- Historians Respond
“Jewish Ladies Assisting the Defenders of the Union”
During the Civil War, many women, both Northern and Southern, dedicated their efforts to supporting their region. They engaged in fundraising campaigns, supplies collection, letter writing, nursing and entertaining the wounded, and less frequently, became spies and soldiers. Regardless of religion or ethnicity, these women worked to support the efforts of their fathers, husbands, brothers, and sons. Women’s efforts were critical to military success and regional sustenance. This marvelous historical find serves as historical proof of one Northern Jewish ladies group’s fidelity to the Union during the Civil War.
The document details minutes taken at a meeting of the Ladies of Shearith Israel Congregation in New York City. The mere title of the group suggests that these women held regular meetings. The beginning of the document dispenses with old business since the author records the election of Mrs. Grace Lyons, the wife of the Congregation’s “minister,” as Director, Mrs. Nathan as Treasurer, and presumably our author as Secretary. The real purpose of this meeting appears with new business. The religious leader of the synagogue, Reverend Lyons, addressed the women to complement them on their efforts on behalf of the Union. Dramatically, he described the nation that was “once prosperous and tranquil and now devastated by the angst of war and menaced with disunion.” The Reverend observed: “loyalty and patriotism are everywhere” amidst the growing hostilities people everywhere are publicly proclaiming their support for the soldiers who will soon march “to defend the righteous cause.” Perhaps in order to galvanize their support he asked the women whether it would be appropriate for them as he addressed them, as the “daughters of Israel”—“to remain silent whilst all others are publicly engaged in the good and noble works.” Using the rhetorical strategy of historical legacy, he situated these women’s efforts as the “descendants of those . . . who participated in the struggles of the Revolution of 1776.” He explained that he called this meeting to order so that it might “afford them (the ladies) an opportunity to concentrate and organize their efforts more efficiently.” The Reverend also complemented the women, saying that because they attended the meeting, he had not “overestimated their loyalty, patriotism, and kindheartedness of his sisters in faith.” The Reverend left them with a parting statement resting faith in these women’s efforts and said he “would therefore hopefully await the result of their deliberations.” [End Page 78]
The document includes a list of women appointed to specific tasks and the Secretary records several items that were donated. It is not clear whether these items were donated for the war effort or for some other use. The author added that this women’s group held several subsequent successful meetings. The document ends with a final punctuation of this synagogue’s support for the war effort: a flag was flown outside to visibly demonstrate commitment to the Northern cause and prayers, presumably for Union success, were said every Sabbath. Meeting minutes, such as these, that demonstrate women’s intense sectional loyalties, feelings of responsibility to support the war effort, and a real sense that their work was crucial to victory and morale can be found in archives across the country. This secretary’s commitment of words to the historical record also provides indisputable evidence that Jewish women felt a responsibility as Jews and as women to carry on their gendered duties to assure Civil War victory.
This document is rich in historical data on items related to Jewish women’s Civil War activities. Civil War historiography still remains largely focused on men’s military activities. We see from this document that, while gendered, women’s activities included donations, public displays of support, synagogue meetings to coordinate their efforts, collecting supplies, and nursing the wounded. Particularly interesting is how both the cleric and the women themselves understood their responsibilities within the context of their Judaism. Evoking pride as “Daughters of Israel,” the document clearly reveals that their Jewish identity is important to them and has not been replaced by a solely American or regional identity. My scholarship focuses on the activities of antebellum and Civil...