Virginia Governor Robert F. McDonnell’s recent proclamation of Confederate History Month provoked a firestorm of criticism, with many accusing him and those who commemorate their Southern ancestors’ bravery of ignoring or even defending slavery.
But the cruel and evil institution of slavery was not the sole or even primary reason for the South’s secession from the Union, nor was it a significant motivating factor for individual Confederate soldiers.
Yet many of us in the South, including those descended from old Jewish families of the Confederacy, still struggle to expose the truth about why Southern soldiers fought, the courage they showed against overwhelming odds, and the sacrifices they made.
The history of the Confederacy is full of long-forgotten tales of Jewish heroes, warriors, and leaders. This is a story little known today, absent from history books and an embarrassment to liberal Jewish historians ashamed of the prominent role played by Jews in supporting, defending and fighting for the Confederacy. It is a government about which they know little except for its association with slavery.
They find the truth about the war incompatible with their idolization of Abraham Lincoln and his administration – an administration in which anti-Jewish sentiment was rampant, at one point even becoming official government policy and resulting in the worst official act of anti-Semitism in the nation’s history.
I know firsthand the ignorance one encounters on this subject because a few years ago I wrote for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution a mild mannered op-ed article discussing why so many good and decent Georgians take pride in their Confederate ancestors.
I explained that we revere our ancestors because, against overwhelming odds, they fought on, often hungry, cold, sick and wounded, to protect their homes and families – not the institution of slavery – from an often cruel invader. Put simply, the heavily outnumbered and undersupplied Confederate soldiers felt they were fighting because an invading army from the North was trying, with great success, to burn their homes, destroy their cities, and kill them.
In response, the newspaper published two letters to the editor. One said my statements “were reminiscent of neo-Nazi apologists denying the Holocaust.” The other accused me of defending slavery and “a treasonous movement” called the Confederacy.
My then-84-year-old mother asked me to “please wait until I die before you write any more articles.”
Slavery was an important political issue before and during the Civil War, especially to the large plantation holders in the South and the abolitionists in the North. But while the war is often portrayed as primarily a fight over slavery, much more important were the issues of preservation of the Union for the North and the over-taxation of the South in the form of exorbitant tariffs.
In the case of Virginia, to cite one example, it is quite clear that the state did not secede over slavery; it stayed in the Union after seven Southern states seceded and formed the Confederacy. It was only after President Lincoln called for 75,000 troops from state militias to attack the South that Virginia, refusing to wage war on its “kinfolk,” left the Union.
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Let me briefly recount why I take pride in my Confederate ancestors and the brave men who fought with them.
One hundred and forty-five years ago, on April 9, 1865, Robert E. Lee surrendered his Army of Northern Virginia to Union Commander Ulysses S. Grant, marking the effective end of the South’s struggle for independence.
It was a fateful day for the South, and in particular for my great-grandfather and his four elder brothers, all of whom were fighting for the Confederacy.
While Lee was surrendering at Appomattox, my then-16-year-old great-grandfather, Andrew Jackson Moses, rode out on horseback to defend his hometown of Sumter, South Carolina, along with some 157 other teenagers, invalids, old men, and the wounded from the local hospital. Approaching were 2,500 hardened soldiers from Sherman’s army who had just burned nearby Columbia, and it was feared they were headed to Sumter to do the same. Sumter’s defenders, outnumbered 15-to-1, managed to hold off Sherman’s battle-seasoned veterans for over an hour before being overwhelmed by the vastly superior force.
That same afternoon, the eldest Moses brother, Joshua Lazarus Moses, was killed a few hours after Lee had surrendered (the news having not yet reached the front). Josh was commanding an artillery battalion that fired the last shots in defense of Mobile before being overrun by a Union force outnumbering his 13 to 1. In this battle of Fort Blakeley, one of his brothers, Horace, was captured, and another, Perry, was wounded.
Josh Moses was one of more than 3,000 Jews who fought for the South and the last Confederate Jew to fall in battle.
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More than two-dozen members of the extended Moses family fought in the war, and at least nine gave their lives for what Southerners came to refer to as the Lost Cause.
The best known of the Moses family Confederates was Major Raphael Moses, a fifth-generation South Carolinian who in 1849 moved to Columbus, Georgia, where he was a lawyer and planter. Moses, whose three sons also fought for the South, ended up attending the last meeting and carrying out the last order of the Confederate government – delivering the last of the Confederate treasury, $40,000 in gold and silver bullion, to help feed and supply defeated Confederate soldiers in the Augusta hospital or straggling home after the war.
Major Moses named one of his sons Albert Luria because he wanted to preserve the family name of an ancestor who reputedly was the court physician to Spain’s Queen Isabella. Luria was called to duty in Columbus, five miles from home, on Saturday, April 20, 1861. After marching from the armory to the depot, Albert writes, “we were met by an immense concourse of citizens – assembled to bid us ‘God Speed.’ ”
Among the crowd were several members of his family whom Albert was surprised to see. Being observant Jews, they would not ride or work their horses on the Sabbath, and so they had walked several miles into town to say farewell.
Luria, Josh Moses’s first cousin, was the first Confederate Jew to be killed, mortally wounded at age 19 during the Battle of Seven Pines (Fair Oaks) in Virginia on May 31, 1862. He died after courageously throwing a live Union artillery shell out of his fortification before it exploded, thereby saving the lives of many of his men.
Luria’s brother Israel Moses Nunez, a veteran of many battles, was named after his ancestor Dr. Samuel Nunez (sometimes written Nunes), who arrived in Savannah, Georgia, in July 1733, in a boat from England with 42 Portuguese Jews fleeing persecution. Dr. Nunez is credited with saving the newly established mosquito-infested colony from being wiped out by what was thought to be yellow fever but which was probably malaria.
