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February 2, 2012 12:59 pm

American Jews in the War of 1812

avatar by Paul Foer /

An image depicting the Battle of North Point, in Maryland, on Sept. 12, 1814. Photo: U.S. Army.

With this year’s bicentennial of the War of 1812, many Americans are relearning about the almost forgotten war when mighty Great Britain tested the resolve and sea power of its former colony.

Perhaps the best-known event of that war was the bombardment of the star-shaped Fort McHenry that defended the Port of Baltimore in September 1814. Its fame is due no doubt to Francis Scott Key, who watched the rockets’ red glare and bombs bursting in air as he penned the words to what became our national anthem, “The Star Spangled Banner.”

Jewish soldiers and volunteers were among those who withstood the British attack and made sure the star spangled banner yet waved. Although it’s not historically documented as such, one could reasonably speculate that the battle may have possibly been the largest gathering of Jewish soldiers at any time during the war.

Today, the view of the huge flag that still waves from the fort’s ramparts is complemented by powerful lights that guide ocean-going ships into the busy harbor. A “star spangled buoy” was placed to commemorate the spot where Key watched from aboard, the HMS Tonnant, out of range of the fort’s cannons and near what is today The Francis Scott Key Bridge of U.S. Interstate 695.

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There were perhaps 1,000 soldiers and Baltimore volunteers in the two-day battle. It ended with the British finally retreating due to lack of ammunition, but the port city of Baltimore—the third-largest American city after New York and Philadelphia at the time—was spared further attack, unlike the nearby capital of Washington that was burned three weeks earlier. Among those who fought the British at Fort McHenry were Privates Jacob, Philip and Mendes Cohen and Second Sergeant Samuel Cohen, all of the First Regiment, Maryland Artillery (one account has Jacob attending his sick father in Philadelphia).

Solomon and his son Samuel Etting fought with the Baltimore Fencibles (perhaps also called Captain Joseph Nicholson’s Artillery Fencibles or Captain Joseph H. Nicholson’s company of Baltimore Fencibles), a volunteer militia attached to the same regiment. Samuel was slightly wounded. The surnames but not first names of Andrew, Peter, Thomas and Vincent Levy suggest that they were possibly Jewish. There was an Isaac Levy and a few men named Phillips, a prominent early American Jewish family name.

It’s unclear whether Benjamin Pollock, who fought at Fort McHenry, was Jewish, but the point is that even though there were perhaps fewer than 10,000 Jews in the U.S. at the time, they served and distinguished themselves. “A History of the Jews In The United States” says there is a “definite record of 43 Jews who served in the armed forces, besides a special group in Baltimore, who were enlisted in the home defense force of that city when it was attacked.”

According to Barnett Abraham Elzas’s book, “The Jews of South Carolina: From the earliest times to the present day,” Jacob de la Motta served as a surgeon in the regular army and Abraham de Leon was a surgeon’s mate. Army Captain Abraham A. Massias was promoted to major in 1814 and Hyam Cohen was a first lieutenant. Myer Moses served as a militia captain. Naval officer Levi Charles Harby was captured and imprisoned by the British at Dartmoor until the war ended.

Click photo to download. Caption: Judah Touro, pictured, enlisted and carried ammunition in the Battle of New Orleans. Credit: PD.Although he was in poor health and could not fight, Judah Touro, who became one of the most prominent and philanthropic Jews in America, enlisted and carried ammunition in the Battle of New Orleans, where he was seriously wounded. Some sources list the French-born John Ordroneaux, a privateer and naval commander, as a Jew, but this author is not convinced that is a fact.

While leading the Thirteenth Pennsylvania Infantry, Mordecai Myers of Newport, RI was wounded at the Battle of Chrysler’s Farm on the Canadian side of the St. Lawrence River in November 1813. The book “The Jews of Philadelphia” mentions Brigadier General Joseph Bloomfield, who commanded much of the Mid-Atlantic army. This author believes it is also unlikely that Bloomfield, an early governor of New Jersey, was Jewish (even though his father was a doctor named Moses!). Other sources describe him as a Presbyterian who was buried in an Episcopal Church cemetery.

Philadelphian Benjamin Gratz enlisted in 1813 at the age of 21 and served as a second lieutenant. Joseph Phillips, Abraham Mitchell and David Seixas are also mentioned in some sources. Holland-born Isaac De Young (possibly De Jung), who enlisted as a 16-year-old and fought in many battles including Fort McHenry, may have been Jewish.

Perhaps no Jews distinguished themselves more than Uriah Philips Levy and Jean LaFitte, two colorful and controversial figures, about whom many books have been written and memorials have been named. Levy, of Philadelphia, served as a sailing master and captured many British merchant ships, before he was taken prisoner and sent to Dartmoor. He was eventually promoted to the rank of commodore, the equivalent of a rear admiral, and was the first Jew to attain “flag” rank in the American Navy despite being court-martialed six times due to anti-Jewish fellow officers.

Lafitte, who is popularly known as a “pirate” or perhaps the more acceptable term “privateer,” was the enterprising descendant of Spanish Jews, perhaps originally named Lefitto, who had settled in France. He controlled a trading empire in the bayous of Louisiana and provided ammunition, powder and men to fight with General Jackson in the January 1815 Battle of New Orleans—where the British were routed, although the war is said to have “technically” ended by that time.

And just in case you were wondering, the star-shaped Fort McHenry, as with the 15 stars on the flag, was five and not six-sided.

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