Did the Jewish Defenders of Fort McHenry Eat Kosher?

Posted on April 24th, 2014 by

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.

Painting, “Bombardment of Fort McHenry” by Peter Rindlisbacher, Courtesy of the artist.

Painting, “Bombardment of Fort McHenry” by Peter Rindlisbacher, Courtesy of the artist.

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.

Opening in September 2014!

Opening in 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

Letter, 1829, courtesy of Maryland Historical Society.

Letter, 1829, courtesy of Maryland Historical Society.

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!

deborahA blog post by Assistant Director Deborah Cardin. To read more posts by Deborah, click hereTo read more posts about Mendes Cohen, click here.

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A Peek at Jewish Baltimore’s Civil War History

Posted on June 28th, 2013 by

Todd NessonA blog post by Exhibitions Intern Todd Nesson. Todd is working with Karen Falk on our upcoming exhibition Passages Through the Fire: Jews and the Civil War. You can read more posts by Todd and other interns here.

“Just imagine Maryland seceding from the new confederacy (I hope she will never join it), Baltimore from the counties, they in turn from each other, Old Town from West End, Fells Point from Federal Hill, and then from each other. What a pretty State of Anarchy does this principle inaugurate.”

-Aaron Friedenwald, 1861

 

Aaron Friedenwald was expressing his sentiments to his largely pro-Southern family when he wrote the above quote. At the time, Aaron had been traveling in Europe to continue his medical education. He was shocked to learn of the outbreak of hostilities between the Union and the Confederacy and urged his family to recognize what he saw as the folly of the Confederate cause. Aaron’s arguments failed to sway his family and following the Pratt Street Riots, Isaac Friedenwald, one of Aaron’s brothers, went off to fight for the Confederate armies while the rest of his family continued to support the Southern Cause.

Isaac Friedenwald

Isaac Friedenwald

Following the riots, Baltimore found itself placed under martial law. The State Legislature was disbanded to ensure no votes of secession could take place and the guns of Fort McHenry and Federal Hill were pointed inward at the city to ensure its compliance. Just as Aaron recognized the strong Confederate leanings of his family, the Federal Government saw the strong Confederate leanings of Baltimore and provided their poignant reason for not revolting.

Image courtesy of the Maryland Historical Society.

Image courtesy of the Maryland Historical Society.

As noted, the Jewish population in Baltimore (and across the country) was not immune to the division gripping the country. Sometimes these divisions led to rather public arguments between members of the Jewish community. One in particular involved Baltimore Hebrew Congregation. The congregation found itself increasingly in the limelight due to its bombastic, pro-abolitionist and pro-Union Rabbi, David Einhorn. Einhorn would use his newspaper, Sinai, and his pulpit to counter the arguments of Pro-slavery clergy in the Jewish community. These pro-slavery clergy included Rabbi Raphall of New York and Rabbi Illowy of Baltimore. Following the Pratt Street Riots, Einhorn fled Baltimore to Philadelphia due to the strong possibility that he would be attacked for his pro-Northern views. Once there he would continue his support of the Union and abolitionist causes. Following the war, he headed to New York City became the Rabbi for Congregation Adath Israel.

Rabbi David Einhorn

Rabbi David Einhorn

Some Baltimore Jews, such as Leopold Blumenberg would put their prior military training at service of their new country. Blumenberg immigrated to Baltimore in 1854 after leaving the Prussian Army. At the time he had risen to the rank of Lieutenant but was unable to progress further due to the rampant anti-semitism in the Prussian army. When hostilities broke out, Blumenberg volunteered with the 5th Maryland Regiment and rose to the rank of Major. At the battle of Antietam he was wounded in the leg and given an honorable discharge along with an appointment as Provost Marshal of the second Maryland District.

General Leopold Blumenberg.

General Leopold Blumenberg.

Jews were found on both sides of the conflict during the Civil War, taking up the Blue and the Grey for reasons similar to those of their non-Jewish neighbors. The fires of war would help to forge and shape the Jews of America through politics and warfare, both at home and on the battlefield. Baltimore, due to its location on the dividing line between the Union and Confederacy found itself providing a turbulent atmosphere in which many Jews were forced to decide where they stood on the pressing matters of secession, slavery, and the future of the country that they had traveled so far to become a part of.

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They Ate Kosher at Fort McHenry

Posted on April 25th, 2012 by

In honor of the 200th Anniversary of the War of 1812, I’d like to submit an excerpt of an article that appeared in our Generations magazine back in December 1979, written by Albert J. Silverman. ~Historian Dr. Deb Weiner.

