Jews and the Civil War
During the Civil War, Jews won the acceptance by the president and Congress of Jewish equality including equal status on the battlefield and the right of Jewish military chaplains to serve alongside Christian chaplains, states Dr. Jonathan D. Sarna, a history professor at Brandeis University, in a recent essay in The Forward.
He notes Jews demonstrated their patriotism and identification with their neighbors, with Northern Jews showing loyality to the North and Southern Jews to the South.
Sarna, the co-editor of the book Jews and the Civil War, adds another “uglier theme” was Jews’ complicity with slavery. “Jews basically followed in the ways of their neighbors when it came to slavery. As a group they did not oppose it.”
As part of the Civil War susquentennial, Sarna will deliver the keynote lecture at a two-day conference, May 25-26, in Charleston, SC on “Jews, Slavery and the Civil War.”
Following is a letter written by a Jewish Confederate soldier, Isaac J. Levy (left) of the 46th Virginia Infantry, from camp in Adams Run South Carolina, to his sister.
April 24th, 1864 Dear Leonora,
No doubt you were much surprised on receiving a letter from me addressed to our dear parents dated on the 21st, which was the first day of (Pesach). We were all under the impression in camp that the first day of the festival was the 22nd and if my memory serves me right I think that Ma wrote me that Pesach was on the 22nd.
Zeke [Isaac’s brother Capt. Ezekiel J. Levy of the 46th VA] was somewhat astonished on arriving in Charleston on Wednesday afternoon, to learn that that was the first (Seder) night. He purchased (Matzot) sufficient to last us for the week. The cost is somewhat less than in Richmond, being but two dollars per pound. [For point of reference, Matzah in New York City was then 6 cents a pound.] We are observing the festival in a truly Orthodox style. On the first day we had a fine vegetable soup. It was made of a bunch of vegetables which Zeke brought from Charleston containing new onions, parsley, carrots turnips and a young cauliflower also a pound and a half of fresh [kosher] beef, the latter article sells for four dollars per pound in Charleston…
No news in the section at present. Troops from Florida are passing over the road enroute for Richmond. ‘Tis probable that we will remain in this department and were it not for the unhealthy season which is approaching, would be well satisfied to remain here… Love to all Your affectionate Brother Isaac J. Levy
Isaac J. Levy was killed in the trenches at Petersburg, August 21, 1864 at age 21.
By J.A. Joel
The Jewish Messenger,* April 1866
In the commencement of the war of 1861, I enlisted from Cleveland, Ohio, in the Union cause, to sustain intact the Government of the United States, and became attached to the 23rd Regiment, one of the first sent from the “Buckeye State.” Our destination was West Virginia— a portion of the wildest and most mountainous region of that State … We marched to the village of Fayette, to take it, and to establish there our Winter-quarters, having again routed Gen. Floyd and his forces.
While lying there, our camp duties were not of an arduous character, and being apprised of the approaching Feast of Passover, twenty of my comrades and co-religionists belonging to the Regiment, united in a request to our commanding officer for relief from duty, in order that we might keep the holy days, which he readily acceded to. ... Our next business was to find some suitable person to proceed to Cincinnati, Ohio, to buy us (Matzos). Our sutler [a civilian who sold provisions to soldiers] being a co-religionist and going home to that city, readily undertook to send them. We were anxiously awaiting to receive our matzos and about the middle of the morning of (Eve of Passover) a supply train arrived in camp, and to our delight seven barrels of Matzos. On opening them, we were surprised and pleased to find that our thoughtful sutler had enclosed two Hagedahs and prayer-books. 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 while a party stayed to build a log hut for the services.
About the middle of the afternoon the foragers arrived, having been quite successful. 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”. We were still in a great quandary; we were like the man who drew the elephant in the lottery. We had the lamb, but did not know what part was to represent it at the table; but Yankee ingenuity prevailed, and it was decided to cook the whole and put it on the table, then we could dine off it, and be sure we had the right part. The necessaries for the choroutzes we could not obtain, so we got a brick which, rather hard to digest, reminded us, by looking at it, for what purpose it was intended.
At dark we had all prepared, and were ready to commence the service. There being no minyan present, I was selected to read the services, which I commenced by asking the blessing of the Almighty on the food before us, and to preserve our lives from danger.
The ceremonies were passing off very nicely, until we arrived at the part where the bitter herb was to be taken. We all had a large portion of the herb ready to eat at the moment I said the blessing; each eat his portion, when horrors! What a scene ensued in our little congregation, it is impossible for my pen to describe. The herb was very bitter and very fiery like Cayenne pepper, and 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 the more freely became excited, and one thought he was Moses, another Aaron, and one had the audacity to call himself Pharaoh. The consequence was a skirmish, with nobody hurt, only Moses, Aaron and Pharaoh, had to be carried to the camp, and there left in the arms of Morpheus.
This slight incident did not take away our appetite, and, after doing justice to our lamb, chickens and eggs, we resumed the second portion of the service without anything occurring worthy of note.
There, in the wild woods of West Virginia, away from home and friends, we consecrated and offered up to the ever-loving G-d of Israel our prayers and sacrifice. I doubt whether the spirits of our forefathers, had they been looking down on us, standing there with our arms by our side ready for an attack, faithful to our G-d and our cause, would have imagined themselves amongst mortals, enacting this commemoration of the scene that transpired in Egypt.
• The Jewish Messenger was a weekly publication in New York City.