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Jewish Freedom Fighters of 1848
and Heroes of the Civil War

By Peter Rosenbluth

When the Hungarian Revolution of 1848 was crushed, the Jews who participated had to leave Hungary to avoid retribution by the Habsburg rulers. About 1,000 Jewish veterans of the rebellion immigrated to America and volunteered for the Union Army where they brought their much-needed military experience at a time when most of the skilled officers and veterans were in the service of the Confederates.

Jews fought on both sides; however, the Hungarian Jews joined the Union because of their experience in their homeland. During the revolution, they had demanded an end to the absolute monarchical structures, freedom of the press, civil and religious equality before the law, equal taxation and the immediate end of serfdom. The Hungarian Jews viewed the living conditions of slaves in America as similar to those of the serfs; consequently, it is not surprising that the Jews of Austria and Hungary vehemently opposed slavery.

Jewish officers formed the backbone of many regiments that played key roles in the war. They also organized volunteer brigades. Colonel Frederick George Utassy, for example, was the founder and commander of the 39th New York Volunteer Infantry regiment. The regiment was also known as the Garibaldi Guard because many of its soldiers had fought in the Second Italian War of Independence.Utassy’s brothers, Frederick and Karl, also joined the army and Karl fought at the Battle of Gettysburg.

Colonel Frederick Utassy Captain Karl Utassy

The highest ranking Jewish general of the Union Army, Frederick Knefler, was also from Hungary. He was barely 15 when he fought in the Hungarian Revolution. He was also one of the founders of the first Jewish Congregation in Indianapolis. Knefler was recognized for displaying extraordinary gallantry at the Battle of Missionary Ridge.

Another of the Jewish heroes was August Bondi, who was one of the abolitionist John Brown’s closest friends. Bondi rode with him in Kansas and later joined the Union cavalry. He fought throughout the war despite being severely wounded. Bondi often stated the values of 1848 and Judaism influenced his anti-slavery views:

My parents always impressed upon their children that Jews or Christians, high or low, all are children of a common Father. These principles affected my conduct all through life. While keeping a strictly Jewish house, my parents favoured my knowledge of other religions. I had read the “New Testament” before I was eight years old…I could not, under these conditions, help forming my mind according to the command of Moses, “Thou must love the Eternal, thy God and thy neighbour as thyself.” Enthusiastic Jew and lover of humanity.

Joseph Pulitzer, after whom the Pulitzer Prize is named, was also a volunteer from Hungary who served in the 1st Regiment New York Volunteer Cavalry (also known as Lincoln Cavalry).

During the war, Jewish officers witnessed first-hand the prejudice directed at African-American soldiers. No strangers to such bigotry, they provided training to them when white officers refused to do so. One of those officers was Ignatius Kappner, whose name was later inscribed on several African-American Civil War monuments. Kappner is also known for having trained the 3rd Regiment US Colored Heavy Artillery into one of the highest skilled units. Sources mention he cared deeply for his black soldiers as well as their families. 

Source: The documentary Jews and Patriots.