The first Jew to graduate West Point, Alfred Mordecai (1804-1887) is best known for introducing scientific methods into the development of pre-Civil War military munitions that contributed to America’s becoming a nineteenth century world power. Less known, however, is how he handled the personal, moral and ethical challenge he faced at the outbreak of the Civil War, when he refused to take sides for North or South, retired from his much-respected career with the United States military, and became a largely forgotten figure in American military and Jewish history.
The Mordecai family had come from Germany to the American continent before the American Revolution. Alfred was raised in Warrenton, North Carolina, where his parents, Jacob and Rebecca, were the only Jews. The family maintained an Orthodox home and, at a time and place in early nineteenth century America where it was particularly challenging to do so, the family remained strictly Shabbat observant and maintained kashrut. Nonetheless, Jacob’s daughter, Caroline, married a Roman Catholic and his daughter, Ellen, became an Episcopalian who wrote a book on her great spiritual conflict in abandoning her Jewish faith. Jacob, a biblical researcher who was the author of many scholarly articles and was broadly recognized as a biblical scholar, taught Alfred Jewish religious studies and Hebrew language.
In 1774, Jacob served as a sergeant in the rifle corps that escorted the First Continental Congress into Philadelphia and, at the close of the Revolutionary War, was employed in the office of David Franks, a loyalist serving as the King’s agent for Pennsylvania and a commissary for the exchange of British prisoners. (The scion of one of the largest and most prominent families in England, Franks became a successful merchant and land speculator; co-founded the first Jewish business-house in Philadelphia; and, as a loyalist to the Crown, he was jailed after the War of Independence by order of Congress.) After the War, Jacob had some modest success as a merchant, but when an ill-advised tobacco investment wiped out his business, he and Rebecca opened the Warrenton Female Seminary (1809), a girl’s boarding school that came to be referred to as “Mordecai’s Female Academy.” The Mordecais became pioneers in women’s education and the academy soon earned a reputation as one of the best in the South.
Although Jacob believed that piety and religious tradition were crucial to proper character development, the school was strictly nonsectarian and, although he was always careful not to promote any particular faith, he nonetheless specifically included the observance of Jewish holidays in the academy’s educational program. Alfred, who received his primary education as the only male student at the school, enlisted in the United States Military Academy at West Point at age 15 because, under the direction of Secretary of War John C. Calhoun, it was then virtually the only American public institution where a student could pursue an education in the sciences.
However, kosher food was unavailable, no time was given to keep Shabbat and the chagim, and he was forced to attend Presbyterian chapel every Sunday where, as the only Jew at West Point, he could not maintain his religious practices. However, he writes with approval in his autobiography that the subject of religion, as opposed to general religious philosophy, was never raised at West Point by either the instructors or his fellow cadets and he felt very comfortable there. He was an elite student in mathematics and civil engineering and was, while yet a cadet, selected to teach mathematics at West Point. After graduating first in his class in 1823 at age 19 with the rank of second lieutenant in the engineer corps, he served for several years as assistant professor of natural philosophy and engineering at West Point.
Mordecai’s military career began with three years as the assistant engineer in charge of the construction of forts Monroe and Calhoun, Virginia, before being transferred to Washington, D.C. in 1828 to serve as assistant to General Alexander Macomb, appointed by President Adams as commander of the U.S. Army. Being selected to serve in the Corps of Engineers or as an officer in the Ordnance Department was a high honor extended only to elite members of the military aristocracy – including particularly West Point graduates who, like Mordecai, had graduated at the top of their class – and who had established themselves as masters of scientific and technical detail. For example, Robert E. Lee, who graduated second in his West Point class, began his military career with the Corps of Engineers.
In 1832, Congress passed an act reorganizing the Ordnance Department and Mordecai was appointed Captain of ordnance and assigned command of the Washington arsenal, one of the largest in the United States. He was charged by Secretary of War General Lewis Cass with drafting the omnibus bill that had been ordered by the House of Representatives that would serve as a comprehensive source for all of the acts of Congress relating to the army, the result of which was the publication of A Digest of the Laws Relating to the Military Establishment of the United States, which became an important American military reference work.
Three years later, Mordecai was appointed commander of the Frankfort Arsenal in Philadelphia, in which capacity he commanded the construction of fortifications along the Atlantic Coast on behalf of the Army Chief of Engineers in Washington. In 1836, he married Sara Ann Hays, a niece of Rebecca Gratz, a renowned Jewish American philanthropist and educator who is reputed to be Sir Walter Scott’s model for the Jewish Rebecca in Ivanhoe. Although Sara remained a practicing Orthodox Jewess and encouraged her husband to follow her lead, Mordecai had become an agnostic who never returned to Judaism, but she did prevail upon him to raise their children as traditional Jews. However, Mordecai drew the line at circumcision, which many Jews in the antebellum era considered to be an uncivilized practice but, after his death, one of his adult sons circumcised himself to please his mother.
