In this season of Tisha b’Av, remembering our Temple and kingdom destroyed for our sins, the humbled Jewish heart contemplates the Confederacy, also destroyed for its sins. Were there ever two nations less inclined to accept defeat, convinced we will “rise again?” And though few Jews think of the Confederacy as “we,” we were there. Even the Confederate flag, today more embattled than at any time since last carried by the Army of Northern Virginia, has something Jewish about it.
John Coski, author of “The Confederate Battle Flag,” writes that it was Charles Moise, a self-described “southerner of the Jewish persuasion,” who respectfully argued in 1860 at the flag’s inception that its cross design was too Christian. Confederate leadership, respecting the critique, then approved the “X” design, also a cross but considered less ecclesiastical.
That Jewish-influenced flag is the one now being lowered everywhere from South Carolina to Hollywood, in the wake of the killings of nine innocents in a black church in Charleston.
Until the 1830s, more Jews lived in Charleston than in any American city, including New York. It was a time when almost all of Charleston’s Jews were Sabbath observant. By the 1850s, almost one-third of American Jews lived amidst Louisiana’s bayous, magnolias and New Orleans.
A non-observant Charleston Jew, such as Judah Benjamin, could escape to New Orleans and intermarry with a creole woman. It is unknown whether the Christian taunts or his wife’s infidelities proved more humiliating. In time, she left her husband, moving to Paris with their daughter. Benjamin became the first Jew elected to the U.S. Senate in 1852. That same year, President Millard Fillmore offered Benjamin a seat on the Supreme Court — 64 years before Louis Brandeis became the first Jewish justice — though Benjamin declined. He went on to become attorney general, secretary of war, and secretary of state for the Confederacy. Say what you will about Jefferson Davis, but it was 45 years before any other president, rebel or not, appointed a Jew to the cabinet, and over 100 years before another Jew, Henry Kissinger, was appointed secretary of state.
Respected but lonely, pained yet powerful, on what continent, in what other nation, would a Jew such as Benjamin find greater political success than in the Confederacy? Stephen Vincent Benet, in his epic poem “John Brown’s Body,” imagined the “well-hated” Benjamin thinking, “I am a Jew. What am I doing here? … A river runs between these men and me [and] we speak to each other across the roar of that river, but no more.”
Eli Evans in his biography, “Judah P. Benjamin, The Jewish Confederate,” notes that “Both Benjamin and Davis were exemplary slaveowners [who] did not abuse their slaves.” In the last months of the Confederacy, with the support of Robert E. Lee and Davis, Benjamin called for a Confederate Emancipation Proclamation. In “an extraordinary episode of the war,” writes Evans, Benjamin spoke “before 10,000 people in Richmond, delivering a remarkable speech in favor of a Confederate offer to free the slaves.” His words were all the more courageous for his being increasingly singled out as the Judas responsible for the Confederacy’s misfortune.
Benjamin was also damned in the North. On the eve of the Civil War, Sen. Henry Wilson of Massachusetts, who would be elected Grant’s vice president in 1872, said Benjamin’s loyalty to his native South proved him an ingrate to the United States that gave “equality of rights even to that race that stoned prophets and crucified the redeemer of the world.”
And yet, in the South, writes Evans, “Benjamin, as a Jew, would have to be more loyal to the Cause than anyone else.” The editor of the Richmond Examiner “took special pleasure in linking Benjamin and Jewishness to Confederate failure, speculators, gamblers and all manners of ills.” J.B. Jones, a journalist based in Richmond, wrote, “Illicit trade has depleted the [Confederacy] and placed us at the feet of Jew extortioners. … These Jews… have injured the cause more than the armies of Lincoln.”
At least 10,000 Jews went to war for the South, but the Richmond Examiner wrote that Southern families suffered from the draft while “thousands of Jews… have gone scot free simply [by] denying their allegiance to the country [which they] pretended to adopt.”
Yet, in comparison to Gen. Grant’s infamous wartime order (overturned by Lincoln) that called for the expulsion of Jews from Union-controlled Tennessee, Kentucky and Mississippi, Gen. Lee responded graciously to a Virginia rabbi who requested a furlough for Jewish soldiers during the High Holidays. Lee replied, “Reverend Sir… It would give me great pleasure to comply [but] the necessities of war” precluded the request. Lee continued, “I feel assured that neither you or any member of the Jewish congregation would wish to jeopardize a cause you have so much at heart…” Lee added his hopes that Jewish prayers “be accepted by the Most High, and their petitions answered.” Signed, “Your obedient servant, R.E. Lee.”
And so on Passover, a Confederate soldier, Isaac Levy, 21, celebrated the seder in the field. He wrote to his family, “We are observing the festival in a truly Orthodox style. On the first day we had a fine vegetable soup,” and “a pound and a half of fresh [kosher] beef.” That soldier was killed in battle, August 21, 1864, under the flag now scorned. Levy’s yahrtzeit is Av 19, if anyone cares to say Kaddish or light a candle.
As the war took its toll, the music of war lost much of its jaunty confidence. Like the sad piyuttim of Tisha b’Av, Stephen Foster composed songs expressing the pain: “Tell me, tell me, weary soldier from the rude and stirring wars, was my brother in the battle where you gained those noble scars? He was ever brave and valiant, and I know he never fled. Was his name among the wounded, or numbered with the dead?”
With the Lincoln assassination, writes Evans, “The ancient blood ritual hung heavily in the air… Lincoln would become Christ crucified and [Benjamin] would be transformed into the guilty Christ killer. No Jew would have a chance in such a spectacle of revenge and hatred. The search for an American Judas [would be] more thrilling if the mob could blame [the] the Jew in the Confederate cabinet.”
Benjamin fled to England, never to return.
Back in Richmond, the defeated Confederate capital, in St Paul’s Episcopal Church, a black man advanced to the communion table. In his history, “April 1865,” Jay Winik writes, even the minister was stunned. It was one thing “to accept that slaves were now free,” quite another for a black man “to stride up to the front of the church as though an equal.” The black man lowered his body, kneeling, “while the rest of the congregation tensed in their pews.” And then Robert E. Lee, still weary from his recent surrender, but loyal to Benjamin’s Emancipation, arose out of the pews and walked to the front, kneeling alongside the black man. Watching Lee, other whites followed in his path. Those who want to take down all the statues of Lee, as they do the flag, make the same mistake as did the Biblical prophet Jonah, who couldn’t accept that Nineveh could honestly repent and be granted all the honors of penance.
Today, Lawrence Brook, publisher and editor of the Birmingham, Ala.-based Southern Jewish Life, covering Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and the Florida panhandle, told us by phone, “Most of the Jews fighting for the Confederacy didn’t have slaves themselves. But they felt they owed it to this home, to defend it against a foreign invasion, as they saw it. There is pride that Samuel Ullman, a Jew wounded fighting for the Confederacy, 40 years later was fighting for the establishment of a black high school in Birmingham. Of course, in the 1960s the flag was an in-your-face symbol against integration. But for those of us who came of age after the civil rights battles, the flag simply represented, ‘Hey, I’m from the South. Period. I’m proud of it.’ There was no thought of offending anybody. Symbols are what you make of them.”
In 1884, Judah Benjamin died in Paris. In 1938, on the eve of another war, the Daughters of the Confederacy donated a gravestone for him in the Pere Lachaise, a Christian cemetery in Paris, where a Southern Jew didn’t belong but where he spends eternity, alone, as always.