Home page Jews in the Civil War Jews in the Wild West History of Palestine The Occident Virtual Library Shopping Mall of Zion

בס"ד


The Ben Berith
A reminiscence of the late war


The Battle of Nashville

 

This short story appeared in The Jewish Messenger in 1866. The author's initials are given as "B.F.P." who has been identified as Benjamin Franklin Peixotto, an observant Jew, Grand Master of the B'nai B'rith organization and United States Consul in Bucharest, appointed by President Ulysses S. Grant (the "Anti-Semite") in 1870.

Is this story fact or fiction? Benjamin Peixotto is not listed in Simon Wolf's directory of Jewish-American Civil War soldiers, so he can not have been the narrator. However, his brother Moses Peixotto was a Captain in the 103rd Ohio Infantry, so this narrative of a Jewish soldier in battle and hospital may very well be about him. The style of the narrative is overly florid in the style so well loved by Victorians, but the message is clear: the lonely Jew's only friends are his fellow Jews.

The distant roar of the fiercely raging battle. each moment became fainter as they bore me on a stretcher from the field. I was semi-conscious by turns only, and then naught but a confused, rumbling sound smote upon my ear. When at length my comrades rested, a momentary gleam of intelligence shot through my hot brain; then all was gloom and darkness, as if the shadow of death hovering above had descended, and my frail anatomy had ceased to pulsate with the breath of mortality. When next I awoke, I lay in the hospital--twenty mortal hours had passed in the interval--I came to suddenly, and as quickly passed away again.

How long I lay in this state I know not, I shall never know, except as I have learned it from those who watched over me with a tenderness and solicitude that, while "memory holds a seat in this distracted globe," I shall ever most gratefully remember. At that time, as returning consciousness came back to me, I could only then recall "a mass of things, but nothing distinctly." It was the day of Nashville. Who that participated in that splendid action can ever forget it? GRANT had captured the garrison of Vicksburg, and driven Bragg pell mell from his investment of Chattanooga; SHERMAN had forced Hood out of every stronghold, from the Tennessee to Atlanta; but here at Nashville, on the 15th day of December, 1864, our gallant chieftain, the sturdy hero [George] THOMAS, having gathered into his hand the scattered forces with which he had been left to oppose the victorious army of Hood, hurled them like a thunderbolt upon the astounded rebels, over line after line of breastworks, until a few panic-stricken men, without organization or discipline, stole across the Tennessee a hundred miles from Nashville, never again to attempt a campaign.

Now, as I look back, I more completely realize the magnitude of the occasion. I remember how our General spoke to us on that morning. His words come to me in all the startling fervor of his eloquent appeal. "Hood successful," he said, "Kentucky lies open to his victorious army; our own Ohio becomes his prey. Fire, destruction and death, will mark his onward march and desolation every foot of his way. Best him here, and the last hope of the despairing Confederacy expires. Forward--follow me!" He was gone, I saw his heroic form borne here and there at the head of the advancing column, it rose, it fell; it rose again and then, alas! I saw him no more forever. Even then--there--at that moment, I, too, went down, and my eyes looked not again upon the field of battle during the short remnant that remained of the war.

But to return. When in that low, long room I lay tossing with fever each day, wilder became my fancy. At times, it required the strength of both my nurses to keep me on my pallet. Only then, a hemorrhage stayed my frantic purpose. I fell back, fainting; and when at length restored, the same sweet, sad face looked upon me that for hours, days, weeks, had watched with the gentleness and devotion of a woman.

One day he left me. Oh! I shall never forget that day! Those around me were rapidly convalescing and, though I blush to say it, were taunting me with my religion!

"How now, Jew, how is thy pulse? Hast thou any more of thy gibberish-Hebrew thou call'st it, forsooth--to worry us withal?" "Say thy prayers like a Christian, idiot, forswear thy stock, pray the Lord Jesus to forgive thy sins and die in salvation!"

"Halloe, thou unbelieving son of Abraham, hast thou got a piece of pork at length into thy clutches? No! Well, then, it were better that thou had'st, for until thou eatest swine's flesh, thou never can'st be saved!"