"A view of the bombardment of Fort McHenry." Drawing by J. Bower, 1819. Public domain. Via.

The two best known Jewish families in Maryland during the first half of the nineteenth century were the Cohens and the Ettings. When the bombardment of Fort McHenry by the British occurred in September, 1814, two members of the Cohen family and one of the Ettings were among the defenders. They were Philip and Mendes I. Cohen and Samuel Etting. Philip and Mendes were twenty-one and seventeen, respectively, and Samuel was eighteen. All three were members of Captain Joseph Nicholson’s Artillery Fencibles, which was attached to the First Regiment of Artillery, commanded by Lt. Col. David Harris. The eldest of the Cohen brothers, Jacob, was also a member of the Fencibles, but he was on leave and in Philadelphia taking care of a sick uncle—probably  Jacob Cohen, a Revolutionary War veteran—at the time of the bombardment.

19. Historic American Buildings Survey. Portion of a lithograph of Fort McHenry, by E. Sachse, 1862. Peale Museum, Baltimore. – Fort McHenry National Monument & Historic Shrine, East Fort Avenue at Whetstone Point, Baltimore, Independent City, MD. Courtesy Library of Congress.

The Fencibles were home guards recruited locally. All were volunteers. Although paid monthly they drew no rations; each man furnished his own provisions. Many, like Philip, Mendes and Samuel, were supplied by their families. Every morning a covered cart loaded with edibles set out from Howard and Baltimore Streets for the fort. Inasmuch as the Etting family lived on Baltimore Street, between Howard and Eutaw, in all likelihood the Etting home was the cart’s point of departure. The Cohens likewise lived on Baltimore Street. Years later, Mendes Cohen, in a memoir narrated to a great-nephew, related that the Cohen famiy “had a large stone jug around which was tightly sewn a cover of carpet, which was filled with coffee each morning and sent by the cart, always arriving there good and hot.” Other families living in the neighborhood no doubt also used the cart to provision their relatives in the Fencibles. This arrangement was perfect for the Cohens and the Ettings. Both families were devoutly Orthodox and adhered to the dietary laws. Moreover, as Samuel Etting’s father Solomon was certified to slaughter food animals in accordance with the ancient rite, the boys at the fort must have been well-provided with kosher viands.

16. Historic American Buildings Survey. Portion of a plan of Fort McHenry, by William Tell Poussin, 1819, National Archives, Records of the War Department, Cartographic Section, Record Group 77, drawer 51, sheet 2. Plan of fort and enclosed buildings. - Fort McHenry National Monument & Historic Shrine, East Fort Avenue at Whetstone Point, Baltimore, Independent City, MD. Courtesy Library of Congress.

During the worst of the bombardment, a shell struck a powder magazine in the fort. Mendes Cohen was one of several Fencibles who rushed in, rolled out the barrels of powder and removed the cases of cartridges. . . . In 1836 Governor Veazey of Maryland appointed him one of his aides with the rank of colonel in recognition of his services during the defense of Baltimore. . . . Of the three young defenders, only Samuel was wounded during the bombardment. This was on September 13, 1814. It was not a serious wound, and he made a rapid recovery. . . .

18. Historic American Buildings Survey. Portion of an anonymous watercolor painting of Fort McHenry bombardment of 1814. Peale Museum, Baltimore. View of southeast bastion and sally port. - Fort McHenry National Monument & Historic Shrine, East Fort Avenue at Whetstone Point, Baltimore, Independent City, MD. Courtesy Library of Congress.

During the war, Solomon Etting (Samuel’s father) represented his ward on the city-wide Committee of Vigilance and Safety. The committee charged him with the responsibility of finding quarters to house the military units stationed in Baltimore and for preparing facilities for the care of the sick and wounded. He carried out his responsibilities with energy and competence.

1818 portrait of Mendes I. Cohen by artist Joseph Wood. Smithsonian American Art Museum, 1978.67.1, museum purchase.

Postcript: Mendes I. Cohen went on to a career as a world traveler (one of the first Americans to visit the Holy Land), raconteur, state legislator, and banker. He died in 1879 as “one of the oldest and most highly respected citizens of Baltimore,” according to a local newspaper. Into his eighties, “his tall and commanding figure could frequently be seen on North Charles and Baltimore streets.” Well known as the oldest living survivor of his artillery company, he frequently regaled his fellow citizens with stories of the bombardment. For more on his fascinating life, see our Generations 2007-2008 issue.

For more about the War of 1812 and to find out about Maryland’s celebration of the 200th anniversary, see http:///starspangled200.org/.  


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