FIRST JEWISH COMMODORE AND RENOVATOR OF JEFFERSON’S HOME? URIAH LEVY AND JEWISH HERITAGE MONTH
Thanks for the Memorial Day recognition daysrunaway!
Since it is Memorial Day, I’d like to take a second to recognize a famous military figure who was a very active member of my Current Lodge, Columbia Lodge no. 91.
He was the first Jewish man to reach the highest rank in the Navy, Commodore. He was also influential in ending the practice of Flogging.
To quote from “Famous Jewish Heroes & Heroines”:
Uriah P. Levy was a naval hero who served his country from the War of 1812 to 1862. He was the first Jew to obtain the rank of Commodore in the United States Navy, which is the equivalent of an admiral. Levy left his home in Philadelphia, at the age of 14, to sign up as an apprentice seaman aboard a merchant ship. At 15, he became the mate of the brig POLLY AND BETSY, and at 20 he became master and part owner of the brig-of-war ARGUS, which ran the British blockade to France.
On her return voyage to the United States, the ARGUS destroyed 21 British merchant ships and captured a number of vessels, which Levy armed for battle against the British men-of-war. When he met the heavily armed British frigate PELICAN, Levy fought an unequal battle until the ARGUS was sunk and he was taken prisoner. He spent 16 months in Dartmoor Prison in England.
Levy was one of the first naval officers to recognize men for their ability and not by their ethnic roots, religion or social standing. When he was commander of the U.S.S. VANDALIA during the War of 1812, he fathered a law that would place his name in history. The law abolished flogging in the Navy. Because there was no Naval Academy to train and guide the young officers, Levy wrote and published the “Manual of War,” the first printed guide that detailed all aspects of a young officer’s duties aboard a ship. This manual was in three volumes and included the “new age of steam.” When Levy was promoted to lieutenant in 1817, he was confronted by a large group of anti-Semitic officers who slighted, rebuffed and discriminated against him. At one point, he was forced to fight a duel and killed the man. He was court-martialed and found guilty six times. On appeal, however, each case was overturned by a higher board of inquiry.
The anti-Levy feelings were so great that his enemies managed, in 1855, to get Congress to set up a board of inquiry to purge him from the Navy. Levy and the board received many letters of sympathy and support. Once again the anti-Semites lost and Levy remained in the Navy. It was after this event that Levy was promoted to the rank of Commodore and given command of the Mediterranean Squadron.
Levy was a devoted admirer of Thomas Jefferson and when he found that Jefferson’s home, Monticello, was in ruins and decay, he bought it on May 20, 1836. He worked hard to restore and preserve it for future generations. Levy, a religious man, was the first president of Washington, D.C., Hebrew Congregation and was a member of the Shearith Congregation in New York. In World War II, a destroyer escort was named the U.S.S. LEVY in his memory and it served in the war with distinction. The first permanent Jewish chapel ever built by the U.S. Armed Forces also honors him.
The Commodore Uriah Levy Jewish Chapel is located near the main gate at the historic naval station in Norfolk, Virginia, and the public is invited to visit it