On the eve of the Civil War, just 85 years after declaring itself a free nation, the United States was already a “melting pot” of different nationalities, ethnicities, and cultures. Among these diverse groups was the Jewish community. Caught in the middle of a bloody Civil War, Southern Jews were unwilling to sit by idly as their new home in the southern United States was torn apart by Union forces. Instead, many stepped up to help the Confederate cause in any way they could. When talking about war, it is easy to think of the Jewish men and the sacrifices they made; however, one should not be so quick to discount Southern Jewish women.
Jewish women find themselves significant in the ...view middle of the document...
3 Despite this setback, American Jews still clung to their religion and although the Jewish population did not make up a large percentage of the population, their contributions to the war effort should not be excluded or overlooked.
As the war raged on and more and more southern Jewish men joined the war effort in some capacity, Jewish women began to adjust gender roles to meet the changing needs of the southern Jewish community. The spots that men left, women filled. Some of the responsibilities women picked up included fund-raising for synagogues, schools, and charitable efforts and providing assistance to Jews just entering the country. A Jewish Sunday School was started in Savannah, Georgia and an orphanage was founded in Lexington, Kentucky.4 These organizations also expanded the role of women by allowing them to hold positions of power, handle money, speak more publically, and learn parliamentary procedure. In Jewish families, it is the woman’s job to help those in need so they considered their role in these organizations to be a career.5 In a lot of ways, serving in these organizations was like a career and jumpstarted the feminist movement among Jewish women.
The social organizations that Jewish women created were mostly similar to those created by Christians, with a few differences. Of course they did things like distribute food and other supplies, but these organizations also worked to help Jews keep their Jewish identity, in part by thwarting efforts by Christians to convert them.6 Christians had been trying to convert Jews for years before the Civil War, but because the war brought them into such close contact, the number of missionaries became even higher. When Jewish women did charitable work outside of their own organizations, whether it be in a church or not, they were constantly told of their Christian friends’ rebirth.7 Despite their best efforts, few Jewish women converted to Christianity.
While they wanted to keep with Jewish tradition, they also did not want to be seen as burdens to society. To help prevent further anti-Semitism, they also provided relief to non-Jews and the general community, and were especially patriotic during war times.8 They hoped that their support would carry over into the new nation and they would find a new place in society. Unfortunately for them, the Confederacy lost the war and their dream was never realized.
Despite all of the good work these women accomplished, they still faced backlash from some. Even their support of the Confederate cause was not received well by other Southerners. Anytime something went wrong for the South in the war, Protestant Confederates blamed the Jews.9 They were blamed of everything from espionage to conspiracy. In a speech in the Confederate House of Representatives, Tennessee Congressman Henry S. Force even went as far as to say Jews had overrun the Confederacy.10 For more reasons than just their small population, this was obviously impossible. In spite of the...