O own a piece of history! This was what the listing for the “Solomon Cohen House,” built in 1875, urged prospective buyers to do. The townhouse was in the historic district of Savannah, Georgia, a city where I grew up but no longer lived. Savannah is full of famous mansions. There’s the Davenport House, the Green-Meldrim House, the Owens-Thomas House. But the Solomon Cohen House? I’d never heard of it or him, although I got a kick out of the fact that naming a house after a Jew was considered a selling point.
Maybe I shouldn’t have been so surprised. Jews arrived in the new colony of Georgia on the second boat from London and have been there ever since. I went to a Hebrew day school through sixth grade, and all of my closest friends were Jewish. When my eighth-grade class took the train to New York, my first time out of the South, the first thing I saw in Penn Station was a group of Hasidim, and I was amazed there were so many Jews outside of Georgia.
I was further jolted out of my naiveté when I went north for college. I hadn’t intended to escape the South, but that’s what I ended up doing, fleeing from the good son that I was, and from a small stifling place where everyone knew me better than I knew myself, or thought they did.
I hadn’t lived in the South since. But now, 30 years later, I’d gone back in search of a foothold in my past.
Whether or not it was historically significant, the Solomon Cohen House certainly was elegant, at least in pictures—I couldn’t recall ever having noticed it when I was growing up. It was on Liberty, one of the main east-west streets, whose median is planted with magnolia and live oak festooned with Spanish moss. The townhouse, No. 116, with a huge red door and windows crowned by Greek Revival pediments, appeared to be composed of perfectly stacked blocks of white stone. The listing was for the condominium one flight up from the parlor level, and the pictures showed heart pine floors just waiting to be sanded and fireplaces in the bedrooms and living room in need of nothing but a good coat of paint.
From the other side of the country I asked our real estate agent to check the place out for us. He sent us a video he’d made as he walked through the apartment, narrating in the most objective—and diplomatic—terms possible.
I called him and asked what he really thought.
“Well,” he said, “it’d be great for a weekend rental, but I wouldn’t want to spend too much time there.”
But I knew I would. With a little TLC, it was going to be a perfect home away from home. My husband and I put in an offer on the place sight unseen.
When I walked into our new apartment for the first time, my optimistic nature diverted my eye from the dingy beige walls and cheap cabinets to the big gold-framed mirror angled over the mantelpiece, which added a note of glitz to the place’s austere elegance, the brass chandelier doing its part too. At some point during my first stay, I opened a drawer in a kitchen cabinet and found a sheet of paper printed with information about the house and the man after whom the listing agent had named it.
Built for Solomon Cohen, alderman and postmaster of Savannah. He was the brother of cotton merchant Octavus Cohen…. Given his extensive real estate holdings, Cohen must have had extensive business interests….. [His son, Gratz,] enlisted in the CSA and was killed in the Battle of Bentonville in the closing months of the war…
The paper I’d found turned out to be the product of an enterprising writing team responsible for a series of picture books about Civil War Savannah. But for now, standing on the linoleum mat in the odd-shaped kitchen of my 140-year-old apartment, I realized that the mirror and the chandelier weren’t the only things I’d been bequeathed. This was a house that came with a story—and a family tragedy.
Although I’d never heard of Solomon Cohen before, I soon learned you can’t explore the terrain of 19th-century Southern Jews or Civil War-era America and be more than a step or two away from Cohen and his family. Born in Georgetown, South Carolina in 1802, Solomon became a Savannah politician and Georgia’s first Jewish state senator, serving also as district attorney and postmaster. As a highly successful lawyer, banker, real estate developer and all-around businessman, whose various enterprises included hiring out slaves, he turns up in kvelling histories of Confederate Jews, anti-Semitic tracts and everything in between. He appears Zelig-like in the lives of much more famous people. His wife, Miriam, was the niece of Philadelphia philanthropist and Jewish-Sunday-school founder Rebecca Gratz, famous too for her beauty and probably the best-known Jewish woman of the 19th century.
