Every Sabbath during synagogue worship services, we recite a “Prayer for our Country” and call to mind members of America’s Armed Forces serving around the globe. We think of our synagogue’s adopted Minnesota National Guard unit and pray for their safety and well-being, saying, “Nation shall not lift up sword against nation.”
Week after week, we remember our men and women in uniform. But this time was different.
We were not seeking protection from an external enemy, for the threat was internal. We were not praying for the living, but memorializing the dead. Far from today’s military theaters, we stood at the impressive memorial for the Fourth Minnesota Volunteer Infantry Regiment at the Vicksburg National Military Park in Vicksburg, Miss.
We were a group of almost 25 congregants from Beth El Synagogue in St. Louis Park on a tour of the South that took us from New Orleans to Memphis, from civil war to civil rights. Our homage to the men of the Fourth was moving as we envisioned events and reviewed our history. It is worth recalling that history. For as civil war rages in Syria and threatens Ukraine, among other countries, our own nation’s experience reminds us of the true cost of war.
Erected in 1907, the Minnesota memorial is one of the first memorials at the entrance to the park. Its grandeur is an enduring testimony to the important role this unit played in a battle that was a turning point in the Civil War.
The Fourth served in Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s Vicksburg Campaign of 1863. Throughout that spring, they fought their way through field and town to the doorstep of Vicksburg. On May 19 and 22 they pressed ahead, right up to the enemy’s line of defense. But their attacks failed, leaving 12 men killed and 42 wounded. Strategically protected by the Mississippi River, Vicksburg seemed impenetrable. So they settled in for a siege. On July 4, the Confederates capitulated, and the Fourth Minnesota enjoyed the honor of leading the victorious Union troops into the surrendered city.
While the attack on Vicksburg began late in May, just over 151 years ago, sadly, civil war has been with us since the beginning of time. Standing at the memorial, we recalled the world’s first civil war, the Bible’s story of Cain and Abel. Appropriately, in Hebrew, a civil war is called “milhemet ahim,” a war between brothers. And in some cases, civil war literally divides families. Such was the case for a Jewish family named Jonas whose members fought for both the Union and Confederate sides.
Seventeen-year-old Edward enlisted in an Illinois regiment and possibly on two occasions found himself facing his Confederate brothers in battle. In 1862, at the Battle of Shiloh, Edward was captured and may have been escorted to a Georgia prison camp by his brother Julian, a Confederate cavalryman. Later, in May 1864, Edward fought in Tennessee against three of his brothers as part of Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman’s campaign to take Atlanta.
Despite being on opposite sides, the Jonas brothers managed to communicate with one another. Though enemies on the battlefield, at some level they knew that they were still their brothers’ keepers. They shared not only a biological father, but they believed in the words of their Hebrew Bible, which taught that they were b’nai adam (literally, “children of Adam”) who shared a common humanity.
While eternally grateful to the men of the Fourth and to Union forces who laid down their lives to fight for liberation and to reunite our nation, at Vicksburg, we were reminded that death — even of the enemy — is heartbreaking, For whether North or South, Cain or Abel, ultimately, we are still family. And we wondered when Syrians, Ukrainians, and citizens around the world will recognize that war tears not only nations but families and hearts apart.
On the Minnesota memorial, the statue titled “Peace” holds a sword and a shield symbolizing that both sides laid down their weapons. Standing beneath her solemn countenance, we pictured brother fighting brother and prayed that all who fell in battle should rest in peace as we recited the words of the prophet Isaiah: “Neither shall there be war anymore.”
Alexander Davis is senior rabbi at Beth El Synagogue in St. Louis Park.