Season of freedom: Jews and the Civil War

Jews and the Civil War, April 2011

Links between Passover and the Civil War — narratives of national deliverance — are inseparable. For Jews and the descendants of American slaves, spring is the season of freedom.

The Civil War began 10 days after Passover 1861 and ended on the eve of Passover 1865. Some 150,000 Jews lived in the North and 25,000 in the South at the outbreak of the war.

Most were immigrants from Germany. Roughly 7,000 Jews fought for the Union and 3,000 for the Confederacy. Today, it’s hard to square how some Jews could support or at least tolerate the Confederate South. U.S. Sen. Benjamin Wade of Ohio called out Judah P. Benjamin — a Jew and the Confederacy’s attorney general, secretary of war and secretary of state — as “an Israelite with Egyptian principles.”

Here are some resources in connection with the 150th Civil War anniversary, which unfolds over the next four years. My thanks go to Dr. Gary P. Zola, executive director of the American Jewish Archives in Cincinnati, for expanding my understanding of Jews and the Civil War.

– Marshall Weiss

A Confederate $2 note bearing the image of Judah P. Benjamin, who served as Confederate attorney general, secretary of war and secretary of state. Benjamin, a Jew, was a sugar planter in New Orleans and owned 140 slaves until he sold his plantation in 1850.
Gary P. Zola

Cincinnati screening of documentary on Jews in Blue & Gray

Jewish Soldiers in Blue & Gray — a documentary that explores Jewish participation during the Civil War — will have its Cincinnati premiere on Wednesday, April 13 at 7 p.m., at the Mayerson JCC, 8485 Ridge Road, Cincinnati.

At 6 p.m., one hour prior to the screening, Dr. Gary P. Zola, executive director of the Jacob Rader Marcus Center of the American Jewish Archives, will lead a brown-bag dinner discussion. Zola was a member of the Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission. He was among those interviewed for Jewish Soldiers in Blue & Gray and is writing a book about Abraham Lincoln’s relationship with American Jews.

Before flying to New York and Israel — where he was presenting lectures on Jewish connections to Lincoln and the Civil War — Zola shared some of his insights about why American Jews in particular revere Lincoln.

“Lincoln was the first president to establish considerable personal and professional associations with Jews,” he said. “He had personal friendships, he also did business with Jews.”

The Civil War, he added, also marked the first time U.S. Jews successfully organized as activists at the national level, “first to lobby for Jewish chaplains and then against Grant’s Orders No. 11.”

The Cincinnati event will include a Civil War artifacts exhibit from the archives’ extensive collection, and a reception featuring baked goods made using Civil War era recipes.

Admission is $5 per person. For more information, contact Courtney Cummings at 513-722-7226.          — Marshall Weiss

Library of Congress
The above photograph of Abraham Lincoln was taken by Bavarian Jewish photographer Samuel G. Alschuler at his studio in Urbana, Ill. in 1857. Lincoln used Alschuler’s coat for the portrait, which was several sizes too small for the future president, who forced back laughter while posing. Alschuler was also the first photographer to capture the president-elect’s newly sprouting beard, Nov. 25, 1860 (below).
Library of Congress

Related articles

What the Civil War meant for American Jews, then and now by Jonathan Sarna, Forward

Why Jews revere Lincoln by Walter Boroson, The New Jersey Jewish Standard

Collecting Lincoln: the making of a national treasure by Edmon J. Rodman, JTA

Freedom Seder? Theatre Review of The Whipping Man by Ted Merwin, The New York Jewish Week

David Urbansky: Ohio’s only Jewish Civil War Medal of Honor recipient by Maxwell Nathan, The Dayton Jewish Observer

Lincoln's Jewish foot doctor and spy for the Union, Isachar Zacharie

Dramatis Personae

Some of the key players in the Jewish stories of the Civil War. more

The Lincoln Penny

An immigrant’s lasting tribute to Lincoln


If you look carefully at the bottom left of the engraving of Abraham Lincoln on a penny, you’ll find the initials VDB. President Theodore Roosevelt commissioned Lithuanian Jewish immigrant Victor David Brenner to craft the engraving of Lincoln for a 1909 redesign of the penny, to commemorate the centennial of Lincoln’s birth.

— Marshall Weiss

Previous post

Wright State University now home to Federation archives collection

Next post

An immigrant's lasting tribute to Lincoln