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Jews of the Civil War

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The history of Jews in the Civil War isn’t nearly so secret as this essay suggests, but it’s still a good discussion of a part of the Civil War that doesn’t get so much public attention. This essay focuses on the United States over the treasonous Slave Power, who had the Civil War’s most famous Jewish person, the traitor Judah Benjamin, featured above.

Born on Christmas Day in Schlesswig-Holstein, Edward Selig Salomon came to the United States in 1855 when he was 17, and was among the first Jews, if not the first, to practice law in Chicago. When the war began, Salomon was an alderman in Chicago’s Sixth Ward and the youngest member of the city council. With the attack on Fort Sumter in Charleston harbor that ignited the war, Salomon enlisted on May 6, 1861, in Colonel Hecker’s first regiment, the 24th Illinois Volunteer Infantry. Distrust between the rival German and German-speaking Hungarian militias comprising the regiment immediately manifest among the officers of the 24th Illinois, leading to the resignation of Col. Hecker and his loyal faction, including then-Major Salomon. Hecker and Salomon were reunited at the Concordia Club as the Jewish company was recruited and funded.

Col. Hecker was wounded in the regiment’s first action at the battle of Chancellorsville, Virginia, in May, 1863, while Lt. Colonel Salomon recovered from illness in time to rejoin the new Hecker Regiment shortly thereafter, and as General Robert E. Lee moved his Army of Northern Virginia across the Potomac toward Pennsylvania. Neither General Lee nor the new commander of the Army of the Potomac, General George Meade, had planned to fight a battle at Gettysburg, as Salomon would later write, “but events shaped themselves, and Gettysburg, which, up to the 1st of July, 1863, had been an obscure little hamlet in Pennsylvania, old fashioned and sedate, in a beautiful and peaceful valley, became a place of great historic importance, the place where the great forces of a great but divided people were to decide forever the question, whether or not a government of the people for the people and by the people should endure…” (Salomon, p. 6). After confused and frantic street fighting to cover the retreat through the city of Gettysburg on the first day of the battle, and as the regiment under his command reached the higher ground of Cemetery Hill, Salomon had his first of two horses shot out from under him at Gettysburg. The rest of Lee’s and Meade’s armies would arrive at Gettysburg by the following afternoon, Thursday, July 2.

During an artillery duel on the second day of the battle, Salomon had his second horse shot out from under him by a ricocheting round of solid shot. Meanwhile, Confederate sharpshooters had taken positions in several nearby houses, “from where they picked off our cannoniers and officers at a rapid rate,” Salomon wrote. General Oliver O. Howard ordered the colonel to call up volunteers to clear the houses of the sharpshooters. Salomon selected about forty men from among those who volunteered, and requested that Captain Joseph B. Greenhut lead the mission.

Joseph B. Greenhut was born in Austria and brought to Chicago by his parents in 1852 when he was nine years old. Greenhut was among the first to volunteer for service, rising quickly to the rank of sergeant. But early in the war his arm was wounded badly enough during the capture of Fort Donelson, Tennessee, that he was mustered out of the army. Greenhut reenlisted upon his recovery and was appointed captain of Company K in the Hecker Regiment, as the Concordia Guards were being recruited in Chicago.

I don’t have too much to add, but figured this would be of significant interest to readers.

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  • In the wonderful book, which I have mentioned here before, Writing With Scissors, the author includes extensive information on a prominent southern, jewish, family who kept a private record of the Civil War (as many did) in extensive scrapbook albums. One of the great things about this book–which covers scrapbooks as a major medium of self expression and political engagement from the Revolution to the Harlem Renaissance, is the way it compares black and white scrapbooks and use of scrapbooks as alternative media/political acts. I highly recommend it.

  • todwest

    My g-g-g grandfather, Joseph Wenk, was a Jewish member of the 66th NY Volunteers who lost his arm at Seven Pines.

    http://www.nytimes.com/1862/06/18/news/the-battle-of-fair-oaks-additional-list-of-killed-and-wounded-graham-s-brigade.html

  • DrDick

    About 10,000 Jews also fought for the Confederacy. In 1800, Charleston, SC, had the largest Jewish population in the country. They also fought in the Second Seminole War in the 1830s.

  • Dilan Esper

    The only thing I really know about this topic was that Ulysses S. Grant once made a horribly anti-Semitic order, which had to be overturned by Lincoln.

  • Bruce Vail

    Maryland’s Jewish hero of the Civil War is Leopold Blumenberg:

    http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/3422-blumenberg-leopold

    Col. Blumenberg was badly wounded leading his regiment at the battle of Antietam. The regiment was chock-a-block with Baltimore’s German immigrants, including German Jews, who were mostly pro-union.

  • Origami Isopod

    On its way to Springfield to be mustered out of service, the regiment gathered at Chicago’s ritzy Tremont House where it was addressed by “Long John” Wentworth, Chicago’s mayor at the beginning of the war and at the formation of the regiment. “A few years since,” Wentworth remarked, “there was a cry raised that ‘foreigners’ could not be trusted, and an attempt was made to disfranchise you, but when at last the time came that tried men’s souls – when native-born Americans proved false to their allegiance to their flag, and tried their utmost to tear down and trample under foot the noble structure their fathers fought and died to rear up, then you ‘foreigners’ came forward and showed yourselves true men…. I say it: you have proved that this country owes its existence to foreign immigrants.”

    Emphasis mine.

    • rea

      The context, though, was that this regiment, along with the rest of its army corps, largely made up of German veterans of the 1848 revolution, was completely routed at Chancellorsville, and again a few months later on the first day of Gettysburg. This gave them a bad reputation, but these disasters were largely due to inept generalship, and these troops performed much better later in the war.

  • Dr. Ronnie James, DO

    Here in Philly the Museum of American Jewish History recently opened on Independence Mall. They cover the Confederate Jews pretty openly, so, not much of a secret.

    Still seems incongruous, though. My Brooklyn Jew godfather went through a period where he claimed somewhat facetiously (but always straight-faced) to have traced his lineage to a Confederate “Colonel Beauregard Rubinstein” (not the real name but close) of the Georgia Militia.

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