Did the Jewish Defenders of Fort McHenry Eat Kosher?
Among the defenders at Fort McHenry during the Battle of Baltimore in 1814 were several Jewish militiamen, including members of Baltimore’s elite Jewish families, the Cohens and Ettings. The Cohens arrived in Baltimore in 1807 when Judith Cohen, a widow with seven children, moved the family from Richmond in search of better economic opportunities. Three of her sons – Jacob, Philip, and Mendes – joined a volunteer company charged with the defense of Baltimore, Nicholson’s Artillery Fencibles, under the command of Capt. Joseph Nicholson, Chief Judge of Baltimore County.
Many years afterwards, Mendes Cohen shared his recollections of his participation in the Battle of Baltimore with his nephew, Benjamin. He vividly recalled such details as the fact that he overslept on the morning of the British attack on Fort McHenry and awoke to find that his brother, Philip, had left without him. Mendes hurried to join him at his post. As he raced through the streets of Baltimore, he caught a view from Federal Hill of the British fleet just off of North Point entering Baltimore’s harbor.
One story that has often been retold is that the Jewish defenders at Fort McHenry “ate kosher.” This most likely stems from Benjamin Cohen’s written account of his conversation with his uncle where Mendes recalled that as a volunteer militia company, each member of Nicolson’s Fencibles was responsible for providing his own rations. Mendes recounted how “every morning at about six o’clock a small covered cart left the northwest corner of Howard and Market Streets for the Fort, with food sent by their families for the members of the company.” The Cohen brothers received a large stone jug filled with coffee that was kept warm through “a cover of carpet…that always arrived good and hot.” Adding further fuel to this story is the fact that another Jewish defender at Fort McHenry, Samuel Etting, was the son of Solomon Etting, a trained kosher butcher. To date, however, our extensive research into the Cohen Family has not been able to substantiate the fact that kosher rations were actually part of the food delivery.
Members of the JMM staff are hard at work on The A-mazing Mendes Cohen, an exhibition exploring the extraordinary life of Mendes Cohen and his family that is scheduled to open September 2014.
As with all our exhibits, the development process necessitates a tremendous amount of research. We are fortunate to have access to the treasure trove of primary sources pertaining to the Cohen family, thanks to our partnership with the Maryland Historical Society which houses dozens of relevant archival records including the letters that Mendes sent home while traveling throughout Europe and the Middle East
Despite our extensive research, however, we still have several unanswered questions about the Cohens. We are continuing our efforts to delve into the family’s history in an attempt to answer some of these questions. Stay tuned to see what we find!