Jewish supporters of the Confederacy abounded

By: Katherine Calos
September 18, 2011

A year after the Civil War ended, Richmond’s Jewish women came together to honor and mourn their own:

Marx Myers, killed at Manassas; Henry Smith, at Fayette Courthouse; Herman Hirsh, in Westmoreland County; Isaac Levy and Gustavus Kann, at Petersburg; Madison Marcus, Henrico County; and 30 other Jewish Confederates from around the South, dead in the defenses of Richmond.

The local men were buried in family plots around Hebrew Cemetery on Shockoe Hill.

Others shared a plot known as the soldiers’ section. Caring for them became the goal of the Hebrew Ladies’ Memorial Association. And in a fundraising letter "to the Israelites of the South" on June 5, 1866, Mrs. Abraham Levy explained that the group intended to place a headstone at each grave and erect a monument to their service.

"In time to come, when our grief shall have become, in a measure, silenced, and when the malicious tongue of slander, ever so ready to assail Israel, shall be raised against us, then, with a feeling of mournful pride, will we point to this monument and say: ‘There is our reply.’"

That reply, bordered by an elaborate iron fence with draped muskets and crossed sabers, remains standing in Richmond, a testament to the service of Jews during the Civil War.

North and South, Jews were very much a part of the wartime response.

They were soldiers and blockade runners, merchants and calligraphers, public leaders and farmers. They died in battle, came home wounded, tended to the sick. Families tore apart as they chose sides. Tales of bravery and heartache lived for generations.

Judah Benjamin, sometimes known as "the brains of the Confederacy," was one of the South’s highest-ranking officials. He served as attorney general, secretary of war and finally secretary of state during the four years that the Confederate capital was in Richmond.

Myer Angle, first president of Congregation Beth Ahabah, had six sons who fought for the Confederacy.

Phoebe Pember tended the sick and wounded as chief matron at Chimborazo military hospital, where as many as 75,000 were treated during the war.

Gustavus Myers, city councilman for 28 years and council president for 12, was one of the men who met with President Abraham Lincoln on a surprise visit to Richmond on April 4, 1865, to talk about an oath of allegiance for former Confederates.

"The President declared his disposition to be lenient towards all persons, however prominent, who had taken part in the struggle, and certainly no exhibition was made by him of any feeling of vindictiveness or of exultation," Myers wrote in a memorandum the next day.

An estimated 7,000 Jewish Americans served as soldiers for both sides in the American Civil War, possibly 2,000 of them Confederates. Richmond counted 102 Jewish men fighting for secession.

When M.J. Michelbacher, Beth Ahabah’s spiritual leader, requested furloughs for Jewish soldiers on the high holidays, Confederate Inspector General Samuel Cooper said there were so many Jews in the Confederate forces that it would be impossible to give blanket permission for all to leave at once.

The first Jewish person recorded in Richmond was Isaiah Isaacs, who was involved in a suit in 1769 in Henrico County Court. In 1788, Isaacs was elected to Richmond’s Common Hall, the forerunner of city council. He was a founder of Beth Shalome, Richmond’s first synagogue on Mayo Street, where Interstate 95 crosses Shockoe Valley. He owned four house slaves, but freed them at his death.

Jewish immigrants from Holland, Germany and Poland arrived in the 1800s. Between 1835 and 1860, a majority of German Jews arriving in Richmond were from Bavaria, according to "Richmond’s Jewry" by Myron Berman. These Bavarian Jews were merchants who tended to follow a similar occupation in Richmond. In 1852, more than 25 German Jewish merchants were listed as being in the dry-goods business, including William Thalhimer on 17th Street between Franklin and Grace.

"All of these people who came to us for whatever reason found a home and friends and neighbors that they became very attached to," said Bonnie Eisenman, researcher at Beth Ahabah Museum and Archives, where an exhibit on Jews in the Civil War opens Monday. "They were accepted, and they felt very loyal to the South. To watch these different types of people come together is an interesting story."

By 1860, the census counted two synagogues with an aggregate "accommodation" of 400. Beth Shalome in the valley had been joined by Beth Ahabah on the hill at 11th Street where the VCU Health System’s Nelson Clinic is today. The census missed a third synagogue that had no building — Kenesseth Israel, formed in 1856 by Polish Jews.

