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Brother Against Brother: Abraham Jonas’s Sons

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Tales of divided houses during the Civil War are not unique, but the Jonas family story departs from the traditional brother-against-brother narrative, with confirmation that of the six brothers who served, two brothers were mere yards away from each other on opposite sides during the Battle of Shiloh; a desperate war-time race to their father’s deathbed; and an intervention by close friend, Abraham Lincoln.

Abraham Jonas, a Jewish lawyer and Republican activist, befriended the future President in 1838, when Jonas relocated his family to Illinois from Kentucky. Long before the Civil War, five of his sons and one daughter moved to the South to make their fortunes, and then later found themselves, according to their father in 1862, “compelled to join the rebel army”{1} by their adoptive states. A close friend and staunch political ally of Abraham Lincoln, Jonas was, by his own admission, “grieved” that any of his sons would fight for the Confederacy

A witness to his own wife’s family’s divided loyalties, President Lincoln did not hold it against the mortified and heartbroken Jonas that five of his sons were serving in the Confederate Army. To the contrary, Lincoln frequently inquired after them. Later, Lincoln would personally intervene to grant Charles, the eldest Jonas son, a special parole to leave a Union Prisoner of War camp in order to attend his dying father – and Lincoln’s dear friend – on his deathbed.

Living in the South did not diminish the sons’ admiration of Abraham Lincoln. In December of 1860, Abraham Jonas received word from one of his relatives (likely one of his sons) living in New Orleans that plans were being made to block Lincoln’s inauguration, and that the President-Elect was possibly in danger. The decision to warn Lincoln of the ostensible threat to him was so risky that Jonas would not name the relation who alerted him.

First to enlist, Sidney Alroy Jonas, born in 1838, worked as a civil engineer for the railroad in Mississippi when the war broke out. In July 1861, he quit his job and enlisted in the Confederate Army of the Potomac, 2nd Corps, 3rd Brigade, where he was appointed Major and Chief Commissary of Subsistence. He was at several famous campaigns, including the Battle of Manassas (Bull Run) and Chickamauga, and was at the Headquarters of Lee’s Corps when General Joseph E. Johnston surrendered the camp to General William Sherman in April 1865. After the war, Sidney enjoyed minor celebrity status for penning the nostalgic ode to the lost cause of the Confederacy, ‘Lines on the Back of a Confederate Note.’ Sidney had a talent for writing, and shortly after returning to Aberdeen, Mississippi, published his own newspaper, The Aberdeen Examiner, which he ran for nearly fifty years until the day he died.

Edward L. Jonas enlisted next, for the Union. Born in Illinois in 1844, he was only seventeen when he enlisted as a Private in the 50th IL Infantry in 1861. As a minor, Edward needed his father to endorse his enlistment contract, and so he had Abraham Jonas’s support. Edward was captured at the Battle of Shiloh and was freed in a prisoner exchange in Virginia in 1862.  When he rejoined his regiment, Edward rose through the ranks. He received a commission to 2nd Lieutenant, and served as an Aide-de-Camp; he was granted post-discharge promotions to Brevet Major and Brevet Lieutenant Colonel for meritorious service. After the war, Edward settled and married in Louisiana, where most of his family was living. He would later recall an endearing episode of Lincoln’s humor: during the Douglas debates in 1858 while Edward’s father, Abraham, was speaking, Lincoln repeatedly tickled Edward’s ear with a piece of straw, and was joking around with Edward, entertaining him, until it was Lincoln’s own turn to speak.

Julian J. Jonas was born in 1836. After being raised in Illinois, he found himself in Louisiana at the outbreak of the Civil War. In March 1862, Julian enlisted as a Private in the Crescent Regiment, Louisiana Infantry. Julian was promoted to 5th Sergeant, then Quartermaster Sergeant, and ultimately reduced to Private and transferred to the Louisiana Cavalry. Less than ten years after the Civil War, Julian drowned while fording a river with his horse. He was 36 years old.


The Jonas “brother against brother” tableau allegedly occurred at the Battle of Shiloh in April of 1862 between Julian and Edward. There is no record confirming that the two actually met on the battlefield, but cross-referencing regimental histories and each soldier’s personal service history reveals that when Edward was captured during the battle, Julian’s Crescent Regiment was a mere 460 feet away.


