Sara Ann Hays Mordecai
Born to a bustling household that revered her aunt, education pioneer Rebecca Gratz, Sara Mordecai showed an early talent for drawing, painting, and poetry, assembling a book of her own work and that of her friends as a teenager. In 1836 she married Alfred Mordecai, the first Jew to graduate West Point. He refused to take sides in the Civil War and resigned his military commission in 1861, a decision that brought condemnation and poverty to the family. The Mordecais supported themselves for several years on the proceeds of a successful girls’ school run by three of their daughters. In 1870, Mordecai wrote a short memoir, published anonymously in 1893 shortly before her death.
Sara Ann Hays Mordecai was the epitome of Victorian female devotion to literature, art, and domesticity—albeit one of a peculiarly Jewish bent. The sixth of ten children born to Samuel and Richea Gratz of Philadelphia, Sara Ann was born on September 27, 1805, and raised in a household dominated by the figure of her maternal aunt, Rebecca Gratz, who, for Sara Ann and her siblings, was the primary model of Jewish womanhood. Sara Ann later described the household adulation of “Aunt Becky.” “My beloved mother always looked up to her with affection and pride, and we, her children, were taught to share with her the love and reverence which my aunt inspired from all.”
Sara Ann showed an early inclination toward literature and art. As a teenager, she assembled a commonplace book filled with drawings, sketches, paintings, and poetry of her own, as well as that of others in her circle, which included family friends Charlotte Meade Graham, Charles Fenno Hoffman, and Ann Meredith Ogden. The commonplace book reveals that Sara Ann was possessed of a keen sensibility for the natural world, and it is a demonstration of her skills in the visual and literary arts.
On June 1, 1836, at age thirty-one, she married rising young army officer Alfred Mordecai, with whom she had seven children. As the wife of a military officer, she enjoyed a comfortable lifestyle for many years in Watervliet, New York, where her husband was in charge of ordnance at the arsenal maintained by the United States Army. Her husband, a southerner by birth and upbringing, refused to take sides in the Civil War and resigned his army commission in 1861—a decision for which Sara Ann Hays Mordecai, as a northerner, was unjustly blamed by some of their contemporaries. In reflecting on his personal “great reverse of fortune” following the war’s end, however, Alfred Mordecai paid tribute to the equanimity of “my affectionate wife,” whose companionship he deemed a solace during a trying time.
The bulk of the family income during the war years was provided by a school run by Mordecai’s daughters Rosa, Ellen, and Miriam, who shared her veneration of their great-aunt Rebecca Gratz. In 1870, following the death of Rebecca Gratz, Mordecai penned a short biographical sketch, entitled Recollections of My Aunt, Rebecca Gratz, by One of Her Nieces. This piece was finally published anonymously in 1893, just prior to the death of Sara Ann Hays Mordecai in Philadelphia, in 1894, at age eighty-nine.
Commonplace book. American Jewish Historical Society, Waltham, Mass.
Recollections of My Aunt, Rebecca Gratz, by One of Her Nieces (1893).
Falk, Stanley L. “Divided Loyalties in 1861: The Decision of Major Alfred Mordecai.” Publications of the American Jewish Historical Society 48, no. 3 (March 1959): 147–169.