The Ladies in Grey and Blue

Unsung Jewish Heroines of the Civil War


By Roberta Sandler

Published June 12, 2012, issue of June 15, 2012.
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About 10,000 Jewish men fought in the Civil War, for both the Union and Confederate armies. When these soldiers set off for battle, they left behind their wives, sisters and daughters, who stayed to raise the children and run the households and, sometimes, the family businesses.

But not all these women stayed focused on only domestic or local activities. Instead, many found a way to participate in the war, through relief associations to aid sick and wounded soldiers and benevolent organizations to help women whose husbands and sons were off fighting or injured.

These women also organized fundraising committees to buy supplies for the soldiers, turned their synagogues or homes into hospitals, and created sewing societies to make uniforms for the soldiers.

On the Civil War Sesquicentennial, we have profiled six courageous and resilient Jewish women who took part in the war of the North and South. While coming from a variety of backgrounds and fighting for different sides, these women were all passionate about the war and willing to endure hardships and danger in order to stay involved.

—Roberta Sandler

Octavia Harby Moses

Octavia Harby Moses was born in South Carolina in 1823. She married a Jewish man, Andrew Jackson Moses Sr., and had 17 children.

Courtesy of Lew RegensteiN

Moses’s father, Isaac Harby, was one of the founders of Reform Judaism in America. Moses herself was an observant Jew and would host her family members on the Sabbath throughout her life.

During the war, Moses offered relief to Confederate soldiers while caring for her family and relatives who had fled Charleston to seek refuge at her home in Sumter, S.C. At the beginning of the war, Sumter was a supply and railroad repair center for the Confederacy, and its churches and courthouse served as hospitals for wounded soldiers.

Moses knitted socks for the Confederate soldiers, prepared lint for dressing wounds, and sent blankets and other provisions to Confederate supply centers. Short on supplies, she cut up her window curtains to make dresses; she also made imitation coffee from okra seeds and parched peanuts, and hats from corn shucks.

At age 80, Moses wrote her memoirs, in which she reminisced about meeting every train that brought soldiers through her town. She frequently walked from her home to take food to Confederate soldiers as they passed through. Her compassion also extended to Union soldiers.

“When I heard that the Northern prisoners would be brought through our town and that they were nearly in a starving condition, I immediately exerted myself to obtain a large quantity of provisions to give to them,” she wrote.

Moses and her husband never recovered from the loss of their son, the last Confederate Jew to be killed in battle. He died on the same day that Robert E. Lee, the Confederate general, surrendered at Appomattox, Va. She died in 1904.

Phoebe Yates Levy Pember

Phoebe Yates Levy Pember was born in Charleston, in 1823 and came from a family of devout Jews. Her sister was Eugenia Levy Phillips, described to the right.

The sisters’ grandfather, a Polish immigrant named Moses Levy, served as president of a synagogue in Charleston. Their father, Jacob Levy, served as treasurer of the synagogue. When the original building burned during an 1838 fire, Jacob Levy reportedly saved the Torahs.

wikimedia commons

Despite Phoebe Levy’s religious upbringing, she married a non-Jewish Bostonian named Thomas Pember who died five years later. During the war, Phoebe Pember worked as chief matron of one of the five divisions at Chimborazo Hospital, a Confederate hospital in Richmond, Va., that was, at the time, the world’s largest military medical facility. She supervised 150 wards and oversaw the care of 15,000 soldiers.

The work was exhausting and frustrating. There was a frequent lack of medicine and provisions, doctors who resented working with women, and a steady stream of sick and wounded soldiers. Still, she ensured that the hospital ran smoothly. With compassionate care, she fed her patients, washed their wounds, wrote letters for them and encouraged them even as they lay dying.

Pember died in 1913 at age 89. In 1995, the U.S. Postal Service issued a stamp commemorating her service during the Civil War.


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