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The Civil War brings to mind many images – generals on horseback, gray and blue uniforms, dueling flags – but what about rabbis, synagogues and Jewish soldiers? A surprising number of Jews participated in the war on both sides, as cabinet members, spies, and foot soldiers. Washington’s Jewish population grew tenfold during the war, and a number of colorful personalities made their mark on American history here. We explore some of the lesser-known Civil War stories.
- Wendy Turman Historian and archivist, Jewish Historical Society of Washington
MR. KOJO NNAMDIThe images we associate with the Civil War don't usually include synagogues, rabbis and Jewish soldiers. But a surprising number of Jews participated in the war on both sides. Fighting against the anti-Semitism of the day, a number of them lived right here in Washington. There was a woman described as a fire-eating secessionist in skirts. The Confederate secretary of war was Jewish, as was the Union Flag bearer awarded the Medal of Honor for his bravery at Gettysburg.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIThese are just a few of the colorful characters who made their mark on the Civil War and American history. Joining us to discuss them is Wendy Turman. She is an archivist with the Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington. Wendy Turman, thank you so much for joining us.
MS. WENDY TURMANThank you so much for having me.
NNAMDIYou, too, can join this conversation. Call us at 800-433-8850. Were you aware of the role Jews played in the Civil War? 800-433-8850. Wendy Turman, Washington's Jewish population increased tenfold during Abraham Lincoln's time. What brought people here during the war? And where were they coming from?
TURMANIt was the war time. The city was expanding to deal with all the new work that was going on to support the war effort, and so there was a lot more opportunities for people to come. There was not much of a Jewish population here prior to that. The population was very, very small and scattered in Washington's first synagogue, only opened in 1852, when there was enough Jews to really form a real community.
TURMANSo people were coming to support the war effort as merchants and clerks. There was boarding houses opening up, and we know that at one point there was as many as six kosher restaurants downtown. A newspaper correspondent noted that with some delight.
NNAMDIDuring the course of the war, a lot of Jews found themselves fighting anti-Semitism along with the war. Did they not?
TURMANYes, indeed. You know, one of the most striking examples of that, of course, is Order No. 11 that was issued by General Ulysses Grant in 1862. During that time, Grant was the commander of the Department of the Tennessee, which was Western Tennessee and Kentucky, Southern Illinois, Northern Mississippi, and those areas under Union control. There was a lot of cotton smuggling across the Union lines, and these traitors were making life very difficult for the Army.
TURMANAnd Jews were being associated with this trade, with these smuggling problems. And Grant issued an order that expelled the Jews as a class -- those were the actual words -- from all the areas under his control. And he might have been intending to just go after this cotton smuggling, but what happened was that civilians were forced to leave their home.
NNAMDIAnd gave them how long to do so? Twenty-four hours.
TURMANTwenty-four hours. Yes.
NNAMDIHad to move out in 24 hours.
TURMANYes, indeed. Now, news didn't always travel quite so fast then, so the order didn't necessarily make it throughout the entire Department of the Tennessee, and it was probably enacted, enforced more stringently in some areas than others. But we know that in Paducah, Ky., many, many, Jewish civilians, including two Union veterans, were forced to leave their homes. One person was thrown in jail for protesting and for asking for confirmation from Grant. So it was really the most sweeping anti-Jewish order that this...
NNAMDIHow was that order rescinded?
TURMANThe Jewish community really came together and sent protests to Washington. B'nai B'rith, which was a fairly young organization at that point, sent delegations. And from Paducah, Ky., Cesar Kaskel came to Washington and was able to meet with Lincoln just a couple of weeks later. Lincoln did not know of the order, was surprised and shocked and immediately rescinded it through Gen. Halleck, Henry Halleck, who sent back to Grant an order saying, if this is true, if this has really been issued, you must revoke it immediately.
NNAMDIPresident Lincoln spoke out and said, you can't condemn an entire class. Correct?
NNAMDIJews also had to fight for the right of rabbis to become military chaplains for Jewish service members. Tell us about that.
