The term “Confederate soldier” conjures up an image of a marginally literate white man younger than thirty years of age, Anglo-Saxon, and Protestant from an agrarian or at least rural background. Of course, a great many soldiers fit this description. It is less well known that other ethnic groups were wearing the gray and fighting for the Confederacy. There were European immigrants, primarily German and Irish, some Americans of African Descent, Native Americans (Chief Stand Waite), and Hispanics (Col. Santos Benavides commanded the 33rd Texas Cavalry). However, the largest ethnic group to “sub-serve the cause of the Southern Confederacy” was made up of first-, second-, and third-generation Jewish men. The Southern Jewish families, initially Sephardic, and then later Ashkenazi, had settled in areas around rivers and ports for generations before the war. For example, in 1695, the first Jews arrived in Charleston, S.C., a town with the second oldest U.S. synagogue, Beth Elohim. By 1861, a third of all the Jews in America lived in Louisiana, the majority in New Orleans. Why would the Jews settle in the South when the North had a much larger, more industrialized economy, more of its population living in cities with more of the traditional vocations to which Jews gravitated such as merchants and shop owners?
The reason was that, in a word, “Anti-Semitism” was more prevalent in the North and limited their opportunities there, while the South was much more accepting of Jews and Jewish culture. Southern Jews largely resisted the infusion of religion into politics; they were also fearful of “northern evangelical” attempts to equate the Kingdom of God with Republican Party abolitionists and so lent their support to the Confederacy. Their perception was that the Republican government intended impositions upon them as well as the Southern states. As Rabbi Korn of Charleston emphasized, “Nowhere else in America – certainly not in the Antebellum North – had Jews been accorded such an opportunity to be complete equals as in the old South.” Gen. Robert E. Lee allowed Jewish soldiers in the Confederacy to observe all their holy days, in keeping with their traditional practices.
Southern Jews were patriotic men and women who enjoyed religious freedom and economic prosperity in the South and who demonstrated their loyalty during the Civil War. The strength of the Jewish commitment to the Confederate cause is mostly overlooked by historians. Beyond Judah P. Benjamin who served in Jefferson Davis’s cabinet, and maybe Abraham C. Myers, the Quartermaster General, few Americans know very much of the other Jews serving in the Confederacy. Southern Jews, like all Southerners, either condoned the peculiar institution; owned slaves, or lived with it without protest. The rules for the proper treatment of slaves are set out in the Torah, as historically Jews were both subjects of slavery as well as slave owners themselves. A few antebellum Southern Jews were also in the business of slave trading, which could be quite profitable. Modern Jews may find this problematic as does modern American society as a whole. This must be expected when looking back at cultural and economic institutions of one hundred sixty years ago, especially those based on the cultural mores of a Bronze Age document like the Torah.
The point here is not the debate over whether slavery was an economic advantage (it was) or morally right (it was not); or that Jews having themselves “escaped bondage” in Egypt would have embraced slavery at all. Instead, over time, the Jewish people became an integral part of the South and were accepted there. Jews in “Dixie” absorbed and internalized southern culture around them, the accents, the dress, the food, the attitudes, the political view, even slavery. “In 1840 three-fourths of all heads of families in Charleston owned at least one slave, and the incidence of slaveholding among Jews likely paralleled that of their gentile neighbors. In addition, many of Richmond’s rabbis supported slavery.” Rabbi Dr. M.J. Raphall explained the Southern Jewish attitude toward slavery in a January 1861 sermon, a portion of which follows:
“I have been requested by prominent citizens of other denominations, that I should on this day examine the Biblical view of slavery, as the religious mind of the country requires to be enlightened on the subject… So long as the one great fact is not produced, which is THE TEXT OF SCRIPTURE WHICH DIRECTLY OR INDIRECTLY DENOUNCES SLAVEHOLDING AS A SIN—so long as this has not been done, my statements remain incontrovertible. It is the province of statesmen to examine the circumstances under which the Constitution of the United States recognizes the legality of slave-holding; and under what circumstances, if any, it becomes a crime against the law of the land. But the question whether slave-holding is a sin before God, is one that belongs to the theologian.”
The popular sermon was subsequently published as a pamphlet, as was a sermon in response by Baltimore Rabbi David Einhorn about three months later, which of course gave the opposite argument. The response among his congregation was that a riot broke out and the mob attempted to tar and feather Rabbi Einhorn, who promptly defenestrated to Philadelphia and found a new synagogue. At least in terms of traditional Jewish liturgy, the scriptures were not anti-slavery.
It is worth pointing out here the obvious point that most southerners, Jew or Gentile, did not own slaves. Figures vary on the exact percentage of white Southerners, including Jews, who owned slaves at the time of the Civil War. However, there is no debate that the overwhelming majority did not. Most southerners were tenant farmers or had their own small farms, and as one Union general stated of paroled Confederates after the war “they went back to their one mule farms.” Hence, by definition it would appear most were not fighting for the continuance of the institution of slavery or any other political reason even if that was the primary motive for secession. The Southern states seceded from the United States, and they were subsequently invaded by the Union army; most soldiers were defending their “country,” which had a different meaning then, their families, farms, and livelihood. Jacob Ezekiel, a VMI cadet who fought at New Market noted in his memoirs, “We were not fighting for the perpetuation of slavery, but for the principle of States Rights and Free Trade, and in defense of our homes which were being ruthlessly invaded.” Put simply, most Confederate soldiers believed they were fighting because an invading army from the North was there trying to kill them, take their homes, then destroy their economy and way of life; the fact is that they were.
