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From Private to Colonel: Jewish Service in the Revolutionary War


Peter Egill Brownfeld
Issues
Spring 2006

Too bad none of this is taught in our public, government run, politically correct, schools

The American Revolution ushered in an unparalleled freedom for Jews and is the first war in Western history where Jewish service became expected and even obligated, representing a certain admission to American society. Jews answered the call and served alongside their gentile colleagues in a wide range of roles. They engaged in what were more typical Jewish professions at the time — financing the war effort, privateering, and supplying the troops. However, many Jews also served in combat roles from the most humble foot soldier to that of officers ranking as high as colonel. Jews served as officers in the American army at a time when they could only become officers in Britain if they took an oath as a Christian. The Jewish population in the colonies was approximately 2,500, and about 100 men engaged in military service including active combat and affiliation with local militias. Their stories include dramatic acts of bravery and a willingness to lay down their lives to help build the new country.

Some writers have attempted to glorify the American Jewish experience of the Revolutionary War as one of undiluted patriotism for the colonial cause. No tale from history is so clear-cut, and the story of American Jews during the Revolution is as layered and complicated as that of their counterparts of other faiths. The Revolution was not only the fight of colonists for independence, but also a fight between colonists. There were three distinct groups of roughly equal size during the Revolution: Loyalists, who remained faithful to the British Crown; Whigs or Patriots who joined the rebellion; and those without a strong opinion who wanted to avoid an active role in the conflict. The fact that Jews fell into these categories just like all Americans is no stain on their patriotism, but rather a sign that they were so well integrated that their sympathies did not significantly diverge from their non-Jewish neighbors.

The importance of the Revolution on world Jewish history cannot be underestimated. Jacob R. Marcus, Professor of American Jewish History and Director of the American Jewish Archives at Hebrew Union College, writes: “In some respects the American Revolution was the most important event in world Jewish history since the third century. In the year 212 the Emperor Caracalla granted Roman citizenship … to all free inhabitants of the empire. After that day the Jewish people lived through a dozen holocausts nursed by social and legal disabilities that reduced them to the status of second-class citizens or, worse, outcasts. Then came the American Revolution with its Great Promise in the Declaration of Independence, that inasmuch as all men are created equal they are endowed with certain inalienable rights. The Jews interpreted ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness’ to mean political, social, and economic opportunity, as well as religious equality.”

Jewish Military Service

Jewish military service largely mirrored that of their Christian neighbors, which was significant because of the historic exclusion of Jews from western militaries and because of its implications for future acceptance in American society. About 15 of the 100 Jewish soldiers on the American side served as officers in the colonial army, a number roughly matching the proportion in the army as a whole. The stories of several individual soldiers are dramatic and lead to a fuller understanding of the Jewish wartime experience.

Solomon Bush is probably the Jewish officer with the longest war record. Bush wrote in a petition to Congress on 8 December 1780 that he entered “the service of our country in the earliest period of our most glorious contest, that animated with zeal he pushed forward to meet the foe, and received a considerable wound which has deprived him of serving his country in the field.”

Samuel Rezneck, in his book “Unrecognized Patriots: The Jews in the American Revolution,” describes Bush’s story in detail: “Solomon enrolled as a captain and adjutant early in 1776 in the famed ‘Flying Camp of Associators of Pennsylvania.’ He saw action in the Battle of Long Island, which led to a retreat and the loss of New York by Washington’s army. Many of this unit were taken prisoner. It was mobilized again in 1777 for the defense of Philadelphia against an expected attack. It came in the fall, and Bush, now a major, had his thigh broken shortly after the Battle of Brandywine. In the meantime, Bush had been promoted to lieutenant-colonel and was made deputy adjutant-general of the Pennsylvania militia. The injured Bush hid out in his father’s house during the British occupation, but was discovered, taken prisoner, and placed on parole. He was incapacitated for further service, although he wrote to a friend, Henry Lazarus, in Virginia: ‘My wishes are to be able to get satisfaction and revenge the rongs [sic] of my injured country.’ The Supreme Executive Council of Pennsylvania commended Bush for his earlier military exploits, ‘when the service was critical and hazardous.’”

