- The Jewish Confederates
Robert Rosen’s Jewish Confederates represents one of the most provocative treatments ever written about the history of southern Jewry. Its title hardly does it justice, as Rosen relates far more than the story of Jews during the Confederacy’s brief history. Rather, drawing upon a wealth of manuscript materials, published memoirs and diaries, encyclopedias and biographical directories, and innumerable secondary sources about Jewish history before 1900 (including temple and community studies), and situating his account within the historiography of the South and the Confederacy, Rosen illuminates southern Jewish history from colonial times into the twentieth century. What makes this book especially engrossing is that he spins out his narrative family by family, community by community. Rosen estimates that there were 20,000–25,000 Jews altogether living in the Confederacy’s eleven states on the eve of the Civil War. His coverage is so broad, even reaching families living in obscure towns and villages, that by the end of the book one feels introduced literally to every Jew in Dixie. The book is so generously illustrated that some readers may feel as if they also know what each one of them looked like!
Rosen’s initial chapters treat the pre-Civil War southern Jewish experience, with Chapter Two being a synopsis of the careers of the antebellum South’s two Sephardic Jewish U.S. senators, Judah P. Benjamin and David Levy Yulee (the latter married out of the faith and embraced Christianity, but apparently never converted). The second section of the book covers what Rosen estimates as about 2,000 Jews who served the [End Page 160] Confederate military establishment in virtually all branches (and ranks other than general)—though rarely in the cavalry, since Jewish Confederates generally hailed from urban areas and had limited familiarity with horseback riding. Separate chapters treat Jewish officers and enlisted men. Then Rosen takes up the experience of southern Jewish civilians and congregations on the war’s home front, before turning to what happened to southern Jews during and after Reconstruction.
Rosen finds that much of the southern Jewish community supported secession from the Union in 1860–1861, and that Dixie’s Jews subsequently rallied to the Confederate cause and made significant contributions in terms of military and governmental service, as well as monetary sacrifice. Some Jewish soldiers achieved distinguished combat records. Jewish womenfolk made parallel contributions on the home front, by nursing, smuggling, spying, and other activities for the cause of independent nationhood. One of them, Eugenia Phillips, earned a living martyrdom in southern public opinion after her stridently pro-Confederate attitudes provoked the Union occupation commander in New Orleans to banish her to an island for the balance of the war.
Jews served the Confederacy enthusiastically, Rosen tells us, because the antebellum South was relatively free of antisemitism. Not only were the first U.S. senators of Jewish descent southerners, but many southern Jews held other political offices at the state and local levels, and Louisiana produced the first elected Jewish lieutenant governor in American history. Allowed to prosper under Dixie’s sun, Jews accumulated wealth (often in mercantile affairs in cities such as New Orleans, Charleston, and Richmond), acquired and occasionally traded in slaves, sometimes became planters, defended the peculiar institution, and prioritized their identities as southerners over their Jewish affiliations. Jews from Sephardic families naturally volunteered for Confederate service in order to defend what they had come to regard as their land and country. More recent Ashkenazim from central and eastern Europe also turned out, but may have been more apt to do so for adventure or in response to social pressures and to collect bounties, than because of ideological constancy to the southern way of life. Tolerant regional attitudes help explain, moreover, why southern Jews never formed exclusively Jewish companies for Confederate service in the model of ethnic Irish and German units. Having experienced the deprivations of ghetto life in Europe, southern Jews welcomed chances to assimilate into southern society and resisted being classed as “a separate nationality” (p. 165).