Sunday, December 20, 2009

Jewish Contribution to the Confederacy

Jews don gray, fight for SouthRate this story

There are 30 of them, with names such as Adler, Cohen, Hessberg, Wolf and Seldner. They came from Virginia, Mississippi, Texas, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia and Louisiana. All of them were soldiers, Jews, and they all died in Virginia during the Civil War.

Today they lie together in a peaceful plot known as the Soldier's Section of the old Hebrew Cemetery, the oldest Jewish military cemetery in the world, on Richmond's Shockoe Hill.

Jews had lived in Richmond since the 1760s, and by 1860, the city boasted three synagogues. In 1816, the Richmond Common Council deeded one acre of land on Shockoe Hill to Kaal Kadosh Beth Shalome "to be by them held and exclusively used as a burying-ground, subject to their rites and laws, for that purpose and for that alone."

In 1843, Congregation Beth Ahabah, founded two years earlier by German Jews, gained burial privileges shared with the older synagogue until the congregations merged in 1898. Many prominent Jewish business and cultural leaders are buried in the Hebrew Cemetery, now comprising 8.4 acres, although Jews also are buried in other Richmond cemeteries.

Donning the gray

When the Southern states began to secede from the Union and war seemed imminent, young Jewish men across the South flocked to the Confederacy's colors with the same enthusiasm as their Christian counterparts, and for many of the same reasons.

Because Jews rarely self-identified outside of their religious communities and did not form ethnic regiments like the Irish or the Germans, it is hard to know precisely how many donned Confederate gray. Estimates run between 2,000 and 3,000. New Orleans, the South's largest city, also had the would-be nation's largest concentration of Jews. Charleston, S.C., Atlanta and Richmond also had sizable Jewish populations.

Richmond's Jews quickly immersed themselves in the war effort, both on and off the battlefield. More than 100 enlisted in the Confederate army, including 15 who joined the Richmond Blues, later to become the 46th Virginia Infantry.

Myer Angle, president of Beth Ahabah, had six sons who served in the Army of Northern Virginia. Rabbi Maximilian J. Michelbacher waged a campaign throughout the war for religious observances on behalf of Jewish Confederates. He wrote repeatedly to Gen. Robert E. Lee, requesting furloughs for the soldiers to attend High Holy Days and Passover services. Lee respectfully declined each time.

The men buried in the Soldier's Section rest in hallowed ground, maintained today by the Hebrew Cemetery Co. because after the war, a devout and determined group of Jewish women followed the example of their gentile sisters and formed a memorial association to, in the words of historian Caroline E. Janney, "bury the dead but not the past."

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