(1804 - 1887)
Jews have left an indelible, if now nearly forgotten,
mark on the nations history. Alfred Mordecai was
one such individual. He introduced scientific methods
into the development of pre-Civil War American military
munitions. The outbreak of the Civil War placed Mordecai,
a native Southerner, in an untenable moral and emotional
dilemma. In 1861, when the U. S. government was in dire
need of his expertise, rather than take either side
Mordecai retired from the Army and in effect
dropped out of subsequent US military history.
Alfred Mordecai was raised by Orthodox parents in Warrenton, North Carolina. His father, Jacob,
a merchant of middling success, built a reputation as
a Biblical scholar. The Mordecai family kept a kosher home and observed the holy days. When a bad investment
in the tobacco wiped out the tobacco business, Jacob
and his wife Rebecca opened a nonsectarian girls
boarding school that established a reputation as one
of the best in the South.
Young Alfred received his education
in the liberal arts as the only boy at his parents
boarding school and at home, where he learned Hebrew
language and Jewish subjects. Mordecai was particularly
brilliant at mathematics and, at age 15, entered the
United Sates Military Academy at West Point, the one
public institution in the U.S. where a young man could
receive a scientific education.
As the only Jew then at West Point,
Mordecai found it difficult to maintain his religious
practice. With the other cadets, Mordecai was forced
to attend Presbyterian chapel each Sunday. Kosher food
was unavailable. Despite the stresses, Mordecai graduated
in 1823, at age 19, at the top of the class. He continued
at West Point as an instructor, then supervised construction
of fortifications along the Atlantic Coast and was eventually
stationed in Washington, D.C., as assistant to the Army
Chief of Engineers. In 1836, Mordecai was appointed
commander of the Frankford Arsenal in Philadelphia.
That year, he married Sarah Ann Hays of that city, a
niece of Rebecca Gratz.
Mordecai rose to the rank of major and, during the Mexican War, assumed
command of the armys most significant arsenal, in Washington,
DC. Mordecai became an assistant to the Secretary of War and to the
Chief of Ordnance, wrote an excellent Digest of Military Laws and served
on the Board of Visitors to West Point.
"It was as a member of the Ordnance Board," historian Stanley
L. Falk observes, "which passed on and developed all new weapons,
ammunition and ordnance equipment for the Army, that [Mordecai] made
his greatest contributions." Mordecai instituted scientific testing
of munitions and new weapons systems. In 1841, he authored the first-ever
ordnance manual for the US military that standardized the manufacture
of weapons with interchangeable parts, a step in the evolution of American
mass manufacturing. According to Falk, Mordecai also "performed
important experiments with artillery and gunpowder, the results of .
. . which were published in 1845 . . . and later translated into French
and German." The year 1857 marked the peak of Mordecais career.
He traveled to Europe to observe the use of weaponry in the Crimean
War. His report, written on his return, is considered a classic of American
Falk asserts that Mordecais work "was valued for its accuracy,
its precise and systematic nature, and its immediate usefulness. It
was an example and an inspiration for every other worker in the same
field, and Mordecai was respected by all of them for his technical contributions
no less than he was loved for his fineness of character, integrity,
warmth and gentle humor."
Mordecais military career seemed
made, at least until April, 1861, when South Carolina
troops fired on the Federal military garrison at Ft.
Sumter in Charleston Harbor and Civil War erupted. Mordecai
had spent his career his entire adult life in
the United States Army. In 1861, his son Alfred, Jr.,
graduated from West Point and accepted a commission
in the Army. At the same time, all of Mordecais
siblings lived in the South and sided with the Confederacy.
Fighting against them, or even helping to make arms
to be used against them, was anathema to Mordecai. He
sought a U.S. Army post in California, away from battle.
His request denied, Mordecai had no choice and resigned
his commission. The Confederacy offered him a post,
but he declined. A proud career military man, Mordecai
watched the war from the sidelines, teaching mathematics
at a private school and living, in effect, on his daughters
At wars end, Mordecai declined to return to the military and
worked as an engineer for the Imperial Mexican Railroad. In 1866, he
moved to Philadelphia, where he lived modestly for another 20 years
as treasurer and secretary for a canal company until his death in 1887.
Today, the United States military possesses
the worlds most sophisticated weaponry: laser
guided "smart" bombs, shoulder-launched nuclear
weapons and bullets that penetrate tank armor. American
ordnance is the envy of the world and a source of its
military hegemony. The little remembered Alfred Mordecai
laid the groundwork for scientific development of ordnance
that undergirds Americas current world leadership.
Jewish Historical Society