What the Civil War Meant for American Jews

Now and Then

When Our House Was Divided: The Battle of Gettysburg, depicted above, was a key moment in the Civil War.
Library of Congress
When Our House Was Divided: The Battle of Gettysburg, depicted above, was a key moment in the Civil War.

By Jonathan D. Sarna

Published March 01, 2011, issue of March 11, 2011.
  • Print
  • Share Share

The 150th anniversary of the Civil War is upon us. April 12 is the anniversary of the firing on Fort Sumter, the war’s opening shot. From then, through the sesquicentennial anniversary on April 9, 2015 of Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Court House and five days later of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, every major event in the “ordeal of the union” seems likely to be recounted, re-enacted, reanalyzed and, likely as not, verbally re-fought.

The American Jewish community, meanwhile, has expressed little interest in these commemorations. A few books, a play, a film and a forthcoming scholarly conference form the totality of the Jewish contribution to the sesquicentennial. When I suggested a talk on the Civil War and the Jews in one setting, the organizers questioned the relevance of the whole topic. Only a small minority of Jews, they observed, boast ancestors who participated in the Civil War. By the time most Jewish immigrants to America arrived, the war was but a distant memory.

Fifty years ago, for the Civil War centennial, the level of interest within the Jewish community seemed noticeably higher. New York’s Jewish Museum mounted a grand exhibit titled “The American Jew in the Civil War.” Fully 260 photographs, documents and objects appeared in the multi-gallery show. It was the largest display of Jewish Civil War memorabilia ever assembled.

In the exhibit’s catalog, the late Bertram Korn, the foremost expert on American Jewry and the Civil War, examined “the major meaning of the Civil War for American Jews.” He listed five key themes:

1) The opportunity accorded Jews to fight as equal citizens and to rise through the ranks, something not granted them by most of the world’s great armies at that time.

2) Jews’ “total identification with their neighbors” — Northern Jews with the North and Southern Jews with the South. Jews demonstrated their loyalty and patriotism during the Civil War, and then boasted of it for many years afterward.

3) Jews’ tenaciousness in courageously fighting for their rights. Soon after the war began, they organized to correct legislation restricting the military chaplaincy to “regularly ordained ministers of some Christian denomination.” In December 1862, they rushed to the White House to fight Ulysses S. Grant’s notorious General Orders #11 expelling “Jews as a class” from his war zone. In both cases, they won empowering victories.

4) The forthright repudiation of anti-Semitism by Abraham Lincoln, who overturned Grant’s order (“to condemn a class is, to say the least, to wrong the good with the bad,” Lincoln declared. “I do not like to hear a class or nationality condemned on account of a few sinners.”). In the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis likewise repudiated anti-Semitism and worked closely with Judah Benjamin, his Jewish and much-maligned secretary of state.

5) The acceptance by the president and Congress of the principle of Jewish equality. Notwithstanding considerable wartime anti-Semitism, Jews achieved equal status on the battlefield, and Jewish chaplains won the right to serve alongside their Christian counterparts.

A sixth and somewhat uglier theme, largely overlooked in the catalog, should now be added to this list: complicity with slavery. Korn, a pioneering historian who elsewhere penned an essay on the topic of “Jews and Negro Slavery in the Old South,” demonstrated that Jews were in no way exceptional when it came to the peculiar institution. “Any Jew who could afford to own slaves and had need for their services,” he wrote, “would do so.”

In the North, meanwhile, Jews divided over the question of slavery: Some advocated abolition, others sought peace above all else, even if that meant acquiescing to Southern slavery. Many Jews simply remained silent.

To be sure, Jews formed far less than 1% of the national population, and their contribution to the overall institution of slavery was negligible. Still, notwithstanding their ancestors’ slavery in Egypt and their own celebration of freedom on Passover, Jews basically followed in the ways of their neighbors when it came to slavery. As a group they did not oppose it.

All of this is worth recalling as sesquicentennial commemorations of the Civil War multiply. Far from being irrelevant to contemporary Jews, the anniversary provides a welcome opportunity to learn from our past, to recall the evolving relationship of Jews to America and to remember that following in the ways of our neighbors can sometimes lead us astray.

Jonathan D. Sarna is the Joseph H. & Belle R. Braun Professor of American Jewish History at Brandeis University and chief historian of the National Museum of American Jewish History. He is the co-editor, with Adam Mendelsohn, of “Jews and the Civil War: A Reader” (NYU Press, 2010).


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • “I don’t want to say, ‘Oh oh, I’m not Jewish,’ because when you say that, you sound like someone trying to get into a 1950s country club, “and I love the idea of being Jewish." Are you a fan of Seth Meyers?
  • "If you want my advice: more Palestinians, more checkpoints, just more reality." What do you think?
  • Happy birthday Barbra Streisand! Our favorite Funny Girl turns 72 today.
  • Clueless parenting advice from the star of "Clueless."
  • Why won't the city give an answer?
  • BREAKING NEWS: Israel has officially suspended peace talks with the Palestinians.
  • Can you guess what the most boring job in the army is?
  • What the foolish rabbi of Chelm teaches us about Israel and the Palestinian unity deal:
  • Mazel tov to Idina Menzel on making Variety "Power of Women" cover! http://jd.fo/f3Mms
  • "How much should I expect him and/or ask him to participate? Is it enough to have one parent reciting the prayers and observing the holidays?" What do you think?
  • New York and Montreal have been at odds for far too long. Stop the bagel wars, sign our bagel peace treaty!
  • Really, can you blame them?
  • “How I Stopped Hating Women of the Wall and Started Talking to My Mother.” Will you see it?
  • Taglit-Birthright Israel is redefining who they consider "Jewish" after a 17% drop in registration from 2011-2013. Is the "propaganda tag" keeping young people away?
  • Happy birthday William Shakespeare! Turns out, the Bard knew quite a bit about Jews.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.