The Civil War through a Jewish lens

Guest Post by Adam Mendelsohn

In the century after the Civil War ended, those who were interested in the experience of Jews in the Union and Confederacy focused on their military service, in many cases hoping to extol Jewish bravery as an antidote to prejudice and present their service as a mark of ethnic pride. Fifty years ago, historians of American Jewry marked the centenary of the conflict with a museum exhibition, conference, and outpouring of scholarship that reexamined a subject that had been the preserve of amateur historians. Several myths were debunked and new themes explored. The field of American Jewish history and the historiography of the Civil War itself look very different from how they did in 1961.

As happened fifty years ago, it has taken an anniversary to rekindle sustained interest in Jewish participation in America’s bloodiest war. The recent special issue of American Jewish History (Volume 97, Number 1) 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 been encouraged by a broadening of Civil War scholarship beyond the battlefield to encompass themes—the home front, memory, mourning and commemoration, and the experience of minorities—more felicitous to their interest in social and cultural history.

Several scholars of the Civil War, for example, have begun to devote new attention to how different religious and ethnic groups in the North and the South experienced the conflict. Although Jews were a tiny minority within the United States in 1860—probably somewhat fewer than 200,000 in total, roughly 25,000 of whom lived in the South—their experiences in the ranks and on the home front provide an unusual perspective. Both North and South were rallied with exhortations that often framed the conflict in Christological terms. Jews were religious outsiders in armies that made few allowances for their differences. Rations were heavy on pork. In the Union Army, the position of chaplain was initially barred to non-Christian clergy. Jewish women encountered distinct pressures away from the battlefield; according to one scholar, they converted to Christianity at an unsurpassed rate in the Confederacy.

Thanks to the contributions of several scholars, we now know much more about the experience of Jewish women on the home front, the context and consequences of General Grant’s notorious General Orders #11, why Jews achieved such prominence within the Confederate government (Judah P. Benjamin, Abram C. Myers, and others), and several other important topics. This issue of American Jewish History pays particular attention to a subject that has yet to be fully explored by historians of American Jewry: the challenging post-war decades that upended the social, racial, and economic order in the former Confederacy. As two articles reveal, this period of societal flux presented considerable opportunities for Jews, but also substantial risks.

Together, these articles broaden our focus beyond familiar themes in ways that highlight the ambiguity and variety of Jewish behavior in the Civil War era. This special issue deliberately avoids any self-congratulatory celebration of Jewish contributions to the war, but seeks instead to understand the fascinating and revealing complexities of Jewish life during a period of profound tumult and change in American history.

Adam Mendelsohn guest edited the special Civil War Issue for American Jewish History. He is assistant professor of Jewish Studies at the College of Charleston.