On Thursday, October 18th, in the College Union Building of Gettysburg College, Adam Mendelsohn delivered a lecture entitled, “Beyond the Battlefield: Reevaluating Jews and the Civil War”, as a part of the event series honoring the 150th Anniversary of the American Civil War. Although over 10,000 Jews enlisted in the armies of the Confederacy and the Union, Mendelsohn argued that the vital contributions of Jewish Americans had to do with wartime efforts beyond the battlefield. Focusing his lecture on the position of Jews in both the North and South, as well as in England, Mendelsohn provided an interesting perspective on the ways in which Jews not only helped to facilitate the Civil War, but also the ways in which the Civil War helped to define the future of Jews in society.
In the frantic frenzy to war, Mendelsohn explained how the Confederacy quickly found itself at a considerable disadvantage. The South was confronted with a time shortage to assemble the supplies needed for the Confederate army, as well as difficult competition from the Union for equipment such as bullets and rifles. “The Confederacy realized the South would have to rely on supplies imported from abroad to stand any hope of Victory,” he said. Thus, the confederacy looked to London and formed a partnership with the Jewish-owned company Isaac Campbell & Co. Not only did this firm ship supplies across the Atlantic to equip the South to fight, but also the Jewish owners of the firm found their business booming in England.
On the American home front, a similar supply boom occurred in the industrial North. After President Lincoln’s mass enlistment, each soldier was entitled to a specific amount of supplies and clothing, which placed urgent and high demand on Northern industries to meet these needs. As Jews living in Northern cities were already on the cusp of the garment and second hand clothing trade in the United States, “Jewish firms were well positioned to take advantage of the rush to outfit troops.” The Civil War, therefore, helped to establish and increase business for some Jewish clothing manufacturers. These firms became the leading suppliers in several U.S states and continued to prosper in the post war era.
The outbreak of Civil War in America created monumental changes in society and opportunities for people. Many Jewish Americans benefitted from these opportunities, as war enabled the Jews to become a part of American society as never before. Jews fought for both sides and also served in multiple roles on the home front. Mendelsohn discussed how the new wartime culture pushed the boundaries of traditional behavior and roles. Jewish men and women were now able to heighten their professional involvement in society and showcase their patriotism. Or as Mendelsohn said, “American Jews were never the same after 1865.”