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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Happy Pre-Valentine’s Day from the JMM!

Posted on February 10th, 2014 by


Lucky Mendes

Mendes Defender

Mendes stamp 1

Nile Flag


You can download a sheet of these awesome Mendes Cohen themed valentines HERE: Mendes Valentines.

Posted in jewish museum of maryland

The Life of Mendes I. Cohen: “American-Jew, or Jewish American?”

Posted on July 4th, 2013 by

Yonah RebackA blog post by Exhibitions Intern Yonah Reback. Yonah is working with Curator Karen Falk on our upcoming “A-MAZE-ing Mendes” exhibition as well as on programming for our Jews on the Move traveling exhibition. To read more posts by Yonah and other interns, click here.

young mendes

Mendes Cohen, 1818. Portrait by Joseph Wood.
Courtesy of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, 1978.67.1

It’s a familiar trope to anyone who has considered the issue of Jewish identity within the United States—is one an ‘American-Jew,’ or a ‘Jewish American?” Though the answer is arbitrary, the distinction seems to imply an order of precedence. To identify as an ‘American-Jew’ is to identify foremost as an American, whereas being ‘Jewish-American’ retains the moniker of ‘Jew’ as primary.  Of course, delineating one’s Jewish identity as an American is a task hardly reflected by a choice of words alone. Indeed, reconciling Jewish identity within a non-Jewish state is perhaps the most emblematic challenge of the Diaspora. For all of Jewish history since the Diaspora, Jews have been forced to grapple with the duality of their identity in a foreign land.

Imagine for a moment that you are the first Jew in America. It’s not easy to picture, given that today Jews are a small but prominent demographic feature of American society. Yet for Baltimorean Mendes I. Cohen, the social landscape of early 19th century America was one with very few Jews. Though Cohen was not literally the first Jew in America, he grew up in Baltimore at a time when its Jewish community was defined by only two families—his own, and the Etting family. In this sense, Cohen experienced Jewish life in a manner that was solitary, though deeply personal. Despite the fact that he lived without a typical community structure, Cohen openly practiced his Judaism. It was in these moments of expression—against the backdrop of early American life—that the novelty of his experience was apparent. While defending Fort McHenry against the British in the War of 1812, Cohen nonetheless ate kosher food, which he received from his family daily. Well before American Jews were categorized and labeled, Cohen practiced his own, unique brand of American Judaism.

older mendes

Mendes I. Cohen, c. 1835-1840 by Unknown Artist.
Courtesy of the Maryland Historical Society, 1947.22.2

Perhaps the most interesting way in which Cohen defined his American/Jewish identity occurred not in America, but abroad. From 1829 to 1835, Cohen traveled throughout Europe and the Middle East. Most significantly, Cohen spent time in Israel, becoming the first American Jew to encounter the land. What Cohen wrote about his time spent in Israel captured the tensions he felt as an American Jew, which foreshadowed many of the attitudes that persist today.   After spending time with the small contingent of Jews in Israel living under Ottoman rule in the 1830s, Cohen wrote that, “America is the land of milk and honey where each may sit under his own vine and fig tree and none to make them afraid.” In this sense, Cohen extolled his native homeland as a country where religious freedom enabled Jews to practice unimpeded by government rule. Still, Mendes I. Cohen understood the significance of Jews living in Israel and was genuinely moved by his visit to the Old City of Jerusalem.

As we enjoy July 4th, may we all take a moment to appreciate the religious freedom that America affords its citizens, which has allowed for a Jewish legacy spanning the days of Mendes I. Cohen until today.

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