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George Washington and the vital contribution Jews made to victory in the American war for independence

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George Washington is remembered in Jewish history for the letter he wrote to the Hebrew Congregation in Newport, Rhode Island in August 1790. The letter is addressed to "the children of the stock of Abraham" and poetically quoted the Old Testament, vowing that the new government "gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance."

The Jewish presence in Newport, R.I., dated to the arrival of fifteen Sephardic Jewish families in 1658. Property for a synagogue was purchased in 1759 and a building was completed and dedicated in 1763 (eventually known as Touro Synagogue). At least twenty-five Jewish families (at most about 200-300 Jews) lived in Newport by the time of the Revolution, making it the largest Jewish community in the colonies.

Washington was scheduled to visit Newport in August 1790. The warden of the Congregation Yeshuat Israel of Newport, Moses Seixas, a leading town merchant and later cashier of the Bank of Rhode Island, probably presented a letter to Washington on the morning of 18 August 1790 (dated August 17, 1790) when the town and Christian clergy of Newport also delivered addresses to the president.

The letter said:

"Permit the children of the Stock of Abraham to approach you with the most cordial affection and esteem for your person & merits and to join with our fellow Citizens in welcoming you to New Port.

For all the Blessings of civil and religious liberty which we enjoy under an equal and benign administration, we desire to send up our thanks to the Antient of Days [Obsolete spelling of ancient], the great preserver of Men--beseeching him, that the Angel who conducted our forefathers through the wilderness into the promised land, may graciously conduct you through all the difficulties and dangers of this mortal life…."

Entire letter can be read by hitting here.

George Washington reciprocated with a letter To the Hebrew Congregation in Newport, Rhode Island, dated August 18, 1790. In the letter, he wrote:

"While I received with much satisfaction your address replete with expressions of esteem, I rejoice in the opportunity of assuring you that I shall always retain grateful remembrance of the cordial welcome I experienced on my visit to Newport from all classes of citizens.

… the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.

May the children of the stock of Abraham who dwell in this land continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other inhabitants--while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree and there shall be none to make him afraid."

Entire Washington letter can be read by hitting here.

Why would Washington send such a letter to the miniscule Jewish community residing at that time in the newly independent United States of America? By 1776 and the War of Independence, around 1,500- 2,500 Jews lived in America, most of them of Spanish and Portuguese origin. The estimated total population for the USA was 2.5 million full citizens (excluding slaves and Native Americans), so the Jews represented about .0008 percent of the total population.

But Washington had personal experience with a number of Jewish individuals. Jews had little impact on the actual fighting in the Revolution: given their small numbers there were probably only about 100 actual fighters. Washington, however, knew and appreciated the Jewish contribution to financing the revolution, helping to obtain the necessary armaments for the fight, and possibly most important, creating the factors that led to his final victory of the American War of Independence at the battle of Yorktown.

The most important of the financiers was Haym Salomon. Salomon floated loans to the Government without charging fees, equipped military units, servicemen, and intermittently paid the salaries of Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and James Monroe when the Treasury was nearly broke. He was never paid back and died bankrupt.

Haym Salomon (or Solomon) was born in Leszno, Poland to a Jewish family from Portugal. In 1775, he immigrated to New York City, where he established himself as a financial broker for merchants engaged in overseas trade.

Sympathizing with the Patriot cause, Solomon joined the New York branch of the Sons of Liberty. In September 1776, he was arrested as a spy but the British pardoned him after serving 18 months of his sentence, in order to use his abilities as an interpreter for their Hessian mercenaries. In 1778 Solomon was arrested again and sentenced to death, but he managed to escape, whereupon he made his way with his family to the rebel capital in Philadelphia.

Once resettled, Solomon resumed his activities as a broker. He became the agent to the French consul, as well as the paymaster for the French forces in North America. In 1781, he began working extensively with Robert Morris, the newly appointed Superintendent for Finance for the Thirteen Colonies. Solomon negotiated the sale of a majority of the war aid from France and Holland, selling bills of exchange to American merchants.

The Treaty of Paris, signed on September 3, 1783, ended the Revolutionary War but not the financial problems of the newly established nation. It was Haym Solomon who managed to raise the money to bail out the debt-ridden government.

In 1784, he answered anti-Semitic slander in the press by stating: "I am a Jew; it is my own nation; I do not despair that we shall obtain every other privilege that we aspire to enjoy along with our fellow-citizens."

Other Jewish businessmen and merchants utilized their resources, ships, materiel, and brain power to impede the progression of the enemy, achieve freedom for the country, and win the war.

