Commentary: Events to focus on impact of Civil War on Jewish life in North and South
On a late Sunday morning in the middle of April 1861, the Isabel, a paddle steamer owned by Mordecai & Co., left its berth in Charleston Harbor for a brief voyage that heralded America's worst cataclysm. Accustomed to running the lucrative mail route to Havana, the ship had been pressed into service. Its destination was Fort Sumter, then held by a battered garrison of Union soldiers.
After their ceremonial surrender, the Isabel carried Maj. Robert Anderson and his men out to the waiting Federal fleet. The vessel, named perhaps for Moses Cohen Mordecai's wife, Isabel Rebecca Lyons, would later do duty as a blockade runner.
For those watching from Charleston, the moment must have been one of excitement and foreboding. Even if all present understood that the bombardment and surrender of the fort foretold war, few if any likely anticipated the devastating and crippling struggle that was to follow.
One hundred and fifty years after the Isabel's cameo appearance at the start of a great American tragedy, the U.S. will begin a five-year period of commemorating the causes, course and consequences of the Civil War. Charleston, a hub of the slave trade and the Secession movement, and the very site where the conflict began, will take center stage this spring.
Thanks to a grant to the College of Charleston's Jewish Studies Program from the Legacy Heritage Jewish Studies Project, the college's new Center for Southern Jewish Culture has organized a range of public events designed to analyze the impact and legacy of the war on Jews and Jewish life in the North and South.
At least 8,000 Jewish soldiers fought for the Union and Confederacy during the Civil War. A few served together in Jewish companies, while most fought alongside Christian comrades. Many more American Jews were affected on the homefront. Yet even as they stood "shoulder to shoulder" on the front lines and on the home front, Jews encountered unique challenges.
The Jewish Studies Program will host a series of public lectures through April that will re-examine the course and consequences of the war for Jews. Today's talk, by author Eli Evans, is titled "Judah P. Benjamin: Jewish Confederate."
The Legacy Heritage Jewish Studies Project is a collaboration of the Legacy Heritage Fund and the Association for Jewish Studies. The Jewish Studies Program at the College of Charleston was picked as one of five national sites for this new grant initiative intended to encourage innovative public programming.
On May 25-26, the Jewish Studies Program at the College of Charleston and the Jewish Historical Society of South Carolina will co-host a public conference on the theme of "Jews, Slavery and the Civil War." There will be sessions on Jewish abolitionists, Jewish life on the home front, anti-Semitism during the war, Jewish soldiering in the armies of the North and South, and the Jewish role during Reconstruction.
Jonathan Sarna of Brandeis University, who soon will publish a new book on President Ulysses S. Grant and the Jews, will deliver the keynote lecture in the historic sanctuary of Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim.
The conference also will include optional walking tours relating to Jewish life during the war in Charleston, as well as a trip to Fort Sumter.
For additional details, or to register for the conference, contact Adam Mendelsohn at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Adam Mendelsohn is professor of Jewish Studies at the College of Charleston and co-editor, with Jonathan Sarna, of "Jews and the Civil War."