As Baltimore and Maryland commemorate the American victory over the British in the War of 1812 and honor Francis Scott Key’s “The Star-Spangled Banner” — inspired by the sight of Fort McHenry’s tattered flag that “was still there” after the 1814 Battle of Baltimore — local institutions are shedding light on the contributions of Jewish patriots that helped secure the nation’s freedom.
The Jewish Museum of Maryland’s new exhibit, “The A-Mazing Mendes Cohen, the Most Extraordinary Baltimorean You’ve Never Heard Of,” and the Levy Center and Jewish Chapel in Annapolis, in particular, are ensuring that these often-overlooked heroes and their stories are remembered.
Sometimes referred to as the second American Revolution, the War of 1812 permanently dissolved European strongholds on the United States and cemented the young nation as an entity in charge of its own destiny. In the years following it, a strong sense of American identity developed, and the flag became a powerful emblem of that identity.
The Jewish museum casts the story of Mendes Cohen as paralleling that development of a national psyche, said its director, Marvin Pinkert.
“Cohen is trying to answer for himself, ‘What does it mean to be American and Jewish?’ He is the first generation [of his family] to be born in the United States of America,” said Pinkert. “That’s what the core [of the exhibit] is about, the process of finding one’s identity and the ways in which people build their identity.”
Born in Richmond in 1796, Cohen died in Baltimore in 1879, living at the time a very long life. Of Sephardic descent, one facet of Cohen’s identity was that of soldier, and at the Battle of Baltimore — unlike Key, who viewed the engagement from a ship offshore — “Cohen wasn’t watching, he was in Fort McHenry,” said Pinkert. Cohen volunteered for Capt. Nicholson’s Baltimore Fencibles artillery unit (volunteers were not required to swear oath upon a New Testament Bible, something Cohen refused to do) and was one of three men who bravely retrieved the main supply of gunpowder from its storage inside the fort after a bomb had landed in the magazine.
Cohen and his fellow artillerymen saved the gunpowder supply — and the fort — from detonating.
While his life story strongly relates to the wider regional commemoration of the War of 1812, the museum sees Cohen’s biography as a jumping-off point. The new exhibit urges visitors to consider the events after the war through the lens of American identity and the “light it casts on the entire century that follows,” said Pinkert, who curated the museum experience with Deborah Cardin.
The physical exhibition space, designed as a spiral within a spiral, allows visitors to move through an outer loop that illustrates events in Cohen’s family life and that of his five brothers and a sister and an inner loop that displays simultaneous events in Baltimore and throughout the 19th-century Jewish world. Visitors can move back and forth between the storylines, which include hundreds of artifacts, letters and diaries from Cohen’s life, some on loan from the Maryland Historical Society and the Johns Hopkins University Archeological Museum.
Pinkert described Cohen’s “almost unbelievable” life experience as part “Forrest Gump” — he seemed to show up everywhere, including at London’s Westminster Abby for Queen Victoria’s 1838 coronation, at the Vatican for the installation of a new pope and even in Paris during the French Revolution. An adventurer, Cohen was also part “Indiana Jones,” said Pinkert with a laugh. Between 1829 and 1835, he visited England, Russia, Europe and Turkey, was the first American tourist in Jerusalem and even floated down the Nile River collecting Egyptian artifacts.
Cohen seemed to repeatedly try on different identities, Pinkert said, as a businessman in the banking, lottery and railroad industries, and he was also a philanthropist as member of the Hebrew Benevolent Society, forerunner of today’s The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore. When Cohen returned from his travels, he became involved in politics and championed the Jew Bill, a law that dissolved the mandatory swearing-in upon a Christian Bible in order to take public office. He was a delegate in the Maryland General Assembly in 1847 and a delegate to the State Peace Convention during the Civil War. Cohen lived life as both a member of elite society as well as a persecuted minority.
“The idea is to use Cohen’s adventure experience to illustrate the global experience of Jews of the time as well,” explained Pinkert. “How did it happen that there was this tremendous transformation of life for Jews; the way the hope of equality and citizenship [arose] in both Europe and America?”
The Cohen exhibit is interactive, and visitors are welcomed by a multimedia “ghost” of Cohen that ushers them through the journey; they have the opportunity to re-create some of Cohen’s experiences, such as the rescue of gunpowder during the Battle of Baltimore.
But the message Pinkert hopes visitors come away with after seeing Cohen’s many incarnations unravel before them is to consider what comprises their own complex identity.
“We started with what many people would consider an obscure piece of history,” said Pinkert, “and we ended with something that is focused on what touches our lives.”
While Cohen was on land fighting for freedom at Fort McHenry, his naval counterpart, Uriah P. Levy, was at sea battling British forces.
There is no documentation that the two Jewish servicemen knew each other, noted journalist, historian and author Marc Leepson, but Levy’s story has also drawn local interest. Leepson himself decided to study the man because of a persistent uncle who shared a hunch for a good story.
On a return trip from visiting Jefferson’s Monticello home in Virginia, Leepson’s uncle asked, “Did you know that Jews owned Monticello? You should write a book about it.” Leepson shrugged it off, but his uncle kept harping on it, so “I said I’d write a magazine article and [Preservation Magazine] gave me the cover,” recalled the historian. “Sometimes the articles turn into books. I got so much response to that article, I wrote the book in 2001.”
Leepson’s book, “Saving Monticello,” is Uriah P. Levy’s story, beginning when he was born in Philadelphia in 1792 as a fifth-generation Sephardic Jewish American — unique for that time — from great-great-grandparents who escaped Lisbon during the Inquisition of 1733.
Levy was fiercely patriotic — growing up, his heroes were George Washington and John Paul Jones — and he ran away from home at age 10 to be a cabin boy on a ship, allegedly promising his parents he’d be home in time for his bar mitzvah, which he celebrated on time. Levy cultivated great skills as a sailor and also bought in as part owner of a merchant ship at age 19. Then in 1812 at age 20, Levy joined the Navy to help defend his country.
Very adept as a seaman, he became assistant sailing master on the USS Argus, the most feared U.S. ship during the War of 1812, having captured more than 20 British vessels. But Levy then became a prisoner of war, was held in Dartmoor, England for 16 months and returned to the United States in 1815.
Ultimately Levy served a 50-year career in the Navy, but like his imprisonment, it wasn’t all smooth sailing.
“For one thing, the Navy was noted as a hotbed of anti-Semitism,” said Leepson. “He was court-martialed five times and thrown out of the Navy twice, then reinstated by two presidents.”
Leepson said the incidents over which he was court-martialed were typically “someone calling him a dirty Jew and [Levy] punching him in the face.” He was tried, arrested, and to be fair, Leepson said, he had a temper.
“So he overcame a lot to keep that Navy career and become a commodore,” said Leepson.