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Jews in the Union Army

By A Jewish Soldier

Mr. [William] Russell, L.L.D., in one of his letters to the London Times, speaks of the Jewish element in the federal army, as consisting of a "slight sprinkling of Jews in the Cameron Dragoons," and adds that their application for a Jewish Chaplain was nothing but "a hoax of imperceptible fun and tendency." I happen to know the father of this itinerant reporter, who is quite a respectable clerk in a fancy store, and being a plain- spoken Irishman, would express my views in something like the following phrases: "My son! hero of three wars, and a dozen battles! have the many dangers thou hast encountered affected thy reason, or have the wicked Yankees corrupted thy morals? I will not complain of thy costume which gives thee the appearance of a London Alderman, after his return from Paris, but why, O why didst thou allow, on they arrival in Yankeedom, a set of political loafers and secessionists to pounce upon thee, who, hoping to secure through thy pen, the influence of The Times, did indulge thee in thy favorite enjoyments, such as wine, early hours and other things? Why didst thou permit cute ladies to administer to thee such wholesale doses of flattering compliments, to pay thee homage with such servility as would suffice to gratify the vanity of a monarch, but has alas! crated in thy mind the hallucination that in thee the power of prophecy has been revived, and lo! thou writest to The Times, all that is going to happen one or two months hence, which is published just in time to be belied by the facts recorded in the news column? By all the fancy things in my master's store, tell me, my dear Bill, what art thou about?" To which the hero of three wars, and a dozen battles would reply in language more polished than I could express, that he does not condescend to look down from the pinnacle of his glory, to notice the criticisms of men who are neither heroes nor prophets. Knowing this to be your humble opinion, Mr. Bill, I do not expect you to correct your statements about the Jews and their Chaplain, but assure you by Jefferson Brick, and all other names sacred in the eyes of war correspondents, that you draw your assertions from your imagination, and not from actual observation and inquiry.

A friend of mine, who has special facilities for ascertaining the extent of the Jewish element in the army and has devoted considerable time to that inquiry informs me, that, although it is extremely difficult to obtain correct statistics, yet he believes that there are no less than five thousand Jews in our army. He attempted, by a twofold process, to arrive at a correct estimate of their number, first by requesting the Quartermasters of each regiment, to ascertain how many Jews there were in each company, and secondly, by calling upon the Jewish soldiers in general to send in their names to his address, in both of which, he signally failed. This want of success on his part may be traced to various causes, but principally to the fact that few people feel disposed to give an account of their religious principles, when no practical object is to be attained, and inquiries of this nature are generally regarded as unbecoming, and even insulting. As a general rule, the Jews do not care to make their religion a matter of notoriety, as it would at once involve them in an intricate controversial disquisition with the Christian Chaplains, for which they do not always feel themselves qualified, and which, of course can, under no circumstance, afford them any thing but annoyance. Some of our brethren fear that, were they known as Hebrews, it would expose them to the taunts and sneers of those among their comrades who have been in the habit of associating with the name of Jew, everything that is mean and contemptible; but I must say, and it redounds much to the credit of the army, that in the course of my experience in the camps, which has been considerable, I have heard but of a single instance in which a Jew was wantonly insulted on account of his religion, and that was by a drunken Scotchman, who commences damning in every variety of language and motion, when he learned that he was addressing an Israelite, declaring them all to be cheats and thieves. His wrath was, however, of short duration, for the soldiers who were present, finding him incorrigible, after having repeatedly warned him to desist, as last resolved to inflict summary punishment, and collectively flung him into a certain capacious receptacle for liquid matter, from which, let us hope, he emerged a wiser and a cooler man.

My friend found his estimate of the number of Jewish soldiers on the fact, that according to his observation, at least, one in every hundred soldiers is a Jew, and supposing the army to consist of half a million of men, the Jews must number at least five thousand. This estimate, he believes to be supported by other calculation, for, supposing the Jews to have enlisted in the same proportion as the rest of the population, which is two and a half per cent, this would make them reach the above figure, as it is generally supposed that there are two hundred thousand Jews in this country. Without, however, insisting on the accuracy of this estimate, we may safely assert, that they are largely represented in the army, not only among the privates, but also among the commissioned officers, There are at least five Jewish colonels, as many lieutenant colonels and majors, and quite a host of captains, lieutenants, and quartermasters among the volunteer regiments, but in the regular army I know of no Jew holding a higher rank than that of captain. Some of the Jewish officers and privates told me that they had taken part in the Crimean, Hungarian and Italian wars, and that they followed the profession of arms from inclination, but not liking the dull routine of a soldier's life in times of peace, they eagerly avail themselves of every opportunity to return to their tents and the battlefield. This was the first time I had ever heard of the existence of such a class of military adventurers among our people.

