Past and Present

Jewish World Review Feb. 16, 2001 / 23 Shevat, 5761

Lincoln's Jewish generals

By Herb Geduld -- AT the beginning of the Civil War in 1861, the United States Army was pitifully small.

It consisted of 1,108 officers and 15,269 enlisted men. Of the thousand-odd officers, more than a third resigned their posts to join the Confederacy. To lead the millions of men who ultimately fought in the Civil War would take a lot of generals, and ultimately more than 1000 were appointed by the Union alone. Of these, at least seven were Jewish.

The Civil War produced the most renowned generals in American history. No other war before or since then has even come close. Apart from Teddy Roosevelt - and he was only a colonel - do we remember even one general of the Spanish-American War? Besides Pershing and, perhaps, MacArthur, most Americans are hard-pressed to name another American general of WWI fame.

The Civil War, on the other hand, produced Ulysses S. Grant, William Tecumseh Sherman, Philip Sheridan, George Custer, George McClellan, and Ambrose Burnside, to name just a few well-known Union commanders.

The Jewish generals in the Union Army were not well-known and almost have been lost from the history books. The highest ranking Jewish officer in the Union Army was Hungarian-born Major General Frederick Knefler. He was commander of the 79th Indiana regiment. Knefler was promoted to brigadier general for his performance at the Battle of Chickamauga and then to major general during his service with Sherman on his march through Georgia.

Leopold Blumenberg was a lieutenant in the Prussian Army in 1848. Because of antisemitism he immigrated to the United States in 1854. An avowed abolitionist, he narrowly escaped lynching by a secessionist mob in Baltimore in early April 1861. With the start of the war, Blumenberg helped organize the Maryland Volunteer Regiment and fought with it in the Peninsular campaign.

He was severely wounded in the Battle of Antietam in 1862, and subsequently was appointed a brevet brigadier general. A brevet military appointment is a commission usually granted as an honor, carrying the rank of the new office but without an increase in pay or authority. Many officers were given brevet commissions during the Civil War.

There were actually two ways of being appointed a general during this period. The first was through politics, where men were appointed because of their political influence rather than their military ability. Most of these "generals" proved to be costly misfits for the Union forces. The second method of assuming a general's office was through winning their stars on the battlefield by superior performance. Fortunately, all the Jewish generals described here attained their high rank through the latter procedure.

One Jewish officer who only made it to general's rank posthumously was Lieutenant Colonel Leopold Newman of New York. He distinguished himself at the First Battle of Bull Run, which was a defeat for the Union. Newman was subsequently severely wounded at the Battle of Chancellorsville in 1863, and he died in a Washington hospital before President Abraham Lincoln could present him with a commission to brigadier general.

Perhaps the most notable of the Jewish generals was Edward S. Salomon of Illinois. Salomon emigrated from Germany to Chicago in 1854, where he became a law clerk and a minor functionary in the newly formed Republican Party. He was elected to the Chicago City Council at the age of 24, the youngest member of that body.

With the outbreak of the Civil War, Salomon enlisted in the 25th Illinois Infantry as a second lieutenant and won quick promotions for battlefield bravery. At Gettysburg in 1863, he was colonel in command of the 82nd Illinois Volunteer Infantry, which had over 100 Jewish personnel. His unit fought at Cemetery Ridge and was one of the principal Union forces which successfully repulsed Pickett's charge. Salomon received a commendation for bravery and was breveted a brigadier general.

Salomon served with General Sherman in the Battle for Atlanta and was cited as "one of the most deserving officers." After the war he led his men in a six-hour victory parade in Washington D.C., a commanding general at the age of 29.

President Ulysses S. Grant recognized Salomon's administrative capabilities and, in 1869, appointed him as governor of the Territory of Washington, where he served with distinction for four years. After leaving his post, Salomon settled in San Francisco. He was the district attorney of San Francisco County and twice served in the California legislature, devoting most of his life to public service.

Brigadier General Alfred Mordechai graduated from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in 1861, following in his father's footsteps. He joined the Army of Northeastern Virginia and received high commendations for his conduct at the Battle of Bull Run. He became the chief ordnance officer in several Union regiments and, in 1865, was appointed instructor of ordnance at West Point.

Among the other Jewish generals in the Union forces were Phineas Horowitz of Baltimore, who was appointed surgeon general of the Navy during the war, and General William Meyer of New York, who received a letter of thanks from President Lincoln for his efforts during the New York draft riots. There were no Jewish generals with the Confederate forces during the Civil War, but that's another tale.

Jewish historian, cultural maven, and JWR contributor Herb Geduld lives in Cleveland.


©2001, Herb Geduld