Posted on January 31st, 2014 by Rachel
On Sunday afternoon of January 26th, the JMM was humming with chatter, school groups and chilly visitors taking shelter from the icy Baltimore air. At 1 pm the commotion came to a pause when speaker Nick Fessenden, a retired history professor, took the stage in the orientation lobby of the JMM. Fessenden presented an intriguing talk titled, “Whose Side Are You On?: Baltimore’s Immigrants and Civil War.” The audience grew quiet and listened attentively as Mr. Fessenden set the scene, drawing them back to the Baltimore of the 1850’s and 1860’s.
Many audience members were surprised to learn that in the year 1860 more than 35% of Baltimore was composed of German, Irish and Jewish Immigrants and their children. The city of Baltimore was split into sections – divided by race, religion, and social ranking. Fessenden made no attempt to sugar coat many of the violent issues surrounding Baltimore and its politics during the Civil War era. Polls were abused and controlled by the native born working class Marylanders. Poll workers were targets of excruciating acts of violence.
Fessenden aimed to describe the difference between each minority group during this high-tension time. The German immigrants were the largest immigrant population in Baltimore at a whopping 25%. They were businessmen and farmers, and were spread across the entire social spectrum. About 7% of the German immigrant population was made up of Jews living in the city.
Fessenden laid out the Jewish perspective during this turbulent time. In Southern Maryland, Jewish slave-holders were incredibly rare. However, because the Jewish people felt insecure in a new, unknown country, they typically adopted the opinions of their neighbors. Jews in the south mostly empathized with the confederacy. On the other hand, Jews residing in Union areas took an anti-slavery stance.
Fessenden’s talk concluded with a flurry of interesting and insightful questions from the audience. The listeners questioned the violence in Baltimore, the voting system in Maryland, and various other questions surrounding Jewish life and culture in Baltimore during the Civil War.
A blog post by Education Intern Molly Gamble. To read more posts by interns, click HERE. If you are interested in interning at the Jewish Museum of Maryland, you can find open internship opportunities HERE.