I was too weak for remonstrance at the time, but, as I grew stronger, I found voice to give utterance to words that smote them with silence. That passage from Shylock, especially, struck one--the least intellectual, as he was the most brutal, among them. "Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath now a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? Fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same Summer and Winter, as a Christian? If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?"

"No!" I added, "No, for centuries we have borne your oppression, tyranny, persecution, scorn, contumely, hatred and violence, but we have never lifted our hands in revenge. Yet we can feel, and do feel, as we have felt, as I now feel, the wrong you put upon us, upon me. 'Vengeance is mine' saith the Lord, and to Him we look for justice. Think not, if Heaven yet spare me, you can change or alter by your unthinking cruel words my heart's devotion to that noble flag--not less the emblem of freedom than toleration. We have both fought and bled. My constancy will be true to the last!"

When I again awoke, for this effort so prostrated me that I fell away into the likeness of death, the same spiritually pale face that had so often watched beside me, looked down upon me and a voice musical with pathos said: "How dost thou do today, Benoni*!"

"Better, much better."

"I am rejoiced to hear it, for I have come to take thee hence to the home of our kindred. Dost thou think thou canst bear to be removed."

"Oh, yes, take me hence," I said.

And gently I was borne to the abode of one of my own people. Here I remained, rapidly convalescing, till one morning, in the early days of April, the booming cannon shook the city with convulsions of delight and joy as the glad news ran from house to house, "Lee has surrendered, the war is over, glory to G-d on High, peace once more, Hallelu-ah, hallele-ah!"

In those days of convalescence, I sought to gain from my host--a kind, though not over-intelligent co-religionist of Teutonic extraction [transcriber: Peixotto was a Sephardi. L.M.B.] some inkling of the to me mysterious friend who (he had recently left me and gone to the North), had so tenderly nursed me and whom I shall always believe under Providence, saved my life. All I could gain, was the simple intelligence that he was a civilian who had come South to visit our armies and to behold a battle. He had found me where my companions were compelled to leave me, in a piece of woods; dismounted from his own horse and bore me to the nearest hospital. Here he had watched beside me and nursed me for a month. Called home to the North, he had come again, and again had cared for and rescued me as 'twere from the "jaws of death." Removing me to the abode where I now found myself fast recovering, and having seen me fairly on the road to life, he paid all my bills and departed--leaving only a note--a little missive behind, to be opened on the day I should leave Nashville. This is all that I could learn.

The day for my departure arrived, at length, I had taken my place on the train for Louisville, the engine whistled and away we went, even as I tore open the envelope and read these lines, "Brother, the Good Shepherd hath restored thee, thy life is given back to thee again, I have been but a humble instrument in the hands of a mightier Power. Chance drew me to the spot on the field of battle where stricken you lay, life's purple current ebbing fast away. I stanched your wounds and bore you safely to where, on awakening to consciousness, you discovered me. I nursed, and when I could no more do so--from inexorable duty that called me elsewhere--caused others to nurse thee. Thou art at length restored, thou hast passed through the valley of the shadow and hath escaped death. Thou art free. And in the simple dignity of man, standest apart untempted; do not lose the great occasion thou hast plucked from misery, nor play the spendthrift, but use it nobly. We may meet again. If we do not, do even as I have done, whenever thou findest the opportunity, then shall thou be truly in fact, what thou art, and I am to the last A BEN BERITH."

The mystery was solved--I knew my preserver now. Five years before, I had linked myself with the noble Order of B'nai B'rith, and had borne on my person since I had entered the service a little silver badge with those eloquent words, no Ben Berith can ever be stranger to--that appeal he can never pass by. I had been "recognized" and to be "recognized" was to be rescued and saved. And so passing from beneath the clouds, the dank dew of death, I came out in the sunshine, the warmth and gladness of life. I put on my regalia anew--the regalia, not of human hands but of divine workmanship. I bear it in my eye, my heart, my hand, and even so, as I would that man should do unto me, even so will I do--unto all men. B.F.P.

*Benoni--Hebrew for "son of pain", but another translation is "ordinary one"