The Jewish Confederates

In the years before the Civil War began, there were an estimated 50,000 Jews living in the eleven Southern states in the Confederacy. Though many were poor immigrants from Europe – working as peddlers, store clerks, merchants, tradesmen and tailors – like most people in the South at the time, those who could afford to, owned slaves. There were almost no Jewish plantation owners, but the more wealthy city-dwellers kept small numbers of slaves and used them as domestic servants or as workers in their trades.

Slaveholding was part of the institution of Southern society; acceptance of the practice allowed Jews to be welcomed in the South as any other white immigrant would have been. Though some anti-Semitism was present, many Jews found they were more readily accepted there than in the more liberal, but decidedly more Christian, Northern states.

Though slavery was contradictory to some of their beliefs, the young Jewish men and women who supported the Confederacy during the Civil War were as dedicated to the fight for liberty and the freedom of self-determination as any other Southerner. They joined their neighbors and comrades-in-arms to protect their homes and communities once the war began.

The Jewish Johnny Rebs came from varied backgrounds: they were recent immigrants and from old, established Southern families. They were rich and poor. During the war years, between 75 and 85 percent of the eligible, draft-age white population in the South served in the military, a percentage that held true for the Southern Jewry as well. During the reconstruction period following the war, a memorial cemetery was erected honoring the Jewish Confederates, and the Jewish community struggled alongside their neighbors to redefine themselves in a new South.