Kentucky Jewry During the Civil War
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Kentucky Jewry During the Civil War

The Civil War was unquestionably one of the most momentous events in the history of the United States and Kentucky was an important border state at the time of the conflict; Abraham Lincoln wrote famously in 1861 that “to lose Kentucky is nearly the same as to lose the whole game.”1 Thus, it is not surprising that a fair amount has been written about the conduct of the Civil War in the Bluegrass State and about the local impact of the war. Aside from wide-ranging accounts of the conflict in Kentucky,2 there have also been books on more specific subjects, such as the various battles fought in the commonwealth, John Hunt Morgan’s raids into the area, and the effects of the war on the cities of Lexington and Louisville.3 A [End Page 165] number of recent studies concerning Kentucky during the Civil War have focused on even narrower topics, ranging from the biographies of participants in the conflict to the refugees who sought shelter at Camp Nelson in Jessamine County, and from the Confederate Orphan Brigade to the experience of black families and soldiers during the struggle.4

Nonetheless, in all the local history literature dealing with Kentucky during the Civil War, there is hardly a word about the experience of the Jews in the commonwealth.5 Indeed, to judge from the existing writings on the Civil War in Kentucky, one might think that at mid-century there was no Jewish community in the Bluegrass State at all. Admittedly, the Jewish population of Kentucky in the 1860s was rather small, and there are few archival sources available to help illuminate its history during that decade.6 Still, Jews did constitute one of the significant ethnic and religious minorities of the state, and their experience during the war is worthy of consideration not only because exploring that experience can expand the narrative of Kentucky Civil War history, but also because, as we shall see, some developments involving the Jews of Kentucky during the war had important implications for the nation as a whole.

The first Jews had arrived in Kentucky already very early in the nineteenth century; a Baltimore-born Jew named John Jacob was apparently resident near Louisville as early as 1802, and Benjamin [End Page 166] Gratz, scion of a prominent Philadelphia merchant family, settled in Lexington in 1819. In the following decades, more Jewish settlers continued to arrive, most of them immigrants from the German states of Central Europe and from adjacent areas such as Alsace in France and the Prussian-ruled regions of Poland. On the eve of the Civil War, there were probably about twenty-five hundred Jews in the commonwealth, with the majority—perhaps two thousand—in Louisville. Indeed, already by 1850, the Louisville Jewish community, located in an important river port and urban hub at the borderland between North and South, was considered one of the major Jewish centers of America, along with New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Cincinnati.7

By 1861, a rather extensive Jewish infrastructure had been developed in Louisville. Reports in the Cincinnati-based newspaper The Israelite indicate that Louisville had a Jewish school by the mid-1850s, for example, and that a chapter of the fraternal organization B’nai B’rith had been established in 1860.8 We can get a further sense of the nature of the Louisville Jewish community just before the start of the Civil War from an account left by the eccentric Romanian-Jewish adventurer I. J. Benjamin, who, having already spent some eight years traveling in Asia and Africa in search of the Ten Lost Tribes, undertook a three-year journey across America beginning in 1859. When Benjamin visited Louisville shortly before the outbreak of war, he was able to report that he lodged in a boardinghouse conducted “strictly according to Jewish ritual” and that he found that the Louisville Jewish community maintained a society to aid widows and orphans, another society to care for the sick and bury the dead, and two ladies’ aid societies. He also reported finding two congregations in the city: Adath Israel, “consisting of Germans...