Among these merchants, Isaac Moses was prominent. He left New York City when the British occupied it and moved to Philadelphia. There, as Isaac Moses & Company, he distinguished himself as one of America's best known merchant-shippers and blockade-runners, and at his own expense, fitted out eight privateers to prey on British commerce. Isaac Moses and Samuel Myers loaded their vessels with cannon to overturn British ships. They purchased goods in Amsterdam, moved them to St. Eustatius Island, for surreptitious transport back to America.

Moses was also the wealthiest Jew in Philadelphia. In 1781, he offered 3,000 pounds sterling to replenish the Continental Army with necessities, and bought bills of credit alongside Mordecai Sheftall and Michael Gratz to sustain the Treasury. Isaac Moses, with Alexander Hamilton, was one of the founders of the Bank of New York in 1784

Michael and Bernard Gratz of Philadelphia supplied gunpowder and firearms to George Washington’s troops. Along with Solomon Bush, they underwrote the soldiers’ rations at Fort Pitt, Pennsylvania.

Aaron Lopez abandoned home and business in Newport and fled to Leicester, Massachusetts when the British took Savannah in 1778. There he set up a retail shop and a modest commodities trade via overland routes through Salem, Boston, and Providence. Over the course of the next four years he became a key supplier to the American forces, providing such necessities as flour and leather breeches.

Solomon Simson donated cannon and lead to make bullets. Samuel De Lucena dispatched potassium carbonate to fashion soap and glass as Joseph Simon reheated his forge to manufacture Henry rifles. Jacob Isaacs sent munitions. The silversmith, Myer Myers, artisan to Paul Revere and others, “… organized a campaign to have… communities remove the[ir] lead sashes…and replace them with wood. He then helped melt the lead… into cannon balls and bullets… to use against the British.”

Meanwhile, in Savannah, Abigail Minis and her nine children were also helping. A prosperous innkeeper, she stocked Washington’s troops with homegrown agricultural products until the British became suspicious. She received permission from the British, however, to move with her daughters to safety in Charleston, South Carolina, where she continued her support for the revolution.

Her son, Philip Minis, contributed $11,000 to cover the salaries of the North Carolina and Virginia Regiments. In 1776 he was appointed acting paymaster of Georgia’s regimental forces; by the end of the War George Washington acknowledged him as a hero.

The Island of St. Eustatius

The Island of St. Eustatius [now named simply Statia] earned a unique place in the annals of the history of the United States. The island is one of the Netherlands Antilles islands and became the Caribbean Arsenal of the American Revolution. The island was also the first to recognize the United States as a sovereign power when a congratulatory exchange of fire occurred between the island's Fort Orange and the American Brigantine Andria Doria.

Over a hundred Jewish families constituted the core of the mercantile establishment on the island. Jews were among the first settlers of St. Eustatius and they had built a synagogue to which they gave the title Honen Dalim (“The One who is merciful to the poor”). Jews on St. Eustatius and the contacts they maintained with their cousins throughout the Diaspora proved invaluable for obtaining war materials for the American rebels from Spain, Portugal, France, Holland, and even from England!

The ability to conduct war and to achieve military success hinges on keeping an army supplied with food, clothes, tents, and especially munitions and ordnance. General Washington was constantly pressing the Congress for more supplies. "I am so restrained in all my military movements," he wrote General Trumbull, "that it is impossible to undertake anything effectual." St. Eustatius became almost exclusively the transhipment port for war materials destined for the United States.

St. Eustatius and its Jews also played an unexpected role in the American victory over British forces in Yorktown. In August 1781 the Continental Army had trapped Lieutenant General Charles Cornwallis and his 7,800 man army at the Chesapeake Bay port of Yorktown, Virginia. Cornwallis expected that the British domination of the sea would provide a lifeline to military reinforcements and supplies and the means by which he could recoup his military strength.

Washington saw an opportunity but his war chest was completely empty, as was that of Congress. Washington determined that he needed at least $20,000 to finance the campaign. When Morris told him there were no funds and no credit available Washington gave him a simple but eloquent order: "Send for Haym Solomon." Solomon raised $20,000 and Washington conducted the Yorktown campaign.

Aware that the arrival of the French fleet from The West Indies would give the allies control of the Chesapeake, Washington began moving the American and French forces south toward Virginia in August. On September 5, 1781, Washington rode into Chester, a town on the Bay "when a courier from de Grasse's fleet came riding up to tell him that the Admiral had arrived in the Bay with no less than 28 ships and 3000 troops, and that they were already being disembarked and placed in contact with Lafayette." The Cornwallis trap was laid! "

In the ensuing engagement, the British Chesapeake fleet, outnumbered and out-gunned, was crippled and dispersed. De Grasse made the Chesapeake Bay his domain and cutting off Cornwallis' escape. When Washington arrived outside Yorktown, the combined Franco-American force of 18,900 men began besieging Cornwallis in early October. The blockade and a massive bombardment by land and sea of the entrapped British forces brought that campaign to an end.