Southern Patriots

Francis Salvador was a prominent exponent of the American cause, who lost his life in the Revolution. Born in London in 1747, he emigrated to America in 1773, and built an indigo plantation in South Carolina. Despite his British roots, Salvador adopted the anti-English sentiment common in frontier regions like the one where Salvador had established himself. He became politically active, serving in the First and Second Provincial Congresses between 1773 and 1776, helping prepare South Carolina’s first state constitution. In these roles, he was the only Jew to play a policy making role during the Revolution. His military activities began when he volunteered for a local militia raised under Major Andrew Williamson. Salvador was killed on August 1, 1776, when a band of Cherokee Indians incited by local Tories ambushed the militia unit and shot and scalped Salvador.

Another leading Jewish patriot from the South was Mordecai Sheftall, who was a chairman of a Committee of Safety in Savannah, which sought to rally support for the American cause, while discrediting the Loyalists. In 1776 he organized and led a group that forced its way onto a vessel in the harbor and removed its gunpowder, which was then shipped to Boston for Washington’s army. The royalist governor of Georgia complained to the government in London that the Jews “were found to a man to have been violent rebels and persecutors of the King’s loyal subjects. They must not be allowed to return to Georgia.” In the Disqualifying Act of 1780, the British listed Mordecai Sheftall as “chairman of the Rebel Parochial Committee,” who had interfered with the King’s business. This act, which disqualified many Georgians from future political activity in the state, also excluded at least five other Jews—Levi Sheftall, Sheftall Sheftall, Philip Minis, Cushman Polock, and Philip Jacob Cohen, all of whom were shopkeepers.

In Charleston, South Carolina, there was a company led by a Captain Lushington, that was referred to as a “Jew Company” because it included between 26 and 34 Jews. According to Barnet Elzas, Charleston’s rabbi a century later and historian of the Charleston Jewish community, Jews contributed proportionately as much as their neighbors and gave “as freely as their means to the cause.”

David Franks’ Story

David Franks’ story of service to America spans three continents and several roles, including soldier and diplomat. He was born in Philadelphia in 1743 and was among the first Jews to start a business in Montreal after the British conquest in 1763. In Montreal in 1775, a statue of King George III was vandalized with the words ‘This is the pope of Canada and the fool of England.’ Franks played no role in the incident, but was suspected of being involved and arrested after having been overheard saying “in England men are hanged for such small offenses.” Although he was released after a week, the governor, Sir Guy Carleton, included him in a “list of principal leaders of sedition.”

When the American army captured Montreal in 1775, Franks joined them, later commenting, “My good offices and purse were ever open to them, at a time when they had neither friend nor money.” When the American army retreated from Montreal, Franks followed it, having been issued a pass that certified him as “a friend to the American cause.”

Rezneck writes: “Franks attached himself to Benedict Arnold, whom he had met in Montreal, and was possibly with him as a volunteer at the Battle of Saratoga in 1777. He was perhaps with him, too, in the Albany hospital where Arnold recovered from serious wounds. Because of his knowledge of French, he was later a liaison officer to Count d’Estaing, the commander of the French forces in America, and he was perhaps also for a time an aide to General Benjamin Lincoln in South Carolina.” After Arnold’s betrayal, Franks requested a public court of inquiry to clear his name. Washington agreed, and the court exonerated Franks, with the following statement: “every part of Major D.S. Franks’ conduct was not only unexceptionable but reflects the highest honor on him as an officer, distinguished him as a zealous friend to the independence of America, and justly entitles him to the attention and confidence of his countrymen.”

Diplomatic Missions

Between 1781 and 1787, Franks served in various diplomatic missions, shuttling back and forth between Europe and America. He worked with and for Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, John Jay, and other American diplomats in Europe. Early in 1784, Franks was charged with carrying to Europe one of the three copies of the peace treaty ratified by Congress. He remained in Europe for three years acting as a courier, and carrying messages and papers to and from Jefferson, Adams, and Jay.

