PROPERTY OF A DESCENDANT OF ISAAC COHEN
The Jewish presence in the Confederacy was small but significant. At the outbreak of the Civil War, 1861, some of the largest Jewish communities in the United States were located in Charleston, South Carolina; New Orleans, Louisiana; Memphis, Tennessee; and Richmond, Virginia. Judah P. Benjamin—who served in Jefferson Davis's cabinet as, successively, Attorney General, Secretary of War, and Secretary of State—was just the best known of Southern Jews who remained loyal to the Confederate States of America. The Confederate Jews were able to rationalize the apparent irony of defending the slave-holding South while still celebrating their own liberation from Egyptian slavery at Passover.
Robert N. Rosen's The Jewish Confederates (2000) estimates that about three thousand "Jewish Johnny Rebs" served in the Confederate armed forces. One of the clergyman most solicitous of the welfare of Jewish Confederate soldiers was Rabbi Max Michelbacher, who, in fact, wrote and published "The Prayer of the C.S. Soldiers." On 23 August 1861, Michelbacher wrote to General Robert E. Lee, asking for furloughs for the approaching High Holidays: "Excuse me that I intrude on you but the case is important to a class of citizens, being Israelites, who take the greatest interest in the welfare of this confederacy. … These ten days from the 5th to the 14th of September … are the 10 days of Penitence & Prayer, the most sublime of the holiest days of the year" (quoted in Rosen, p. 232).
Lee's eloquent response stresses the shared points of his and Michelbacher's religious beliefs, as well as their united interest in the preservation of the Confederacy:
"I have just recd. your letter of the 23d Inst: requesting that a furlough from the 2nd to the 15th Sept: be granted to the Soldiers of the Jewish persuasion in the C.S. Army, that they may participate in the approaching holy Services of the Synagogue.
"It would give me great pleasure to Comply with a request so earnestly urged by you, & which I know would be so highly appreciated by that Class of our Soldiers. But the necessities of War admit of no relaxation of the efforts requisite for its Success, nor can it be known on what day the presence of every man may be required. I feel assured that neither you or any member of the Jewish Congregation would wish to jeopardize a Cause you have so much at heart by the withdrawal even for a Season of a portion of its defenders. I cannot therefore grant the general furlough you desire, but must leave to individuals to make their own applications to their Several Commanders, in the hope that many will be able to enjoy the privilege you seek for them. Should any be deprived of the opportunity of offering up their prayers according to the rites of the Church, that their penitence may nevertheless be accepted by the Most High, & their petitions answered.
"That your prayers for the Success & welfare of our Cause may be granted by the Great Ruler of the universe is my ardent wish."
Lee's original letter was evidently given by Rabbi Michelbacher to Isaac Cohen, a young member of his Richmond synagogue. Cohen was one of the Jewish soldiers whose own commander did grant him leave in order that he could have opportunity of offering up [his] prayers according to the rites of the Church." It is likely that Michelbacher gave Cohen the letter so that he could show his own commanding officer that his request was supported by the Confederate Commander in Chief.
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