Jewish financial contributions to the Civil War were overshadowed by the more dramatic and significant battles. Yet, the Seligman family's role in obtaining financial aid for the North is compared to the victories of the Union forces at Gettysburg and the contributions of Haym Salomon to the American Revolution by the Dictionary of National Biography.
When the Civil War began, the South had no problems in getting European credit while the North had trouble. Union bonds could not be sold abroad and the North was hurting financially.
The Seligman brothers, through their international banking firm, J.&W. Seligman and Company, were able to break this "no credit" wall when their Frankfurt, Germany, branch sold over $200 million worth of bonds. This was the opening that enabled the North to be financially sound in the continuation of the Civil War. As a result of being able to sell the United States bonds in Frankfurt, the government appointed all of their European branches as their fiscal agents in selling U.S. bonds.
At this time, the North owed the Seligman family over a million dollars for clothing purchased from them in their dry goods business.
Fanny and David Seligman had eight sons and three daughters and their eldest son, Joseph, immigrated to the United States from Germany in 1837. Joseph worked hard and he sent for his seven brothers as he accumulated enough fare. Jesse and Henry opened up a dry goods store in Watertown, New York, in 1848.
It was here that Jesse became friendly with a young lieutenant named Ulysses S. Grant, who was stationed there, and who was to become a great general in the Civil War. Jesse Seligman recalls in his writings that he was learning the English language and smoking penny cigars when he and Grant were having long conversations.
In 1850, Jesse and Leopold Seligman went to San Francisco with merchandise and established a lucrative business taking care of the needs of those involved in the gold rush. They returned to New York, where they had a large import and clothing firm. It was this firm that sold merchandise to the North during the Civil War and gave them over a million dollars of credit.
Jesse Seligman was a vice-president of the Union League Club of New York, but he resigned in 1893 when his son was blackballed be cause of his religion. He was for over 20 years the president of the Hebrew Benevolent and Orphan Asylum of New York and he was selected by Baron de Hirsch in 1891 as an original member of the board of trustees of the Baron de Hirsch Fund.
Jesse Seligman enjoyed the confidence and esteem of President Grant and some of his successors. Joseph Seligman was active in finance and he submitted a plan to the government on how to fund their operations. His plan was selected and he joined with the House of Rothschild in this undertaking.
Joseph Seligman was offered the position of Secretary of the Treasury by President Grant, but he refused the prestigious offer. He was very active in charity and Jewish affairs. Prior to his death in 1880, he was considered to be one of the leading Jews in the country.
This is one of the 150 illustrated true stories of American heroism included in Jewish Heroes and Heroines of America, © 1996, written by Seymour "Sy" Brody of Delray Beach, Florida, illustrated by Art Seiden of Woodmere, New York, and published by Lifetime Books, Inc., Hollywood, FL.
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Last updated 12 May 2011