Among their notable children were Rosa, who in 1839 became the first Jewish child born in Washington, D.C.; Frank, who died in infancy in 1843 but for whom, sadly, no minyan could be assembled to recite Kaddish; and Alfred, Jr. who, as we shall see below, graduated from West Point, fought for the Union during the Civil War, and became an accomplished military officer in his own right. At least some of their children did not “remain within the fold” and, when Alfred, Jr. married a non-Jew, Mordecai attended alone because Sara refused to participate.
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Notwithstanding his agnosticism, Mordecai deplored his sister’s conversion to Christianity. Although disappointed with his rejection of Judaism, the important and influential Gratz family held him in high esteem because of his high military position and great accomplishments.
Exhibited above is an October 18, 1839 order issued by Mordecai at the Ordnance Office in Washington D.C. to Captain Edward Harding regarding the discharge of George Davis, a laborer. At the time, Harding was Captain Ordnance in charge of the Arsenal in Augusta Georgia, and he was later promoted to Major Ordnance in 1851.
During the 1840s, Mordecai established himself as perhaps America’s greatest ballistics expert, publishing seminal works such as The Ordnance Manual, Report of Experiments on Gunpowder, and Artillery for the United States Land Service. He served as commander of the army’s most important arsenal in Washington during the Mexican War (1846-1848), during which he sat on ordnance boards inspecting artillery pieces and enacted reforms that led to the domination of American artillery in the war. Commissioned as a major in 1848 in recognition of his exemplary service during the Mexican War, he remained in Mexico to determine the extent of the war damages and to direct the construction of a national railroad.
Mordecai went on to become an assistant to the Secretary of War and to the Chief of Ordnance, in which capacity he wrote the Digest of Military Laws, which became the acknowledged standard on the subject. It was as a member of the Ordnance Board that he made what is perhaps his greatest contribution to the U.S. military, instituting scientific testing of munitions and new weapons systems; writing the first ever ordnance manual that standardized the manufacture of American weaponry with interchangeable parts, an essential step in the advancement of American mass manufacturing; and performing notable experiments with artillery and gunpowder.
In 1852, Jefferson Davis sent Mordecai on a secret mission to the Mexican wilderness, which resulted in a reimbursement of $500,000 (worth about $19 million in today’s dollars) to the U.S. government. Pursuant to the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo ending the Mexican War, the United States agreed to indemnify American citizens for losses sustained through military action by the Mexican government, and the largest such claim was by dentist George Gardiner, who claimed the loss of a silver mine – which Mordechai proved did not exist – and Mordechai returned with evidence that led to Gardiner’s fraud conviction.
In 1855, U.S. Secretary of War Jefferson Davis, later president of the Confederacy, became worried that the United States was not keeping up with contemporary developments in military technology, particularly in response to reports coming in from Europe about new arms developments being utilized in the Crimean War between Russia against British, French, and Ottoman Empire forces. Davis sent “the Delafield Commission,” consisting of Major Richard Delafield, Mordecai, and Captain George McClellan, to Europe and charged them with assessing the “practical advantages and disadvantages attending the use of the various kinds of rifled arms” to enable him to evaluate American procurement policy.
Upon his return to the United States after a year of travel across Europe, Mordecai submitted his Military Commission to Europe in 1858, which was published by Order of Congress in 1860. It famously exhibited the most detailed attention to even the slightest dissimilarities between the arms issued by each nation to its combatants and became a milestone in military literature. Critics also consider his thorough, dispassionate analysis of European military science – including his examination of the pros and cons of each country’s tactical approach, his detailed study of barrel lengths, angles of elevation and range capability – to be a masterpiece of unbiased scholarship, and the report established him as the American “go to” expert in the field.
The War Between the States divided the American Jewish community much as it divided the nation. Even before the fall of Fort Sumter, Jews had no common position on slavery and few had taken part in the mounting debate over the issue, with the notable exception of Rabbi Morris Raphall and Michael Heilprin, whose printed debate in 1860 over the alleged biblical legitimacy of slavery attracted national attention. Jews generally sided with their respective regions, as the rabbis of the North offered prayers for the preservation of the Union and the Southern rabbis for the Confederacy. About 10,000 Jews fought in the War, about 7,000 for the North and 3,000 for the South; about 500 were killed and six Jews received the Congressional Medal of Honor.
With the southern attack of Fort Sumpter in April 1861 and the beginning of what he called “that Calamitous Conflict,” Mordecai, who was then commander of the Watervliet Arsenal at West Troy, New York, faced a particularly grim conflict. On one hand, Major Mordecai, who had become the symbol of Jewish patriotism in the public consciousness, had devoted his entire life to the U.S. army and, given his special area of expertise in munitions, his serving as an ordnance officer for the federal government could potentially lead to the death of his relatives who were fighting for the Confederacy.
