By: CSM Sam Yudin, CA ARNG
In 1862, there was a push for Jews to form their own military units in order “to show the country and the world that they appreciate the blessings they have enjoyed in this country.” Local newspapers published letters carrying this message to stoke this sentiment and public support. In the North Chicago and New York formed Jewish units. Jewish communities in the South formed two Jewish companies. There is little known about the companies formed in West Point, Georgia in 1861 and then in Macon, Georgia in 1862 for the defense of Savannah.
In New York’s 6th Senatorial District, Colonel William Meyer was recruiting to form a regiment called “Perkins Rifles.” His hope was that he would be successful in recruiting enough Jews so it would be a predominately Jewish unit. The local paper the Jewish Record challenged its readers to enlist so he did not have to “be compelled to seek support of men and means from others…” Ultimately Colonel Meyer did not have the support of the community, which did not hold war meetings to support his cause.
In Syracuse and Chicago, there was support that led to success. In Chicago, the Jewish community held a meeting on August 13, 1862 at the Concordia Club to pledge support “to organize and outfit a Jewish Company for the new 82nd Illinois Regiment.” Speeches were made, resolutions were drafted, money was raised, and men had volunteered. By the end of the week, the community raised $11,000 and had 96 men join Company C of the 82nd Illinois Regiment commanded by Captain Jacob LaSalle.
In Syracuse, the Society of Concord Congregation pledged to recruit and equip one company. A war meeting was held on August 24, 1862 that continued for a week with a recruiting office. The rabbi “appealed to his congregation to demonstrate their love for the Union by meeting the goal.” By the end of the week, $3,000 had been raised and enough men volunteered to establish the first company in the regiment. After Havdalah, the regimental commander swore in the men and marched them off with a band and cheers from the community.
Famously, the 65th Regiment of the 5th PA Cavalry, commanded by Colonel Max Freedman, consisted of many Jews, which led them to elect Captain Michael Allen as their Chaplain, in July 1861. As we have recounted in these pages, Captain Allen was forced to resign when it was found by the IG out that he was neither ordained nor Christian, in accordance with the Army Regulations concerning Chaplains. This, of course, led to President Lincoln and Congress changing the law, and Jewish Chaplains appointed.
Historians estimate that at least 10,000 to as many as 18,000 Jews served in both the Union and Confederate Armies. That equates to 4-5% of the Jewish population at the time. The fact that there were so few Jewish units is not an indication that Jews did not serve. To the contrary; they served in higher numbers in all other units as the majority showed “no desire for a segregated minority status.” Jews served in much higher numbers than their proportion in population percentage. The Anti-Semitic trope that Jews did not serve in the Civil War prompted the formation of what is now the oldest Veterans organization in the country, the Jewish War Veterans of the U.S.A., in 1896.
2. American Jewry and the Civil War by Bertram W. Korn
3. Rosen, Robert N. “THE JEWISH CONFEDERATES.” Civil War Citizens: Race, Ethnicity, and Identity in Americas Bloodiest Conflict, edited by Susannah J. Ural, NYU Press, New York; London, 2010, pp. 157–186. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt9qg4vn.8. Accessed 3 Mar. 2020.
4. Meites, Hyman C.; History of the Jews of Chicago; Chicago Jewish Historical Society and Wellington Publishing (1924).
Originally published in the Tishrei 2021 issue of The Jewish American Warrior. For more on this subject, go to www.JewishMilitary.org.