Mordecai, Moses Cohen

February 19, 1804–December 30, 1888

In February 1865 the Columbia City Council appointed Mordecai “food administrator” to furnish sustenance to its starving citizens. Later that year he and twenty other community leaders were authorized to discuss South Carolina’s return to the Union with President Andrew Johnson.

Merchant, shipowner, legislator, civic leader. M. C. Mordecai was Charleston’s most prominent Jewish citizen in the decades before the Civil War. Born on February 19, 1804, in Charleston, he was the son of David Mordecai and Reinah Cohen. Although he possessed little formal education, Mordecai became a leading business and civic figure in antebellum Charleston. His firm, Mordecai & Company, was among the city’s most prominent importers and shipowners, conducting an extensive trade in fruit, sugar, coffee, and tobacco from the West Indies. He later operated a steamship line between Charleston and Havana, Cuba. His influence and leadership carried into a wide variety of political and civic activities as well. He represented Charleston in the General Assembly in the state House (1844–1845) and state Senate (1854–1857); was a director of the Southwestern Railroad Bank (1840–1852), the Charleston Gas Light Company (1848–1856), the South Carolina Insurance Company (1849–1857), and the Farmers’ and Exchange Bank of Charleston (1854–1859); and sat on numerous additional boards and committees. At various times he was vice president of the Charleston Ancient Artillery Society (1830–1847), a member of the Charleston Board of Health (1833–1836), captain of the Marion Artillery (1834), a member of the Committee on Civic Improvements (1837), warden of police (1837), commis- sioner of markets (1837), a delegate to the Augusta commercial convention (1838), and commissioner of pilotage (1842–1850).

Mordecai lived in a mansion on Meeting Street near St. Michael’s Church with his wife, Isabel Lyons, whom he had married on February 20, 1828. They had eight children. Active in the affairs of Beth Elohim Synagogue, Mordecai favored the installation of an organ in the building’s new sanctuary, thus siding with the reform faction of the congregation. He served as president of Beth Elohim from 1857 to 1861.

Together with Ker Boyce and B. C. Pressley, in 1851 Mordecai helped launch the Southern Standard (later the Charleston Standard ), a Unionist newspaper that rejected separate state secession and promoted cooperation in political affairs among the southern states. Once South Carolina seceded from the Union, however, Mordecai supported the Confederate cause. His steamer, the Isabel, transferred U.S. Army Major Robert Anderson and his command from Fort Sumter to the Union fleet following the opening bombardment of the Civil War. Named for Mordecai’s wife, the Isabel became a famous blockade-runner during the war.

In February 1865 the Columbia City Council appointed Mordecai “food administrator” to furnish sustenance to its starving citizens. Later that year he and twenty other community leaders were authorized to discuss South Carolina’s return to the Union with President Andrew Johnson. Broken by the war, Mordecai moved to Baltimore, where he reestablished Mordecai & Company and operated a steamship line between Baltimore and Charleston. Although he lived the remainder of his years in Maryland, Mordecai nevertheless remained a benefactor to his native state. In 1870 he arranged for his company to bring home the bodies of eighty-four South Carolinians killed at the Battle of Gettysburg, at no cost to their families. Blind for the last eighteen years of his life, Mordecai died in Baltimore on December 30, 1888.

Bailey, N. Louise, Mary L. Morgan, and Carolyn R. Taylor, eds. Biographical Directory of the South Carolina Senate, 1776–1985. 3 vols. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1986.

Hagy, James William. This Happy Land: The Jews of Colonial and Antebellum Charleston. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1993.

Rosengarten, Theodore, and Dale Rosengarten, eds. A Portion of the People: Three Hundred Years of Southern Jewish Life. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2002.

Tobias, Thomas J. Papers. Special Collections, College of Charleston Library, Charleston.

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations.

  • Title Mordecai, Moses Cohen
  • Coverage February 19, 1804–December 30, 1888
  • Author
  • Keywords Merchant, shipowner, legislator, civic leader, Mordecai & Company, was among the city’s most prominent importers and shipowners, served as president of Beth Elohim, helped launch the Southern Standard,
  • Website Name South Carolina Encyclopedia
  • Publisher University of South Carolina, Institute for Southern Studies
  • URL
  • Access Date October 24, 2020
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update October 20, 2016
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