Jefferson commented on Franks in a letter to James Madison: “He appears to have a good eno’ heart and understanding, somewhat better than common but too little guard on his lips. I have marked him particularly in the company of women where he loses all power over himself and becomes almost a fright. His temperature would not be proof against their allurements, were such to be used as engines against him. This is in some measure the vice of his age but it seems to be increased by his peculiar constitution.” Madison agreed with Jefferson’s description, and wrote: “For all unconfidential services he is a convenient instrument. For anything farther … I am afraid.”

Franks’ other diplomatic roles included vice-consul at Marscilles and participating in the negotiation of a treaty with Morocco, which he then brought back with him to America in 1787. Before Franks left for America, Jefferson wished him “health, happiness, and good passage.” Jefferson wrote to Madison at the same time: “You will see Franks, doubtless he will be asking some appointment. I wish there may be one for which he is fit.” He offered a mixed recommendation: “He is light, indiscreet, active, honest, affectionate.”

A distant relation to David Franks was Isaac Franks, who enlisted in Colonel Lasher’s Volunteers of New York at the age of 17. His service was not as exciting as David’s, but probably more typical. Rezneck writes: “He served in the Long Island campaign in 1776, when he was wounded and taken prisoner. He escaped to New Jersey in a leaky skiff with one paddle and rejoined Washington’s army, with which he remained through all its many changes of fortune. He became a forage master and performed its routine functions conscientiously. … In 1781 he was commissioned an ensign in the Seventh Massachusetts Regiment, also stationed at West Point, and he remained with it until he was discharged in the following year for a complaint of kidney gravel.”
Benjamin Nones

Benjamin Nones, who was born in Bordeaux in 1757 and came to America in 1777, volunteered for the American army, and ultimately served as an officer. Nones wrote to Jefferson in 1800: “as an American throughout the whole of the Revolutionary War, in the militia of Charleston, and in Polaskey’s [Pulaski’s] [sic] legion, I fought in almost every action which took place in Carolina, and in the disastrous affair of Savannah, shared the hardships of that sanguinary day, and for twenty-three years I have felt no disposition to change my politics, any more than my religious principles.” In December 1779, French Captain Verdier, who was attached to Pulaski’s corps wrote “to certify that Benjamin Nones has served as a volunteer in my company during the campaign of this year and at the siege of Savannah in Georgia, and his behavior under fire in all the bloody battles we fought has been marked by the bravery and courage which a military man is expected to show for the liberties of his country and which acts of said Nones gained in his favor the esteem of General Pulaski as well as that of the officers who witnessed his daring conduct.”

Philip Moses Russell was born in Philadelphia and enlisted with the American forces as a surgeon’s mate in 1777, although he does not appear to have had any medical training. In addition to serving in the Battle of Brandywine, he suffered the hard winter of 1777-1778 at Valley Forge. Because of exhaustion and an attack of camp fever, his sight and hearing suffered. He had to leave service in 1780, and received a special commendation from General Washington “for his assiduous and faithful attention to the sick and wounded, as well as his cool and collected deportment in battle.”

Service in Virginia

Mordecai Abrahams (Abrams) commanded a company of militia of German origin. Jacob Cohen was captain of a cavalry company in the continental line and was at the Battle of Yorktown in 1781, as attested to by Lafayette. Moses Myers, born in New York in 1752, became a major in the Virginia militia. He served with General Sumter and was present at Yorktown. Samuel Myers, the son of Myer Myers, the famous New York silversmith, also served in a Virginia unit during the Revolution. Moses Myers finally settled in Norfolk, where he was elected president of the city council and Samuel resided in Richmond, where he served as an alderman.