TURMANIn 1861, the Volunteer Act that mandated that Christian chaplains were able to serve on the battlefield and so, by calling them Christian chaplains, that automatically excluded Jewish rabbis. And so the American board of Israelites sent a lobbyist to Washington who met with -- there was a lot of protest in the media. People were writing letters and articles. And they sent a lobbyist to Washington who worked on the issue until Lincoln amended the law to allow Jewish rabbis to serve as battlefield chaplains in 1862.
NNAMDIIf you are a Civil War buff, a Civil War student, what do you know about the involvement of Jews on either side in the Civil War? Call us at 800-433-8850 or go to our website, kojoshow.org. Post a comment or question there. Send us an email to email@example.com or tweet, @kojoshow. That number again, 800-433-8850. Part of fighting to be treated equally involved allowing Jewish soldiers to attend religious services.
TURMANWell, there was a -- it's interesting. We have a local family who's -- we have some of their papers in our archives. The Baron Family who emigrated from Germany in 1849, and they settled on a farm in New York and found farming was not to their liking, so they eventually moved down to Washington. And one of the sons, Adajah Behrend, served as a hospital steward.
TURMANHis father, Bernhard Behrend, sent a public letter to Lincoln that was published in the Jewish newspaper, The Occident, asking, you have given Christian soldiers the right to take the Sabbath for religious reasons, why are you excluding Jewish soldiers from the same thing? There's no record of any reply to that, but we do know that his son Adajah Behrend did grant furlough to some of the soldiers under his command when he was at Fairfax seminary as a hospital steward during the high holidays in 1863. So I think it was sort of, piece by piece, sometimes Jews would be allowed to observe.
NNAMDIIn case you're just joining us, we're talking with Wendy Turman. She's an archivist with the Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington. And we're talking about Jews during the Civil War. Why do you think Jewish participation in the Civil War is so little known?
TURMANWell, I think a lot of these are stories. It's interesting. We have a lot of visitors who come to our historic synagogue, and we like to tell the story of Ulysses Grant, who, when he was president, attended the dedication of our historic synagogue in 1876. And we don't know exactly how he came to be there or if it was an attempt to make reparations to the American-Jewish community, but...
NNAMDIBut he stayed for about three hours, didn't he?
TURMANHe stayed for three hours, and the newspapers noted that he left his hat on in accordance with the Orthodox tradition. And, fortunately for us, he also made a $10 donation to the building fund. And so the records of that are housed in the Grant Papers in the Library of Congress. But that's a story, when we tell visitors to our synagogue, that a lot of them don't know of Order No. 11 and Grant's history with the Jews.
TURMANI think some of the stories that we uncover during our research are known maybe by family descendants -- and maybe Civil War buffs know some of them. But we've -- we try to find some of the more personal stories, and those are just not as widely known. And that's what we're trying to do with our exhibitions and programs.
NNAMDIOn to the telephones. Here is Daniel in Logan Circle in Washington. Daniel, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
DANIELYeah. Hi, good afternoon, fascinating show. Something that your guest raised kind of resonated for me personally. My family is a prominent German Jewish family that came over to the U.S. not too long before the Civil War broke out and moved to Georgia, were slave owners and were indeed amongst that "class" of Jewish immigrants who -- entrepreneurs who, you know, both owned slaves and broke the blockade, you know, exporting Southern products to Europe and bringing in products that were banned into the Confederacy.
DANIELAnd I belong to a family association that kind of keeps up the family name to this day. And the issue of slave owning and, you know, working for the Confederacy, either fighting or financially supporting it, is still a live issue amongst our family association and one that people are still kind of uncomfortable dealing with to this day. So I thought it's kind of interesting that, you know, so long after the war, that it's still something that resonates even amongst Jewish communities who are involved.
NNAMDICare to comment on that?
TURMANWell, I mean, I think, that's an interesting issue, how alive these things remain for a lot of people. And when we were doing our research on Jewish life in Washington during the Civil War, we tried to see if we could find any Jewish residents of Washington who were slave owners because we're sort of curious about that part of our history. And we did find one, Dr. Charles Lieberman, who was a Russian immigrant and a doctor at Georgetown University.