Benjamin Franklin Jonas (known as “Frank”), was born in 1834. In 1853, he moved to New Orleans to study law and later became a partner in a prominent local law firm. Frank played an active role in Jewish society in New Orleans, being a founder of the Jewish Orphans Home, and also integrated into the broader political and cultural life of his adopted hometown. In 1857, Frank Jonas and Abraham Lincoln, whom Frank referred to in their correspondence as “an old friend of my father” assisted a black man from Illinois named John Shelby who was jailed in New Orleans for violating curfew. Frank and Lincoln freed Shelby and both lawyers waived their fees.

In September 1862, Frank joined Fenner’s Battery, LA Light Artillery as a Private. It is unclear whether he volunteered or was drafted. He saw action in Jackson in 1862 and participated in a particularly grizzly campaign of Atlanta in 1863, and served until the end of the war, where he surrendered his unit nearly a month after Appomattox, having been promoted to Sergeant Major. That same year, in 1865, Frank returned to New Orleans and was elected to the State House of Representatives, embarking on a twenty-year political career as a Democrat, serving as the second Jewish US Senator from Louisiana, and the third Jewish US Senator overall.

Charles Henry Jonas, the oldest brother, born in 1832, joined the war effort second to last. In 1862, he was commissioned as a Captain, Assistant Quartermaster into the 12th Arkansas Infantry. In July of 1863 he was captured at the Battle of Port Hudson, Louisiana. In May of 1864, Charles was still in Union custody while his father Abraham Jonas lay on his deathbed. President Lincoln issued a personal order granting Charles a special parole for three weeks to visit his father. A few hours after Charles arrived, Abraham Jonas died. Charles acted honorably, dutifully returning to prison, as records at the National Archives reflect that he was finally freed in a prisoner exchange in March of 1865.

According to his siblings, George B. Jonas, born in 1840, was the last of them to enlist, but his service is shrouded in some mystery. George enlisted in the 10th NY Heavy Artillery as a Private, joining Edward in defending the Union, in 1864. During that service, he wrote directly to President Lincoln requesting a furlough before starting his service, invoking the “friend-ship existing between my Father and yourself, for so long a time.” Yet the historic record poses the question, did he also serve in the Confederacy? On the 1890 Veteran’s Census, George stated that he served from 1862-1865, leaving some two years of service to be accounted for:

There are two soldiers named George Jonas found on the muster rolls of the Confederate Guards Regiment, Louisiana Militia. The historic record confirms that the only men named George Jonas in America at that time were Abraham Jonas’ son and his brother – both named George. George B. Jonas (Abraham’s brother), served in Company K while the regimental rolls also show a different George Jonas serving in Company B. This service record could account for the discrepancy in years reported in the Veteran’s Census. Additionally, an affidavit submitted by Edward for George’s pension claim adds to the confusion, stating George “left New Orleans for New York to enlist,” which supports the idea that George might also have served earlier in that  Confederate regiment; but Edward also stated in the same affidavit that George never served in the Confederate Army. If George did serve in the Confederacy, it would have potentially voided his Union pension claim, so it’s possible that Edward was not completely honest. Moreover, when George enlisted with the Union in 1864, he claimed to be from Canada – yet another oddity in his record.

Sadly, Abraham Jonas died before seeing his sons set aside their war time differences and come together again as a family. Historians differ on where the Jonas brothers’ true feelings and loyalties laid during the war. In July of 1862, Abraham Jonas, who held the position of Postmaster General, felt obliged to address the rumor that two of his sons had joined the Confederate Army:

“My five boys were in the South many years before the commencement of the rebellion, and when last heard from were all loyal to the Union. That two of them, like hundreds of other loyal men, may have been compelled to join the rebel army I am not prepared to deny, as I have not received a line from one of them since the commencement of this unhappy war.”

After the war, General Grenville M. Dodge wrote a letter supporting Edward’s pension claim and said of Edward and his brothers generally:

“Capt. Jonas, during the War, served on my Staff. He was a splendid officer, one of the brightest and coolest that I ever had with me. He is a brother of Ex-Senator Jonas of Louisiana, who, at the same time, served on the Staff of General Hood. The family were divided, but each party loyal to his own side.”


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