"In general, people paint a broad brush about who the average Civil War soldier was. They see them as white, young men," said Andy Talkov, coordinator for the Virginia Historical Society’s 150th anniversary exhibition, "An American Turning Point: The Civil War in Virginia."

"It turns out that Jewish people were very much involved in their community in the war, as were all the other non-Jewish communities. That’s kind of the biggest revelation about Jewish people in the Civil War. … There were Jewish people who were slaveholders. There were Jewish people who owned property. They threw their lot in with the Confederacy like many of their white neighbors did."

* * * * *

In the same month that Virginia voted for secession, the Hebrew congregation of the House of Love (a translation of Beth Ahabah) contributed $1,230 toward the support of families in the Virginia Volunteers militia, the Richmond Daily Dispatch reported on April 29, 1861.

Jewish families such as the Thalhimers offered rewards for the return of runaway slaves — in most cases the house servants that kept life running smoothly for people of means.

"It was shocking to me. So many people had house slaves," said Elizabeth Thalhimer Smartt, who discovered the ads while researching her book, "Finding Thalhimers."

The first Thalhimer ad in April 1863 offered $50 for the return of "my colored girl Mary. Said girl is about 16 or 17 years old well grown for her age, and yellow complexion. She must be lurking somewhere in the city."

The second Thalhimer ad in January 1864 offered $500 apiece for Matilda and Lavinia. "Matilda is a very stout woman, about 5 feet high, black complexion, smooth, pleasant features, has scars on her arms, neck, and head, and is about 38 years old. Lavinia is a small, medium height woman, black complexion, sharp features, has scars on her arms from sores, and is 21 years old. Both are supposed to be trying to make their way to the Peninsula in company with other Negroes, as they are known to have left with Mr. Solomon Davis’s servant girl."

"It’s difficult for me to understand," Smartt said. "However, I know they were running a business and raising seven children and barely making it and would need help in the house, and I guess that’s how they would go about getting help. I understand it was in the context of the time period."

Today, some puzzle how Jewish people, who each year celebrate their own release from slavery by the Pharaoh of Egypt during Passover, could enslave others. But just as Christians could find support for opposing views in the Bible, so did Jews.

"It has to do with wanting to be accepted, to be like everybody else, wanting to have privilege, to not be oppressed," said Gary Zola, director of the American Jewish Archives in Cincinnati. "All those things are true, but it’s hard to answer the question of what were they thinking about while sitting at the Passover table and saying what they were saying while slaves came and served them."

* * * * *

Passover was just one of the times that Jews struggled to accommodate religious and military demands.

Isaac Levy, one of three Richmond brothers who fought for the Confederacy, wrote about observing Passover in 1864 with supplies that brother Ezekiel got in Charleston, S.C., on his way to camp. Matzo cost about $2 a pound, he wrote. In New York City at the time, it would have cost about 6 cents a pound.

"We are observing the festival in a truly Orthodox style," Levy wrote. "On the first day we had a fine vegetable soup. It was made of a bunch of vegetables which Zeke brought from Charleston containing new onions, parsley, carrots, turnips and a young cauliflower, also a pound and a half of fresh (kosher) beef, the latter article sells for $4 per pound in Charleston. Zeke E. did not bring us any meat from home. He brought some of his own, smoked meat, which he is sharing with us. He says that he supposes that Pa forgot to deliver it to him."

Marx Mitteldorfer wrote home to Richmond from the Peninsula campaign on April 15, 1862. He joked that hardtack was his substitute for the unleavened matzo, and days of fasting would be no problem at all.

"Dear Parents, today you say Passover. I am keeping it, for we get hard crackers and mess pork to eat but hardly any of that. I think we could keep fast day down here better than anything but I hope it won’t be long. … Sending my love to all."

When bacon was the only meat in daily rations, supplements from home were vital for those with religious prohibitions against eating pork. Mitteldorfer’s letters often included thanks for food and requests for more.