TURMANAnd we found on the slave census of 1850 his name with the names of three people listed, and we don't really know a whole lot more. We know that he was listed later on as one of those who were seeking reparations after the slaves were freed. We were not able to find any more, but that's partly just -- sometimes it's difficult in the records. And it's not something that people are passing down necessarily in their family lore.
NNAMDIDaniel, thank you very much for your call. The -- Alan Cheuse, who does book reviews for National Public Radio, has just done a book of historical fiction called, "Song of Slaves in the Desert," in which he talked about the dilemma of a Jewish family, part based in New York, past part in South Carolina, in which the New York branch of the family is asked to come and assist to run the slave-holding opposition of the South Carolina branch of the family.
NNAMDIAnd it poses them a significant moral dilemma, which is, of course, a good story for historical fiction. But the complicating factor in the role that some wealthy Jews played in the slave trade is the fact that a lot of people thought that Jews controlled the slave trade.
TURMANWell, there were a lot of misperceptions. I mean, there are certainly many, many historical stereotypes that Jews keep running into, and that's where Order No. 11 and Ulysses Grant finding Jews as the peddlers or the smugglers that was playing into some of the anti-Semitic stereotypes. So I think this business of Jews being -- controlling the slave trade is sort of right in there with it.
NNAMDIAnd there were Jews who found, however, common cause with abolitionists?
TURMANYes, there were. I mean, we don't know so many in Washington who were so outspoken on the issue. Most of the -- a lot of them, I think, tried to sort of stay out of it as much as they could or followed what was going on in their own communities.
NNAMDIAnd we're talking about Washington because we're talking with Wendy Turman, who is the archivist with the Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington. As part of the Hyman and Freda Bernstein Jewish Literary Festival, "United By Faith, Divided By War: Jewish in the Civil War," there's a dramatic reading tonight at 7:30 at the Washington JCC. The address is 1529 16th St. NW. It happens to be on the corner of 16th and Q Streets Northwest.
NNAMDIThe Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington's Publication is called, "Jewish Life in Mr. Lincoln's City." Our guest is Wendy Turman. She is an archivist with the Historical Society of Greater Washington. Some interesting characters who participated in the war who lived in Washington, at least for a while, included a woman named Eugenia Levy Phillips. Can you tell us about her?
TURMANWell, she is one of our favorite stories, of course...
NNAMDIPlease tell us.
TURMAN...'cause she is such a colorful character. She was a proper southern belle, who married a brilliant lawyer named Philip Phillips. And he moved her to Alabama, and they came to Washington where he represented Congress for, I think, just one term. And then...
NNAMDISet up a law practice.
TURMANSet up a law practice. And I've always wondered what they spoke about at the dinner table because he was really pro-Union, and she was very outspoken for the South. And, of course, her family was Southern, and she was a bit of a rabble-rouser and a troublemaker. And she was known to associate with Rose O'Neal Greenhow, who was, of course, arrested as a Southern spy. So Eugenia was placed under house arrest by Union Forces and forced with her daughters to remain under house arrest in Rose O'Neal Greenhow's home.
TURMANWhen she -- when the Union soldiers first arrived in her home, she was able to get to her Irish maid and ask her to go destroy her correspondents, which she noted in her diary that she had spoken ill of Lincoln in those letters. You know, it's not really clear to us exactly what her spying activities, if any, really consisted of. I think she was -- got in trouble more because she was loud and sassy.
NNAMDIBut even though she was arrested, that did not slow down, really, her political activity, did it?
TURMANNo, it didn't. She was -- her husband was eventually able -- he would have preferred to stay in Washington during the course of the war, but he was eventually able to get her released on the grounds that they leave the city and go South. And they did so. And she was apparently able to smuggle out some plans and information that she later delivered to Jefferson Davis in Richmond. Now, of course, one of the wonderful things about Eugenia is that they later went on to settle in New Orleans, which was not such a great place for her.
