I have twice seen the documentary “Jews in Blue and Gray”, about the participation of Jews in the American Civil War. This excellent documentary makes that point that Jews fought for both sides in the war, about 7000 with the Union army and 3000 with the Confederacy, pretty much in line with the Jewish population on each side of the Mason Dixon line.
A few nights ago, I went to hear Adam Mendelsohn of the College of Charleston give a talk sponsored by the Foundation for Jewish Studies at Washington Hebrew. A student of both Jews in mid-19th century America and Jews in the garment trade, it was not surprising that he concentrated not on Jews in the military, but Jews in the dry goods business and how they performed in the 1860s. Not surprisingly, he determined that they constituted the important Jewish contribution to the war.
I am not trying to be glib, because in fact the talk was very interesting. And the points made by Mendelsohn were important.
First, let’s take the Confederacy. The South, when the war started, was at a disadvantage because the bulk of American manufacturing was located in the north. This included not only armaments, but soft good, like uniforms. The Confederates turned to the British firm of Isaac Campbell, owned by two Jewish brothers (the Isaacs – Campbell was a name they used, in fact that of their attorney, because it did not sound too Jewish), which became by far the main supplier of Confederate uniforms and more. Of course, in the end, they lost the fortune they made because they were paid late, and then with instruments that lost their value.
The situation in the North was different. Here, there were a number of Jewish immigrants who had become involved with the sale of garments made by non-Jewish others. They not only received contracts to supply uniforms and relating items to the Union Army, but many of them decided to go beyond their work as salesmen and distributors and go into manufacturing. They were very successful (most by the way located in New York or Cincinnati), and their manufacturing enterprises continued to profit after the war ended. Moreover, they expanded beyond garment manufacturing to financial enterprises, setting the standard for a number of Jewish fortunes in the future. One example he gave was that of Joseph Seligman.
And, with regard to manufacturing, it was the New York garment manufacturers who gave employment to the enormous number of Jewish immigrants who began to crowd the country in the 1880s.
All in all, fascinating. And more details will be available when Mendelsohn’s new book on the subject is published later this year.