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  • Sanctified by WarA Tale of Two Silver Bowls
  • Dale Rosengarten (bio)

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Sugar or sweetmeat bowl, "Presented to the cong: Beth Elohim By Josha Lazarus, AM 5601," by David Bell (active 1753–1779), London, ca. 1777, Silver, 6 × 4½ inches, Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim.

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This is the story of two silver bowls whose journeys since the decade of the American Civil War make interesting narratives in themselves because they follow closely what the late French historian Marc Bloch called "the vicissitudes of life." The tale is one of return, and of loss averted, reassuring to white southerners, Christians and Jews alike, who felt the world as they knew it had vanished. The bowls became shining emblems of the Lost Cause, a quasi-religious fervor grounded in a fictional version of the past, disregarding the system of enslavement and terror that created antebellum wealth. Sanctified by war, the vessels ascended to the status of sacred relics.

The first bowl went missing sometime after February 17, 1865, the date Union forces occupied Columbia, South Carolina. The small silver object, property of Charleston's historic synagogue Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim, had been sent for safekeeping to the state capital, along with the congregation's Torah, candelabra, pipe organ, and other valuables, to keep them out of the hands of the enemy. In one of the great miscalculations of the war, many South Carolinians believed the Yankees would come up the coast and attack Charleston. Instead, General William Tecumseh Sherman and his troops crossed the Savannah River and turned inland toward Columbia. In the conflagration and chaos that ensued, a great deal of property went up in smoke, or was carried off as spoils of war.

Another silver bowl narrowly avoided becoming contraband. An inscribed silver chalice, owned by Edwin Warren Moïse, a prominent Jewish legislator in New Orleans, was thrown down a well by a young servant—a slave of the family—when she saw the blue coats coming. Moïse's youngest son, Warren Hubert, declared it "The only piece of silver that escaped the Butler gang," a reference to Union General Benjamin Franklin Butler, nicknamed "Beast Butler" or "Spoons Butler"—after an incident involving Butler's seizure of a 38-piece set of silverware from a woman trying to cross Union lines, and more generally from the widespread perception that he condoned his troops' looting of household goods from treasonous New Orleanians. Recovered after the Confederate surrender, the slightly dented bowl today occupies a place of pride in the family pantheon.1

How many thousands of silver objects have had similar journeys? How many pairs of candlesticks were buried in back yards, how many platters hidden under the hoop skirts of proverbial "dutiful daughters" or "faithful servants," how many coins sewn into the hem of a garment or secreted in a hat band?

Many tales of silver hidden from the Yankees are apocryphal, but the destinies of these two bowls can be verified, and because the protagonists were Jewish southerners, they lend themselves to interpretation in the context of that dual identity. Silver has been associated for millennia with the desire for things of the spirit. When material wealth symbolized by gold had all but disappeared by the end of [End Page 48] the war, silver was a consolation against the loss of real and movable property and social upheaval. But why have these particular objects become iconic? What if anything makes them Jewish? What do they tell us about the nature of southern things?

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Joshua Lazarus (1796–1861), by Amélie Dautel D'Aubigny (ca. 1796–1861), France, ca. 1840, Watercolor on ivory, 5 × 3¾ inches, gift of Mrs. Edgar M. Lazarus, Carolina Art Association/Gibbes Museum of Art.

The first bowl might more accurately be described as a basket or pail: a small filigree container, 6 inches tall and 4½ inches in diameter, with a pedestal foot and hinged handle. Fabricated in 1777 by London silversmith David Bell, it originally was intended for use as a sugar or sweetmeat bowl, probably lined with blue glass. In 1841, it was given...


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