Dramatis personae, April 2011
Some of the key players in the Jewish stories of the Civil War
Judah P. Benjamin
The first openly Jewish member of the U.S. Senate, Benjamin was the only member of the Confederate Cabinet who wasn’t a slave owner (he sold his sugar plantation and 140 slaves in 1850). He served first as Confederate attorney general, then secretary of war. His failed military strategies got him promoted to secretary of state. Late in the game, he championed emancipation for slaves who would fight with the Confederacy. An enigmatic figure, he lived as a barrister in England after the war.
Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise
The father of Reform Judaism in America, he established the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, the Central Conference of American Rabbis, and was founding editor of The American Israelite. Initially the Bavarian native didn’t support Lincoln; he thought abolitionists were fanatics (many were antisemites), along with secessionists. He led a Jewish delegation to thank Lincoln for revoking Grant’s Orders 11. After Lincoln’s death, Wise said Lincoln believed he had Jewish lineage and had told Wise himself.
The U.S. Congressman for our very own Third Ohio District, Vallandigham was the only member of Congress to oppose the adoption of a bill to permit regiments to appoint chaplains as long as they were Christian. A non-Jew, he stated that U.S. Jews were ‘good citizens and as true patriots as any in this country’ and thought the law was unconstitutional. At that time, there were but 40 Jewish households in his district. Ironically, he was an ardent Southern sympathizer. Lincoln banished him to the South in 1863.
Rabbi Arnold Fischel
Col. Max Friedman and officers in his Pennsylvania regiment named Rabbi Arnold Fischel of New York’s Congregation Shearith Israel as their chaplain, hoping to create a test case after their first chaplain, another Jew, was rejected by the Union Army. When the U.S. secretary of war rejected Fischel’s application, Jews organized on a national level. Fischel himself lobbied Lincoln on Dec. 11, 1861. Lincoln promised to submit a new law to Congress; It was adopted on July 17, 1862, allowing for Jewish chaplains in addition to Protestants and Catholics.
Ulysses S. Grant
On Dec. 17, 1862, Gen. Grant issued General Orders No. 11, to expel the Jews “as a class” from Kentucky, Mississippi and Tennessee. A few traders on the black market for Southern Cotton were Jews. There was some limited legal trade sanctioned by the Treasury Dept. and the U.S. Army, as the North was dependent on Southern cotton. Grant was infuriated when his father asked for trading licenses for merchants from Cincinnati, including some Jews. Lincoln received Jewish leaders on Jan. 3, 1863 and immediately revoked the order. Even so, Grant carried the Jewish vote in the presidential election of 1868.
Lincoln’s English-born Jewish foot doctor and confidante, Zacharie settled in Washington, D.C. in 1862. Among his patients were Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton and Secretary of State William Henry Seward. He also spied on the Confederacy for Lincoln and established lines of communication between the president’s administration and the Confederacy. Zacharie promised he would deliver the “Jewish vote” to Lincoln in his 1864 re-election bid. This was the first time Jews were ever thought of as a voting bloc in U.S. politics; the idea didn’t sit well with the Jews of the time.
— Marshall Weiss