Civil War General’s Letter about Jews and Loyalty

In my research, I stumbled upon this correspondence, which is simply too interesting to to withhold from the attention of our readers. It is a correspondence between the Union General Benjamin F. (Beast) Butler and the editor of The Jewish Messenger, and New York publication. Isaacs wrote to Butler objecting to Butler’s specification of the religion of five Jews among captured blockade runners. I picked up on a deep-seated Christian anti-Semitism coursing through Butler’s words. Isaacs eloquence and clever argument blunt Butler’s insinuation that Jews are less American and less committed to the Union than Christian Americans.
It should be noted that Jews had a better time of it in the South. Abolitionists had an anti-Semitic streak in them, and Grant expelled the Jews from Tennessee with the following order:

GENERAL ORDERS No. 11.
HDQRS. 13TH A. C., DEPT. OF THE TENN.,
Holly Springs, December 17, 1862.

The Jews, as a class violating every regulation of trade established by the Treasury Department and also department orders, are hereby expelled from the department within twenty-four hours from the receipt of this order.
Post commanders will see that all of this class of people be furnished passes and required to leave, and any one returning after such notification will be arrested and held in confinement until an opportunity occurs of sending them out as prisoners, unless furnished with permit from headquarters.
No passes will be given these people to visit headquarters for the purpose of making personal application for trade permits.

By order of Maj. Gen. U.S. Grant:
JNO. A. RAWLINS,
Assistant Adjutant-General.

Judah Benjamin, of course, was Jewish as well.

Gen. Butler, appointed by Lincoln for political reasons, is known for his failure to advance on Richmond against Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard during the peripheral Bermuda Hundred campaign while Grant fought Lee during the 1864 Overland campaign.

You can find the letters online here-

CORRESPONDENCE of General Benjamin F. Butler
with Myer S. Isaacs, editor of The Jewish Messenger

Headquarters 18th Army Corps,
Department of Virginia and North Carolina,
Fortress Monroe, Feb. 4th, 1864

Sir:-

Your letter in regard to the report of Gen. Graham’s expedition, in which it was said that five Jews were captured trying to run the blockade, inquiring of me why I have specified the religion of these contraband traders, and commenting upon the act, as if I wished to make invidious religious distinctions, is received.

The manner in which the phrase got itself into the telegraphic reports, was very simple. The report of the return of the expedition was made to me, and as it was made I dictated portions of it to the telegraph, using the words of the report, so that it was, in fact, done without thought on my part, and only in the course of business, as I should have mentioned any other fact, reported to me by my subordinate, when reporting to my superior.

But since my attention has been drawn to it by your comments, and others of the press, I really do not see any reason for changing the phrase.

It was meant, when used, to designate nationality, and not religion, as one would say, five Irishmen, five Germans, or five Italians. I have always considered the Jews a nationality, although possessing no country. The closeness with which they cling together, the aid which they afford each other, on all proper, and sometimes improper occasions, the fact that nearly all of them pursue substantially the same employment, so far as I have known them-that of traders, merchants, and bankers-the very general obedience to the prohibition against marriage with Gentiles, their faith, which looks forward to the time when they are to be gathered together in the former land of their nation,-all serve to show a closer tie of kindred and nation among the Hebrews, and a greater homogeneity than belongs to any other nation, although its people live in closer proximity. So that while I disclaim all intention of any reflection upon their national religion, which was the foundation and typical of that of the Christian world, and, holding to the doctrines of Christianity with reverence for the Saviour, no one can stigmatize all Jews, yet one may be reasonably permitted in speaking of that nation, to suppose there may be in all the Jews of the South, two of whom certainly are in the Confederate Cabinet, at least five who might attempt to carry on a contraband trade. Because, it may be reverently remembered that when the Saviour, aided by Omniscience, undertook to choose twelve confidential friends from among that nation, he got one that “was a thief and had a devil.”

I have the honor to be,
Very respectfully yours,
BENJ. F. BUTLER,
Maj. Gen. U.S.V.

To M. S. Isaacs.

150 Nassau Street
New York, Feb. 9, 1864.

Maj. Gen. Butler, U.S.V.:

GENERAL:

Your letter dated the 4th inst., reached me today. I am obliged to you for the full and frank exposition of your views. Would you object to the publication of your letter?

I regret to find so grievous a misconception or rather conflict of ideas, as to the meaning of the term “Jew.” I do not propose trespassing upon your patience by argument or illustration, farther than this: I am a native American and proud of it-I attend Synagogue and believe in the principles of Judaism, and am therefore a Jew in the sense that you are a Christian; yet I am an American, in nationality.

