinner's Kansas Post opposed it, and other Jews active in politics, such as Isidor Bush of St. Louis and J. Joachimsen of New York City, were also anti-slavery.
Mr. Korn sums up the divide among Jews on the question of slavery: Unlike some Christian denominations, "they adopted no single political formula, but, to the contrary, all the varieties of political thought then current on the national scene. Personal background and environment, rather than Jewish teachings, determined their views; their version of Judaism was cut to fit the pattern of the conclusions which they reached independently."
When the war broke out, American Jewry followed their respective communities to war. Sabato Morais, an Italian immigrant from Philadelphia, was the most dynamic rabbi to support the Union. Urging self-sacrifice, Morais said: "When dearly bought freedom is in jeopardy … deeds of self-denial more than psalmody, will sanctify the life of man."
One of the leading rabbis of the South was James K. Gutheim, who began his rabbinical career in New Orleans. After Union forces occupied the city, residents were required to take an oath of loyalty to the Union.
Many patriotic Southerners took the oath, believing it simply did not reveal their true emotions, but Gutheim refused to betray the Southern cause, which he regarded as "the cause of right and justice." Instead, he went into exile in Alabama and became the rabbi in Montgomery, where he continued his passionate support for the Confederacy, revealed in the following prayer made with his new congregation: "Regard, O Father, in Thine abundant favor and benevolence, our beloved country, the Confederate States of America. May our young Republic increase in strength, prosperity and renown."
Community activity in support of the war effort took many forms. Jewish individuals, welfare societies, synagogues, and social organizations actively participated in war relief and patriotic activities. Synagogue vestry rooms and private homes were used for the preparation of bandages and lint used to dress wounds. Many Jewish women's groups were founded to address wartime needs.
While Jewish institutions and individuals gave steady support to relief activities, there was some controversy over Jewish group participation. The Jewish Record stated that relief campaigns should not result in "Ghettoes" or "Judenstrassen." It asked why "pretty Jewesses" should be set apart from other women. After all, "pretty Catholics," "demure Quakeresses," and "smiling Presbyterians" did not have their own stands. Likewise, while several Jewish units were raised, Jews generally preferred to serve with a wider group of their countrymen, not just their coreligionists. Explaining the inability to raise a Jewish unit from New York, Mr. Korn writes: "individuals enlisted, but there was no Jewish war meeting. New Yorkers apparently did not approve of Jewish enclaves within the army."
For a community largely composed of immigrants, the Civil War proved to be a major impetus for assimilation. Yet, there were also stories of wartime anti-Semitism.
Mr. Korn devotes one chapter to what he calls the "chaplaincy controversy." The military required that a chaplain be a "regularly ordained minister of some Christian denomination." When Jews brought this provision to Abraham Lincoln's attention, he supported a bill that changed the law to requiring "a regularly ordained minister of some religious denomination."
The second instance of official anti-Semitism that Mr. Korn illustrates was much more serious. On Dec. 17, 1862, Gen. Ulysses S. Grant's headquarters in Holly Springs, Miss., gave an order stating: "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." This command affecting the Department of Tennessee was the most sweeping anti-Jewish regulation in American history. Jews were accused of speculating in cotton and trading with the enemy, and thus Grant ordered all of them removed from the border region.
Speculators had flooded the region and created an anarchic situation. While Jews were certainly among these speculators, so were Union officers and, some said, Grant's father. Grant's order unfairly singled Jews out and condemned all, not just the guilty.
Cesar Kaskel of Paducah, Ky., conferred with Jewish leaders about how to respond to this order. With Rep. John A. Gurley of Ohio as his escort, Kaskel went to Washington to meet with Lincoln. Mr. Korn reports Lincoln's colorful reaction, but fails to cite the source:
Lincoln: And so the children of Israel were driven from the happy land of Canaan?
Kaskel: Yes, and that is why we have come unto Father Abraham's bosom, asking protection.
Lincoln: And this protection they shall have at once.
Lincoln made good on his promise, and less than three weeks after the order was issued, Washington ordered it to be revoked. A delegation of rabbis visited Washington to thank Lincoln, at which time Lincoln said he had always believed that "to condemn a class is, to say the least, to wrong the good with the bad. I do not like to hear a class or nationality condemned on account of a few sinners."
Notwithstanding these incidents, overall Mr. Korn shows that far from isolating Jews, the Civil War actually aided in their assimilation. There was a "highly accelerated pace of Americanization which resulted from Jewish participation in the war on both the individual and communal levels," he writes. "In less critical periods of the national life the immigrant tends to assimilate the atmosphere of his new home slowly, cautiously, unhurriedly. … During the fratricidal blood-bath of the Civil War, however, the most desperate, fearsome period in American history, almost every inhabitant citizen, immigrant, visitor was drawn into the fray, emotionally even more than physically."
Many Jews were newcomers to the nation and thus were more rooted in the old country that they had left; yet the Civil War brought them out of this isolation. Jews, like all Americans, became caught up in the patriotic fervor on both sides. They became intimately involved in the struggle, and without their contributions North and South the war effort would have greatly suffered.
Peter Brownfeld received a bachelor's degree in history from the University of Virginia and a master's degree in history from the London School of Economics. He works at the American Enterprise Institute.

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