Edwin Kursheedt, a New Orleans artilleryman who was courting Isaac Levy’s sister, Sallie, sent his thanks from the Williamsburg area: "Through your kindness I was enabled to live very high up to yesterday, but had to come down to rations this morning viz. bacon and crackers — I enjoyed the latter but have not made up my mind to partake of the former."

With the dietary restrictions, said the Virginia Historical Society’s Talkov, he sometimes wonders, "How did they manage to survive? Some simply ate it. Some tried to remain faithful to their beliefs.

"I had a conversation with a World War II soldier who was Jewish. He said a rabbi came into the mess hall and told them it was OK to eat it because God would understand it was a time of necessity, but it was very difficult to get over what their parents had told them their whole life that this stuff was equivalent to poison. I imagine the same thing happened with the Civil War Jew."

* * * * *

Anti-Semitism had not generally been an issue in the South before the war but, as conditions deteriorated, so did the equanimity. The most egregious example came from Union Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, who ordered in 1862 that all Jews be expelled from Kentucky, Tennessee and Mississippi — an order that was soon countermanded by Lincoln.

"A lot of times, anti-Semitism arises when a society begins to suffer and they look around for the reasons they suffer," Talkov said. "The Jewish people in Richmond were by and large merchants. People in Richmond had no love for merchants because they saw prices rising, and a lot of people blamed merchants. There were people, Jews and non-Jews, who were looking to make a buck if they could get their hands on highly desirable goods."

Because of the Union blockade of Southern ports, imported goods were rare. Blockade runners stood to make a fortune. Philip Whitlock, a Jewish member of the Richmond Grays before the war, wrote about his attempt in 1863. He crossed the Potomac with several others in a rowboat and took a train by way of Washington to New York.

"I stayed in New York for nearly a week and bought such goods as we could carry along with us in handbags, as there was no way that we could carry a trunk," he wrote. "However, no matter what we bought, we could make a profit from the fact that all kinds of goods were very scarce and Confederate money was plentiful. So we bought such things as fine tooth combs, silk handkerchiefs, tobacco pipes, pins, needles, pencils, and a great many other things that I cannot enumerate now."

The route back took him to Surratt’s Tavern, where John Wilkes Booth would seek refuge two years later after assassinating Lincoln. Whitlock and his brother-in-law, Ellis Abram, hid for two weeks in a barn near the Potomac until Union soldiers left the area. After they crossed to Virginia, they were arrested by a Confederate captain.

"We were taken to Headquarters and after being put through an examination, we were discharged. But when we got our satchels and handbags we found that the contents had been rifled and about one half of our goods was gone," he wrote. "Of course, we could not make any complaint, as it would have been useless and it would probably have gotten us into trouble. However, we got home safe and sold the rest of the goods that we brought home. We just got out about even on the whole affair."

Abram tried it again solo and was caught. After nine months in prison, he went west and didn’t return until the war was over.

William Flegenheimer, best known as the man who handwrote the official copy of Virginia’s Ordinance of Secession for delegates to sign in 1861, also was thwarted by the blockade. He threw his goods overboard in the Potomac, was captured and spent 11 weeks in prison before "I came back having lost all I possessed — about $3500 in good money. I had to start life anew empty-handed except a small quantity of candy we kept in my confectionery."

If they had succeeded, John B. Jones, a war clerk and diarist, would have lumped them into "a large category that he referred to as extortioners, which I think was a catchphrase largely for Jews," Talkov said. "He accused Jewish people of dodging the draft. ‘They will make profit from war in their adopted countries. They don’t have their own country. They come to your country, take advantage of your people, and when stuff goes bad they take off. There’s no loyalty.’

"That’s stereotypical anti-Semitic nonsense."

* * * * *

People such as Jones may have been the ones that the Jewish women of Richmond were preparing to answer.

"We make this appeal for aid," Mrs. Levy wrote, "well knowing that as Israelites and true patriots, they will not refuse to assist in rearing a monument which shall serve not only to commemorate the bravery of our dead, but (also show) the gratitude and admiration of the living, for those who so nobly perished in what we deemed a just and righteous cause. … While as Israelites we mourn the untimely loss of our loved ones, it will be a grateful reflection that they suffered not their country to call in vain."

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