TURMANGen. Benjamin Butler was the Union Army officer controlling New Orleans. And he was really trying to crack down on Southern women who were being too outspoken. And he had Eugenia arrested on the grounds that she had laughed from her balcony during the funeral of a union officer and accused her also of teaching her children to spit on union officers. So he arrested her and banished her to Ship Island, which was just a really nasty prison island off the coast, about 20 miles away off the coast, mosquitoes, sickness, hot. You know, she stayed in a box car for a while.
TURMANSo she was there three-and-a-half months. But when he sentenced her to this, she said, well, it has one advantage over the city, sir. You are not there.
TURMANSo she really was pretty fiery. What's interesting is that after the war, she and her husband did return to Washington. And he took up his law practice again and ended up arguing more than 400 cases in front of the Supreme Court. So I really think they must have had a very interesting dinner table.
NNAMDIHer support for the Confederacy was so strong that she became known as a fire-eating secessionist in skirts. You can see a photo of Eugenie Levy Phillips because we have a photo gallery at our website, kojoshow.org, and she's one of the people included in that photo gallery. We're going to take a short break. When we come back, we'll continue this conversation on Jews during the Civil War.
NNAMDITaking your calls at 800-433-8850, or you can send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Why do you think this aspect of the Civil War and Jewish history is so little known? You can also send us a tweet, @kojoshow. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back to our conversation with Wendy Turman. She is an archivist with the Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington. We're talking to her about the role of Jews on either side of the conflict during the Civil War and taking your calls at 800-433-8850. You can also send email to email@example.com. Wendy Turman, despite the anti-Semitism of the time, some Jewish officials rose very high during the war. Tell us about the man who was known as the brains of the confederacy.
TURMANWell, that was Judah Benjamin, and a lot of people do actually know his story. He was -- this is sort of interesting. He came to Washington in, I think, 1851 and served in the U.S. Senate where he got into -- he challenged Jefferson Davis to a duel on the Senate floor after he thought he had been insulted. Jefferson Davis apologized, and, as a result, they became friendly. So when the South seceded, Benjamin was invited to go serve as the attorney general for the Confederacy by Jefferson Davis, who wanted somebody he knew and could trust.
TURMANAnd he then later became the secretary of war and later the secretary of state for the Confederacy. So he really sort of made the rounds. But as such, he became a target for anti-Semitism in the South. And there were -- he faced a lot of criticism for his role when he was the secretary of war in the Confederacy and really -- there was a comment in one of the newspapers, one of the -- I think, the Richmond Times, that said something to the effect of the prayers of the Confederacy would have more effect if Benjamin were no longer in the cabinet.
NNAMDIWell, the ironic part of that is that he faced anti-Semitic criticism, even though he himself had stopped practicing the faith. Go figure.
TURMANWell, yeah, go figure. You know, we do have a record of him showing up at services in Washington Hebrew Congregation, which was the only congregation in Washington at the time, that he was given the honor of carrying a scroll, a Torah scroll during the service, as we don't really know if we was very actively participating. But, yes, I think, for the most part that was not a prominent part of his life.
NNAMDISimon Wolf was another interesting person, a Jewish lawyer who appeared to have a lot of friends in high places, even though some of that may have been a slight, well, exaggeration.
TURMANWell, he did title his autobiography, "Presidents I Have Known," and he lists quiet a few of them. And sometimes it seems as if though he knew them only in passing. But he is really a wonderful story. He came to Washington in 1862 and set about making himself, you know, as prominent a man about town as he could. He was, as you mentioned, a lawyer. And he was arrested or detained very early on in the Civil War for helping Southern sympathizers with their legal matters.
TURMANAnd he was brought before the Union Army official who accused him of belonging to a Bennett breath, that treasonous organization. And then he was brought before Secretary of State Stanton who said, you know, Mr. Wolf, I know you are a good and patriotic citizen, and immediately released him. But he did cultivate relationships with as many powerful officials as he could. And the story he tells is that, during the war, he entered -- he went to the doors of the White House at 2:00 in the morning to meet with President Lincoln.
TURMANHe had received a telegraph earlier on, asking him to intercede on behalf of a Jewish soldier who was going to be executed the next morning for having abandoned his post. So Simon Wolf goes to President Lincoln and explains the story of the soldier who had left his post to go to the bedside of his dying mother and asks Lincoln if that was not an appropriate thing to do. Lincoln immediately rescinded the order and had his secretary, John Hay, telegram a stay of execution.
