By: CSM Sam Yudin, CA ARNG
The War of 1812 receives short shrift in comparison to our nation’s other engagements in education curriculum and in our collective memories. It is an interesting war because in it, the sons of the revolutionaries took up arms against the same enemy. In fact, it might be thought of as the sequel to the American Revolution. And just like the American Revolution, it is rich in Jewish patriot involvement. Commodore Uriah Phillips Levy is by far the most known Jewish American in service during the War of 1812. We reviewed his fascinating history in Jewish American Warrior, Vol. 1. No. 1.
Besides him, there were many others – both famous and less known. Samson Simpson, one of the founders of Mt. Sinai Hospital in New York, served as a Captain. Samuel Noah, an 1807 graduate of West Point, was a First Lieutenant who resigned his commission in 1811. Once war was declared, Simpson rejoined as a private and served in the defense of Brooklyn through the end of the war. One of the most prominent and highest ranking Jews was Colonel Nathan Myers.
On September 13, 1814, the British detained Francis Scott Key aboard the HMS Tonnant while negotiating the release of prisoners. He famously observed the bombardment of Fort McHenry during the Battle of Baltimore, which led to him penning the poem “Defence of Fort M’Henry”, later to become the Star-Spangled Banner. What is not so famous is the story of the Jewish defenders of Fort McHenry who ensured “through the perilous fight …that our flag was still there.” In total, there were at least eight but perhaps as many as forty-three Jewish defenders at Fort McHenry.
Solomon Etting was a prominent businessman in Baltimore, and was certified in the laws of kosher slaughter. During the War of 1812 he was instrumental in the defense of Baltimore. His son Samuel was wounded at the battle at Fort McHenry, and he might have been there himself as well, as apparently he provided kosher food for the Jewish defenders. Etting would later take a leading role in the Committee of Vigilance and Safety, and was involved in the effort to organize hospitals for those wounded in the war.
Chief among the defenders were brothers Phillip I. and Mendes I. Cohen, nephews of Jacob I. Cohen, who fought in the Revolutionary War in South Carolina. The book “The Jewish Legion of Valor” lists their father Israel I. Cohen, and their brother Jacob, as a defender as well. They served in the volunteer unit “Nicholson’s Artillery Fencibles”, under the command of Capt. Joseph H. Nicholson, Chief Judge of Baltimore County. One of the stories of heroic service which survives is that of this family. When the British bombardment commenced, Phillip Cohen was a few feet away and conversing with one of the first two out of four total casualties. Miraculously, he was not injured. Meanwhile, Mendes Cohen heeded Major George Armistead’s call for the dangerous duty to remove the powder kegs from the storage room, when it was hit by a British shell. Luckily, it did not explode. Much later, he recalled reading Key’s poem with his comrades, while “amusing themselves by trying to find a tune for it.” Mendes Cohen would eventually reach the rank of Colonel. Later, Phillip and Mendes would be involved in many historic events, including the petition for and the passing of Maryland’s “Jew Bill”, allowing Jews to serve in state office. While Solomon Etting had originally introduced the measure in 1797, it eventually passed in 1826.
Many others served with distinction, included Captain Mordecai Myers of the 13th US Infantry, who bravely saved lives and property at Sacketts Harbor. Captain Myers had been sent by General John Parker Boyd to Sacketts Harbor, where two boats loaded with more than 250 men and military supplies were wrecked. When he arrived to rescue them, he found the two boats were fast filling up with water, the sails were flapping aimlessly in the wind, and many of the men were drunk from partaking freely of the liquor from the hospital stores. There was complete chaos among the crew. Exercising great energy and skill while risking his own life, Myers and his men rescued more than 200 men and saved what was left of the military supplies. However, fifty men lost their lives by drowning. Myers also distinguished himself in a number of engagements during the Canadian campaign. During one of these engagements at Chrysler’s Farm, he was seriously wounded. He recovered from his wounds and became involved in politics in New York City. He was elected to the New York State Assembly and then decided to move to Schenectady, where he became the city’s first Jewish mayor.
Dozens of other Jews, known and unknown, fought in the War of 1812. You can find a roster of names we have unearthed on our website, www.JewishMilitary.com.
For more great stories and information about Jewish American Military History please visit the Jewish American Military Historical Society website at jewishmilitary.com.
Originally published in the Passover 2021 issue of The Jewish American Warrior.