Past and Present

Jewish World Review

Michael Feldberg

Mordecai Sheftall and
the Wages of War -- THE War for American Independence posed great hardships for many on the patriot side. The heat of the Philadelphia summer that plagued the Founding Fathers as they gathered to declare independence, or the harsh cold endured by Washington's troops as they wintered at Valley Forge, are but two such instances. Mordecai Sheftall, the leading Jewish citizen of Savannah, Georgia, an ardent patriot, was one of those who paid an extraordinary price for independence.

Mordecai Sheftall's father, Benjamin, a deeply religious Jew, was an original white settler of the Georgia colony, having arrived in 1733. Benjamin Sheftall married his first wife, Perla, in 1734 and Mordecai was born in 1735. Perla died a year later and, in 1738, Benjamin married Hannah Solomons, with whom he had several more children.

Despite the opportunities presented by the new colony, Benjamin Sheftall never became wealthy; son Mordecai fared far better. By age 21, Mordecai acquired land for cattle raising and, by age 25, purchased a warehouse and wharf on the Savannah River.

Like his father, Mordecai Sheftall was a devoted and observant Jew. Savannah had only six Jewish families, but n 1771 Mordecai found a Jewish bride, Frances “Fannie” Hart, whom he “imported” from Charleston, South Carolina. Mordecai became a founding subscriber to Congregation Mickve Israel in Savannah and provided the community with land for its first Jewish cemetery. Sheftall was the Jewish representative among the original five incorporators of the Union Society, a non-denominational philanthropic association formed by Savannah's religious organizations to assist widows and poor children.

Like a majority of his co-religionists, Mordecai Sheftall cast his lot with rebellion against British rule. In 1776, Sheftall was elected chairman of the revolutionary committee that assumed control of local government in Savannah. In 1777, he was appointed Commissary General of Purchases and Issues to the Georgia militia and was thus responsible for supplying the colony's soldiers with food, clothing and materiel. Sheftall often reached into his own pocket to purchase supplies for the volunteers.

In 1778,having proven his skill and selflessness as Commissary General of Georgia, General Robert Howe appointed Sheftall to the post of Deputy Commissary General to the federal troops stationed in Georgia and South Carolina. Before Congress could confirm his role, however, he was captured in December 1778, along with his fifteen-year-old son, Sheftall Sheftall, in the battle to prevent Savannah from falling to British troops. Some of the outnumbered patriots escaped by swimming across the Savannah River, but the younger Sheftall could not swim. His father would not abandon him. With 185 other Americans, they were captured and imprisoned.

The British interrogated the Sheftalls under great duress, depriving them of food for two days. At one point, they were almost bayoneted by a drunken British soldier. Still refusing to provide information about the American's sources of supplies and refusing to renounce the patriot cause, father and son were transferred to the dank prison ship “Nancy,” where the British deliberately offered Mordecai no meat other than pork, which he refused. After several months, the elder Sheftall was paroled to the town of Sunbury, Georgia, where he was kept under close British surveillance; his son remained on the “Nancy.” At Mordecai's urging, Mrs. Sheftall took her other children to the relative safety of Charleston.

Separation from family weighed heavily on Mordecai. Through the intervention of friends, he was finally able to arrange for his son's parole to Sunbury under the same restrictive conditions on his own freedom of movement. Things looked promising when American military pressure on Savannah forced the British garrison to withdraw from Sunbury, but freedom for the Sheftalls did not follow. Local Tories began to beat and even kill patriots in Sunbury, especially parolees like the Sheftalls. Father and son managed to flee on an American brig headed for Charleston and a hoped for reunion with their family, but were captured by a British frigate and transported to Antigua, where they remained prisoners until the Spring of 1780. In June, both Sheftalls were paroled once more. They headed for Philadelphia, to which Mrs. Sheftall and the children had fled, yet again, for safety. There, despite his own financial hardships, Mordecai helped fund a new synagogue for Congregation Mikve Israel.

Mordecai spent the remainder of the war in Philadelphia, seeking to help both the American cause and his own financial condition by financing a privateer to capture and loot British vessels. His investment does not seem to have paid off; on its very first voyage, the ship ran aground. In1783, when the war ended, Mordecai returned with his wife and children to Savannah, where the family resumed its life for several generations. The state of Georgia granted him several hundred acres of land in recognition of his sacrifices on behalf of independence. When he died in 1797 at the age of 62, his beloved home city of Savannah buried him with full honors in the Jewish cemetery he created.

Michael Feldberg is the director of the American Jewish Historical Society. Comment on this article by clicking here.


Haym Salomon: The rest of the story
Francis Salvador: Martyr of the American Revolution
How Hebrew came to Yale
The Making of a Jewish Citizen

© 2001 Michael Feldberg