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April 12: Alfred Mordecai’s Civil War

April 11, 2016

Mordecai_Alfred_LOCPPOCThe Confederate military fired on Fort Sumter, South Carolina in the port of Charleston on this date in 1861, sparking the Civil War — and a conflict in the heart of Major Alfred Mordecai, a military munitions expert who had been the first Jew educated at West Point. An Orthodox Jew from Warrenton, North Carolina, Mordecai had instituted scientific testing of weaponry and had written the first ordnance manual for the U.S. military that “standardized the manufacture of weapons with interchangeable parts, a step in the evolution of American mass manufacturing,” according to the Jewish Virtual Library. He became a recognized expert in weapons testing, research, and design, and had spent his entire career in the military, when the Civil War began. With all of his siblings living in the South and siding with the Confederacy, he sought a posting in California, away from war, and and resigned his commission when the request was denied. The Confederacy sought his services, but he declined that, too, returning to the military only at the end of the war. His son, Alfred Jr., fought with the Union and became a Brigadier General.

“Of the 500,000 Africans kidnapped to the U.S. before the slave trade was abolished, 40 percent came through the port of Charleston. Of the fifteen Americans who owned more than 500 slaves before the Civil War, eight lived in Charleston. When Fort Sumter was fired upon by Confederates in Charleston’s harbor to start the Civil War, more than half of Charleston’s population was enslaved. More than 250 slave insurrections took place in South Carolina alone.” —Lawrence Bush, Jewish Currents