Another leading Jewish figure of the war was the Moses brothers’ mother – my great-great-grandmother – Octavia, a legend within the family and in Sumter.
She was from one of the country’s most prominent Jewish families, her father being the well-known Jewish author and playwright Isaac Harby, one of the leading Jewish figures in 19th century America. There was a tradition among members of the family that their name came from a courageous Jewish soldier who fought in defense of Jerusalem against the Romans and who took the name of Hereb (sword), or more likely Ish Hereb (swordsman).
Isaac Harby was proud of the role played in the American Revolution by his father-in-law, Samuel Mordecai, “a brave grenadier in the regular American Army, who fought and bled for the liberty he lived to enjoy and to hand down to his children.”
Harby was a leading member of the Kahal Kadosh Beth Elo[k]im synagogue, first organized in Charleston in 1749 and thought to be the oldest synagogue in continuous use in the United States. A Jewish Tourist’s Guide to the U.S. notes that “So many Charleston Jews enlisted in the service of the Confederacy that from 1862 to 1866, Beth Elo[k]im found it impossible to obtain a quorum of trustees and could hold no regular meetings.”
Octavia Harby and her husband, Andrew Jackson Moses, had 17 children (three died in infancy), the five eldest males of whom fought for the South. Octavia was very active on the home front in support of the Confederacy. As she put it,
When the War broke out like every other Southern woman, I immediately began work for the soldiers: I organized a sewing society, to cut and make garments for them. I made it a point to try and meet every train that brought soldiers through our town, and, with others, frequently walked from my home, sometimes at two o’clock in the morning, to take food to our men as they passed through. We always greeted them with the wildest enthusiasm, and no thought of defeat ever entered our minds . Whenever the boys were fortunate enough to get home on short furloughs, they were the guests of the town – everybody feted them and nothing was too much to do in their honor.
When hospitals were established in Sumter, Octavia writes, “Our ladies, of course, took immediate charge, and the soldiers were fed and nursed with all the means of our command, and all the tenderness of Southern women.”
She also showed compassion for the Union troops who had been taken prisoner: “When I heard that the Northern prisoners would be brought through our town and that they were nearly in a starving condition, I immediately exerted myself to obtain a large quantity of provisions to give to them.”
Throughout the South, Jews assumed prominent roles in the Confederate government and armed forces; as Robert Rosen puts it in his authoritative book The Jewish Confederates, they “were used to being treated as equals” (an acceptance they had enjoyed for a century and a half).
The Confederacy’s secretary of war and later state was Judah P. Benjamin – the so-called brains of the Confederacy – and the top Confederate commander, General Robert E. Lee, was known for showing great respect to his Jewish soldiers.
Charleston in the early 1800s had more Jews than any other city in North America, and many were respected citizens, office holders, and successful entrepreneurs. The city was commonly referred to as “our Jerusalem,” and Myer Moses, my maternal family patriarch, in 1806 called his hometown ” this land of milk and honey.”
Many Jewish Confederates carried with them to the front the famous soldiers’ prayer (which began with the sacred Shema) written by Richmond Rabbi Max Michelbacher, who after secession had issued a widely published benediction comparing Southerners to “the Children of Israel crossing the Red Sea.”
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In contrast to the South, the North was a hotbed of anti-Jewish bigotry. Much of the political and military leadership of the Union government was composed of men – including such leading figures as generals Ulysses S. Grant, William Tecumseh Sherman and Benjamin (“Beast”) Butler – who disliked Jews, openly expressed their feelings, and persecuted Jews when they had the occasion to do so.
The prevailing anti-Jewish attitude resulted in the Union army’s committing the worst official act of anti-Semitism in American history – about which I wrote in greater detail for The Jewish Press in “Shame of the Yankees – America’s Worst Anti-Jewish Action” (front-page essay, Nov. 17, 2006).
On December 17, 1862, Grant issued his soon-to-be infamous “General Order #11,” expelling all Jews “as a class” from his conquered territories within 24 hours.
As a result of Grant’s expulsion order, Jewish families were forced out of their homes in Paducah, Kentucky and Holly Springs and Oxford, Mississippi, and several were sent to prison.
On January 4, 1863, President Lincoln had Grant’s order rescinded, but by then Jewish families in the area had been expelled, humiliated, terrified, jailed, and in some cases stripped of their possessions.
Bertram W. Korn, in his classic work American Jewry and the Civil War, describes the hardships and persecution suffered by Jewish families subject to the expulsion order:
They still tell stories of the expulsion in Paducah of the hurried departure by riverboat up the Ohio to Cincinnati; of a baby almost left behind in the haste and confusion and tossed bodily into the boat; of two dying women permitted to remain behind in neighbors’ care. Thirty men and their families were expelled from Paducah, and according to affidavits by some of “the most respectable Union citizens of the city,” the deportees “had at no time been engaged in trade within the active lines of General Grant ” Two had already served brief enlistments in the Union army.
There are numerous other documented examples of widespread anti-Semitism in the North (recounted in my aforementioned “Shame of the Yankees” article, which can be accessed on The Jewish Press website). But you will find nary a mention of this persecution in history books, only adulatory praise for the Union and Lincoln.
The Union army that killed my family members was hardly the forerunner of the Civil Rights movement. Indeed, the treatment of Jews by Union forces pales in comparison to other atrocities they regularly committed against civilians, including the destruction of agricultural areas and other non-military targets; the routine burning and looting of cities, homes, libraries and courthouses; and, worst of all, the mass murder of Native Americans in the so-called Indian Wars.
This was the Union Army that descended upon the South and that my ancestors fought heroically in defense of their lives, their families, and their nation. It was a Lost Cause but an honorable one, and it should not be forgotten.
Lewis Regenstein is a writer living in Atlanta.Lewis Regenstein