A dispatch from Yorktown told how Cornwallis was 'in daily expectation of the appearance of the British fleet to relieve him." No sails appeared. On October 19, Cornwallis' petition for surrender was granted.

Cornwallis decided his position was becoming untenable and he surrendered his entire army on October 19, 1781. The Battle of Yorktown was a decisive victory that proved to be the last major land battle of the American Revolutionary War in North America, and resulted in the British government negotiating an end to the conflict.

Had the British fleet provided the critical support to the beleaguered British army at Yorktown, the war might have taken an entirely different course. So why did the British Navy not show up at Yorktown?

British Admiral Sir George Rodney’s greed proved to be the determining factor in the last significant battle of the American Revolution. The dazzling wealth of goods in the warehouses of St. Eustatius Island, in the ships in its harbor, and the personal possessions of its three hundred and fifty Jews diverted Rodney and the commanders under him from preventing the disaster that befell the British forces under General Cornwallis.

On January 27, 1781, Rodney was informed that Britain was now at war with the United Provinces (Holland) and recommended as "first objects of attack St. Eustatius and St. Martin." As two of Britain's most redoubtable military figures, he and Major-General Sir John Vaughan were dispatched to raid and occupy the island.

"The admiral's own force represented 9 ships with six hundred guns plus fireships and Bomb vessels. Shortly, Rodney would add Sir Samuel's six ships. The most modest estimate suggests a minimum of ten thousand seamen crewing the British ships. Each vessel of any consequence also carried a detachment of Marines with Vaughan's reinforced army now in the order of three thousand souls."

The virtually defenseless island succumbed quickly to the British forces. Rodney confiscated all the merchandise stuffing the warehouses, valued at three to four million pounds sterling. Vaughan wrote that "150 Sail of Ships and Vessels of all Sorts" in the harbor were likewise seized along with their cargos.

"Rodney singled out the Jews... and ordered them stripped for cash or precious stones or whatever might be secreted in their clothing. Acting out a common antipathy with unnecessary zeal, he ordered the Jews expelled on one days notice, without notice to their families or access to their homes."28 8,000 pounds sterling was extracted from their persons.

Rodney's hatred for the Jews found expression in his letters. He urges Vaughan on 13 February - a day of reckoning for the Jews, "they cannot too soon be taken care of - they are notorious in the cause of America and France."

Rodney's insatiable appetite for loot is amply evident from his letters. In a letter of February 6 to Vaughan, for example, he wrote: "One of my officers will wait upon you, upon a very good affair - a Rascal of a Jew has a chest with 5000 Joes [Johannes - i.e., Portuguese gold coins] in a cane patch - a negro will shew the place, upon a promise of Freedom and reward."

As a consequence of this greed, Rodney failed to intercept the French fleet under Admiral de Grasse on its way to the Chesapeake Bay. Rodney was expected to intercept the French fleet, but he was so involved with looting Statia's treasures that he assigned this task to a much lesser force under Admiral Hood.

While Cornwallis was entrenching his army of 7,800 men at Yorktown, Admiral Rodney, his officers and men were amassing vast stores of loot from the Jews of St. Eustatius, the warehouses and population, and lading it aboard a convoy of 34 vessels to England and in enriching themselves in the process. He became so involved in the disposal of the enormous booty that he dallied at the island for six months."

Jews who made their contribution to the fighting in the American War of Independence

Of the 2,000 Jews living at the time in America at the time, their readiness to enter the battle for freedom was out of proportion to their numbers. Their efforts probably contributed to Washington’s favorable views about the Jews.

Francis Salvador was the first American Jew to be killed in the American Revolution, fighting on the South Carolina frontier. Salvador was born in London within the local Portuguese-speaking Sephardic Jewish community. He bought 7,000 acres (28 km2) in the new district of Ninety-Six (known as "Jews Land") and moved there in 1773. After arriving in Charleston in December 1773 Salvador at once entered into the American cause, and became close friends with the leaders of the Revolution in the South. Salvador was elected to South Carolina's General Assembly within a year of arriving, the first Jew to hold that office in any of the English colonies in North America. He was just 27 and would hold the post until his death.

Early in 1776 the British had induced the Indians to attack the South Carolina frontier to create a diversion in favor of British operations on the sea-coast; and on July 1, 1776, the Indians began attacking frontier families. Salvador mounted his horse and galloped to Major Williamson, 28 miles (45 km) away, and gave the alarm. Salvador took part in the engagements that followed. On July 31, Major Andrew Williamson captured two white loyalists, who led his 330 men into an ambush prepared by their fellow Tories and Seneca Indians on the Keowee River. Salvador was shot. Falling among the bushes, he was discovered by the Indians and scalped. He died from his wounds, age 29.

