By David A. Carrino, Roundtable Historian
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2016-2017, All Rights Reserved
Editor’s note: This article was the history brief for the December 2016 meeting of the Cleveland Civil War Roundtable.
American men who were born between 1944 and 1950 were automatically entered into the first of seven lotteries in which entrants were hoping that they did not receive a number that put them at or near the top of the list. This lottery, which was held on December 1, 1969, was the first Selective Service draft lottery of the Vietnam War, and in that and the subsequent lotteries the order in which draft-eligible men would be drafted was randomly assigned based on birthdates. One of the jokes that came out of that lottery was that Jesus Christ had number 84 in the Selective Service draft order, because number 84 was the number that was drawn for December 25. The birthdate that led to Jesus receiving that number one of the most important religious holidays in Christianity. There is compelling evidence that the birth of Jesus did not occur in December, which not only means that Jesus should actually have received a different draft number, but also makes this religious holiday misplaced, although that birth is celebrated on December 25 nonetheless. There is another important religious holiday that often begins in December, namely Hanukkah. Many traditions are associated with the celebrations of Christmas and Hanukkah, and in light of the tradition of gift-giving, it is appropriate during the month of December for Civil War enthusiasts to remember a Jewish man named Uriah P. Levy. Levy has only scant connections to the Civil War, for example the year of his death, which was 1862. But Levy’s death was not due to any combat, because he saw no combat in the Civil War. Levy did, however, have a distinguished military career, and he has some notable legacies that came from his military service. One of these legacies is that he worked assiduously against antisemitism in the branch of the military in which he served. Levy also left a monumental legacy for all of us that fits extremely well with the efforts at historical preservation that Civil War enthusiasts consider essential.
Uriah Levy was born on April 22, 1792 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania to Michael and Rachel Levy. Uriah’s father served in the Revolutionary War, as did his maternal grandfather, Jonas Phillips, who fathered 21 children (obviously taking to heart the verse from Genesis to be fruitful and multiply). Jonas Phillips was staunchly patriotic to the American cause and fervently devoted to his Jewish heritage. Both of these traits strongly influenced Uriah Levy, who came to embrace similar sentiments. Uriah also developed a love for the sea. In 1806, when Uriah was 14, his father arranged a four-year apprenticeship for Uriah with a prominent Philadelphia shipowner, during which Uriah became educated in the art of sailing aboard large ships. By the age of 19, he had earned enough money to become part owner of a trading ship named the George Washington, which was named after not the first U.S. president, but bore the two first names of Uriah’s partners, George Mesoncourt and Washington Garrison. This business allowed Uriah to hone his maritime skills, which was helpful in the next phase of his life.
When the War of 1812 began, Levy applied for and received a commission in the U.S. Navy. He was assigned to the USS Argus, which, coincidentally, had originally been named the Merrimack. During the first several months of the war, the Argus was stationed off the Atlantic coast. But her greatest contribution to the war effort came when she raided British shipping in the English Channel. In one month of raiding, the Argus captured and burned 19 merchant ships. On August 14, 1813 the Argus was engaged by a British warship and was captured in a battle in which the captain of the Argus was mortally wounded. Most of the ship’s crew, including Uriah Levy, were taken prisoner, and Levy remained a prisoner in Britain until the end of the war.
After the war Levy served aboard a number of Navy ships including the USS Franklin, the USS United States, and the USS Cyane. It was fitting that Levy served on the Franklin, because this was the first ship to be built at the naval yard in Levy’s hometown of Philadelphia. The United States has an interesting Civil War history in that it was captured by the Confederacy and renamed with the seemingly contradictory name CSS United States. The Cyane was originally a British warship that was captured near the end of the War of 1812 by the USS Constitution and was purchased by the U.S. Navy shortly after the war. During the period of Levy’s life following the War of 1812, his naval career was intensely frustrating for him. He faced numerous verbal insults and slow promotions in rank, both of which he believed to be the result of his ethnicity. Not one to back down from an insult, Levy, who has been described as quick-tempered and pugnacious, engaged in numerous fights with comrades who Levy felt insulted him. Levy even killed another officer who challenged him to a duel, although according to an account of the incident, Levy went to great lengths to resolve the situation peacefully, including firing into the air several times during the duel. Because of his many instances of physical altercations, Levy was court-martialed six times, and he received three presidential pardons after courts-martial ruled against him, two pardons from James Monroe and one from John Tyler.
