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The Jewish Confederates

by Robert N. Rosen

A Book Review by James F. Epperson

James F. Epperson is a professor of Mathematics at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.

Most students of the American Civil War know of Judah Benjamin, the Louisiana Senator who held several posts in the Confederate Cabinet.  Many will know the name of Phoebe Yates Pember, who served as matron of Chimborazo Hospital in Richmond.  But few will know the name of  Simon Baruch, except perhaps as the father of the financier Bernard Baruch, and even fewer will know of the connection that binds Simon Baruch, Phoebe Pember, and Judah Benjamin:  All three were Jewish Confederates.

It might seem odd, to our 21st century minds, that so many people associated with the Mosaic tradition of bondage would support a society based on slavery, but the truth is that the South had a much larger  ---  and more tolerated  ---  Jewish population in the antebellum period than the North did.  And many of these took up the Confederate cause.  Robert Rosen has undertaken the task of writing their story in this book.

To someone from a Gentile background (like this reviewer) the book is informative, if repetitive; I learned a great deal about such Jewish Southerners as Judah Benjamin and David Yulee, who was a Senator from Florida; as well as minor figures such as Bernard Baruch's father, Simon, who served as a medical officer in Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia.  The antebellum South was actually more hospitable to Jewish immigrants than was the North.  Charleston and New Orleans had substantial and respected Jewish communities of long standing  ---  Beth Elohim, one of the first (if not the first) synagogue in the South, was founded in 1749.  In 1820, the first synagogue was organized in New Orleans.

Much of the book is taken up with telling the story of many Jewish Southerners who took up the Confederate cause.  This is both the strength and the weakness of the book. Although the several chapters are each organized around a common theme, the reader tends to lose sight of this amidst a flood of brief stories about yet another Jewish family and its service to the Confederacy.  After a few such vignettes, it does appear as though the author is determined to tell the story of every Jewish Confederate he was able to locate, and this becomes tiresome after a while.  (The better part of two chapters is devoted to such material.)  More to the point, it saps the book's central theme of Southern Jewish loyalty, which would be better served by concentrating upon a few individuals instead of trying to tell the entire story of every Jew in the Confederate army.  At the same time, it is valuable to learn the story of (for example) Major Raphael J. Moses, who served as Commissary for Longstreet's command in Lee's army; and it is poignant to read the fate of Gustavus Poznanski, whose father had been rabbi of Beth Elohim and who came home from Canada to join the Confederate army, in whose ranks he died at the Battle of Secessionville. 

The Jewish community of the South was not immune to the kind of anguish which swept over the entire region in 1860-61.  For example,  Capt. Alfred Mordecai of Virginia, whom Rosen calls "the most respected Jewish officer in the U.S. Army in 1860," agonized over his personal course of action.  Several of his siblings lived in the South, and four men of his family would wear the gray, but Alfred could not fight against the United States; he resigned his commission and sat out the war.  His son, Alfred Jr., served as an officer in the Federal army, much to the disgust and fury of the elder Alfred's Southern relatives.  Rosen misses an opportunity to contrast this with Robert E. Lee's very different reaction to the same dilemma.

Rosen has not done a poor job so much as overdone a good job.  He clearly is not familiar with the basic Civil War literature  ---  his description of the Fort Sumter bombardment in 1861 is almost comical in its innocence  --- and his lack of expertise in Civil War literature does lead him to accept, uncritically, some anecdotes of questionable veracity.  In a book composed almost entirely of anecdotes and episodes, this is perhaps inevitable.

Despite these very real criticisms I found that I learned a lot from reading the book, which is perhaps the important point.  I just wish Rosen had produced a more compact, less diffuse, study, which had more focus.