Jews don gray, fight for South

By Gordon Berg

There are 30 of them, with names such as Adler, Cohen, Hessberg, Wolf and Seldner. They came from Virginia, Mississippi, Texas, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia and Louisiana. All of them were soldiers, Jews, and they all died in Virginia during the Civil War.

Today they lie together in a peaceful plot known as the Soldier’s Section of the old Hebrew Cemetery, the oldest Jewish military cemetery in the world, on Richmond’s Shockoe Hill.

Jews had lived in Richmond since the 1760s, and by 1860, the city boasted three synagogues. In 1816, the Richmond Common Council deeded one acre of land on Shockoe Hill to Kaal Kadosh Beth Shalome "to be by them held and exclusively used as a burying-ground, subject to their rites and laws, for that purpose and for that alone."

In 1843, Congregation Beth Ahabah, founded two years earlier by German Jews, gained burial privileges shared with the older synagogue until the congregations merged in 1898. Many prominent Jewish business and cultural leaders are buried in the Hebrew Cemetery, now comprising 8.4 acres, although Jews also are buried in other Richmond cemeteries.

Donning the gray

When the Southern states began to secede from the Union and war seemed imminent, young Jewish men across the South flocked to the Confederacy’s colors with the same enthusiasm as their Christian counterparts, and for many of the same reasons.

Because Jews rarely self-identified outside of their religious communities and did not form ethnic regiments like the Irish or the Germans, it is hard to know precisely how many donned Confederate gray. Estimates run between 2,000 and 3,000. New Orleans, the South’s largest city, also had the would-be nation’s largest concentration of Jews. Charleston, S.C., Atlanta and Richmond also had sizable Jewish populations.

Richmond’s Jews quickly immersed themselves in the war effort, both on and off the battlefield. More than 100 enlisted in the Confederate army, including 15 who joined the Richmond Blues, later to become the 46th Virginia Infantry.

Myer Angle, president of Beth Ahabah, had six sons who served in the Army of Northern Virginia. Rabbi Maximilian J. Michelbacher waged a campaign throughout the war for religious observances on behalf of Jewish Confederates. He wrote repeatedly to Gen. Robert E. Lee, requesting furloughs for the soldiers to attend High Holy Days and Passover services. Lee respectfully declined each time.

The men buried in the Soldier’s Section rest in hallowed ground, maintained today by the Hebrew Cemetery Co. because after the war, a devout and determined group of Jewish women followed the example of their gentile sisters and formed a memorial association to, in the words of historian Caroline E. Janney, "bury the dead but not the past."

Powerful symbols

Organized on June 5, 1866, the Hebrew Ladies’ Memorial Association (HLMA) began a process, repeated in communities all across the South, to rebury Confederate soldiers and sanctify their memory by erecting monuments and celebrating memorial days that honored their sacrifice. Historian Gaines Foster says these memorial associations "helped to ensure that the Confederate dead became powerful cultural symbols," thus enabling the ghosts of the Confederacy to haunt the New South for decades.

Rachel Levy, HLMA’s corresponding secretary, dedicated the plot of ground for the Soldier’s Section the same day the organization was created. The HLMA couldn’t afford the expense of maintaining the plot, so Levy issued a printed appeal to the "Israelites of the South" for "some pecuniary assistance" to "furnish a simple stone" at the head of each grave.

The circular, printed in newspapers across the South, concluded with a ringing affirmation of Jewish patriotism to the Confederate cause. "When the malicious tongue of slander, ever so ready to assail Israel, shall be raised against us," it read, "then with a feeling of mournful pride, will we point to this monument and say ‘There is our reply.’ "

Originally the Soldier’s Section consisted of six rows with five plots to a row, each grave marked by a simple marble headstone. Deterioration and the cost of maintenance caused the individual markers to be removed in the 1950s, replaced by a granite boulder with a bronze plaque containing 29 names and recognition of one unknown (probably identified as a Jew because he was circumcised).

Five Jewish soldiers who also died in battle are buried outside the Soldier’s Section, and as many as 40 Confederates are buried elsewhere within the Hebrew Cemetery.

The iron fence

In 1871, the association commissioned William Barksdale Myers, a noted Richmond artist, to design a wrought-iron fence to surround the Soldier’s Section. Myers had served as an engineer officer and adjutant for Maj. Gens. Samuel Jones and William B. Loring during the war and was described as "witty and full of quaint satire … a good and reliable officer."

The posts of the fence are furled Confederate flags with stacked muskets, with a flat Confederate soldier’s cap on top of them. The railings between the posts are crossed swords and sabers hung with wreaths of laurel. The fence is considered the finest piece of 19th-century ornamental ironwork in the city. Myers died at age 33, two years after designing the fence.

