Command Sergeant Major Samuel Yudin, CA ARNG
Colonel Mordecai Sheftall was the highest-ranking Jewish officer in the American Revolution. Mordecai was born on December 2, 1735 to Perla and Benjamin Sheftall. They were among the first Jewish colonists to arrive in Georgia two years earlier in 1733. Perla died when the young Mordecai was only three years old, and his father soon remarried. His second wife was Hannah Sheftall (née Solomons).
Benjamin Sheftall did everything he could to ensure his children had a strong Jewish education despite their distance from a Jewish community. In fact, Mordecai’s bar mitzvah was celebrated late, as the tefillin and books ordered by Benjamin got delayed. In a letter, Benjamin wrote that he feared the ship had sunk or taken by the enemy, i.e. the British. This letter stands out as the first recorded instance of tefillin in the New World.
At age seventeen, Mordecai Sheftall went into the business of buying, tanning, and selling deerskin. Within a year he had made enough money to purchase fifty acres of land near Savannah. By his mid-twenties, he was doing business with companies from the Caribbean, Charleston, and Philadelphia, making substantial sums of money. In 1761, when he was twenty-six, Sheftall married Frances (Freidel) née Hart, 1740-1820. They had six children: Sheftall, Benjamin, Moses, Perla, Esther, and a child who passed away young.
From the outbreak of the Revolution, Mordecai Sheftall proudly and prominently identified with the American cause, as a member of the Sons of Liberty. He became chairman of the “Parochial Committee,” an organization composed of patriots opposed to the royal government that had formed to regulate Savannah’s internal affairs. He was subsequently denounced and persecuted by the British.
In 1777, Sheftall was appointed Commissary General to the troops of Georgia as well as the Continental troops. In October the following year, he became “Deputy Commissary of Issues in South Carolina and Georgia.” He figured as a staff officer in the Continental line of the Georgia Brigade during the war, a result of which Major General Robert Howe gave him the rank of Colonel. Sheftall appointed his son, Sheftall “Cocked Hat” Sheftall, as his assistant.
When the British attacked Savannah in late 1778, Mordecai Sheftall not only took an active part in its defense, but also advanced considerable sums of money, including loans, for the American cause. After the city was taken by the British, many patriots escaped by swimming across the Savannah River. Considering that his son could not swim, Colonel Sheftall opted to stay behind with him despite the risk, and the two were taken prisoner. They were held aboard a prison ship called the Nancy. Mordecai was tortured, but he refused to divulge any information regarding American supplies.
While the Sheftalls were on the ship, another prisoner, Reverend Moses Allen, jumped overboard in an attempt to escape. Allen drowned, and his body was brought back to the ship. Sheftall offered almost all the money he had with him to have the man buried. Allen’s diary was somehow saved and sent to his family. In it we find the following incredible entry (sic): “Pork for dinner. The Jews Mr. Sheftall & son refused to eat their pieces, & their knives & forks were ordered to be greased with it.” He added later: “It is a happiness that Mr. Sheftall is a fellow sufferer. He bears it with such fortitude and is an example to me.”
On February 25, 1779, Sheftall was told he would be released, although it wasn’t until June that he actually gained his freedom. However, on his way north, he was captured again and exiled to the Caribbean island of Antigua. Eventually he negotiated a prisoner exchange, and was freed in April 1780. Due to the British presence in Savannah, the two Sheftalls traveled to New York before moving to Philadelphia.
Sheftall would never recover any of the funds he lent the American cause, or the property he lost when the British conquered Savannah. But he continued to work and build, maintaining an excellent reputation.
Throughout his life, Mordecai Sheftall was an important leader in the Jewish community of the nascent United States. He was involved in the building of Congregation Mikve Israel in Philadelphia, as well as the reestablishment of the synagogue by that same name in Savannah. Based on letters of the time, it seems that he was also adept in the laws of kosher slaughter, and kept his slaughtering knife with him to ensure that kosher meat would be available.
Colonel Mordecai Sheftall died on July 6, 1797 at age 61. He was buried in the land that he had donated to the Jewish community of Savannah for use as a cemetery, which was later named for him: The Mordecai Sheftall Cemetery of Savannah.
For more great stories and information about Jewish American Military History, please visit the Jewish American Military Historical Society website at jewishmilitary.com.
This article was originally published in the Shavuot 2021 issue of the Jewish American Warrior.