Solomon was the de facto Southern publisher and distributor of the works of the writer about whom Miriam and Rebecca were most enthusiastic, Grace Aguilar, a prolific author of novels, poems and fiery works on Jewish spirituality. Solomon was related to Eugenia Levy Phillips, a native South Carolinian who spied for the Confederacy from her home in Washington, DC, and he turns up in General William Tecumseh Sherman’s Memoirs as a “rich lawyer.” He frequently spoke at the Georgia Historical Society, whose current Savannah headquarters, completed in 1876, a year after his death, stands at the northwest corner of Forsyth Park, with its great lawns and wedding-picture-ready fountain. One afternoon I made the five-minute walk there from my block of Liberty Street. I really just wanted to find out what I could about my new home and the man who built it. In the building’s high-vaulted library, I opened a folder containing the handwritten text of a 24-page eulogy that Solomon had delivered at the society; a speech by him titled “A Discourse on the formation of the Constitution of the United States delivered as an Introductory to a course of Lectures of the Georgia Historical Society”; and correspondence from the Confederate States of America to Solomon in his capacity as postmaster, with such juicy bits as, “In reply to your letter of the 5th inst.—I have to state that you were not allowed the whole amount claimed for postage on dead letters returned to the Department in the 1st quarter 1863, because the bills were not received from the Finance Bureau.”
It wasn’t the most auspicious start.
I asked the archivist if the society had a folder on Solomon’s son, Gratz. I wasn’t hopeful. In the few mentions of him in books over the years, Gratz appears briefly and as little more than a type—a handsome martyr for the Confederacy.
Text with a family portrait describes Solomon as, among other things, a defender of slavery.
I was surprised when she came back with a greater haul than for his father—not a folder, but rather two old books. One was bound in dark brown leather, its spine intact except for the fraying top third. The word “Autographs” was imprinted on the cover in a fancy gold font, the stems of the letters sprouting leaves, and on the book’s blank pages, friends had left Gratz good wishes, including bits of verse. The other book was Gratz’s journal, covering his years at the University of Virginia, 1862 through 1864, where he was the first Jewish student. The journal’s spine had been mostly eaten away, but its green-marbled cover and thick-ruled pages had held up through the years. I sat at the long wooden table trying to make out the maddening, faded scrawl, and soon I felt myself falling into someone else’s consciousness, separated from my own by 150 years and yet strangely familiar.
The traditional diary entries, rich in themselves, were interspersed with Gratz’s own poetry, heavily influenced by the English Romantics, whom I’ve appreciated ever since my moody adolescent days. And there was of course the link to my house. But what kept me reading, what caused me to connect with Gratz Cohen—that I didn’t really understand, not yet.
Savannah’s Mickve Israel synagogue was founded in 1735, only two years after English settlers established the city itself. It is the third-oldest congregation in the United States and, with its Gothic Revival architecture, has a distinctive presence on one of the historic district’s most beautiful squares. The last time I’d been inside was for my niece’s bat mitzvah five years before, and now I’d come back to learn what I could about Solomon Cohen, who served for years as the Temple’s president, and his family. My guides through the synagogue’s archives were a married couple who were members of the congregation and the kinds of amateur local historians whose love of the place they live in expresses itself in a desire to learn everything about it.
I’d never been up to the synagogue’s sweet one-room museum, where a studio portrait of the Solomon Cohen family—Solomon, Miriam, and their kids, Gratz, Belle and Miriam—appears with text describing Solomon as, among other things, a “defender of slavery.” This impressed me, not just because it was true, but also because most of the books I’d found on Southern Jews were strictly boosterish, praising their successes in business and their assimilation into gentile society.
My guides brought me boxes of treasures from the Temple’s antebellum archive, and I passed a happy afternoon combing through them for clues. I didn’t find much that was relevant to my research, though I did happen on my great-grandfather’s diploma from Hebrew Union College.
