- Historians Respond
These archival records from the Jacques Judah Lyons Collection provide the raw data of historiography Their significance is multilayered. They are invaluable pieces in assembling the larger picture of the Jewish role in the Civil War, a defining event of the nation’s identity. These documents corroborate much of what we know, but they also point to new directions for research.
“Items Relating to the Rebellion of the Southerners”
Only months after the children of Israel left their Egyptian bondage, they undertook a census of men. They would need to know their numbers, especially of fighters, as they embarked on their own journey of national conquest. Lists figure prominently in Jewish history, some as martyrologies, others as documents creating the accounting necessary for organizing community. The Shearith Israel members who created their own separate list of congregant-soldiers during the Civil War emphasized their communalism as both Jews and Americans. The writer underscores their voluntarism in answering their nation’s call.
We do not know exactly how many Jews fought for the Union and Confederacy, and the usual numbers suggested are between two and three thousand in Southern forces and seven to eight thousand in the Northern army. In response to the calumny that Jews were war shirkers, Simon Wolf, the grand statesman of late nineteenth-century American Jewry, published a list in 1895 that would provide evidence to refute the antisemites. Unfortunately, his inventory has become notable for both omissions and false positives, using as he did the criterion of Jewishsounding names. What would have Wolfe made of Jews with names like Captain Wellington Jackson or his son Washington?
The Shearith Israel lists draw a portrait of American Jewry, which was increasingly foreign born. As one would expect of Shearith Israel, founded in 1654, the most conspicuous names are those of the grandees of American Jewry: Hart, Phillips, Hendricks, Nathan, and Peixotto. Indeed, these descendants of early Sephardim, present at the nation’s creation, would not have needed to prove their Americanism through war service. We also see German names like Stern and Newburgh and references to a “Polish Legion.” Much has been written—most recently in Drew Gilpin Faust’s This Republic of Suffering—on how the shared [End Page 74] sacrifice of war unified Americans under an ecumenical banner. But the war, these documents suggest, also seems to have done much to unify American Jewry itself, divided religiously between traditionalists and reformers, socially between natives and immigrants, and ethnically among Sephardim, Bavarians, Prussians, and Poles. The war effort offered an opportunity to prove their shared national loyalty and patriotism. Some of the numbers—200 in one regiment, more than 600 in another, 30 in a company of the Polish Legion—seem highly speculative, but perhaps reflect Jewish pride. An interesting research project would be to verify the names and numbers listed here with the regimental rolls themselves.
It would also be interesting to trace the biographies of the soldiers listed. Especially touching is Joseph Hart, drummer who “called to say goodbye.” The writer gave him, as written in Hebrew script, “four corners,” presumably tzitzit (a ritually fringed garment) to wear for his protection. Shearith Israel retained its orthodoxy, and this gift would suggest that these Jews saw no incompatibility between their religious traditionalism and Americanism. Indeed, these documents are peppered with Hebraisms, suggesting that their Judaism was both familiar and comfortable.
Curious, too, is the heading at the top of the list: “Items relating to the Rebellion of the Southerners.” Other names for the conflict—Civil War, War Between the States, War of Southern Independence—reflect political perspectives. The list’s subtitle alludes to those who enlisted for the “North.” Did Jews see the war in sectional terms? Jewish institutions did not divide regionally as did various Protestant groups, but how deep was their sectional identification?
The list continues with the names of donors who funded various troops and institutions that were pledging in-kind support. Prayer meetings and bandage wrapping, indeed, became typical civilian activities in war time, and mark the Jews’ awareness of themselves as normative Americans. Notable, too, in view of the antisemitic charges of profiteering and proffering “shoddy...