They Ate Kosher at Fort McHenry

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.

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:///  

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