There was one thing my guides wanted to know. If I ended up writing something about Solomon Cohen, how was I going to handle the slavery issue?
The salient fact about Jews in the South was their skin color not their religion.
It had come as depressing news to me that Jews owned slaves. In Savannah, they did so proportionately to their wealth, though Solomon was an unusually large urban slaveholder, with the 15 slaves he hired out in addition to the 8 who worked in his home. Enslaved people could be contracted out, for short or long terms, to private or public employers, and enslaved artisans such as carpenters or coopers might even be allowed to live on their own and keep a small portion of their earnings.
The South has always been a hospitable place for Jews. Of course, as is true everywhere, anti-Semitism is a constant, its most notorious eruption being the lynching of Leo Frank, the Atlanta pencil-factory director falsely accused, in 1913, of strangling a 13-year-old non-Jewish female employee. (He was ultimately pardoned.) But in the mid-19th century, Solomon Cohen’s example showed how far Jews could rise in the South’s power structure if they played by its rules.
Gratz insisted he wanted to live-but he seemed to be doing everything in his power to die.
At a meeting called by the mayor of Savannah to address the spurious Damascus “blood libel” affair of 1840, Solomon, relatively new in town but already a leader, expressed thanks “to the Christians of this community for their generous sympathy.” A few years later, in an anonymous piece, which Solomon almost certainly penned, in The Occident, the country’s first Jewish periodical, he praised his Christian neighbors for their “spirit of charity.” As a tireless defender of slavery and states’ rights, Solomon rarely was the object of anti-Semitism. The salient fact about Jews in the South was their skin color, not their religion. In fact, their religious devotion worked in their favor in the Bible Belt. And “slave ownership,” as the scholar Mark I. Greenberg has written, “helped solidify Jews’ racial status.” In other words, it was a way of becoming white.
In Solomon’s case, his dogged upholding of the establishment helped him rise to the top of it. In November 1865, 156 years before Jon Ossoff took office as Georgia’s first Jewish senator, Solomon became the first Jew whom Georgia elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. He was the top vote-getter in the state’s First Congressional District, which includes Savannah. The election wasn’t close: Solomon racked up more than seven times as many votes as his nearest competitor. Community and public service ran in the family. His grandfather had emigrated from London in 1750 to become the founding rabbi of Charleston, South Carolina’s Beth Elohim synagogue, an unpaid position, and earned his living as a shopkeeper. Solomon’s father was a public servant in South Carolina, and now Solomon himself was about to ascend to the Congress of the United States of America.
But while it was the Solomon Cohen House that I’d bought into, it was Gratz Cohen who truly captured my imagination. Over the next four years, I’d travel the South in a quest to piece together his story.
Solomon and Gratz Cohen are separated from us by a century and a half, but their relationship is classic, the father all sense to the son’s sensibility. The practical businessman father and the idealistic romantic son: Solomon was initially skeptical of secession while Gratz was all in. The conservative progenitor and the radical offspring: As Mickve Israel president, Solomon only grudgingly acceded to his congregation’s wishes to move from Orthodox to Reform, and even then he kept certain restrictions in place, whereas Gratz could sound like a Jewish Luther, railing against the “lifeless forms” of Orthodox Judaism.
Gratz’s maternal great-aunt Rebecca Gratz prized him for the compassion he’d shown since he was a child. Founder of benevolent institutions for Jews and non-Jews alike, Rebecca traveled in cultured circles that included artist Thomas Sully, who painted two portraits of her, and Washington Irving, whose friend Sir Walter Scott is said to have taken her name and used her as a model for the beautiful, true-to-her-faith Jewish heroine of Ivanhoe. Rebecca raised Gratz’s mother, Miriam, following the death of her mother, and in letters continued to dispense advice to Miriam after she moved South to marry Solomon.
