Canadian Jews fought in American Civil War

Hard to believe, but there were Jews in Toronto and probably Montreal as well who were drawing monthly pensions from the U.S. government as late as 1925 for their participation as soldiers in the American Civil War.

An index of Civil War pension recipients indicates that some 4,966 veterans of America’s most sanguinary conflict filed pension applications from Canada. Although there is no way to determine their religion, one may guess that hundreds of Jewish Canadians served as soldiers — and not all wore Union blue. Some would have sided with Britain and worn the gray uniforms of the Confederate South.

A search for common Jewish surnames like Cohen and Levine produces dozens of results from the Ancestry.com database. Abraham C. Cohen of Toronto, for example, filed for his pension on November 27, 1925, some 60 years after the end of the conflict. Cohen might have been only 15 years old or younger when he served.

Moses Bilsky (1829-1923), one of Canada’s most notable Jewish Civil War veterans, is absent from the pension list. A founder of Ottawa’s Jewish community, he was lured to California by the Gold Rush and eventually joined Abraham Lincoln’s Guard at the beginning of the strife. Although never given the opportunity of serving in the east, he helped subdue a riot in San Francisco after Lincoln’s assassination. He was back in Ottawa by 1869.

At least 30,000 Canadians fought in the U.S. Civil War, according to Toronto author Claire Hoy, whose book Canadians in the Civil War was published by McArthur & Co. in 2004. One might reasonably deduce that several hundred Jews from the Canadian territories were among this number.

Many were attracted by “generous signing bonuses of $200 or considerably more offered by Northern authorities to replenish their depleted ranks,” Hoy writes. “Others were youthful adventurers caught up in what they saw as the romance and excitement of it all.” Still others were kidnapped and sold to compliant U.S. Army recruiters, much as Joseph was sold into slavery in Egypt.

Several Jews from Canada East or Canada West may have been part of the Union’s 23rd Regiment from Cincinnati, which was stationed near Fayette, W. Va. in 1861; as Passover approached, 20 Jewish soldiers received permission from their commanding officer to observe the holiday. To their delight, a requested shipment of seven barrels of Matzos, plus several Haggadahs, arrived in camp on the morning of Erev Pesach.

According to an 1866 account by Union soldier J. A. Joel, the group built a log hut for services and foraged the countryside for the other requisites of the seder. “We obtained two kegs of cider, a lamb, several chickens and some eggs,” Joel wrote. “Horseradish or parsley we could not obtain, but in lieu we found a weed whose bitterness, I apprehend, exceeded anything our forefathers ‘enjoyed.'”

The service began at nightfall and went smoothly until the bitter herb was to be ingested. “We all had a large portion of the herb ready to eat at the moment I said the blessing; each ate his portion, when horrors! what a scene ensued in our little congregation, it is impossible for my pen to describe. The herb was very bitter and very fiery like cayenne pepper, and excited our thirst to such a degree that we forgot the law authorizing us to drink only four cups, and the consequence was we drank up all the cider.”

For Joel’s complete narrative and other material about Jewish soldiers of the Civil War, please visit the web site www.jewish-history.com . ♦

© 2002

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