Most people take it for granted, that every soldier is an infidel, and that no sooner does he enter on active duty, than he banishes all idea of religion from his mind. This is a great mistake, at least as far as the Jews are concerned. My own observation has convinced me that military life does not injuriously affect their ideas of duty and devotion, but that, on the contrary, in well disciplined minds it evokes religious feelings of the most sterling character. It is quite common for Jewish soldiers belonging to the same company, to meet together for worship on Sabbath, in some secluded spot, and I know a young soldier, who was in Kippore [Yom Kippur] morning, ordered to take part in a skirmish, near Harper's Ferry, which he had to go through, without having tasted food, and as soon as the enemy retreated, he retired to the woods, where he remained until sunset, reading his prayers. The character of these devotions is not the less interesting from the fact, that they are always performed in solemn silence, and in some secluded spot, where the noise of the camp cannot penetrate. When looking on those groups, I cannot help reflecting on the remarkable history of our race. Here are the descendants of the Hebrew patriarch who smote the confederated kings near Damascus, the descendants of those who overthrew the colossal hosts of proud Egypt, and conquered the powerful nations of Philistea, who, under the Maccabees, triumphed over the Syrian despot, the survivors of all ancient dynasties; the participants in every remarkable event of history, behold them now in the New World, shedding their blood for the maintenance of the liberties secured to them by this Republic. Whilst thus reflecting, I feel most solemnly impressed by hearing in these Virginian forests my brethren, utter the Shymang Israel, which first our great lawgiver proclaimed in the plains of Arabia.

It is with no little satisfaction that I hear from all quarters, the most favorable accounts of their conduct, and, in fact, not a single instance has come to my knowledge of neglect of duty or insubordination on their part. Not only do the military authorities speak well of their conduct in camp, but also in the performance of active duty, many of our brethren have evinced, on various occasions, great bravery, and I am quite sure, that when we move forward, our people at home will have no occasion to be ashamed of us. In promising as much, I do not claim any special merit for ourselves, since bravery is to be found among all nations that have a glorious history to sustain, much more so among ancient nations, and therefore especially among the Hebrews, who have a history of more than three thousand years to back them.

A few months since, some Jewish soldiers suggested the idea of organizing all the Jewish soldiers in the army, into distinct regiments, with Hebrew banners, etc., so that both our food and religious services may be more consonant with our habits and ideas, and we may have the pleasure of associating with our own brethren. I was further informed that such was actually the custom among the Dutch Jews when they entered on active duty, and many curious stories were told of the orders being given in Hebrew, of prayers before the battle, and of Tephillin in the knapsacks. One of these soldiers, related my informant, was very religious, and whenever he fired off his gun, he cried out Shma Israel. This was at the battle of Waterloo. On being asked, why he said it so often, he replied that "it may be some Yehudee gets killed by him, and he could never pardon himself, if any one of his brethren should, through him, go out of the world without Shemos." I well remember, having read in one of the English Cyclopedias, that a Jewish regiment was among those who most distinguished themselves at the battle of Waterloo. General Chasse, on being asked his opinion about Jewish soldiers, replied, that "were he to go again on active duty he would wish nothing better than to have an army of such Jews as fought under him in Antwerp." The suggestion of my friends to form themselves into separate regiments was, however, disapproved of by wiser heads, which was altogether unnecessary, as it is at present impracticable, and we are quite satisfied to fight with out Christian comrades for one cause, one country, and THE UNION.

It may be interesting to you to learn, that the great stronghold behind which the enemy is entrenched in front of us, derives its name from a Jew. In these mountain passes there once stood a small lodging house, where the travellers used to pass some hours, or tarry over night on their journey to Richmond, or to Winchester, and as its location was central it became quite a famous place in the days of stage coaches. The proprietor was called Menashe [Manasseh], hence, on inquiring whether there was a place halfway to stop at, you would be told: "Yes, at Manasseh's." Thence the junction has retained that name, though it is now spelled Manassas. I say, old Manasseh, you can get a million of dollars and more, if you would just admit us to your place this evening. At all events, old boy, immortality has been thrust upon thee!

Sketches from the Seat of War