Like other memorial associations, the HLMA collected money for maintaining the Soldier’s Section and sponsored speakers for Memorial Day celebrations. Because Jews do not adorn graves with flowers, the boundary fence usually was wreathed in greenery for special occasions.

During the early decades of the 20th century, many ladies’ memorial associations began to decline, often merging into other benevolent or commemorative organizations, such as the United Daughters of the Confederacy. The HLMA of Beth Ahabah never numbered more than 60 members. It closed its financial accounts in October 1943.

Capt. Jacob A. Cohen

It’s not clear how these 30 men came to be buried in the Soldier’s Section, and there is only partial information about many of them. Even the accuracy of some of the data on the bronze tablet adorning the monument today is open to question.

Nevertheless, personal information pieced together from Beth Ahabah records, regimental histories and service records stored in the National Archives reveal that these soldiers probably represented a cross section of the rich and diverse Jewish life that thrived in the South during the antebellum and war years.

Three officers are buried in the Soldier’s Section. Capt. Jacob A. Cohen, 41, of Company A, 10th Louisiana Infantry, probably was the oldest when he died along with 18 other men from his regiment on Aug. 30, 1862, in the desperate fighting along the railroad cut at the Battle of Second Manassas.

The men of the 10th Louisiana were predominantly immigrant Irish, recruited in the tough New Orleans neighborhood known as the Irish Channel. Cohen, probably born in Dublin, was a laborer before enlisting.

Literate in spite of his humble profession, Cohen had written a scathing letter to Rabbi Max Lilienthal of Cincinnati after Lilienthal had castigated Southern Jews who supported secession. Across a picture of the respected and well-known rabbi, Cohen wrote: "I shall be engaged actively in the field and should be happy to rid Israel of the disgrace of your life."

A charming officer

Lt. William Meyer Wolf of Company G, 11th South Carolina Infantry, was just 21 when he was killed at Swift Creek during the siege of Petersburg on May 9, 1864. When Wolf died, the regiment’s colonel wrote to his father in Ridgeville, S.C., calling the young lieutenant "one of the most efficient, active, and charming officers of his rank in my regiment." Wolf’s company paid for his coffin.

The body of Pvt. Julius Zork (listed as Zark on the plaque) of Company E, 7th Louisiana Infantry, probably traveled the farthest after he was killed in the Shenandoah Valley at the Battle of Cross Keys on June 8, 1862. Pvt. Henry L. Caldwell recorded in his diary that he saw Zork, a hat maker from New Orleans, die instantly from a bursting Union artillery shell.

Moses Levy of the 16th Mississippi Infantry also died in the valley. The 16th was part of Gen. Stonewall Jackson’s foot cavalry and the only Mississippi regiment to fight in the storied 1862 Valley Campaign. Levy probably was wounded at the Battle of Winchester on May 25, 1862. He died six days later while his regiment was marching south toward Strasburg.

Solomon Oury, also of the 16th Mississippi, died in an environment far less bucolic than the Shenandoah Valley. On June 16, 1864, the day Oury died, his regiment was on the move to Camp Holly on New Market Heights outside of Petersburg. It’s not clear how Oury died, but it could have been from wounds received at the slaughter pen that was the Battle of Cold Harbor.

Henry Gintzberger of the 9th Virginia Infantry was killed at Cold Harbor on June 2, 1864, and his story probably is the most unusual of all. A German immigrant, Gintzberger was a peddler in Roanoke County before he enlisted in the Salem Flying Artillery at the beginning of the war. A comrade recalled that "the only Jewish soldier in the Command was shot thru the head while peering over the breastworks." His name, however, was mistakenly reported to be Gersberg, and he was buried in the Soldier’s Section under that name. It wasn’t until 1963 that his true identity was established and his proper name added to the bronze plaque.

Fitting epitaph

Five other Virginians are buried in the Soldier’s Section. Henry Adler, 22, of the 46th Virginia was the first private in his regiment wounded in action on Roanoke Island. He died on March 18, 1862 at a hospital in Portsmouth, Va. Matthew Isaac Hessberg of the 30th Virginia died of typhoid fever on Oct. 16, 1861, in Fredericksburg, Va. Isaac Seldner was a clerk in Norfolk when he enlisted in the 6th Virginia. Captured at Crampton’s Gap just before the Battle of Antietam, Seldner was killed at Chancellorsville on May 3, 1863.

These soldiers all died fighting for a cause in which they believed. A sentence in Levy’s 1866 appeal for financial assistance can probably serve as a fitting epitaph for all the men buried in the Soldier’s Section. "While as Israelites we mourn the untimely loss of our loved ones," she wrote, "it will be a grateful reflection that they suffered not their country to call in vain."

Copyright 2009 The Washington Times

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