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  • Guest Editor’s Introduction
  • Adam Mendelsohn (bio)

Why study Jews and the Civil War? The outcome of the conflict would have been no different if every Jewish recruit had proven as adroit in evading the recruiting sergeant as antisemites later alleged. Even if the more generous estimate of 12,000 Jewish soldiers is accurate, and encomiums to Jewish heroism unadorned, it is improbable that a single battle would have been altered by their absence. Certainly an earlier generation of historians, seeking to counteract the idea that Jews were interlopers with shallow roots in America, found it necessary to prove that Jews had stood “shoulder-to-shoulder” in the ranks with their Christian comrades, buff the reputation of Judah P. Benjamin as the “Brains of the Confederacy” (an antisemitic slight transmuted into a term of praise), and construct a Jewish cult of Lincoln.1 Although today some within the Jewish public still hunger for a celebratory narrative of Jewish involvement in the Civil War—an appetite hopefully sated by a new documentary on the subject—an emphasis on affirmation alone provides thin gruel for scholarship.2 Perhaps the most convincing reason to reexamine this subject is provided by a fertile harvest of new research that has begun to provide richer and more complex insights into the behavior of both Jewish men and women during the Civil War. Old chestnuts have been pruned to reveal nuance and texture; new turf has been turned to uncover fertile soil for further study.3

As happened fifty years ago, it has taken an anniversary to rekindle sustained interest in Jewish participation in America’s bloodiest war. This special issue of American Jewish History is the direct product of a conference organized by the College of Charleston in May 2011 to mark the sesquicentennial of the conflict. Historians of American Jewry have also been encouraged by a broadening of Civil War scholarship beyond the battlefield to encompass themes—the home front, memory, [End Page ix] mourning and commemoration, and the experience of minorities—more felicitous to their interest in social and cultural history.

The majority of this new writing recognizes that Jewish matters were not central to the conflict. After all, even the best known wartime episode that had direct ramifications for Jews—Grant’s General Orders #11—merits only glancing attention in leading works of Civil War history. 4 Nonetheless Jewish responses to the war provide a useful point of comparison, for example, with recruits from other distinct religious and ethnic backgrounds.5 Unlike the majority of their compatriots, Jews were religious outsiders in armies that made few allowances for their differences: rations were heavy on pork, and troops were rallied with exhortations that often framed the conflict in Christological terms. On the home front, Jewish women often created their own sewing circles and charity committees to aid the war effort.

Moreover, current historians maintain that the transformative conflict and its aftermath exerted considerable influence on American Jewish history. The United States was home to fewer than two-hundred thousand Jews in 1860 but the community was soon remade by waves of newcomers. Several have argued—myself included—that the war facilitated this mass immigration.6 Others have proposed that the war was an essential waypoint on the American Jewish march toward acceptance and integration. These arguments must be deployed with care and nuance. At the remove of one hundred and fifty years it is all too easy to gloss over the misery of a brutal war that cost over six-hundred thousand lives by drawing uplifting and ennobling lessons, or glibly saluting the sacrifices of both sides.

Two of the articles in this special issue offer a counter-narrative that suggests that the messy aftermath of the war created new political and economic opportunities for Jews, but did so by upsetting a pre-war racial and civic order in the South that had provided them with an unusual degree of stability and inclusion. The already complicated legacy of the war for Jews was further complicated by the infusion of an often racialized strain of antisemitism into the American body politic during and after the conflict. The articles by Anton Hieke and Stuart Rockoff illustrate...


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