The first acknowledged Jew in the United States Senate, Judah P. Benjamin served in three cabinet positions—attorney general, secretary of war, and secretary of state— within the Confederate executive administration and became a confidant of Jefferson Davis during the war. Throughout his early legal career and his political career as a senator from Louisiana and in cabinet posts, Benjamin faced the challenge of being both a Jew and a public figure. Although not religiously observant, Benjamin became an easy target for anti-Semitism.
Born in the British West Indies and descending from Sephardic Jews, Benjamin settled with his family in Charleston, South Carolina, where a sizable Jewish community existed. At the age of 14, Benjamin started attending Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, but left and settled in New Orleans, where he worked as a teacher and in a
religious practice, while others attended Christian services because some kind of religious service was deemed to be better than none at all. When soldiers were camped near a city with a synagogue or Jewish community, they attended the local services, but while in the field, soldiers found it difficult to keep track of the dates during which they needed to observe the High Holidays and festivals. Other Jewish soldiers sought furloughs during High Holidays and festivals to attend religious services. In addition, soldiers found it difficult to gain access to the kosher foods, like unleavened bread, necessary for religious observances like Passover.
Meeting the spiritual needs of Jewish soldiers in the Union Army became a heated issue within the Northern Jewish community when the federal government did not recognize Jewish chaplains. As the military began mobilizing at the beginning of the war, the position of the chaplain was created to conduct religious services and meet the spiritual needs of soldiers. The first general order regarding the chaplaincy stated that a chaplain needed to come from a Christian denomination and be an ordained minister. The provisions of the order automatically denied Jewish soldiers equal access to leaders of their faith and the satisfaction of their spiritual needs on two levels. First, the phrasing excluded rabbis from obtaining a chaplaincy position in the army because it referred to mercantile house before beginning an apprenticeship with a notary connected to a local commercial law firm. After studying law, Benjamin was admitted to the bar, established a thriving law practice, and traveled in the major social and political circles of the city. A persuasive speaker and reputable commercial attorney, Benjamin was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1852. Although offered a position on the U.S. Supreme Court, Benjamin turned down the position to continue in the Senate.
While holding three cabinet positions in the executive administration of the Confederacy, Benjamin became a convenient target for anti-Semitic attacks. Criticized for his decisions while serving as secretary of war, Benjamin, along with Richmond, Virginia, Jews were targeted as the source of the Confederacy's military and economic troubles as the war progressed. Moreover, the Richmond and Northern press consistently kept Benjamin's Jewishness at the forefront of their coverage of the politician. Having sent secret service spy rings into Canada, having contemplated and formulated a Confederate equivalent to the Emancipation Proclamation, and having been implicated in the conspiracy that assassinated Lincoln, Benjamin escaped the country at the conclusion of the war. Settling in England, Benjamin became a successful commercial lawyer in the 1870s. He died in 1884 while in Paris.
Christians only, and second, only a limited number of rabbis were officially ordained in the United States in the mid-19th century. It took the visit of a worker with the Young Men's Christian Association (YMCA) to a military camp in Virginia in September 1861 to spark a challenge to and a debate over the government's policy toward wartime chaplains.
Michael Allen, a member of a Pennsylvania regiment and the most educated Jew in the regiment, was the target of the YMCA worker's complaint to the army. Allen was not an officially ordained rabbi and, even though a large number of the men were Jews, his regiment was not specifically Jewish. Allen was forced to resign his position as chaplain. Subsequently, the commander of the regiment, Colonel Max Friedman, and his officers chose an officially ordained rabbi to be their chaplain. Arnold Fischel, who had not enlisted as a soldier, was selected from a synagogue in New York City. Secretary of War Simon Cameron, remaining within the law and the dictates of the general order on chaplains, rejected the application. The rejection, however, only served to agitate the Northern Jewish community, including religious leaders and the Jewish press, to pressure the federal government to change its policy on chaplains to afford Jewish soldiers equal access to their religious leaders while they served. The Jewish press circulated a parade of stories and editorials that examined the legal and ethical components of the issue, and many secular newspapers of major cities provided editorial support to the Jewish position. Meanwhile, petitions of appeal were lobbied before Congress and the president by the rejected chaplaincy applicant, Fischel, under the direction of the Board of Delegates of American Israelites. Less than a year after the incident in the camp in Virginia, Congress responded to Lincoln's changes to the chaplaincy laws. By July 1862, the language of the law was altered to include chaplains of some kind of denomination, not only Christian denominations.
Debate over the issue of wartime chaplains was not the only instance in which Jewish concerns regarding equal treatment before the law came to national attention. Although the issue of chaplaincy stemmed from the spiritual needs of soldiers on the battlefield, the second issue focusing on Jews as a class stemmed from the social and economic positions of Jewish civilians. Many Jews living in the North and South took up occupations in or ownership of small businesses and other economic enterprises like clerks, peddlers, merchants, or shopkeepers. In these positions, Jews were often stereotyped as thieves and people lacking in scruples. With the prolongation of the war and the downturn of the economy, Jews became easily targeted as the source of the sour economy and increasingly became the subject of anti-Semitism in both the Northern and Southern press. In the Northern press, Jews were labeled as subversive elements who supplied the South with the goods needed to fight a war. In the Southern press, where the economic troubles hit hardest, Jews were blamed for inflated prices and the shortage of goods. Once again, however, the issue of equality before the law came to the attention of the federal government with release of General Order Number 11 in December 1862.
By then, speculation and profiteering, particularly in cotton, was looked down upon by military commanders. Union military commanders Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman saw speculators who sold cotton for gold as dangerous to their military aims, especially if that gold could be used to purchase arms for the Confederate Army. In December, Grant issued General Order Number 11, stating that as a class Jews had violated the trade regulations set down by the Treasury Department and, therefore, were expelled from the Department of the Mississippi. They had 24 hours to obey the order.
Many Jews responded with anger and shock over the order, but also with an appeal to change the process of American law. Although Jews believed that individuals should definitely be tried for breaking the law, they did not feel that there was room within American law to assign communal responsibility for violating the law.
Cesar Kaskel, a Jew from Paducah, Kentucky, with friends who were subject to Grant's order, quickly traveled to Washington, D.C., to petition the administration for a recall of the order. As he was passing through Cincinnati, Ohio, Kaskel gained the assistance of Rabbi Isaac Wise, and the two were able to gather together petitions and protests to present to the president. The cooperation of Northern Jews with Kaskel in support of Southern Jews succeeded in gaining the repeal of the order. With no knowledge of Grant's action, Lincoln repealed General Order Number 11 in early January 1863.
The origins of the controversies over chaplaincy and the class status of Jews in American society, coupled with the agitation of the Jewish community and sometimes the larger public at a political level for equal treatment before the law, demonstrated the precarious position of Jews during the Civil War as a religious minority and as a community with long-established stereotypes. At the same time, however, the experience of Jews during the war as soldiers, civilians, and religious leaders illustrated their desire to undermine those stereotypes and to be seen not only as Jews but also as Americans.
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