Rife with tales of brother pitted against brother, North and South, the American Civil War always carried for me the resonance of a biblical narrative of family strife. How could it not when, during the Civil Rights era of my childhood, that undercurrent played out daily in my own household, as I endlessly argued with my Virginia-born father who, despite having come “North” to Baltimore to escape anti-Semitism, somehow never shed the racist beliefs with which he grew up.
Still, it wasn’t until I visited the recently opened exhibition, “Passages Through the Fire: Jews and the Civil War” that I realized the extent to which Jewish brothers (and families), North and South, also faced off against each other. The exhibition—on display at the American Jewish Historical Society and Yeshiva University Museum in New York until August 11—sheds light on a generally lesser-known but highly complex and ultimately formative era of American Jewish history.
To set the scene for its depiction of the way the conflict played out in America at large and more specifically among American Jews, the exhibition begins with a map marking the growth of America’s Jewish population, both in numbers (from 15,000 in 1840 to more than 150,000 in 1860, mostly as the result of an influx of immigrants from Central Europe) and in the diverse locales across the country in which Jewish peddlers, shopkeepers, tailors, glaziers, cigar-makers and farmers settled. These included major cities, small towns, and rural areas in the North, South, and West, in states and territories that were both slave and free. This geography lesson is important because the location in which individual Jews lived—and the pro- or anti- slavery sentiments of their neighbors—typically determined their stance, whether for the Union or for the Confederacy.
In short, the divisions among American Jews of the Civil War era generally mirrored those of America as a whole, with Jewish brothers of different loyalties, Union and rebel, battling each other throughout the conflagration, with several of their individual stories related in photos and letters. But, given our contemporary sensibility, and despite the historical context of the era, it remains impossible not to ask: How could Jews who read the story of the Exodus of Jewish slaves from Egypt each year at Passover personally own slaves, or actively support that position? So it is to the credit of exhibition curator Ken Yellis that “Passages Through the Fire” does not shy away from perplexing questions about Southern Jewish slaveholding Confederate statesmen like Judah P. Benjamin, whom Jefferson Davis appointed as his Secretary of State. (Nor was Benjamin the only Jewish slaveholder in the South; among the slaveholders was the father of the Cone sisters of Baltimore, who contributed their extraordinary art collection to the Baltimore Museum of Art. And the exhibition tells the stories of additional Jewish rebel soldiers and sympathizers through portraits, photos, letters, memoirs, and war mementos.)
The exhibition also includes numerous sermons, speeches, and letters demonstrating that this question was widely debated in Jewish communities throughout the country. The first volley was delivered by Morris Raphall, a celebrated New York rabbi who, in an infamous 1861 speech, stated that “slaveholding is no sin” and was “expressly placed under the protection of the Ten Commandments.” Rabbi David Einhorn of Baltimore, among others, hotly rebutted Raphall’s expression of what Southern sympathizers interpreted as a scriptural endorsement of slavery. Other Jewish abolitionist voices represented here include New York feminist Ernestine Rose and Austrian immigrant August Bondi, who joined John Brown’s abolitionist fighters in Kansas in 1855 and during the Civil War itself served as a sergeant in the Kansas Calvary. (As for Raphall, he did support the Union when war broke out; and his son, who fought for the North, lost an arm in the battle of Gettysburg.)
But whichever side they fought for, Jews had to contend with anti-Semitism. The assaults on Jewish character were rampant, with one editorial asking, “How could you expect a Jew quartermaster to be honest?” Most infamously, in December, 1862, General Ulysses S. Grant issued his General Orders No. 11, which expelled all Jews from the large military district he commanded— a decree that was rescinded the following month in the wake of numerous protests by officials and citizens, both Jewish and non-Jewish, some of whose telegrams and letters are on display. Thus, a non-Jewish Union officer wrote of his colleague, Lieutenant Joseph G. Rosengarten, “I have come from being prejudiced against him to liking him very much.”
Letters like these bolster the argument that by making Jews more visible, the Civil War ultimately encouraged more tolerance and acceptance. The examples of civic commitment to the war by many Jewish institutions and organizations—such as opening the doors of New York’s Jews’ Hospital (later Mount Sinai Hospital) to ailing and wounded soldiers and sailors of every religion—further bridged gaps between Gentiles and Jews.
Nor can the impact of President Lincoln’s personal and public support of religious liberty be underestimated. In addition to playing a key role in helping reverse Grant’s General Orders Number 11, Lincoln also helped undo restrictions that had allowed only Christian ministers to serve as military chaplains. Under his influence, the law was rewritten so that Jewish chaplains could be appointed. The exhibition displays the official 1862 commission of Rabbi Jacob Frankel as the first Jewish chaplain in the Union army.
Through these instances, among others, Lincoln earned the deep affection of the Union’s Jews, so much so that he became known as “Father Abraham” and, after his assassination, many congregations publicly recited the mourner’s kaddish for him. In 1865 Philadelphia rabbi Sabato Morais, reflecting the sense of loss felt by so many American Jews, composed a Hebrew acrostic poem about Lincoln as well as a longer “Address on the Death of Abraham Lincoln.” Both documents are on display in the exhibit.
As American Jews, they fought, and as American Jews they grieved. “Passages Through the Fire” tells the story of an American—and a Jewish—epoch.
Diane Cole, the author of the memoir After Great Pain: A New Life Emerges, writes for The Wall Street Journal and other publications and is a faculty member of the Skirball Center for Adult Jewish Learning at Temple Emanu-El in New York.
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