In spite of these difficulties Levy was devoted to his service in the Navy, and an incident that occurred in 1825 when Levy was serving on the Cyane demonstrates how devoted he was. While the ship was in port in Brazil, Levy watched as a junior officer from the Cyane intervened in a dispute that involved a Brazilian military officer. At one point the Brazilian officer drew a saber and slashed at the junior officer. Levy stepped in and deflected the saber and in so doing was slashed on the wrist. The emperor of Brazil was told of the incident and was so impressed by Levy’s bravery that he offered Levy a commission in the Brazilian navy on a new vessel. Levy politely declined and reputedly answered that he would rather be a cabin boy in the U.S. Navy than an admiral in any other navy in the world.
Levy’s later service in the Navy was marked by two milestones. Early in his career when Levy was serving on the United States, he witnessed a flogging for the first time. Although flogging was standard punishment in the Navy at that time, Levy thought that the practice was barbaric and ineffective. In 1837 Levy was given command of the USS Vandalia. As commander of the Vandalia Levy discontinued the use of flogging as a punishment and employed different measures. Levy also campaigned to have flogging outlawed in the Navy, but there was stiff resistance to this. In 1850 the practice of flogging was banned by Congress, although it required a legislative maneuver that is often criticized nowadays. Senator John Hale of New Hampshire attached a rider banning flogging to the 1850 naval appropriations bill, and when that bill passed Congress, flogging was no longer allowed in the Navy.
Levy’s other milestone occurred a little over a year before the firing on Fort Sumter. On February 21, 1860 James Buchanan appointed Levy to command the Mediterranean fleet. As a fleet commander, Levy received the title of commodore, the first Jew to be named a commodore in the U.S. Navy. Levy held this post for less than five months, after which Abraham Lincoln named Levy to head the naval court-martial board. It was ironic that this was to be the last naval service for someone who had been court-martialed six times. Early in 1862 Levy contracted pneumonia and died on March 22, 1862. Uriah Levy’s distinguished service in the U.S. Navy led to the naming of a World War II destroyer escort after him. In addition, the Jewish chapel in the naval station at Norfolk, Virginia is named after him, as is the Jewish center and chapel at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland. Naming the two Jewish chapels after Uriah Levy is quite fitting in light of a remark that Levy reputedly made to a fellow officer who insulted Levy for being Jewish. To this insult Levy replied, “That I am a Jew, I neither deny nor regret.”
While Uriah Levy has exceptional legacies from his service in the Navy, Levy’s most far-reaching legacy involves one of the Founding Fathers. Levy was an ardent admirer of Thomas Jefferson and said about Jefferson, “I consider Thomas Jefferson to be one of the greatest men in history, the author of the Declaration and an absolute democrat. He serves as an inspiration to millions of Americans.” Because of his admiration for Thomas Jefferson, Uriah Levy, who became wealthy through real estate investments in New York City, was instrumental in two notable monuments to the author of the Declaration of Independence. The first monument is a bronze statue of Jefferson, which Levy funded and presented to Congress in 1834. The statue stands in the rotunda of the capitol in Washington, D.C. and is the only statue in the rotunda that was paid for with private funds. Even more impressive than that, Levy purchased Thomas Jefferson’s home, Monticello, and saved it from ruin. Because of the Jefferson family’s financial difficulties, Thomas Jefferson’s daughter, Martha, was forced to sell Monticello after her father’s death. The new owner, James Barclay, intended to convert the estate into a silkworm farm. Even before Barclay had purchased Monticello, it had fallen into disrepair, and this condition only worsened during Barclay’s ownership. Levy purchased Monticello from Barclay in 1834 for $2,700 and then oversaw its restoration, although he did not live to see the restoration completed. This restoration was interrupted by the Civil War, during which the Confederate government seized Monticello and sold it. After the Civil War, Levy’s heirs recovered the property, and the restoration of Monticello was completed under the supervision of Levy’s nephew, Jefferson Monroe Levy, who served three terms in the U.S. House of Representatives. In 1923 Jefferson Monroe Levy sold Monticello to the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation for $500,000. This foundation, which is now known as the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, currently owns and maintains Monticello.
Of all Uriah Levy’s legacies, the one that has the most far-reaching effects is his salvaging of Monticello. Without Levy’s preservation efforts, it is not far-fetched to believe that Monticello would have been lost to posterity, in the same way that portions of Civil War battlefields have been lost. Because of his strong admiration for Thomas Jefferson, Uriah Levy preserved for all Americans the home of the author of the Declaration of Independence, and Monticello now stands as an enduring monument to the Founding Father who was the official voice of the movement that produced the United States of America. It is appropriate to remember and acknowledge Levy’s preservation of Monticello during the month of December, because December has become the month of gift-giving due to the two religious holidays that fall in December, and Levy’s preservation of Monticello is a gift to all of us. In light of Levy’s ethnicity and religion and his deep devotion to them, Levy’s gift of Monticello is not a Christmas present, but a Hanukkah gift.