The Battle of Baltimore – which most historians believe to be the seminal battle of the War of 1812 – was fought on both land and sea with American defenders successfully repulsing British attacks against Fort McHenry. The American resistance during the bombardment of the fort by the Royal Navy on September 13, 1814 famously inspired Francis Scott Key to compose “The Defense of Fort McHenry,” which later became the lyrics for The Star-Spangled Banner, our national anthem.
Baltimore was defended by about 1,000 volunteer citizen-soldiers of the city, including several Jews who made important contributions to ensure that “the star-spangled banner yet wave[d].” There is no definitive list of the Jews who fought at Fort McHenry, or in the War of 1812 for that matter, but we know that many Jews served in the war with distinction (despite a total Jewish population in America of less than 10,000 at the time).
According to A History of the Jews in the United States, there is “a definite record of 43 Jews who served in the armed forces [during the War of 1812], besides a special group in Baltimore, who were enlisted in the home defense force of that city when it was attacked.”
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The Etting family is considered the oldest Jewish family in America whose roots can be traced with academic certainty. One of its members, Solomon Etting, was a central figure in Baltimore during the War of 1812 who, among other things, organized a hospital for wounded soldiers and assisted the Quartermaster General in finding housing for American militiamen. (Intriguingly, he also corresponded with Robert Fulton, the inventor of the commercial steamship, in developing and building a steam-powered warship to help defend Baltimore.)
Solomon was the owner of a hardware store in Baltimore and the city’s first shochet. Pursuant to one highly credible account, all the Jewish defenders at Fort McHenry ate kosher food supplied by Solomon. According to a written account by Benjamin Cohen – based on conversations with his uncle, Mendes Cohen (a Jew who fought at Fort McHenry) – each member of the volunteer militia at Fort McHenry was responsible for his own provisions, and “every morning at about six o’clock a small covered cart left the northwest corner of Howard and Market Streets for the fort, with food sent by their families for the members of the company.”
Solomon’s son, Private Samuel Etting (1796-1862), then 18 years old, served during the War of 1812 in Captain Joseph Hopper Nicholson’s Baltimore Fencibles during the bombardment of Fort McHenry. He was wounded during the attack, but he recovered and went on to become an important figure in the Baltimore Jewish community.
Exhibited here is a rare November 24, 1849 handwritten correspondence from Samuel Etting to lawyer Joseph R. Evans, a prominent Philadelphia Jew, regarding their business relations.
Two of the more interesting War of 1812 items at the Maryland Historical Society are objects owned by Etting. The first is a rare banyan (men’s dressing gown) worn by him. The second is the famous “Etting Cup,” a 6-inch tankard black mug used by Etting and signed by the officers who served with him during the bombardment of Fort McHenry, including fort commander Major George Armistead. The cup served as the centerpiece of the War of 1812 Veterans Reunions through the 19th century.
According to the “Muster Roll of Citizen Soldiers at North Point and Fort McHenry,” one of the few extant lists of War of 1812 fighters, Jews who fought at Fort McHenry include:
Fifth Regiment of Maryland Cavalry Militia
Jacob Myers, Lieutenant
Andrew Levy, Private
First Regiment, Franklin Artillery:
Joseph Myers, Captain
Philip L. Cohen, private
Mendes Cohen, Private
Samuel Etting, Private
Members of the Cohen family, one of Baltimore’s leading and most influential Jewish families, played notable roles in the Battle of Baltimore. Mendes I. Cohen was 18 when he joined the 27th Regiment of the Maryland Militia, but his unit failed to get to the Battle of Bladensburg in time to help defend Washington.
As he watched Washington burning, he understood that the next British attack would come against Baltimore and, determined to participate in the defense of his hometown, he transferred to the Nicholson’s Artillery Fencibles, a volunteer company under the command of Capt. Joseph Nicholson, who served as the Chief Judge of Baltimore County.
Mendes’ brothers, Philip and Benjamin, followed him to the Baltimore Fencibles and also served at Fort McHenry. There is some dispute as to whether a fourth Cohen brother, Jacob, was at the fort at the time of the bombardment or was on temporary leave visiting an ill relative in Philadelphia.
Sharing his memories of the defense of Fort McHenry years later with his nephew, Mendes specifically recalled that on the morning of the attack, he had overslept, having failed to hear the alarm announcing that the British fleet had entered the mouth of the Patapsco River. Realizing that his brother Philip had already left for duty, he rushed to join him at his garrison and, dashing through the streets of Baltimore past Federal Hill, he saw the British fleet off North Point just beginning to enter Baltimore Harbor.
When the offensive against Fort McHenry commenced, a British shell struck its southwest stronghold and the explosion instantly killed two American militiamen, Lieutenant Levi Claggett and Sergeant John Clemm. (The Americans would sustain only two additional casualties during the entire battle of Baltimore.) Not two feet away from Clemm and conversing with him at the time of his death was Philip Cohen, who was miraculously unharmed.
Only a few minutes later, a British shell crashed through the storage room where the fort’s gunpowder was stockpiled. Major George Armistead, the commander of Fort McHenry, sought volunteers to enter the room and remove the gunpowder kegs, and one of the brave men who stepped forward for this very dangerous mission was Mendes Cohen.
Mendes (1797-1879) lived a noteworthy Jewish life. Born in Richmond to a German father and an English mother, the family moved to Baltimore in 1809 after the death of the family patriarch. The Cohens held religious services in the Sephardic tradition at their home, and the service participants formed the nucleus of what would later become Baltimore’s first congregation.
After the War of 1812, Mendes worked as a banker and also entered the lottery business with his brothers, becoming enormously successful selling tickets to raise funds for public and private buildings, including Baltimore’s monument to George Washington.