NNAMDIBut at one point, Simon Wolf, himself, was detained and accused of being a traitor?
TURMANYes. That was the incident I referred to earlier when he was brought before...
NNAMDIHe defended Jewish patriotism and military service in his work, however, did he not?
TURMANHe did. That was many years after the war. He was responding to account to charges that Jews had evaded military service, and so he undertook a massive research project and published a book called, "The American Jew as Patriot, Soldier and Citizen," just a massive compendium of lists and articles detailing Jewish involvement, not only in the Civil War but in other armed military conflicts in U.S. history.
NNAMDIOur guest is Wendy Turman. She is an archivist with the Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington. We're talking about Jews and the Civil War. Here is Joshua in Washington, D.C. Joshua, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
JOSHUAHi, Wendy. Hi, Kojo. My question is more -- it's more of a comment. When I've looked at the Jews in the context of the Civil War, it seems that Jews had had a strong patriotism towards preserving the Union, just preserving a nation as a whole, rather than focus on the question of slavery, particularly when abolitionists, who were very Christian, talked about converting the Jews to Christianity, which turned off a great many Jews who were opposed to slavery in general, but also very opposed to this abolitionist sentiment and Christian sentiment.
NNAMDICare to comment on that, Wendy Turman?
TURMANYeah. I think it's hard to paint a whole picture of it, and I think there were a lot of debates in the Jewish community among different rabbis about what the appropriate response was, but, certainly, I think, that was one of them. Unfortunately, we don't have any records from Washington of what was going on. Again, there was only one congregation here, and we don't have any personal papers that would really help us understand what the sentiment in Washington was at that time.
NNAMDIAnd I should mention that, in the news today, a new memorial in Arlington Cemetery honors rabbis who died during active military duty, and, I guess, that's appropriate for this conversation. Joshua, thank you very much for your call. We got an email from Julia, who says, "I think it is little known because of the typically monocular view of school textbooks being the source of many Americans' historical knowledge.
NNAMDI"A kaleidoscopic view is more difficult to cram into a chapter, so we have to seek out the full truth of our history, in its contradictions, with a magnifying glass that doesn't seek to distill or easily categorize what happened in the past." Appropriate?
TURMANI think that's a fair -- I think that's a fair comment, and that's...
NNAMDIWe have to look at things in their complexity.
TURMANThat's -- you know, that's what our mission is, is to research some of this history that's not as well-known and try and get it out to the public through our exhibitions and public programs.
NNAMDIGot an email from Peter in D.C., who says, "I've been a guide in D.C. for 19 years. One, there's a good narration on the cotton trade issue and the Jews in Bruce Catton's excellent book, "Grant Moves South." In Grant's order, he apparently considered abuses to the cotton trade to be limited only to Jews..." -- which was a point that you made earlier -- "...and when President Lincoln was informed of that, he said, no, you can't just do one class like that.
NNAMDI"Second," Peter writes, "Judah P. Benjamin, who came -- among other positions, became confederate secretary of war, lived in Decatur House on Lafayette Square just before the war and went South when the war broke." I guess knowing exactly where he lived in Washington is important. One of the first Jewish officers to win the Medal of Honor was an emigre from Prague. Could you talk about him?
TURMANYes. He is one of our favorite stories, Leopold Karpeles. He emigrated from Prague to Texas in 1849 and moved up to Massachusetts when the Civil War broke out because he really did not want to be in the South part of the confederacy. He enlisted and fought in many, many battles and was wounded a couple of times. He was wounded at the -- during the Battle of the Wilderness.
TURMANHe rallied the troops, who were starting to -- confederates who were making advances. And he was the color bearer, so he used that flag to really rally the troops, and really an extraordinary act of bravery. He was later wounded at the Battle of the North Anna River and came to Washington, D.C. to convalesce. And there, in a wonderful love story, he met the daughter of the head of the Washington Hebrew Visiting Nurses Association.
