Real Freedom Fighters

At our Seders we will recite, “We were slaves of Pharoah in Egypt,” and we will repeat the words “slaves” and “slavery” many times. Yes, we’ll talk about slavery, but how many of us have done anything about it? One hundred and fifty years ago this July 1 at Gettysburg, Jewish soldiers of the 82nd Illinois infantry regiment risked — and some gave — their lives to end slavery.

When the 1848 revolution in Germany failed, more than one million Germans, including more than 100,000 Jews, came to these shores. In 1861, many of the sons of those who had fought for freedom in Germany would fight to bring freedom to all Americans. One of these young Jews was Edward Salomon, who came to Chicago in 1856 at age 20. When Friedrich Hecker, a leader of the 1848 revolution, asked Salomon to recruit Jewish soldiers for an all-German regiment, Salomon agreed. At Salomon’s urging, the regiment included an all Jewish company, Company C, and more Jews served in other companies. In just three days, the Jewish community of Chicago raised $10,000 — an astronomical sum in 1862 — for prayer books, kosher food and other supplies for their sons going off to war.After Hecker was wounded at Chancellorsville in 1863, Salomon, promoted to colonel, assumed command of the regiment.

At 1 p.m. on July 1, 1863, the 82nd Illinois reached the battle front, north of Gettysburg. Their position was hopeless. There were open wheat fields to their front, left and right, and the town in their rear. To their left front was a hill — Oak Ridge — from which Confederate cannons shelled them relentlessly. They were part of a line of 6,000 men facing 15,000 Confederates. The soldiers lay prone on the ground as Confederate bullets passed overhead, but they could do nothing about the incessant artillery shells from Oak Ridge exploding in their midst. Their mission: to hold out as long as possible so the remainder of the Union army could build a strong defensive line south of Gettysburg.

Col. Salomon stayed calm, but he could do nothing to stop the slaughter of his men. After 3 p.m., thousands of Confederates, newly arrived to the battle, charged on their right. The 157th New York tried to block the Confederate advance, but, within 10 minutes almost every man in the 157th had been killed, wounded or captured. Col. Salomon looked all around and saw no blue uniforms —only Confederates screaming their Rebel yell. The 82nd had been left alone. Col. Salomon gave the order to retreat. The retreat through Gettysburg was hell, as the Confederates had just taken the town and the Chicagoans had to fight their way through. As many died during the retreat as had died during the previous hours.

The first day of the Battle of Gettysburg was a Union setback. But by holding off a superior Confederate force for three hours, these Jewish and Christian soldiers had bought the Union army precious hours to regroup, dig in and go on to fight the most significant military victory of the war.

So this Seder evening, when we talk about slavery, spend a moment remembering these Jewish heroes who fought and died so that others would be free.

Alan Cohen was born and raised in Baltimore, graduating from Baltimore City College and the University of Maryland, College Park. After four years in the U.S. Navy, where he served as a Chinese Mandarin interpreter, he earned his law degree from the University of Baltimore. Cohen served as judge advocate in the Air Force from 1979 to1983, as a deputy district attorney in Colorado from 1983 to 1986, and after returning to Baltimore, as an associate at the now-defunct law firm of Quinn, Ward & Kershaw. Since 1989, Cohen has been employed by the U.S. Customs Service (since 2004, U.S. Customs and Border Protection). Cohen will teach at Limmud Baltimore on April 21 at Johns Hopkins University. For more information, visit limmudbaltimore.org