Review: Jews and the Civil War
Jonathan D. Sarna and Adam Mendelsohn, eds. Jews and the Civil War: A Reader. New York: New York University Press, 2010. 435 pp. ISBN 9780814740910.
In Jews and the Civil War: A Reader, editors Jonathan Sarna and Adam Mendelsohn have assembled a collection of scholarly essays about the Jewish experience in the Civil War era. Collectively, these essays shed light on five decades of scholarship since the 1960 exhibit “The American Jew in the Civil War.” According to the editors, “this volume rescues, organizes, and assembles choice examples of this literature” (x). It achieves that goal by juxtaposing recent scholarship with older works, which build on historian Bertram Korn’s seminal American Jewry and the Civil War (1951). This is an especially significant achievement, given the relative lack of historical attention given to the Jewish experience in the Civil War.
Neatly divided into seven parts, this collection examines the experience of Jews from the antebellum era through Reconstruction. Organized thematically, the topics explored include: Jews and Slavery; Jews and Abolition; Rabbis and the March to War; Jewish Soldiers During the Civil War; The Home Front; Jews as a Class; and Aftermath. Introduced by an essay exploring the main arguments, each section includes two to four articles. By mixing recent scholarship with older works, the sections show the scholarly evolution of each topic. Also included is a historiographic essay reviewing scholarship before Korn’s integral work, and an overview essay on the role of Jews during the Civil War. A concluding section surveys other important works on the topic which could not be included in this collection. Throughout, the editors point to where the scholarship is weak, encouraging other scholars to pursue it.
Among the more noteworthy essays is Stephen Ash’s on how Grant’s General Order No. 11 affected the Jews of Paducah, Kentucky. In it, he explains Grant’s Order, as “the climax to a story of evolving social turmoil in wartime America” (363). Paducah was “a microcosm of the wartime Mississippi Valley” and Grant’s order grew out of that region’s instability, conflict, and tension. According to Ash, the wartime pressures in the area eventually found “an outlet in actions against a helpless minority” (369). ”Shoddy’ Anti-Semitism and the Civil War,” by Gary L. Bunker and John J. Appel, also merits special mention for its use of cartoons to explore how print sources used the word “shoddy” to develop a stereotype of the “unpatriotic Jew” (313).
A couple of interesting biographical studies show that in comparison to their non-Jewish neighbors, Jewish Americans had similar wartime experiences. In one essay, readers learn the story of Major Alfred Mordecai, a southern-born Jew who decided to resign his military commission on the eve of the conflict instead of fighting for either side. This piece shows that Jewish career military went through the same agonies as their non-Jewish comrades. A second article explores the plight of a southern Jewish woman, Eugenia Levy Phillips, who received punishment for openly defying the Union army. Non-Jewish southern women received similar consequences for disloyal conduct when defying individuals like the notorious Benjamin Butler.
Sarna and Mendelsohn have compiled a fine collection of essays which explore the varied facets of the Jewish experience during the American Civil War. This long overdue book should appeal to a broad readership of scholars and amateur historians alike, those interested in Jewish history or the American Civil War era more broadly.