The War That Changed American Jewry

October 3, 2013
BY M. Hirsh Goldberg
Jewish Museum of Maryland’s new exhibit highlights Civil War’s challenges for Jews

In the middle of the night on Feb. 23, 1861, three individuals tread quietly through the darkened streets of Baltimore. One was Allen Pinkerton, head of a private detective agency. Another was serving as a bodyguard. The third, wearing an overcoat draped over his shoulders and a soft felt hat, and hunched over to disguise his height, was President-elect Abraham Lincoln.

The group had arrived in Baltimore by train from Philadelphia at the President Street station (later to become Maryland’s Civil War Museum). They were trying to reach Camden Station, located next to what is now Oriole Park at Camden Yards. Their plan was to travel by early-morning train to Washington for Lincoln’s inauguration as the nation’s 16th president.

The reason for the secrecy that night was the mounting tension preceding the Civil War that would erupt two months later, on April 12, with the Confederates firing on the Union army at Fort Sumter in South Carolina. Pinkerton had been informed of a possible plot to assassinate Lincoln as he passed through Baltimore. The concern was real: The city had given Lincoln only 4 percent of its vote, and roving bands of thugs were known to attack Union sympathizers.

Emotions had escalated to such a point that a month before, on Jan. 4, President James Buchanan had issued a proclamation calling for a day of fasting and prayer to seek a peaceful solution to head off war. But such efforts had not prevented seven Southern states from seceding from the Union over slavery and states’ rights before Lincoln’s inauguration.

In subsequent days, Baltimore City and the state of Maryland became major players in the Civil War, which lasted until April 9, 1865 and which is now being commemorated nationwide during its 150th anniversary. Baltimore was then the third most populous city in the country, and Maryland, with land surrounding most of the nation’s capital, was situated at a key location in the war between North and South. And while the state officially would stay within the Union, many Marylanders expressed great sympathy for the Confederacy. In fact, to keep Maryland within the Union, Lincoln would station armed federal troops in the state throughout the war. Today, one can still see Union army cannons on Federal Hill trained on the city.

Living among the 31 million Americans engulfed in this national turmoil were the nation’s 150,000 Jews. Ninety percent of them — many of whom were part of the early wave of German-born Jews emigrating to America — had been living in this country less than 20 years, with 25,000 residing in Southern states. During the Civil War, some 10,000 Jews served in the fighting — 7,000 for the North, 3,000 for the South.

The portrayal of the varied Jewish sympathies and actions during the Civil War — as well as an assessment of the importance and impact the war had on American Jewry afterward — are some of the many surprises to be found in the Jewish Museum of Maryland’s newest exhibit, “Passages Through the Fire: Jews and the Civil War.” The exhibit opens Oct. 13 and runs through Feb. 28, 2014. As the museum’s literature states, the war “not only divided our
nation but split our community.”

Most of the nation’s rabbis and Jewish communal leaders tried to keep a low profile on the explosive issues of the day and supported a peaceful resolution, especially since Jews, both in the North and in the South, valued being in a country that offered shelter from the religious strife of Europe. Benjamin Szold, an Orthodox rabbi who was the father of Baltimore’s Henrietta Szold, advocated “peace above all.” However, the split that did exist among many could be seen most vividly played out in what Jewish Museum of Maryland’s Executive Director Marvin Pinkert referred to as a “battle” between two Baltimore rabbis.

“The ‘battle’ in question was not fought with bullets but with ideas,” said Pinkert. “However, to the degree that the Civil War was as much a struggle of ideas as it was a contest for territory, I don’t think the term ‘battle’ is hyperbolic.”

The confrontation involved a Reform rabbi and an Orthodox rabbi with opposing views of slavery. Rabbi David Einhorn of Har Sinai Congregation, a Reform congregation located on High Street one block north of Baltimore Street, was a strong advocate for the abolition of slavery. Rabbi Bernard Illowy, spiritual leader of Baltimore Hebrew Congregation (then Orthodox), located one block south of Baltimore Street, tried not to alienate pro-slavery supporters in the Jewish community, even delivering a fast-day address interpreting Biblical support of slavery.

M. Hirsh Goldberg, a Baltimore native, is an award-winning author of five nationally published books. His most recent book is “It All Started With A Deli: The Attmans of Lombard Street.”

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