More Than 10,000 Jews Fought For The Confederacy

By Thomas C. Mandes
Special to the Washington Times

The term "Johnny Reb" evokes an image of a white soldier, Anglo-Saxon and Protestant and from an agrarian background. Many Southern soldiers, however, did not fit this mold. A number of ethnic backgrounds were represented during the conflict.

For example, thousands of black Americans fought as Johnny Rebs. Dr. Lewis Steiner of the U.S. Sanitary Commission observed that while the Confederate army marched through Maryland during the 1862 Sharpsburg (Antietam) campaign, "over 3,000 negroes had arms, rifles, muskets, sabers, bowie knives, dirks, etc. And were manifestly an integral portion of the Southern Confederate Army."

There also were Hispanic Confederates. Col. Santos Benavides, a former Texas Ranger, city attorney and mayor of Laredo, Texas, commanded the 33rd Texas Cavalry, while Gen. Refugio Benavides protected what was known as the Confederacy of the Rio Grande. Recent Irish Catholic immigrants also chose to fight for the South, as did a few stalwart Chinese who served nobly in Louisiana.

The largest ethnic group to serve the Confederacy, however, was made up of first-, second- and third-generation Jewish lads. Old Jewish families, initially Sephardic and later Ashkenazic, had settled in the South generations before the war. Jews had lived in Charleston, S.C., since 1695. By 1800, the largest Jewish community in America lived in Charleston, where the oldest synagogue in America, K.K. Beth Elohim, was founded. By 1861, a third of all the Jews in America lived in Louisiana.

More than 10,000 Jews fought for the Confederacy. As Rabbi Korn of Charleston related, "Nowhere else in America – certainly not in the Antebellum North – had Jews been accorded such an opportunity to be complete equals as in the old South." Gen. Robert E. Lee allowed his Jewish soldiers to observe all holy days, while Gens. Ulysses S. Grant and William T. Sherman issued anti-Jewish orders.

Many young Jews served in the ranks. There were a number of Jewish officers who were part and parcel of Southern society. They had spent their formative years in the South defensive about slavery and hostile about what they perceived as Northern aggression and condescension toward the South. Some of the more notable among the officer corps included Abraham Myers, a West Point graduate and a classmate of Lee’s in the class of 1832. Myers served as quartermaster general and, before the war, fought the Indians in Florida. The city of Fort Myers was named after him.

Another Jewish officer, Maj. Adolph Proskauer of Mobile, Ala., was wounded several times. One of his subordinate officers wrote, "I can see him now as he nobly carried himself at Gettysburg, standing coolly and calmly with a cigar in his mouth at the head of the 12th Alabama amid a perfect rain of bullets, shot, and shell. He was the personification of intrepid gallantry and imperturbable courage."

In North Carolina, the six Cohen brothers fought in the 40th Infantry. The first Confederate Jew killed in the war was Albert Lurie Moses of Charlotte, N.C. All-Jewish companies reported to the fray from Macon and Savannah in Georgia. In Louisiana, three Jews reached the rank of colonel: S.M. Hymans, Edwin Kunsheedt and Ira Moses.

Many Southern Jews became world-renowned during this period. Moses Jacob Ezekiel from Richmond fought at New Market with his fellow cadets from the Virginia Military Institute and became a noted sculptor. His mother, Catherine Ezekiel, said she would not tolerate a son who declined to fight for the Confederacy.

He wrote in his memoirs, "We were not fighting for the perpetuation of slavery, but for the principle of States Rights and Free Trade, and in defense of our homes which were being ruthlessly invaded."

In tribute to Ezekiel, it was written, "The eye that saw is closed, the hand that executed is still, the soldier lad who fought so well was knighted and lauded in foreign land, but dying, his last request was that he might rest among his old comrades in Arlington Cemetery."

The most famous Southern Jew of the era was Judah Benjamin. He was the first Jewish U.S. senator and declined a seat on the Supreme Court and an offer to be ambassador to Spain. Educated in law at Yale, he was at one time or another during the war the Confederacy’s attorney general, secretary of war and secretary of state. After the war, he settled in England, where he became a lawyer and wrote a seminal legal text.

Simon Baruch, a Prussian immigrant, settled in Camden, S.C. He received his degree from the Medical College of Virginia and entered the conflict as a physician in the 3rd South Carolina Battalion, where he joined the fighting before the Battle of Second Manassas. He eventually became surgeon general of the Confederacy.

While he was away during the war, his fiancee, Isabelle Wolfe, painted his portrait in the family home in South Carolina. It was at this time that Sherman began his March to the Sea. His raiders set the Wolfe house afire, and as she rescued the portrait, a Yankee ripped it with his bayonet and slapped her. Witnessing this, a Union officer gave the attacker a beating with his sword.

From this, a romance began to blossom – quickly squelched by the young woman’s father, who remarked: "Marriage to a gentile is bad enough, but marriage to a Yankee, never, ever, it is out of the question." Isabelle Wolfe eventually married Baruch. After the war, they moved to New York City, where he set up what became a prominent medical practice on West 57th Street.

Mrs. Baruch became a member of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, and the couple raised their children with pro-Southern views. If a band struck up "Dixie," Dr. Baruch would jump up and give the Rebel yell, much to the chagrin of the family. A man of usual reserve and dignity, Dr. Baruch nevertheless would let loose with the piercing yell even in the Metropolitan Opera House.

Their son Bernard became the most successful financier of his time and one of the best-known American Jews of the 20th century. Bernard Baruch was an adviser to presidents from World War I to World War II and became a confidant of President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Today, little remains of the Jewish Confederate South. With the mass migrations from Russia and Eastern Europe, new immigrants knew little if anything of the struggle that had ensued during the preceding half-century. Confederate Southern Jewry eventually disappeared.

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