Home / General / Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,586

Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,586


This is the grave of Uriah Levy.

Born in 1792 in Philadelphia. Levy came from an old Sephardic Jewish family from Portugal who fled the Inquisition and then headed to England before going to Savannah, Georgia, where they helped found the Georgia colony. Levy’s family was deeply involved in trade and were on the seas as a routine thing. He was not the only one of his siblings to end up there. I don’t know what was up with Levy’s youth, but he evidently ran away from home at the age of 10, when he hopped on a ship and worked as a cabin boy. He did return home in 1805 for his bar mitzvah!

By the time of the War of 1812, he became a sailing master on the Argus, which spied on British ships in the English Channel and took them when they could. In fact, the Argus took 20 ships before being captured itself. Levy was imprisoned for the rest of the war, over a year.

Levy stayed in the Navy after the war. He became the second master on the Franklin. He became a lieutenant in 1817. He became a master commander in 1837 and captain in 1844. This was pretty remarkable. He started as a cabin boy in the early 19th century, not a great era to be on boats. He remembered what it was like to be at the bottom of the order too and later he acted to make the Navy more humane.

Now, things were not easy for Levy. Why? He was a Jew. You think the elites who ran the Navy liked Jews? They did not. Levy was also very touchy about it. Who can blame him? Now, you know what it meant to be touchy in the early 19th century? Yep, it meant dueling. He killed a motherfucker too, an officer who had insulted him. Levy had tried to resist the duel, but when the other officer wanted to go ahead with it, Levy shot his ass down. Overall, he was court martialed six different times and was demoted once and kicked out of the Navy twice. But he was reinstated both times. One of these court-martials took place in 1857 and he wrote his own defense in a public manifesto that was co-written by no other than Benjamin Butler.

Despite all this, Levy kept moving up in the Navy. He rose to command the Mediterranean Squadron. He was also critical in ending flogging in the Navy, and for that he deserves a lot of credit. He had banned it on his own ships in the early 1840s and his enemies in the service had him court-martialed for it. He was about to be thrown out of the Navy, when John Tyler, in perhaps the only decent thing he ever did, revoked the court-martial and had him reinstated. Levy then took this as a political crusade and working with the New Hampshire senator John Hale, got riders placed into bills to ban the practice. It was not fully banned until 1862, but still, Levy deserves credit here, as well as Hale of course.

One interesting moment took place in 1825. The Brazilian Navy impressed some American soldier into its forces. I don’t know the details really. But Levy went and rescued the guy and it so impressed Emperor Dom Pedro that he banned Brazilians from impressing any Americans in the future. This feels like there’s a lot missing in terms of context and even basic information (why and how did this happen, to start with), but I wanted to note it. Supposedly Dom Pedro then offered Levy a captainship in his Navy and Levy responded by saying  “I would rather serve as a cabin boy in the United States Navy than hold the rank of Admiral in any other service in the world.” Boy does this sound apocryphal to me. Anyway, it comes from his biography to his archival collections at the Center for Jewish History, so I am assume there has to be at least something to it.

Although he was technically in the Navy by the 1850s, mostly he was not active. He did serve for a year in the Civil War, but that was about it and even there he wasn’t really doing anything, plus he was ancient by that time. In fact, he did volunteer for the war, but Lincoln wasn’t going to put him out on the seas. Instead, and I hope Lincoln was aware of the irony here and knowing him, he would have laughed about this, he placed Levy on the Court-Martial Board in Washington to decide the fates of others.

Levy spent most of his later years investing in New York real estate and getting pretty rich. He was also super involved in Jewish charities. He also did a ton to promote the memory of his hero, Thomas Jefferson. That included buying Monticello. Jefferson’s heirs had sold it to a Charlottesville pharmacist in 1831 and he really couldn’t keep it up. So in 1834, Levy bought it and restored it. He used it as his vacation home for the rest of his life. He also placed his aging mother there and evidently, she is buried on the property. After Levy’s death, which took place during the Civil War, he had intended to leave Monticello to the government for an agricultural school. But Congress didn’t have the ability to take it over and of course the Confederates then took it. But Levy’s heirs sued and got it back after the war. The family ended up keeping it until 1923, when the heirs sold it to the progenitors of the organization that run it today. Levy also commissioned the statue of Jefferson that is in the Capitol rotunda.

In 1853, Levy married. He was 61. His wife, who was also his niece, was 18. Hmmm….Evidently, at least according to a biographer of Levy, there is or was anyway a tradition in some forms of Judiasm where the oldest male relative marries the unmarried and now impoverished orphaned daughter of a now deceased male relative, and in this case, the girl’s father had just died. I have no idea how true this is. I am saying that for the modern reader, it feels just a wee bit gross. Maybe it was truly just a support system.

Levy died in 1862. He was 69 years old.

Uriah Levy is buried in Beth Olom Cemetery, Queens, New York.

If you would like this series to visit other sailors from the War of 1812, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Thomas Holdup Stevens is in Arlington and Charles Stewart is in Philadelphia. Previous posts in this series are archived here and here.

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