- Simon Gerstmann’s War: Religion, Loyalty, and Memory in the Post–Civil War Claims Courts
In late 1891 a debate erupted after the North American Review published an article criticizing Jews and their supposed lack of military service. The article, attributed to a U.S. Army veteran named J. M. Rogers, decried Jews for a lack of patriotism. Rogers explained that in his eighteen months of Civil War service, “I cannot recall meeting one Jew in uniform or hearing of any Jewish soldier.”1 A number of respondents, one of whom was Simon Gerstmann of New York City, issued rebuttals to Rogers’s claims in a variety of publications. In a letter to Rogers, Gerstmann recounted that he had “served five years in Company E, Second Artillery, U. S. A. . . . He enlisted at the time when it was considered a disgrace by a Yankee in this glorious land to be either a Federal officer or a soldier . . . . So you will observe, sir, that there is at least one who has, as a Jew, served to protect the glorious flag, united now never to be torn asunder, under which we all live and enjoy its liberties.”2 Gerstmann’s letter, published in the [End Page 565] American Hebrew, accurately represented much of his personal history. He was born in 1833 in the city of Kalisz in the Russian empire, where draconian military conscription policies targeted Jews as a method of forced integration. Nevertheless, the 5′6″ Gerstmann had enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1854, soon after he arrived in the United States, serving five years in the Second United States Artillery. He began naturalization proceedings in 1857 and became a citizen two years later.3 When Gerstmann argued that Judaism was no impediment to American loyalty, he was not only drawing on personal experience but also participating in a transatlantic conversation—which had its most famous iteration in France’s 1894 Dreyfus Affair—about whether and how Jews could become loyal participants in modern states.4
Gerstmann was also building on decades of defending his own personal loyalty to the Union; although he was not the most reliable narrator, he had regularly invoked his Jewish identity as positive evidence for his patriotism and loyalty to the United States. Indeed, at the very same time that Gerstmann was arguing about his loyalty in the Jewish press, he was doing the same before the U.S. Court of Claims. It turned out, though, that during the Civil War he had been neither a willing soldier nor an unquestioned patriot. While living in Savannah, Georgia, Gerstmann repeatedly sought exemption from Confederate military conscription. He later presented himself as having been an uncompromising Unionist, a claim that he exaggerated and expanded over time, although it was in fact dubious from the start.
In 1867, in the immediate aftermath of the war, Gerstmann filed a successful suit against the United States government for cotton seized during the Civil War. In 1872 he filed a second, this time unsuccessful, claim for property taken from his store by United States soldiers, which he appealed in 1888. Gerstmann is one of the rare claimants to testify about his “Unionism” in three different decades—in 1868, 1877, and [End Page 566] 1890—and to be found both loyal and disloyal by the same court, albeit decades apart. By the time of his exchange with Rogers, Gerstmann had spent thirty years seeking compensation for goods that had been confiscated from him in December 1864 during General William Tecumseh Sherman’s occupation of Savannah.5
Gerstmann’s case provides a window onto multiple legacies of the Civil War that have been largely overlooked by scholars: how self-proclaimed Unionists continued to seek remuneration from the federal government into the twentieth century and how American Jews remembered the conflict. Studies of white southern memory of the war often examine only the Lost Cause narrative—which glorified the Confederacy and presented all white southerners as supporting the rebellion— ignoring a parallel memory of principled dissent and Unionism that has since largely disappeared from the American South. While the Lost Cause is...