TURMANSo the ladies of the local synagogue were going out to care for Jewish soldiers in local hospitals. So he met this young woman, Sarah Mundheim, and they fell in love. And when he was wounded again later in the war, he listed her as her next -- as his next of kin and was sent back to a hospital in Mount Pleasant where he recuperated and then was released to her home, in the home of her father, on Pennsylvania Avenue.
TURMANAnd he actually watched the -- Lincoln's funeral procession from that home on Pennsylvania Avenue. And then, in a wonderful story of typical Washington story, he got a job with the federal government and stayed. He worked for the Postal Service after the war.
NNAMDIOn now to Qualey (sp?) in Baltimore, Md. Qualey, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
QUALEYHey there. Good afternoon. How are you doing?
QUALEYAppreciate the show. I got a question. I worked at Alex Brown & Son, a brokerage firm, downtown Baltimore, for many years, and they had a nice extensive library about the history of their tradings and dealings with textile, shipping, et cetera.
QUALEYAnd I've always -- saw plenty of documentation, was the -- whether Jewish community was engaged in trade, textiles, shipping, as well as the slave trade, specifically in the deep South, because, earlier, when you mentioned -- when you were discussing it, you were saying that it was a myth. But it is, in fact, not a myth that they -- that the Jewish community -- some of the business people -- not all -- but were involved in it in the slave trade in terms of commerce, in terms of trade and...
NNAMDINo. That was not what Wendy Turman was saying was a myth. The myth is that Jews controlled that industry, not that they participated in it. One of the things about which the Jewish community is torn, as a matter of fact, is the Civil War and those who were on either one side or the other. But the notion the Jews controlled either the slave trade or the textile industry in the slave trade is what she is saying was a myth. And, Wendy Turman, is there anything you'd like to add to that?
TURMANNo. I think that's -- I think laying the responsibility on one group of people is always difficult to -- and fraught with danger.
NNAMDIQualey, thank you very much for your call. There was a naval officer who actually bought Thomas Jefferson's home Monticello in 1836. Tell us about him.
TURMANHis name is Uriah Levy, and he, again, has a very colorful history. He ran away from home at a very young age to join the Navy. And family legend has it that he returned home for his bar mitzvah, and then went back into the Navy, where he did face a lot of anti-Semitism and was subject to court martial six times. Many of those times were for disagreements and fighting that he got into, in part, probably because there was not a whole lot of Jewish men in the Navy at that time.
TURMANIt was not a particularly comfortable place for him to be, but that was the career he chose. He also took an interest in historic preservation and did purchase Monticello, which is just a wonderful side story about how that family became part of Monticello. He was -- after sort of he went through the series of court martials and managed to stay in, he was eventually promoted to a fairly high position, in charge of the Mediterranean squadron.
TURMANBy the time the Civil War rolled around, he went to Lincoln and offered to serve. At that point, he was quite old, and so Lincoln declined to have him serve in the Navy but did offer him the post of being in charge of the court martial board, which was just a wonderful play on his history. And, unfortunately, he died very soon after the war started. So he had sort of a short history.
NNAMDIOne cannot help noticing his name, Uriah Phillips Levy, and wondering if he was related to the aforementioned Eugenia Levy Phillips.
TURMANNot that I've ever found.
NNAMDIThere is no relationship there as far as you know.
NNAMDIWell, as I mentioned earlier, you can see a photo gallery on our website that includes a photo of Eugenia Levy Phillips. Our website, of course, is kojoshow.org, and you can go there to find that. As part of the Hyman and Freda Bernstein Jewish Literary Festival, "United by Faith, Divided by War: Jews and the Civil War," there's a dramatic reading. That's tonight, 7:30, at the Washington JCC at 1529 16th Street Northwest. That's at the corner of 16th and Q Streets Northwest.
NNAMDIWendy Turman is an archivist with the Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington. Thank you for bringing along a copy of Jewish life in Mr. Lincoln's city by the Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington, Lillian & Albert Small Jewish Museum. And thank you so much for joining us.
TURMANThank you so much for having me.
NNAMDIAnd thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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