Jews and the Civil War Ed. By Jonathan Sarna and Adam Mendelsohn

I Just Finished Reading: Jews and the Civil War: A Reader Edited by Jonathan Sarna and Adam Mendelsohn published by NYU Press (2010)

This year marks the 150th Anniversary of the start of the American Civil War. You’ll be seeing a lot on the war over the next four years, so get used to it now.  In fact, with arguments over states ‘ rights, race relations, and the 14th Amendment, you may feel like the war is still being fought.

One of the most neglected aspects of the war is the role of immigrants in it. We have some vague notions of the Irish Brigade and the New York Draft Riots, but beyond Leo DiCaprio’s role as an Irish thug in Gangs of New York, few of us can recall even pop cultural images of immigrants in Blue or Grey.

Jews and the Civil War is one of several new contributions to the subject of the immigrant experience during the war. And the Jews were overwhelmingly immigrants. Two-thirds of Jews in America in 1861 had been born abroad.

The study of Jews in this era only dates back sixty years. The publication of Rabbi Bertram W. Korn’s scholarly study American Jewry and the Civil War in 1951 is the seminal work on the subject. This modern reader collects scholarship subsequent to Korn.

Before Korn, Jewish writing on the Civil War served contemporary community goals of showing that the Jews were “just like everyone else, only better”. Jews were depicted as sharing the views of the Christian communities in which they lived. This writing was designed to counter anti-Semitic notions that Jews constitute a subversive Fifth Column within host societies. So, early writing depicted Jews in the South as good states’ rights advocates, kind slave owners, reasonable secessionists, and brave Confederate soldiers whose uprightness was universally recognized by their neighbors.

Korn, and his successors, use the methods of modern history to portray the complex interactions of Jewish identity, limited English proficiency (most spoke German), and Judeophobia in the Christian community on individual Jews and Jewish communities.

Not all of the stories end the way pre-Korn writers would have wished. Some of the Jews whose lives are detailed here fit in so well in the broader society that they abandoned their Jewishness altogether and converted to Protestant Christianity. Others were among the Jews expelled from their homes by U.S. Grant during his Vicksburg campaign, because they were seen as an inherently untrustworthy element.

Over the next several years, I plan on blogging about the Immigrants’ Civil War. I will avoid the temptation to only look at the heroic, enlightened, and noble immigrants, but also at the realities of social confusion in a society torn apart by war. This book is a great contribution to that research.


About Patrick Young

Program Director of the Central American Refugee Center (CARECEN) and Supervising Attorney for the Westchester Hispanic Coalition. Blogs for Long Island Wins and New York State Immigrant Action Fund
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