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Jews As American Soldiers

By Julilan Batlan


May 2004

As the Flag Bearer of the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War's Abraham Lincoln Camp 100, whose American-Jewish ancestor, Color Sgt. Benjamin B. Levy, Co. H, 1st New York Infantry Volunteers, was one of the very first Americans to receive the Medal of Honor, I hope that this information about the 500-year long history of American Jews in the military will be of interest to readers.

(My ancestor was honored for his heroic actions at the Battle of Charles City Crossroads, Glendale, Va., on June 30, 1862. He is one of just a handful who received the United States's highest decoration for military combat valor while the Civil War was still in progress.)

One of the big American secrets is the history of Jews being among the earliest Europeans in the New World who were active as adventurer-explorers, soldiers, pioneers, settlers, farmers, ranchers and town and city builders. (Abraham Mordecai, a Revolutionary soldier of the Pennsylvania Line, is the acknowledged founder of the city of Montgomery, Ala., and there is an unbroken line of villages and towns from Aaronsburg, Pa., to Heppner, Ore., bearing the names of hardy, Jewish pioneers.)

In 1492 Columbus made special entries in his ship's log next to the names of about 10 or 15 percent of his crew that stated "had been a Jew." These were the "conversos," or new Christians, most converted by means of duress just before leaving Spain. The great majority of these "conversos" in Columbus's crew were Crypto-Jews, who continued to practice the Jewish faith in secret. However, as the navigators, map makers, etc., they were the essential technicians needed for the voyage.

When Columbus sailed back to Spain, most of the Crypto-Jewish members of the crew refused to return with him to face certain torture and a horrific death of being burned alive at the stake by the Spanish Inquisition. Crypto-Jew Luis de Toro, Columbus's interpreter, is celebrated today as the first historically known European settler of Cuba. He, along with the other Crypto-Jews in the crew, was a member of Columbus's initial European militia at the first Spanish settlement in the New World.

Other known Crypto-Jews such as Capt. Alberto del Canto, Diego de Montemayor and Gaspar Castano de Sosa served with Cortez and other explorer-conquistadors of the 16th Century. In addition, Spanish Crypto-Jews were among first settlers of what is today the United States. In the 1500s, long before the Pilgrims arrived, they had settled permanently in what is today Texas, New Mexico and Arizona and served in the militias under the rule of military governors of the New Kingdom of Leon, north of Mexico City in the New World.

The American Jewish community is very proud of its American military patriotism. In a recent lecture, Richard Walling, the Christian president of The Friends of the Monmouth Battlefield in Freehold, N.J., stated that during the American Revolution an unusually high percentage of Jews were elected to be commissioned and non-commissioned officers by the men in their companies. He said that just about every patriot Jewish male of military age who was physically fit served in the armies of Gen. George Washington during the American War of Independence.

Volunteering to serve in the military during times of war has become a Jewish tradition in the United States. In every major war, including Vietnam, those of the Jewish faith have served in the military in percentage numbers greater than the total Jewish percentage of the U.S. population.

The highest ranking officer in the American Revolution was Col. David Salisbury Franks, who distinguished himself at the Battle of Saratoga. In the War of 1812 there were Jewish companies in Baltimore and elsewhere. Gen. David Emanuel Twiggs, son of Revolutionary War hero Gen. John Twiggs, served from the War of 1812 through the Mexican War and was the highest-ranking officer to leave the U.S. Army for the Confederacy a year before his death in 1862.

In the Mexican War, Jewish Gen. David de Leon led the three cavalry charges that won the Battle of Chapultepec. He later became the highest ranking Jewish general in the Confederacy.

When Abraham Lincoln made his initial call for 75,000 volunteers, only 54,000 responded, and 6,000 of them were of the Jewish faith. It should be noted that the total Northern Jewish population in 1860 was less than 100,000. During the Civil War there was an unusually high percentage of regimental commanders from the tiny Jewish population.

These included the highly respected Col. Marcus Spiegel, 120th Ohio Infantry Volunteers, and Gettysburg hero, Col. Edward S. Salomon, 82nd Illinois Infantry Volunteers, a close friend of Gen. U.S. Grant. Maj. Gen. Frederick Knefler, 79th Indiana Infantry, who distinguished himself at the Battle of Chickamauga, was the highest ranking Jewish Union Army general.

The Jewish War Veterans of the United States of America, our nation's oldest, active veterans organization, was founded by Civil War soldiers and sailors.

Col. Theodore Roosevelt's Spanish-American War memoirs give special praise for the actions of a Jewish colonel in the Regular Army who served on the left flank of the Rough Riders. The first of the Rough Riders to be killed in action was Trooper Jacob Wilbusky, a Jewish cowboy from Texas. The first to fall in the attack on Manila was Jewish Sergeant Maurice Joost of California.

During World War II, the Jews were only 3.5 percent of the total population, yet 6 percent of all Silver Star combat decorations were awarded to those of the Jewish faith. They received almost 70,000 combat decorations for combat actions. Jewish Maj. Gen. Maurice Rose, Patton's favorite tank commander, was the highest ranking U.S. officer killed in action during World War II.

My own family reflects the long military history of Jews in the United States. My original American ancestor, Jacob Barsimson, who arrived in New Amsterdam on Aug. 22, 1654, is the first documented member of the Jewish faith to settle on the east coast of North America. He was a Dutch burgher of German ancestry, employed by the Dutch West Indies Company as a fur trapper.

After a year-long legal fight, he and another Jewish leader, Asher Levy Van Swellem, successfully overcame the anti-Semitic objections of Governor Peter Stuyvesant and forced him to permit Jews to serve in the Dutch militia of New Amsterdam.

My colonial, Lancaster, Pa., family members, Joseph Simon and Levi Andrew Levy, saw action in the French and Indian War and the American Revolution. Levy's son, 4th Infantry Sgt. Simon Levy, served under Gen. Anthony Wayne at the Battle of Fallen Timbers in Ohio on Aug. 20, 1794. For his action in that battle he was appointed as a member of the first class to graduate from the United States Military Academy at West Point in 1802. It is amusing to know that the first class was 50 percent Jewish "" there were two graduates.

Military volunteers in my extended family served in the armies of both the North and the South during the Civil War. Pvt. Louis Merz, 4th Georgia Infantry Volunteers, the son of Rabbi Aaron Merz of West Point, Ga., was killed at the Battle of Antietam. In later wars, my uncle Benjamin Batlan, 42nd Infantry Division, was killed by poison gas and wounds in World War I. My late first cousin, 1st Lt. Richard Batlan, 82nd Airborne Division, United States Infantry, a D-Day Pathfinder during the World War II invasion of Normandy, was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, Silver Star, and Purple Heart decorations. My cousin, Capt. Ryan Edmonston, 4th Infantry Division, is currently on active duty in Iraq.

Over the centuries, we have followed the family's, and the American-Jewish community's, long tradition of volunteering for military service in wartime when our country's freedom and liberty are threatened.

r, and Combat Infantryman Badge. He lives in New Jersey where his many civic activities include the Jewish War Veterans of the United States of America.Julian "Bud" Batlan is a decorated World War II Army veteran who attained the rank of captain as an in

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