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Judi's Journal 3-16-2012

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American Jews and the Civil War

By Judi Siegal

My husband and I are history buffs. When the kids were small, we went to just about every fort on the East Coast. I remember my daughter pleading with us: “Why can’t we go to theme parks like the other families?” I would just smile and hand her a guidebook for yet another historical site. Did it surprise me that my son minored in history in college?
I still like visiting historical spots, Gettysburg always being a high point on my list. Here the Civil War is the whole town. On any given day, re-enactors can be seen parading down Steinwehr Avenue in period dress, ladies in hoop skirted dresses and picture hats, men with stovepipe hats, white shirts and grey pants. I only want to follow that crowd down the street brandishing a parasol and wide skirt that floats as you walk.
The whole Civil War era has given me fuel for thought. What did the Jews do in the Civil War and what was the impact of the conflict on the small minority that numbered about 150,000 at the time? As with other events in history, both here and abroad, there were widespread events that did indeed shape the history of the Jews.
The Civil War provided an opportunity for Jews to participate in the conflict as equal citizens, rising through the ranks to officer status. Few armies at the time allowed this. The war also was a time for Jews to identify with their neighbors, the Southern Jews with the South, the Northern Jews with the North. As such, they took on the views of the areas in which they lived. While today we think of Jews as being liberal and for civil rights, even in the North, the Jewish population was divided on the issue while in the South, there were some Jewish slave owners. The Secretary of State for the Confederacy was a Jew, Judah Benjamin, and is often referred to as “The Brains of the Confederacy.” Whether they fought for the North or the South, the Jews felt comfortable and accepted by their neighbors and so demonstrated their loyalty by fighting side by side with them.
The War Between the States also afforded the Jews a chance to fight for their rights. As the blacks were slighted and segregated in the Second War, so too did the Jews confront prejudice. As the war began, the military chaplaincy was restricted to those of the Christian faith. This restricting legislation was overturned and Jewish chaplains joined the ranks alongside their Christian counterparts. And in December 1862, they demonstrated at the White House against General Grant’s notorious General Orders #11, expelling Jews as a class from his war zone. The order was rescinded but such an act was certainly a black mark against the general and the American military as a whole. It took a man, ironically named Abraham, to overturn this act and expose it for the anti-Semitism it espoused. President Lincoln, to his credit, overturned this order because he did not believe in condemning a whole group of people for a few sinners. And of course, Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy, also repudiated anti-Semitism because of his close association with Judah Benjamin.
An interesting footnote to Jewish involvement in the Civil War, is a cemetery in Richmond, Virginia. Called the Hebrew Confederate Cemetery, it is the only Jewish military one in the world outside of the State of Israel. Here lie the remains of Confederate soldiers denied burial in Confederate cemeteries because of their Jewish heritage. These soldiers were casualties of the battles of Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville and the Wilderness. The bodies were buried on Shockroe Hill and after the War, the care of the graves was presided over by the Hebrew Ladies Memorial Association who erected an ornamental iron fence depicting muskets, crossed swords and a Confederate cap.
In the 1930s, the crumbling grave stones were replaced by a bronze plaque that reads: “To the glory of God and in memory of the Hebrew Confederate soldiers resting in this hallowed spot”. Not all Jewish Confederate soldiers are buried in this spot; some have been interred in family plots. It would also seem plausible that like their Northern brethren, they would be buried in synagogue-sponsored plots. Congregation Beth Ahabah today maintains the cemetery.
As for that hoop skirted dress I wanted, I have decided, in true Scarlett O’Hara style, to simply say: “Fiddle Dee Dee”! It just would have been a bit too cumbersome getting in and out of my Mazda!
(source: Connecticut Jewish Ledger)
Judi is a former teacher and Jewish educator.  She lives in Sun Valley with her husband, Phil.