Friday, March 28, 2008

The Jews and the Civil War

The largest ethnic group fighting for the Confederacy during the Civil War was the Jews. It is estimated that 10,000 fought for the South. This included first through the third generations, and many old Jewish families from both the Sephardic and the Ashkenazic branches of Judaism. Jews had lived in Charleston, South Carolina since 1695. By 1800 the largest Jewish community was here. The oldest synagogue in America was in that city—Beth Elohim. By 1861, a third of all Jews in America lived in Louisiana.

It was stated by one Rabbi that only in the South were the Jews afforded such an opportunity to be completely equal. To show respect, General Robert E. Lee allowed Jewish soldiers when possible to celebrate all holy days. Unfortunately, Generals Grant and Sherman issued anti-Jewish orders.

One of the most respected officers for the South was General Abraham Myers, an 1832 West Point graduate and classmate of Lee. The city of Fort Myers was named after him. Another Jew, Major Adolph Proskauer of Mobile, Alabama, was wounded several times. One officer said of him: "I can see him now as he nobly carried himself at Gettysburg, standing coolly and calmly at the head of the 12th Alabama amid a perfect rain of bullets, shot, and shell. He was the personification of intrepid gallantry and imperturbable courage."

From North Carolina, six brothers from the Cohen family fought in the 40th Infantry. The first Confederate Jew killed in the war was Albert Lurie Moses of Charlotte. All-Jewish companies were formed from about six Confederate cities.

Many Jews became renowned after the war. Moses Jacob Ezekiel became a world famous sculptor. Judah Benjamin was the first Jewish senator and later declined a seat on the Supreme Court. He was educated at Yale. During the conflict he became the Confederacy attorney general. Physician Simon Baruch from Germany, became the surgeon general of the South. He received his medical degree from the Medical College of Virginia. If a band struck up "Dixie," Dr. Baruch would jump up and give the Rebel yell! He let loose the yell even in the Metropolitan Opera House! His son Bernard became one of the most successful financiers of the twentieth century. He became an adviser to presidents from World War I to World War II and became a confidant of President Franklin Roosevelt.

Today there is very little left of the "Jewish South." Most do not know of the contribution that large community played during those troubled times.

Dr. Mal Couch