Early in the month of November, Americans celebrate Veteran’s Day. Although the holiday has only been officially known as Veteran’s Day since 1954, citizens have been putting their lives on the line for this country since its foundation. This post is to highlight the brave Jewish veterans who served in the Civil War. Just as gentiles fought for both sides, Jews fought for both the Union and Confederacy, as they were passionate Americans who believed their own approach was vital to America’s survival. Jews, especially those in the Confederacy, tended to be more patriotic than their comrades. Perhaps this is because they yearned to be seen as true Americans, who earned their right to live in this country, just as everyone else had.
Although there were hardships when it came to keeping kosher and observing Jewish holidays, there were few cases of antisemitic behavior towards Jewish troops. Jewish officers, such as Marcus Spiegel, were highly respected by fellow troops. Speigel, an Ohio volunteer that rose to the ranks of Colonel, is quoted saying “My boys will follow me anywheres”. Religious practices, although practiced by most Jewish troops, do not seem to have had much effect on the individual treatment of the soldier. For civilians, the antisemitism they experienced is a different discussion.
Some of these soldiers were born and raised in America, such as Captain Ezekiel J. Levy from Richmond, while others had immigrated to the country. Major Adolph Proskauer was one of these immigrants. Proskauer left Prussia in 1848 and settled in Mobile, AL. Proskauer led the 12th Alabama Infantry during the Battle of Gettysburg and is remembered by fellow soldiers as being “Our gallant Jew Major [who] smoked his cigars calmly and cooly in the thickest of the fight.” Captain Samuel Yates Levy was another Jew of importance. Not only was he the brother of Phoebe Pember and Eugenia Phillips (the former a Confederate nurse, and the latter, a spy), Levy was said to be “highly literate and well educated.” After the fall of Vicksburg and Gettysburg in 1863, he concluded that what he really wanted was peace between north and south. Levy wrote a poem and titled it “Prayer for Peace”. The following are the introductory lines of said poem, of which we can relate to in 2023:
“Almighty God! Eternal sire and king!
Ruler supreme who all things did’st create,
Whose everlasting praise the angels sing,
Whose word is mercy and whose thought is fate:
Trembling before thy awful throne we kneel,
Beseeching mercy at thy gracious hand,
Praying that in compassion thou wilt heal
The bleeding wounds of this most suffering land…”
The poem in its entirety can be found in Robert Rosen’s The Jewish Confederates (2000), p. 404-5.
The role of Jews during the Civil War is an understudied topic, despite the various works on the topic by scholars such as Dr. Johnathan Sarna, Dr. Jacob R. Marcus, and Dr. Bertram W. Korn, all whose works can be found at the Klau Library. Within the library, books on areas within the Civil War such as Jewish slave traders and owners, Jewish doctors, chaplains, politicians, spies, and as mentioned here – soldiers – can be found.
Contributed by Darhla Miles, Second Year MAJS Student and Student Worker in the Klau Library, Cincinnati