Much of the Cohens’ success was attributable to their sterling reputation for honesty in an otherwise unsavory field. Nonetheless, they were on the losing side of one of the most historic and important Supreme Court decisions, Cohens v. Virginia, 19 U.S. 264 (1821).
Congress had enacted a bill establishing a National Lottery to raise money in the District of Columbia. Virginia, however, which had launched its own state lotteries, passed a law prohibiting the sale of out-of-state lottery tickets within its borders. Enter Mendes and Philip Cohen who, after being charged by the Virginia authorities and convicted of illegally selling National Lottery tickets in Virginia, appealed their conviction to the U.S. Supreme Court.
The main issue in the case was whether Virginia had the unfettered right, unreviewable by the federal courts, to interpret and apply federal law. In unanimously rejecting this argument, the high court established the now well-known proposition that state laws repugnant to the Constitution and federal law are void and that the Supreme Court is constitutionally vested with the ultimate authority to rule on state applications of federal law.
However, writing for the Court, Chief Justice Marshall went on to affirm the Cohens’ conviction, ruling that Congress had not intended to authorize the sale of lottery tickets outside of the District of Columbia and that, as such, Virginia’s statute prohibiting lotteries in Virginia was exclusively a matter of state law and not contrary to federal law.
Mendes was so successful in the banking business that, even after his lottery business failed, he was able to retire at age 33 and pursue his interest in seeing the world, particularly Eretz Yisrael. A lifelong bachelor – many historians believe he never married because of the dearth of eligible Jewish women in 19th-century Baltimore – he had no familial responsibilities to hinder a lengthy six-year journey through Europe and the Middle East.
Mendes’ high social standing and universal respect earned him access to some of the most notable people and significant events of the day, and his travels included a stop in London, where he spent time with the Rothschilds (fellow Jewish bankers) and attended the coronation of William IV (June 1830) and the funeral of King George I (August 1830), and a stop in Paris for the coronation of Louis Philippe in Paris (September 1831). His adventures included surviving shipwrecks and a trek by camel across the Sinai desert.
When he was introduced to the newly-elected Pope Gregory XVI (1831) during a visit to Rome, he refused to degrade himself by kissing the Pope’s foot, which was not only revolting to him but, as he later wrote, would be nauseating to any self-respecting American. He specifically presented himself to the Pope by using his very-Jewish name, “Signore Cohen, un Americano.”
Mendes Cohen became the first American to receive permission from the Ottoman Empire to visit Eretz Yisrael, where he spent several months visiting its holy Jewish sites, which he said was the highlight of his life. The first American ever to visit Jerusalem, he met with the leaders of its Sephardi community and, in detailed diary entries and correspondence with his mother and brothers back in Baltimore, offered rare and important insights into Jewish life in Eretz Yisrael.
Discussing the destitution and suffering of the Jews of Jerusalem, he wrote: “The appearance of the synagogues is that of poverty as they are not allowed to build or add to their buildings without paying a large sum to the Turks.” His love for Jerusalem was such that he used a stamp to press sealing wax on his correspondence featuring the beautiful quote from Psalms (122:2): “Our feet are standing within your gates, O Jerusalem.”
During a journey down the Nile River, Mendes created a makeshift American flag, flew it from a mast, and persuaded the crew of his vessel to salute it and promise to defend it. While in Egypt, he collected hundreds of important antiquities that later became the “Cohen Collection” and the foundation for the archaeological museum at Johns Hopkins University.
Returning to the United States, Mendes served in the Maryland House of Delegates (1847-48); on the board of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad; and as an aide to Maryland Governor Thomas Veazey. He also was active in several Jewish charities, serving as vice president of the Hebrew Benevolent Society for over two decades and working to establish a Jewish hospital in Baltimore.
He relished telling strangers about his experiences in the Battle of Baltimore – including one hilarious story about how he and his fellow militiamen had read Frances Scott Key’s poem and sat around amusing themselves by trying to find a melody to sing it. Mendes’ portrait by renowned artist Rembrandt Peal hangs in the St. Louis Art Museum.
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Other Jews who defended Fort McHenry include Jacob Moses, a Dutch Jew who served as a private in the Union Yagers and later became a jeweler; Andrew Levy, a private in the Maryland Chasseurs; and Levi Collmus, who had come to Baltimore from Bohemia and served as a private in the Maryland Artillery and sustained injuries in battle that rendered him permanently disabled.
Other Jewish fighters may include Benjamin Pollock; the Holland-born Isaac De Jung, who may have been Jewish; and several “Levys” with non-Jewish first names who may or who may not have been Jewish.
Samuel Etting and the brothers Cohen (Mendes and Philip) all received commendations for their service. As the result of the dedication and sacrifice of Jewish fighters and defenders during the War of 1812, the Jews came to be respected as great patriots and citizens of the United States.
Yet, all the Jews who served during the War fought for their country and risked their lives for a nation that denied them citizenship. For example, Samuel Etting wanted to be a lawyer, but he was steadfast in refusing to take the qualifying Test Oath which required him to declare a belief in Christianity.
The only reason the Jews were able to serve in the Maryland state militia during the Battle of Baltimore was because they were attached to a U.S. Army artillery unit and were thus not required to take a qualifying oath swearing that they were Christians. It was only when the state legislature enacted the “Maryland Jew Bill” in 1826 – which the Etting and Cohen families played key roles in helping to pass – that Maryland’s Jews were granted full civil and political rights.
After the War of 1812, Jewish veterans maintained membership in patriotic societies, served in state militias, and were prominently featured on the battle monument commemorating defenders killed during the war.