Q & A with… Prof. Adam Mendelsohn, Civil War historian

Adam Mendelsohn

By Cindy Mindell ~

FAIRFIELD – This year marks the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War. In recognition of the sesquicentennial, the Bennett Center for Judaic Studies at Fairfield University will present  Civil War historian Adam Mendelsohn as its annual Adolf and Ruth Schnurmacher Lecture in Judaic Studies.
In his talk “Beyond the Battlefield, Jews and the Civil War,” Mendelsohn will reassess the impact and importance of the war for the American Jewish community. Mendelsohn has been a member of the Jewish Studies program at the College of Charleston since 2008, where much of his teaching and research focuses on Jews of the American South. He is co-editor, with Prof. Jonathan Sarna of Brandeis University, “Jews and the Civil War: A Reader” (New York University Press, May 2010). He is actively involved in the Jewish Historical Society of South Carolina and the Southern Jewish Historical Society.
Mendelsohn spoke with the Ledger about Jewish involvement in the Civil War, and how the war helped shape the American Jewish community.

What got you interested in the Jews of the American South?
A: As a native of South Africa, American Jewry seemed exotic, very different from the relatively small Anglophile community in Cape Town which I grew up in. Although I had relatives in the U.S. – the South African Jewish community has its own substantial diaspora of example-pats living abroad – I knew next to nothing about the history of Jewish life in America. I stumbled on to the field during graduate school. My interest was first piqued when I chose to compare the experience of Jews in South Africa living in a deeply racially divided society with those elsewhere. The Southern Jewish struggle with segregation seemed like a natural analogue for comparison. One thing led to another, and I was soon at Brandeis University working on a doctorate in American Jewish history with Jonathan D. Sarna. Out of serendipity I’ve made a career studying American Jews. They’re less exotic to me than they once were, but no less interesting.
Although my work has taken me away from only studying Southern Jews – I’m now working on a book about Jewish involvement in the garment industry, the “shmata” business, in the decades before the Civil War – I continue to teach extensively about the subject, including a class this semester on Jews, slavery, and the Civil War.

What are some of the myths and misperceptions about Jews and the Civil War?
A: I argue that for far too long Jews have adopted an apologetic tone when writing about Jewish war service. For decades, Jewish historians sought to prove that Jews fought for the Union and Confederacy in numbers proportional to their presence in the broader society. I think this is a silly question that reflects a defensiveness on the part of Jews about this subject.
As our starting point we should take it for granted that Jews participated like all other groups in this extraordinary war. Rather than focusing on bravery and heroism – something we again can take for granted – we should focus on the challenges and opportunities that the war presented to a population that for the most part had only recently arrived in the U.S.
It is far more interesting to discover why these immigrants fought for causes that may have seemed foreign to them at the time than how they fought. My talk tries to do exactly this – shift the focus away from battlefield exploits toward a subject that has been little studied: the extraordinary role played by Jews in supplying the armies of the Union and Confederacy. This is arguably the one area that Jews had a significant impact on the war, and certainly the area in which the war had the most important consequence for Jews.

How did Jews contribute to the Civil War?
A: The vast majority of Jews living in the United States in 1860 were immigrants from central Europe. There were around 15,000 Jews in America in 1840 and more than 125,000 20 years later. The Jewish population had more than doubled over the previous decade. The vast majority came in search of prosperity and equality. The United States’ internal quarrel over slavery versus free soil must have seemed remote to them. And yet so many young Jewish men chose to enlist in both armies. Several rose from the rank of private to that of colonel commanding a regiment. Several fought with distinction: seven Jews were awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. This should be unsurprising. Shot and shell winnowed the ranks of both armies, offering ample opportunity for rapid advancement and heroism. More interesting is the question of why these men fought – why put life and limb on the line for a cause far removed from their origins as central European immigrants?
In essence, I argue that the focus on the battlefield exploits of Jews conceals more than it reveals. Although more than 8,000 Jews fought for the Union and Confederacy, this wartime role left only a limited legacy and had only a very limited impact on the war itself. Not so, I argue, the legacy of the Jews who stitched and sewed hundreds of thousands of uniforms for both armies. Not only did Jewish entrepreneurs play a key role in clothing the Confederacy and Union, but their wartime experience had important implications for American Jewish history.
My talk focuses on the role played by Jews in supplying both armies. While Jews were relatively inconspicuous in the ranks, many of the largest suppliers of uniforms to the Union were Jewish firms. The war provided a huge and important boost to Jews involved in the clothing trade not only during war time, but also in the decades after the conflict was over.

What was among the more surprising findings in your research for “Jews and the Civil War?”
A: My largest surprise in working on this book was both how little and how much we know about certain subjects. Very little has been written about Jewish involvement in Reconstruction, although several historians recently have begun to focus on the topic. Again for a long time this was an uncomfortable topic – Jews were often identified as being carpetbaggers. Now that the subject is sufficiently distant, we feel comfortable enough to ask tough and revealing questions. By contrast, I was very pleasantly surprised to discover how much we know about other topics. There are, for example, several wonderful diaries and memoirs written by southern Jewish women during the war. Several historians have used these to great effect to write about the experience of Jewish women on the home front. Then again, while we now know a fair amount about southern Jewish women, the opposite is true of the experience of Jewish women in the North during the war.

Prof. Adam Mendelsohn will speak Thursday, Nov. 17, 7:30 p.m., Fairfield University, Charles F. Dolan School of Business, 1073 North Benson Road, Fairfield. The lecture is free, but reservations are requested.  For more information call (203) 254-4000, ext. 2066 or bennettcenter@fairfield.edu.

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