Jewish Contribution to the American Revolution

by Gideon

During the American Revolution, most American Jews sided with George Washington. They gave their life and money to free America from British rule.

The Jews who settled in the British colonies in America came for the promise of economic opportunity and for religious and social freedom, conditions that were virtually non-existent for them in most of Europe. They relied upon an extensive network of family and friends for mutual aid and economic advancement. They won the rights to equal economic opportunity, to own land, to go to higher secular education, to serve in the armed militias, to vote and in some colonies to become members of the legislative bodies. During the American revolution, a small number of Jews chose to remain loyal to King George III of England, but the overwhelming majority sided with the cause of freedom and the American patriots.

“The Revolution had an enormous impact on Jewish life in America. Most immediately, wartime conditions caused massive human dislocations. Several families-among them the Gomezes, Frankses, Hayses and Harts-divided into two hostile camps: Whig and Tory. A few British sympathizers, notably Isaac Touro, chazzan of the synagogue in Newport, left the country altogether. Isaac Hart, a Jewish loyalist shipper who fled only as far as Long Island, was killed by patriotic Whigs. Some loyalists came in the other direction, from Europe to America. These were the Jewish Hessians, German soldiers employed by England’s King George III (himself a German) to fight the rebellious colonists. Alexander Zuntz, the most famous Jewish Hessian, is credited with preserving Congregation Shearith Israel of New York’s synagogue sanctuary during the period when that city was under British military control. Other Jewish Hessians settled further south: in Charleston, South Carolina and Richmond, Virginia. They seem to have met with mixed receptions from the Jews who preceded them there. Supporters of the Revolution were no less mobile than their Tory opponents. A large contingent from Shearith Israel fled to Stratford, Connecticut, when the British moved on New York. Later, Philadelphia became the chief haven for patriotic refugees. Shearith Israel’s minister, Gershom Seixas moved there from Stratford in 1780. For Jews, as for non-Jews, war meant “fly(ing) with such things as were of the first necessity” when the British approached. Possessions that were left behind were usually lost forever.

These wartime migrations had lasting effects. People who never had met Jews discovered them for the first time, and learned how similar they were to everyone else. Jews from different parts of the country encountered one another, and cemented lasting unions. A succession of Jewish marriages took place, as Jewish children made new friends. Finally, the distribution of Jews in the colonies changed. Newport, Rhode Island, formerly one of the four largest Jewish communities in America had its port destroyed in the war. Its Jews scattered. The Savannah Jewish community also suffered greatly from the war’s decimating effects. On the other hand, two cities that were spared destruction, Philadelphia and Charleston, emerged from the war with larger and better organized Jewish communities than they had ever known before.” – The American Revolution and Jews

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. 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.

Solomon Bush, 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 of my injured country.’ The Supreme Executive Council of Pennsylvania commended Bush for his earlier military exploits, ‘when the service was critical and hazardous.’”

Mordechai Sheftall 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.

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.

Esther Hays from Bedford, New York, was a young Jewish mother whose husband David served with the American forces. When the British forces captured her town, she was lying in bed with her newborn infant at her side. The enemy demanded that she reveal information about a group of patriots. Esther refused, even when British loyalists set fire to her home and burned it to the ground. Fortunately, Esther and her child succeeded in escaping into the nearby woods with the help of servants, and managed to survive.

Isaac Franks was enlisted in Colonel Lasher’s Volunteers of New York at the age of 17. 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.

Reuben Etting, a 19-year old  from Baltimore, Maryland was captured by the British and when they discovered that he was Jewish, they gave him only pork to eat. As a Jew, Etting adamantly refused to do so, and instead subsisted on scraps of food given to him by other prisoners.

Captain Richard Lushington, his American volunteers from Charleston, South Carolina, came to be known as the “Jew Company” because so many of its members were Jews. According to historian Professor Samuel Rezneck, “the only instance of a group mobilization of Jews in one city and into one company ” during the Revolution, and the unit included a cantor, a rabbi’s brother and a man who would later found a synagogue. The “Jew Company” fought bravely at the Battle of Beaufort in South Carolina on February 3, 1779, inflicting heavy casualties on the British. At least one Jew in the unit was killed and another wounded during the clash. Subsequently, in the fall of 1779, the “Jew Company” took part in the failed attempt led by General Benjamin Lincoln to retake Savannah, Georgia, from the British, as well as the unsuccessful effort to defend Charleston in early 1780.

Haym Salomon, a Polish-born New York Jew have been one of the leading financiers of General George Washington’s Continental Army. Salomon was arrested twice for his revolutionary activity, which ranged from assisting American prisoners to escape British captivity to raising funds and lending large sums to help sustain the war effort. In late summer of 1781, when Washington’s forces had trapped British General Charles Cornwallis and his army in Yorktown, Virginia, the Continental Congress’ coffers stood empty, imperiling the opportunity to bring the war to a close. After Salomon raised the requisite capital, which enabled the Americans to defeat Cornwallis at Yorktown in what would prove to be the penultimate battle of the war. He loaned hundreds of thousands of dollars to the government – millions in today’s dollars. In addition, he would make private loans to prominent statesmen and historical figures like James Madison, Thomas Jefferson and James Monroe. Sources differ, saying he either charged them no interest or interest well below market rates. Salomon himself died impoverished in 1785 – possibly as a result of his purchases of government debt. He left his wife and four young children with debts greater than his estate.

Benjamin Nones was born in Bordeaux in 1757. He 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 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.”

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.

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Today, Jews are fully integrated in the American society. The Jewish population of the United States is the second largest in the world after Israel. The American Jewish community is about two percent of the total American population. It has proved one of the most vibrant, creative, loyal, and productive groups in American life. Jews participate in all aspects of American life. Jews serve in in all brunches of the military, they hold senior position in the government, and they work in all fields in the private sectors. The majority of the Jewish population live in large urban areas such as New York, Los Angeles, and Miami.

Happy 4th of July –  Gideon

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