Rebecca Gratz first met Gratz Cohen when he was just shy of three and Miriam brought him and his new baby sister to Philadelphia for a visit. Rebecca cherished his “innocent prattle” and begged Miriam for cute anecdotes. Back in Savannah, Gratz sent kisses, pressing his lips to the edges of his mother’s letters to her aunt. In correspondence, it’s delightful to watch this serious and important woman, who so often takes a pedagogical tone, be reduced to simple adoration. Solomon sent her a package of grits, for which Rebecca thanked him and remarked: “I’ll think of little Gratz who enjoys it so much. Tell Gratz his kiss came very safely and was very sweet.”
When Gratz cried at the death of a bird, at the age of four and a half, Miriam panicked and turned to her aunt for advice. Rebecca replied as the voice of reason:
We must try to regulate dear Gratz’s sensibility without hurting those feelings so promising of future good. When rightly directed & under proper control, the child who weeps at the death of a bird will be kinder of animals and benevolent from natural impulses, which you will know how to cultivate.
Benevolence and kindness—these were the qualities that so drew Rebecca to Gratz. She wasn’t about to discourage them. “I hope Gratz won’t become a soldier,” she wrote Miriam a decade later, after war broke out. “He is too young and delicate for a soldier’s life.”
He was too young to join up without his father’s permission, but Solomon had been giving Gratz leave to do reckless things since he was six years old and wanted to explore the city, then a bustling and often lawless cotton boomtown, on his own. Such adventures must have confirmed to Solomon that his oversensitive boy was toughening up. To Rebecca, Solomon admitted quite openly that he would “rather love his memory” than that the boy have “one drop of coward blood.”
But Gratz’s first stint at war, a languorous summer at Fort Pulaski, at the mouth of the Savannah River 15 miles from town, showed that, as Rebecca knew, he was indeed not cut out for it. Some disability—probably flat feet—that had caused him to wear a special boot and leg brace as a child now prevented him from doing sentry duty; it was torture for him simply to stand up. But he had Miriam send him his books downriver—mathematics, Greek, Latin, German, French—and his fellow soldiers “petted” him “as ‘la fille du regiment’ was described to have been,” Gratz reported to his mother, comparing himself to the tomboy heroine of Donizetti’s opera, the orphan girl who becomes the mascot of the French regiment that adopts her.
In the winter of 1861 to 1862, Gratz did join a Confederate military unit whose mission was to defend the Georgia coast, which was rapidly falling into Union hands, though you would never know he’d even left home from his melancholy memories of the period a year later when he was snugly ensconced in a room on the Lawn for his first year at the University of Virginia. “A romance of excitement”—that’s how Gratz remembered the military adventure. He’d gone to war with his “valet,” Solomon’s slave Louis, with whom Gratz had grown up, and now that he was 500 miles from home and could recollect his memories in tranquility, he felt free in his diary’s first entry to convey the experience’s true meaning. Louis had run away, perhaps taking advantage of the chaos of war that his master took him into, and now that first taste of action was tinged with bitterness:
Last winter was indeed a little romance of excitement, of much pleasure, but its recollection is mingled with so much pain and can never be recalled without a sigh. Louis. Your name has stamped its self on my Life. In the doctrine of Counterparts my poor ebony Idol, you were mine and every event of that bright little life of mine last winter had entwined you with it.
Gratz memorialized Louis in poetry as well, in one instance lamenting the disappearance of a “faithful servant” who accompanied him to war.
Enrolling at the university of Virginia, beginning with the 1862 to 1863 academic year, was Gratz’s way of accepting his fate as a scholar—and reckoning with his feelings. In Charlottesville, he forged intimate bonds with fellow students, and resisted the attentions of the young women he met at social engagements in town. “When young hearts blend together, and desires tend to the same point, those are the days of Damon & Pythias,” he wrote of his halcyon days in that all-male academic setting. But when faced with his own desires, his mood turned dark.
