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Jewish World Review
Meet the Orthodox Jew who laid groundwork for scientific development of ordnance that undergirds America's current world leadership
Some American Jews have left an indelible, if now nearly forgotten, mark on the nation's history. Alfred Mordecai was one such individual. He introduced scientific methods into the development of pre-Civil War American military munitions. The outbreak of the Civil War placed Mordecai, a native Southerner, in an untenable moral and emotional dilemma. In 1861, when the U. S. government was in dire need of his expertise, rather than take either side Mordecai retired from the Army and in effect dropped out of subsequent US military history.
Alfred Mordecai was raised by Orthodox parents in Warrenton, North Carolina. His father, Jacob, a merchant of middling success, built a reputation as a Biblical scholar. The Mordecai family kept a kosher home and observed the holy days. When a bad investment in the tobacco wiped out the tobacco business, Jacob and his wife Rebecca opened a nonsectarian girl's boarding school that established a reputation as one of the best in the South.
Young Alfred received his education in the liberal arts as the only boy at his parents' boarding school and at home, where he learned Hebrew language and Jewish subjects. Mordecai was particularly brilliant at mathematics and, at age 15, entered the United Sates Military Academy at West Point, the one public institution in the US where a young man could receive a scientific education.
As the only Jew then at West Point, Mordecai found it difficult to maintain his religious practice. With the other cadets, Mordecai was forced to attend Presbyterian chapel each Sunday. Kosher food was unavailable. Despite the stresses, Mordecai graduated in 1823, at age 19, at the top of the class. He continued at West Point as an instructor, then supervised construction of fortifications along the Atlantic Coast and was eventually stationed in Washington, DC, as assistant to the Army Chief of Engineers. In 1836, Mordecai was appointed commander of the Frankford Arsenal in Philadelphia. That year, he married Sarah Ann Hays of that city, a niece of Rebecca Gratz.
Mordecai rose to the rank of major and, during the Mexican War, assumed command of the army's most significant arsenal, in Washington, DC. Mordecai became an assistant to the Secretary of War and to the Chief of Ordnance, wrote an excellent Digest of Military Laws and served on the Board of Visitors to West Point.
"It was as a member of the Ordnance Board," historian Stanley L. Falk observes, "which passed on and developed all new weapons, ammunition and ordnance equipment for the Army, that [Mordecai] made his greatest contributions." Mordecai instituted scientific testing of munitions and new weapons systems. In 1841, he authored the first-ever ordnance manual for the US military that standardized the manufacture of weapons with interchangeable parts, a step in the evolution of American mass manufacturing. According to Falk, Mordecai also "performed important experiments with artillery and gunpowder, the results of . . . which were published in 1845 . . . and later translated into French and German." The year 1857 marked the peak of Mordecai's career. He traveled to Europe to observe the use of weaponry in the Crimean War. His report, written on his return, is considered a classic of American military science.
Falk asserts that Mordecai's work "was valued for its accuracy, its precise and systematic nature, and its immediate usefulness. It was an example and an inspiration for every other worker in the same field, and Mordecai was respected by all of them for his technical contributions no less than he was loved for his fineness of character, integrity, warmth and gentle humor."
Mordecai's military career seemed made, at least until April, 1861, when South Carolina troops fired on the Federal military garrison at Ft. Sumter in Charleston Harbor and Civil War erupted. Mordecai had spent his career –his entire adult life –in the United States Army. In 1861, his son Alfred, Jr., graduated from West Point and accepted a commission in the Army. At the same time, all of Mordecai's siblings lived in the South and sided with the Confederacy. Fighting against them, or even helping to make arms to be used against them, was anathema to Mordecai. He sought a U. S. Army post in California, away from battle. His request denied, Mordecai had no choice and resigned his commission. The Confederacy offered him a post, but he declined. A proud career military man, Mordecai watched the war from the sidelines, teaching mathematics at a private school and living, in effect, on his daughter's income.
At war's end, Mordecai declined to return to the military and worked as an engineer for the Imperial Mexican Railroad. In 1866, he moved to Philadelphia, where he lived modestly for another 20 years as treasurer and secretary for a canal company until his death in 1887.
Today, the United States military possesses the world's most sophisticated weaponry: laser guided "smart" bombs, shoulder-launched nuclear weapons and bullets that penetrate tank armor. American ordnance is the envy of the world and a source of its military hegemony. The little remembered Alfred Mordecai laid the groundwork for scientific development of ordnance that undergirds America's current world leadership.
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Michael Feldberg is the director of the American Jewish Historical Society. Comment by clicking here.
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© 2006, Michael Feldberg