“An unusual sidelight on the Revolution in Virginia,” writes Samuel Rezneck, “is supplied by Dr. John de Sequeyra of Williamsburg. Born in London of a Portuguese Jewish family, he was trained as a doctor at Leyden in Holland and emigrated to Williamsburg in 1745. Here he practiced medicine for half a century, dying in 1795. He was too old to participate actively in the revolution, but he kept a diary reporting diseases prevalent in Virginia for many years. It is interesting to note that for 1781, the year of the great victory at Yorktown, de Sequeyra recorded the serious spread of smallpox brought by the British army, for which many died.”

During his years in Williamsburg, it is reported, de Sequeyra treated Jefferson, Washington and others active in the patriotic cause.

Smuggling, Supplying, and Financing

In addition to military service, Jews played significant roles as financiers, suppliers, and privateers. In fact, it was in these areas that they made their greatest contributions because of their experience in these fields. The best-known Jew of the revolutionary era and probably the one who made the greatest contribution to the American cause, was the financier Haym Salomon, who had the title “Broker to the Office of Finance of the United States,” as well as “Treasurer of the French Army in America.”

Salomon was born in Poland, and at the age of 32 emigrated to New York in 1772. Salomon continued the career as a currency trader that he had begun in Europe. When the war broke out, he began trading Continental currency for hard Dutch and French currencies. In his book “A History of Jews in America,” Howard M. Sachar writes: There is no doubt that Salomon’s “efforts to negotiate Continental currency and bonds were a godsend to the revolutionary government, as were his personal interest-free loans to government officials, among them Madison, Jefferson, James Wilson, Edmond Randolph, and Generals von Steuben, St. Clair, and Mifflin of the Continental Army.”

Jewish shippers and smugglers also played a key. role in supplying the American cause. Jews from the Dutch Caribbean island St. Eustatius smuggled vital goods through the British blockade. One firm that had particular success in smuggling goods was Isaac Moses and Company. The Amsterdam-based firm, in accordance with Dutch sympathies, shipped goods to St. Eustatius and local Jewish shippers transported them to American ports. In 1781, when British forces under Admiral George Rodney seized the island, its population, and particularly the Jews, were punished for their assistance to the American cause.

Jews also acted as civilian contractors. In his book “A History of Jews in America,” Howard M. Sachar writes: “In their European tradition, numerous Jewish wholesale merchants provided the army with clothing, gunpowder, lead, and other needed equipment. Bernard and Michael Gratz manufactured uniforms, employing the manpower of local poorhouses. Joseph Simon manufactured rifles in Lancaster. More commonly, suppliers subcontracted. It was a financial risk. The Continental Congress took its time settling accounts, and some contracts never were recompensed. … Nearly every Jewish contractor, privateer, and financier of note came out of the Revolution with his fortune either gone or painfully diminished.”

Loyalists

It would be a mistake to either ignore Jewish Loyalists or attempt to downplay their role in order to highlight Jewish contributions to the American cause. Jews who remained loyal to the British crown did so for a range of reasons, including because they were natives of Britain, because of the relatively low-level of anti-Semitism in Britain, as well as for personal political and financial reasons. The decision of some Jews to side with Britain when the war broke out shows that Jews in colonial America were engaged in the political process and did not act jointly as an isolated minority.

According to Jonathan D. Sarna, the author of “American Judaism: A History,” New York’s 400 Jews were sharply divided on the lines of Tory and Patriot, while in Newport, a substantial number of Jews remained loyal to Britain. “Many Jews vacillated and pledged allegiance to both sides in the dispute for as long as they could. Jews scarcely differed from their neighbors in this regard. Nativity, ties to Europe, and economic factors determined the loyalties of many colonists,” Sarna writes. Among the most prominent Jewish loyalists were: David Franks, royal purveyor and commissary-general of British troops; Myer Hart, supplier to British troops in Pennsylvania; Moses Nunes, searcher of the port of Savannah; and Myer Pollock, who aided the British war effort in Newport.

During the colonial period, Newport was a thriving Jewish center, and it was also the home to many Jewish Loyalists. Among the Loyalists were the Hart family, which had supplied the British army during the French and Indian War as well as engaging in privateering. After the war at least one of the Harts, Jacob, left America for England, where he was granted an annual pension of 40 pounds. When American forces recaptured Newport in 1779, they drew up a list of 50 Loyalists, which included at least 8 Jews— Haym and Simon Levi, Isaac and Jacob Isaacs, Benjamin Myers and his mother, Rachel, and Isaac Eliezer and his son.