Seeing a friend’s attachment to him, Gratz wrote, “May he never feel as I have felt but remain pure, innocent & guileless as now.” And in a journal entry that never fails to bring tears to my eyes, so strongly does it conjure the self-loathing I myself felt as a gay adolescent, Gratz called down a curse upon himself that “will drag my soul to ever lasting hell,” while he insisted “I can not be totally depraved, it is not in the nature of my being—but virtues, good deeds, prayer, expiation & repentance avail nothing. On my brow is written ‘lost.’”
But if being a student far from home let Gratz explore the range of his emotions and in effect become himself, it was also a way to sit out the fight. He followed the war news closely and like most of the dwindling student body, bright sons of the region’s aristocracy, he was an ardent supporter of the Confederacy. He even sought out, unsuccessfully, minor military action in the Charlottesville area. But he clung to his disability exemption with growing desperation as war closed in all around him.
Again and again he was hauled before a medical examining board, whose members he considered “a parcel of foolish young men.” Gratz had high-ranking friends, military men and fathers of eligible daughters, intercede for him. But as the war dragged on into its third year and the Confederate army’s disadvantage in numbers grew, the options for a young Southern white man, even a disabled one, to avoid conscription were narrowing.
Gratz returned home for the summer after his second year at Charlottesville and never went back to the university. In Savannah he served as acting secretary of a medical board like the one he’d scorned in Charlottesville. Writing reports was a job to which Gratz was suited, and he could do it seated, far from whizzing bullets.
For perhaps the first time in two years, he didn’t feel conflicted about the way he was doing, or not doing, the war. He wrote Emma Mordecai, a literary aunt in Richmond, Virginia, that “[t]he position is a very pleasant one & is a sort of diversion for me, would that I could do more but since I can not, it is well to remember the lines of the poet, ‘Man can not make but may enoble [sic] fate—by nobly bearing it.’”
And then suddenly, midway through Sherman’s siege of Savannah, Gratz departed on the path of war as an aide-de-camp to General George P. Harrison Jr. It was a position Solomon had secured for his son. “Upon the fall of Savannah,” according to the obituary by his relative Samuel Yates Levy, Gratz “no longer placed any restraint upon his wishes,” as if he’d been desperate to go to war all along. In addition to the problems with his feet, Gratz had been suffering for months from typhoid fever, another in a list of antique-sounding ailments, including neuralgia and “torpor of the liver,” that had plagued him much of his life. To Emma, a Confederate sympathizer who became his last confidante, he wrote, “At one time I thought I would never be well again—constantly sick. I almost hoped for death rather than become a burthen to those I love. I am now better, tho’ still feeble, pale & very thin. Friends would pass me by without recognizing me they say I am so changed.”
Gratz Cohen wanted to defend his homeland and family, especially his beloved mother and sisters, against the Union army. Of course he did. But it seems to me—distanced in time but privy to the passions he set down in letters, diary entries and poems—that what he really wanted was to be changed. In Virginia he’d gone with a group of young women to attend a military review where some of his fellow students paraded, returned now from war. In his journal he noted, with a twinge of envy, that “the handsome refined boys were rough sun burnt soldiers” and were “hardly recognizable now to the friends of their younger days.”
Sickness had made Gratz unrecognizable to his Savannah friends, but the change he craved was one that could only be suggested by the battered looks of his Virginia classmates. The masculinity that Solomon tried to cultivate in his son—here was Gratz’s chance to prove it once and for all. Savannah was pleasant, but the passionate friendships he’d experienced in Virginia were long gone, and so what, after all, was he leaving behind?
In the letters he wrote from the battlefield to Emma, whom he placed next to Rebecca Gratz as “my standard of all that’s pure and holy on earth,” Gratz insisted he wanted to live—but he seemed to be doing everything in his power to die. He was full of contradictions. He was no abolitionist, but in his poetry he appealed to “God alike of White & Black” and imagined a world where “the oppressor and / Oppressed shall cease & all be equal and men were drawn together, race with race / Commingled.” He acknowledged Louis, his enslaved valet, as subservient but considered him “half my self.” Gratz fought for the South but felt the region was getting what it deserved, being punished for the unequal distribution of wealth, of which he only became aware on the path of war.