On the other hand, he was a southerner by birth who had been nurtured in the Southern tradition and who would have lived in the South but for his position with the federal government. All his siblings and their families had established themselves in the South – including his father Jacob, who sold his academy, relocated to Richmond, purchased a slave plantation, became an active member of Richmond’s Jewish community, and served as president of Richmond’s Kahal Kodesh Beth Shalome synagogue. Mordecai maintained a close relationship with his Southern family, who were zealous supporters of the Confederacy and many of whom fought for the South in the Civil War.
However, fighting for the Confederacy would put him in a position of possibly contributing to the death of his son, Alfred, Jr., who had followed in his footsteps, graduated from West Point, commenced his own army career, and was fighting for the Union. Alfred, Jr. was an aide to General Oliver Otis Howard, the “Christian General”; served at the first battle of Bull Run; was transferred to the Ordnance Department and, like his father, was commissioned a major in 1863 (for bravery at the siege of Fort Wagner, S.C.); and later retired from his military service as a brigadier general in 1904.
Although Mordecai was a passionate supporter of the Union, never owned slaves, and even once extended a $250 loan to a black man to secure the freedom of his wife, who had been one of Thomas Jefferson’s slaves, he was nonetheless a passionate supporter of states’ rights and evidence exists that his sympathies lay with the Confederacy and, indeed, that his heart “bled” for his beloved South. Ironically, his wife was an abolitionist, but the couple apparently successfully handled their strong differences on what was the predominant issue of the day.
Faced with the bitter choice of either fighting for the United States or supporting his family, Mordecai opted for “none of the above.” Seeking to resolve his irreconcilable conflict by dodging the issue entirely, he sought permission from his commanders to serve at an Army outpost in California, far from the battlefields, but his request was denied. With no other option, he resigned his commission with great regret in a May 2, 1861, correspondence to Lt. Col. J. W. Ripley, which was accompanied by a letter to the press explaining his decision. Intriguingly, Mordecai gives the entire issue short shrift in his biography, writing only that he “was unwilling to engage in it [the war] for reasons peculiar to myself.”
Recognizing what he considered a grand opportunity, Mordecai’s old friend, Jefferson Davis, actively sought to enlist him for a high position in command of the Confederate Corps of Artillery but, notwithstanding the refusal by the Union to accommodate his needs, he remained ever loyal to his country and he declined the proffered commission. He was bitterly criticized by both Union and Confederacy and, although he had given up his life’s work for his Southern family (who unjustly blamed Sara for his refusal to fight with the Confederacy), they were never able to accept his refusal to serve in the Confederate army and they remained alienated from him for the rest of his life. As such, when Mordecai and Sara celebrated their 50th anniversary in 1886 – a very rare milestone in the nineteenth century – and sent out hundreds of invitations, only a single member of his southern family attended.
Nor were his attackers limited to supporters of the Confederacy in general and his Southern family in particular. His Union countrymen were enraged over his refusal to serve his country at the time of its greatest need to the point that he drew critical scrutiny as a “Southerner” in charge of the greatest arsenal in the United States. He was charged with secretly selling arms and ordnance to the South and, although he was ultimately acquitted, his reputation remained in tatters.
During the War years, he followed the progress of the war from a distance while earning a meager living as a mathematics teacher at a private school. His financial distress was such that his daughters were forced to open and operate a school in Philadelphia to help support the family, and Mordecai became a dejected, broken-spirited and depressed figure. In writing in his autobiography about his daughters’ financial support during this period, he cited the famous verse from Eishet Chayil (Proverbs 31:29): “Many daughters have done virtuously, but you have exceeded them all.”
After Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, the army offered to reinstate Mordecai to his previous position, but he declined. Instead, determined to escape the continuing enmity against him by citizens of both the United States and the former Confederacy, he accepted a position in Mexico as a senior engineer for the Vera Cruz and Mexican Railway, in which capacity he constructed trunk lines from Vera Cruz through Mexico City to the Pacific Ocean.
In Mexico, Mordecai forged close relationships with his fellow workers, many of whom had served with the former Confederacy and, together, they hatched a scheme to establish a slave state and to bring their families there. When, not surprisingly, the plan amounted to nothing, he returned to Philadelphia in 1866, where he served for the rest of his life as secretary and treasurer for the Pennsylvania Canal Company, the entity in control of the canal and coal companies run by the Pennsylvania Railroad.
At the end of the day, when faced with the most difficult decision of his life, Alfred Mordecai remained true to his principles, but he paid a very high price, sacrificing his brilliant military career and his relationship with much of his family, and this great American Jew has been sadly forgotten.