Concerning his death, Colonel William Thomson wrote to William Henry Drayton, in a letter dated "Camp, two miles below Keowee, August 4th, 1775", as follows: When I came up to him, after dislodging the enemy, and speaking to him, he asked, whether I had beat the enemy? I told him yes. He said he was glad of it, and shook me by the hand – and bade me farewell – and said, he would die in a few minutes."

Mordecai Sheftall of Savannah, Georgia, was the head of the local revolutionary committee and was responsible for provisioning soldiers. In 1778, he was appointed Deputy Commissary General for Federal troops, but before Congress could approve, the British captured and imprisoned him and his son in December 1778. Both were taken to a notorious British prison ship, the Nancy, where they were treated poorly. Eventually paroled to a town under British supervision where local Tories beat and killed Patriots as British troops evacuated under fire from American forces, both Sheftalls escaped by sea, only to be recaptured and sent to Antigua. They were freed in 1780 and made their way to Philadelphia to rejoin their family.

David S. Franks was born in Philadelphia around 1740 into a large and highly respected Jewish merchant family. As a young man, Franks’ father relocated his branch of the family to Quebec. In 1775, on the eve of the Revolution, David S. Franks was living in Montreal and when the Continental Army invaded Quebec to "liberate" it from the British, Franks joined the revolutionaries. He was appointed paymaster of the Continental Army in Quebec and apparently expended his own funds to pay the salaries of the American volunteers.

When the American campaign faltered in Canada Franks retreated to Philadelphia, reaching it in July 1776. He joined the Continental Army and served actively until October 1777 Franks attained the rank of major and was assigned as aide-de-camp to Benedict Arnold, the military governor of Philadelphia. When Arnold’s treason at West Point became known Franks fell under suspicion of complicity.

The court martial dropped all charges against David Salisbury Franks on the ground that they were unfounded. After Franks was returned to active duty, General George Washington had him assigned to his command. A promotion in rank immediately followed. Franks was entrusted by the State Department to carry highly secret documents to diplomats Benjamin Franklin in Paris and John Jay in Madrid. According to his accounts, Franks often paid more of his expenses than his beloved young nation could afford to reimburse.

Solomon Bush enrolled as a captain and adjutant early in 1776 in the famed ‘Flying Camp of Associators of Pennsylvania.’ He saw action in the Battle of Long Island, which led to a retreat and the loss of New York by Washington’s army. The unit was mobilized again in 1777 for the defense of Philadelphia against an expected attack. It came in the fall and Bush, now a major, had his thigh broken shortly after the Battle of Brandywine. In the meantime, Bush had been promoted to lieutenant-colonel and was made deputy adjutant-general of the Pennsylvania militia

The Supreme Executive Committee presented him with a special citation for distinguished and brilliant service rendered in and out of battle, especially during the winter of 1776, "when the service was critical and hazardous." Captain Lewis Bush, the colonel's brother, was mortally wounded.

In 1779 a special corps of volunteer infantry was composed largely of Israelites who resided on King St in the city of Charleston. Among its Jewish members were David N. Cardozo, Jacob I. Cohen, and Joseph Solomon. This body subsequently fought under General Moultrie at the battle of Beaufort. Among others who served in the field may be mentioned Jacob de la Motta, Jacob de Leon, Marks Lazarus, and the Cardozos. Major Benjamin Nones, a French Jew in Kazimierz Pułaski's regiment, distinguished himself during the siege of Charleston and won the praise of his commander for gallantry and daring.

Dr. Phillip Moses Russell was Washington’s surgeon general at Valley Forge, while Dr. David de Isaac Cohen Nassy tended to Philadelphians, affectionately, during a yellow fever epidemic.

With the outbreak of the Revolutionary War, the three sons of Jacob Pinto of New Haven, Conn. – Solomon, Abraham, and William – took up arms in the Continental army. They were the children of Jacob Pinto’s first wife, Thankful, who was not Jewish though the boys were considered Jewish. They all fought in the battle on July 5, 1779 when two Britishships landed at West Haven.

Abraham Pinto was a member of Company X, Seventh Regiment of the State of Connecticut and wounded in action. Solomon Pinto became an ensign and served from 77- 83.

Reuben Etting of Baltimore enlisted the moment he heard about the Battle of Lexington and headed north to Massachusetts. He was taken prisoner by the British who, when they discovered he was Jewish, gave him only pork, which he refused to eat. He was able to survive on scraps of permitted food from fellow prisoners. Weakened by such treatment, he died shortly after his release.

A cousin bearing the same name of Reuben Etting also fought in the war and was appointed as a United States marshal in 1801 by President Thomas Jefferson.

Though the Jewish population in America was small at the time they made many contributions to the war.