Social inequity, he believed, was iniquity, but he felt a reflexive horror when things started to come undone.
He met his end on a North Carolina battlefield on March 19, 1865, just three weeks before General Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox. Gratz was 20 years old. It was a death foretold by his friends and relatives, and he must have seen it coming himself. According to the two secondhand accounts of his last moments, he died either immediately after giving a report in his general’s tent or while leading the charge on the field. But in a letter I found in the archives of a former rice plantation an hour’s drive down the coast from Savannah, a somewhat less heroic end emerges. Gratz went to war with Frank O’Driscoll, a neighbor he grew up with, and while Frank didn’t witness the event, he rushed to his friend’s body “very soon after the fatal ball was shed.” And when he showed up at the Raleigh doorstep of Margaret and George Mordecai, Gratz’s aunt Emma’s brother, who’d offered him sanctuary in his palatial home if he needed it, Frank brought along with him not just Gratz’s effects but the truth of how he died. Margaret would report to Emma that Frank had told them that “his noble young friend was shot & entering the back of the head it is supposed in the confusion of battle it was by our own people, so Mr. O’D said for he added Gratz was facing the enemy.”
Frank, who would in time marry Gratz’s sister Belle, had dragged his friend’s body from the battlefield and buried him. A year later, he returned with Solomon to retrieve Gratz’s remains for reinterment in Savannah.
Gratz’s death cracked Solomon Cohen open like an egg, and all the gooey stuff ran out. “Men, mingling with the world,” he wrote Emma, “are forced to suppress feeling, or they would become ridiculous, & this very suppression makes me, at times, fearfully sad.” Miriam could no longer bear being in the house, and so she and Solomon set out on a grand tour of Europe. Solomon had time on his hands. Neither Georgia’s House delegation nor its two newly elected senators, including Alexander Stephens, who’d argued that slavery and Black inferiority formed the foundation of the Confederacy he’d served as vice-president, were allowed by the Republican-controlled Congress to take their seats. The continent must have been a place where Solomon and Miriam could ennoble their son’s death the way they couldn’t back home, at least not yet. In Europe, Solomon, who would outlive Gratz by a decade, noted in his journal, “every step you take is among memorials of the mighty dead.”
I remember the first time I stood before the building on Liberty Street with a key to my new condo in my pocket, admiring the stacked blocks of white stone picturesquely streaked with historic grime. Solomon Cohen developed the entire row of townhouses on the block, six of them. (His own home is known as the Stephen Williams House, a Federal-style mansion at the other end of the block, on the corner of Liberty and Barnard. It was there that he raised his family.) My townhouse is at the end of the row of six, and as I walked over to the side, a narrow passage between the free-standing house next door and my building revealed that my townhouse’s eastern wall was made of Savannah grey brick, famous these days for its rough beauty. The bricks range in color from faded gray to dark brown, and in their lack of uniformity lies their contemporary charm. Even when they were new, no two were alike. They were handmade of clay on the Hermitage Plantation, three miles upriver from Savannah. The hands that made them belonged to enslaved people, and if you look closely, you might be able to spot, on some of them, heartbreaking dents made by thumbs.
This look, so popular now, didn’t impress in the 19th century, and I suddenly realized my townhouse was made of brick covered in stucco that had been scored to look like stone, a common practice at the time. Congenitally naïve, I only now noticed that the building’s front, like many of its era in the historic district, was actually an illusion.
That’s what I ended up doing with Solomon Cohen and his family. I looked hard at the façade, not just the one Solomon built to smooth over all those slave-made bricks, but the figurative one he constructed in speeches and letters to pretty up the institution of slavery itself. And I looked behind the heroic cardboard cutout that has been made of Gratz Cohen to find a tortured, sensitive young man whose motives for going to fight were conflicted, and who was, in the end, waging a personal war, the true enemy being himself.