Aid Peace Negotiations

One rather unusual story of a Jewish Loyalist is that of the British-born Jew Abraham Wagg, who sought to aid the peace negotiations. On 22 August, 1778, he drafted a letter titled “The Sentiments of a Friend to Great Britain and America,” which he sent to three British Commissioners for Peace. Wagg advised the British that they did not have enough men to pacify the colonies, and encouraged Britain to withdraw in order to concentrate on the preservation of its other possessions in Canada and the West Indies. He added that America’s “natural alliance” was with Britain, for economic if no other reason.

During the 1782 peace negotiations, Wagg offered more advice, this time to Britain’s foreign minister, Lord Shelbume. His titled his letter “Private Suggestions on a Plan to Dissolve the Connection of America with France.” Wagg advised the recognition of American independence and accurately predicted Anglo-American friendship based on a common culture and trade. Wagg wrote, that if such an alliance should develop, the Americans will “tell France and Spain that the law of nature and nature’s God entitles America … to be perpetually allied with Great Britain by the nearest ties of consanguinity, being of the same religion, speaking the same language, and remembering their former intercourse …” Although Wagg’s predictions would ultimately come true, his British interlocutors were not ready for these ideas, and his correspondence was ignored.

Independence for America, Liberty for Jews

For those Jews who risked their lives and their fortunes for the American cause, they were soon rewarded with the affirmation that Jews would have a secure place in the new country. The Declaration of Independence stated that “all men are created equal,” with no distinction based on religion. The First Amendment affirmed that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

In July, 1790, Charleston’s synagogue, Beth Elohim, addressed a letter to President Washington. Composed by Jacob Cohen, a veteran of the Revolution, it recited the blessings and benefits of the new government in three long pages. It declared: “To the equal participation and enjoyment of all these (the natural and inalienable rights of human nature) it has raised us from the state of political degradation and grievous oppression to which partial, narrow, and illiberal policy and intolerant bigotry has reduced us in almost every other part of the world. Peculiar and extraordinary reason have we, therefore, to be attached to the free and generous Constitutions of our respective states, and to be indebted to you, whose heroic deeds have contributed so much to their preservation and establishment.”

When George Washington was inaugurated as the nation’s first president, in his now-famous letter to the Jewish congregation of Newport, Rhode Island, he made his position clear. “It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it were by the indulgence of one class of people that any other enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights. For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection demean themselves as good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support. May the children of the Stock of Abraham, who dwell in this land, continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other inhabitants, while everyone shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree and there shall be none to make him afraid.”

Religious Freedom

In 1785, Virginia passed its Act for Religious Freedom, authored by Thomas Jefferson, which stated that “no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place or ministry whatsoever … but that all men shall be free to profess and by argument to maintain, their opinions in matters of religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge or affect their civil capacities.” The Constitution (1787) and the Bill of Rights (1791) banned religious tests “as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States,” and forbade Congress from making any law “respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

Jews joined with their Christian neighbors to celebrate when the Constitution was adopted. Benjamin Rush commented on the ecumenical nature of the celebration: “Pains were taken to connect ministers of the most dissimilar religious principles together, thereby to show the influence of a free government in promoting Christian charity. The Rabbi of the Jews locked in the arms of two ministers of the gospel, was a most delightful sight. There could not have been a more happy emblem contrived, of that section of the new constitution, which opens all its powers and offices alike, not only to every sect of Christians, but to worthy men of every religion.”

Posted Spring 2006 by The American Council for Judaism

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[Editor’s Note: This does not necessarily entail the beliefs, thoughts, or theories of the local Act chapters or the National Act office…they are my beliefs, thoughts and/or theories. More thanks needs to go to the Jews…they helped a lot to make their adopted country a free country…]

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