Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Alfred Mordecai's Civil Wars

[As promised in a previous post, "Rebecca Gratz and the Civil War," here is the first of the profiles of Gratz relatives' war experiences.]

Alfred Mordecai, (1804-1887) was a North Carolinian. His father ran a girls' boarding school in Warrenton, NC, which was considered one of the best in the South. Alfred, the only boy who attended the Mordecai School, received special tutoring and was admitted to West Point (no doubt quite a change) when he was fifteen. He graduated first in his class of 1823, and after two years as an assistant professor at the Academy and a stint building forts in Virginia, he became the assistant to Gen. Alexander Macomb in the War Office's Engineering Department in Washington.

In 1835 he was appointed to head the Frankford Arsenal in Philadelphia. Mordecai had met Sara Hays, Rebecca Gratz's niece, a few times during his Washington days and renewed the acquaintance. His father, a scholar of religion as well as a schoolmaster, had recently visited Philadelphia where he had met Rebecca; the Gratz's were ready to welcome his son. In June 1836 Alfred and Sara were married.

The marriage was not without its tensions. Mordecai, though not a slaveholder, upheld the institution and states' rights; his wife held northern (although not Abolitionist) views on slavery and the importance of the Union. While she was an observant Jew and tried to interest her husband in religion, he remained a firm agnostic despite his upbringing in an observant family. Still, in 1855 when his brother was about to marry, Alfred said he hoped the couple would be as happy as he and Sara were.

After his marriage Mordecai continued to rise in the army as an expert in ordnance, receiving assignments in recognition of his knowledge -- an inspection tour of European munitions factories and a trip to the Crimea to observe the war there. He and his family lived in Washington during most of this period, moving to Watervliet NY when Mordecai was posted to the Arsenal there in 1857.

As the Civil War approached, Major Mordecai faced an almost unbearable choice. He was a southerner by birth and would have lived there if his career had permitted it. He was also the pride of his large extended family -- a symbol of Jewish patriotism and success. Now they expected him to become one of their military heroes in the struggle against the North. But Mordecai had competing loyalties which his Southern relatives discounted. First, there was the United States Army to which he had devoted his life. Then there was his son, Alfred, Jr., at West Point as the War began, who, without any divided allegiances, would be fighting for the Union. Finally, there were Sara and his daughters, Northerners who would be forced to live in the Confederacy if he went with the South.

Both the Governor of North Carolina and Jefferson Davis, an old friend, offered Mordecai commissions as the War began. He turned them down and requested to be transferred to somewhere far away from the War -- in the West, perhaps. His request was denied, and he resigned from the United States Army; the family arrived in Philadelphia at the end of May 1861.

Mordecai's principled stand had immediate financial repercussions: he had no other income than his salary; in September 1861 his daughters opened a school on Delancey Place in Philadelphia by which they hoped to support their family. Rebecca Gratz reported at the time that Major Mordecai was "very broken-spirited" despite "the girls' noble efforts to cheer their parents."

A year later, another friend Elizabeth Blair Lee, visiting from Washington, looked in on the family and found the Major "a premature old, old man....he hangs about doing nothing not even reading and [his daughters] are working in their school for bread...." Rebecca, an ardent Unionist, was also critical: the major's "associates," she found, were those "among the disaffected [Southern sympathizers]...so I fear whatever sentiments he might have entertained in the beginning -- they are now so far implicated on the wrong side that he will find it difficult to recede -- poor Sara is victimized being the only loyal member of the household -- the subject nearest all our hearts is never discussed in their household."

The atmosphere in the Mordecai home may have been an emotional war zone, but somehow the family pulled through. Mordecai found a job teaching mathematics, then worked for a company owned by the Pennsylvania Railroad. At the end of the war, he was employed by the Imperial Mexican Railroad, which allowed him to get away from the scene of his humiliation. Mordecai liked Mexico and the many ex-Confederates who worked with him. Together they dreamed of setting up a slave state, and Alfred considered bringing his family to live there. These plans collapsed with the defeat of Maximillian, and Mordecai returned to Philadelphia and to the job he had left.

In post-war Philadelphia, Unionists and those who had been pro-South (a minority which included members of eminent local families) somehow patched up their differences. Alfred Mordecai, criticized by both sides for his decision to stay out of combat, was accepted. In 1877, when the Gratz family was concerned that the press had erroneously characterized Rebecca's relationship with Washington Irving as a romance, it was Mordecai who was delegated to write the first article about Rebecca by a family member.

In 1886, Alfred and Sara Mordecai celebrated their golden anniversary, a milestone rarely achieved in the nineteenth century. The family sent out hundreds of invitations, but only one member of Alfred Mordecai's southern family attended. His relatives had always believed that it was Sara who had prevented him from taking his place among the military leaders of the Confederacy.

(I have gleaned the information about Mordecai's life from Emily Bingham's Mordecai: An Early American Family. The quotes from Rebecca are in Letters of Rebecca Gratz, edited by David Phillipson, accessible on Google Books. Elizabeth Blair Lee's quote is from Wartime Washington: the Civil War Letters of Elizabeth Blair Lee, edited by Virginia Jeans Laas, also accessible on Google Books. Alfred Mordecai's article appeared in Philadelphia's Jewish Record.)

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