I regret, further, that your experience of professors of our faith has been so unfavorable that you believe “that nearly all of them pursue substantially the same employment-that of traders, merchants and bankers.” While these diverse occupations are perfectly honorable in themselves, and no Jew or other person assumes a badge of disgrace per se, by entering upon either department of business, it it nevertheless a serious mistake to charge that the liberal professions are avoided by Israelites.

Not to weary you by a lengthy statement, I would simply mention a few facts that have come under my observation in this little city. At the University, Columbia College and the Free Academy there are Professors who are Hebrews in faith-at the latter institution, there are two instructors and nearly eighty Jewish students. In the legal profession, there are a large number of our creed; one of them now occupies the honorable position of Judge of the Common Pleas, this gentleman being a native of New York and an earnest American. In medicine, there are many eminent practitioners, some of the highest recognized skill and distinction. Among the clergy, Jewish divines are, of course, adequately represented-all ministers draw their inspiration from the Scriptures, the accepted basis of Judaism and, as you say, the “foundation” of Christianity. As to the press, there are two Jewish weeklies; and upon the editorial staffs of the Commercial, Express, Times and other journals, there are able gentlemen of the Jewish faith, of whom there is a large representation in the reportorial corps. In literary and scientific circles, you find the Israelite as well as the Christian. The army, navy, and marine corps have a fair representation of Israelites, some of them distinguished, all earnest and patriotic. One of our regiments which served first as militia, then as a three years’ regiment, and is now home on furlough, to return to the field a veteran organization, is composed mainly of Israelites.* If, at any time, you should desire to be informed of the extent of your error with regard to the occupations of the Jews, I should be most happy to furnish you with details.

You will not forget, when reminding me that there are two Jews in the rebel cabinet (who is the other, besides Mr. Benjamin?) that a pattern of distinction in the church militant is a Maj. General in Davis’ army, and that Davis himself professes to be a devout member of the church. There are traitors among professors of Judaism, unfortunately, as well as among Christians. A good Jew can no more be a traitor to our flag, than an earnest believer in Christianity can be enumerated among “those who speculate on the miseries of their country.” Mr. Benjamin does not adhere to Judaism-he married a Christian.

Assured that you will pardon the liberty of this renewed trespass upon your patience, I have the honor to be,

Most respectfully yours,
Myer S. Isaacs

General B.F. Butler

Headquarters 13th Army Corps,
Department of Virginia and North Carolina,
Fortress Monroe, Feb. 13th, 1864.

Sir:-

I am in receipt of your note of February 9th, and am very glad to have my opinions corrected by one who apparently understands so well the condition of the Hebrews as a nation, and of their faith as a religion.

I admit that my experience with men of the Jewish faith or nation has been an unfortunate one.

Living in an inland town in Massachusetts prior to the war, I had met but few, and since the war, those whom I have seen, have been principally engaged in the occupations which caused the capture which has occasioned this correspondence, and you yourself will admit that that mode of making their acquaintance has not been a favorable one.

I refer to Mr. Memminger as the other member of the Confederate Cabinet. I have been informed that Mr. Mallory is also of the Jewish faith or nationality.**

I acknowledge the fairness of the hit in regard to Maj. Gen. Polk and Davis. There are both members of the Christian church upon whose services I attend.

I should be much obliged to you for the detail of facts which you have offered to furnish, for, finding my impressions incorrect upon any subject, I always desire to be enlightened.

Although the letter to you was not written for publication, yet I have no objection to its being published.

I have the honor to be,
Your obedient servant,
BENJ. F. BUTLER,
Maj. Gen. Com.

To M. S. Isaacs, Esq., New York.

*Myer Isaacs is referring to the 66th New York Infantry, mentioned in an article in the Feb. 5, 1864 issue of The Jewish Messenger. [L.M.B.]

**General Butler is in error. Neither Memminger nor Mallory are of the Jewish faith. The latter is probably confounded with ex-Senator Yulee, who is now engaged in restoring Florida to the Union. [Editor, Jewish Messenger]

3 Responses to Civil War General’s Letter about Jews and Loyalty

  1. Rich Rostrom says:

    Some background on Grant’s order is in order. Apparently a group of Jewish promoters got hold of his father and were exploiting the connection to conduct illicit trade with the CSA. Grant wanted to shut this down without having to refer explicitly to his father; so he seized on the Jewish identity of his father’s associates as means to get rid of them.

  2. Lorenz Gude says:

    What struck me was the overall civility of the exchange. An anti-Semite General Butler may have been, but he acknowledges the ‘hit’ on his own faith and unlike today’s Anti-Semites does not sleazily hide behind something like Anti Zionism. I am thinking of those Harvard professors who perpetrate the far greater, to me, slander that Jews ‘control US foreign policy.’ I also must say I felt proud as a non Jewish American of how strongly Isaacs defends his American identity at a time when my own immigrant forbears had been in the US for less than a generation.

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