The illegal and speculative trade in cotton led to an egregious incident of questionable merit that bordered on Anti-Semitism. In what was possibly the worst example of religious persecution in American history, General Order # 11, was issued by Gen. Ulysses S. Grant on Dec. 17, 1862, from Oxford, Miss. The order read as follows:
1. 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 [of the Tennessee] within twenty-four hours from the receipt of this order.
2. Post commanders will see to it that all of this class of people be furnished passes and required to leave, and any one returning after such notification will be arrested and held in confinement until an opportunity occurs of sending them out as prisoners, unless furnished with permit from headquarters.
3. No passes will be given these people to visit headquarters for the purpose of making personal application of trade permits.
The order went into immediate effect, with Jewish traders and families in Mississippi and Kentucky being forced to leave the territory. The sweeping interpretation was probably not intended by Grant; headquarters expressed no objection to the continued presence of Jewish sutlers, of which there were many, who, it could be argued, benefited the army, as opposed to cotton traders. However, the wording of General Order 11 singled out all Jews, irrespective of their occupation and it was implemented in a few places accordingly. It was noted:
“They still tell stories of the expulsion in Paducah, Ky.: of the hurried departure by riverboat up the Ohio to Cincinnati; of a baby almost left behind in the haste and confusion and tossed bodily into the boat; of two dying women permitted to remain behind in neighbors’ care. Thirty men and their families were expelled from Paducah, and according to affidavits by some of “the most respectable Union citizens of the city,” the deportees “had at no time been engaged in trade within the active lines of General Grant…” Two had already served brief enlistments in the Union army.” But only Jews, and not all traders were banished; cotton traders as a group were never expelled. The question therefore was “who stood to profit most from the departure of Jews?”…And the answer, “The other traders and speculators, civilian and military,” was in itself the only possible explanation of The Order….The Jews were the natural scapegoat…”
General order # 11 was not a single ill-advised stratagem, but reflected a pattern of similar orders on the part of General Grant purportedly to curtail “Jews” more so than the cotton trade. Ulysses S. Grant also issued orders a month earlier in November 1862 banning Southern travel by Jews in general, stating that “…the Israelites especially should be kept out… no Jews are to be permitted to travel on the railroad southward from any point. They may go north and be encouraged in it; but they are such an intolerable nuisance, that the department must be purged of them.” Let us examine the pattern of orders a little more closely in a legal light, taking note of the wording in the U.S. Constitution that reads (in part), “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” Did a senior Union General in time of war have within his discretionary authority the power to ignore the matter of Constitutional law if did not correspond to his own views? A Rabbi of the time noted the conundrum, stating, “The supreme legislature of this country was thus not permitted to designate any portion of the people as inferior to the others on account of their religious predilections, it would seem to follow that no one else has the right.” The Rabbi was on the right track. Even though the Civil War-era was hardly the high water mark for strict observance by the President of the United States, and others, of the United States Constitution, the problem posed by General Order # 11 was especially obvious.
President Lincoln told General-in-Chief Henry Halleck to have Grant revoke General Order No. 11, (only) which Halleck did in the following message:
“A paper purporting to be General Orders, No. 11, issued by you December 17, has been presented here. By its terms, it expells [sic] all Jews from your department. If such an order has been issued, it will be immediately revoked.”
There is anecdotal evidence that one of Halleck’s staff officers privately explained to Grant that its problem lay with the scope of the order: “Had the word “peddler” been inserted after “Jew” I do not suppose any exception would have been taken to the order.” According to Halleck, President Lincoln had “no objection to [Grant] expelling traitors and Jew peddlers, which I suppose, was the object of the order; but as in terms proscribing an entire religious class, some of whom are fighting in our ranks, the President deemed it necessary to revoke it.” The better question being unanswered by Halleck is why not just use the term “peddler” and leave religion and ethnicity out of it entirely?
Despite the shortages faced later in the war, soldiers including Jewish soldiers were generally cheerful and they enjoyed the relaxing moments. One Jewish soldier wrote in a letter home:
“Round the campfire at night and in the free enjoyment of indisputable clay pipes there is nothing but fun and laughter (even though)…the whiskey ration has become a myth.”
Jews were among the first to participate and last to surrender in the Civil War. Isaac H. Moses, then a member of a Citadel cadet company, fired the very first shots of the conflict, when his cadet company fired on the Union ship, Star of the West, which was attempting to re-supply his besieged Fort Sumter in January 1861, three months before the Civil War officially began. Later, Isaac Moses, having served with distinction in combat in Wade Hampton’s cavalry, rode home from North Carolina after the Battle of Bentonville (March 21, 1865), the Civil War’s last major battle “in the West” where he commanded his company, all of the other officers having been killed or wounded. “He never surrendered to anyone,” his mother proudly observed in her memoirs.
More than 10,000 Jews fought for the Confederacy in both theaters of war, over twice the number who fought for the Union. Today, little remains of the history of the Jewish Confederate South. With the subsequent mass migrations of Jews from Russia and Eastern Europe, new immigrants coming to America knew little if anything of the history of the nation’s struggle that had ensued there during the preceding century. With the Reconstruction-era, Confederate Jewry and its contributions to Southern culture eventually all but disappeared.
Craig L. Barry was born in Charlottesville, Va. He holds his BA and Masters degrees from UNC (Charlotte). Craig served The Watchdog Civil War Quarterly as Associate Editor and Editor from 2003–2017. The Watchdog published books and columns on 19th-century material and donated all funds from publications to battlefield preservation. He is the author of several books including The Civil War Musket: A Handbook for Historical Accuracy (2006, 2011), The Unfinished Fight: Essays on Confederate Material Culture Vol. I and II (2012, 2013). He has also published four books in the Suppliers to the Confederacy series on English Arms & Accoutrements, Quartermaster stores and other European imports.