Today’s guest post was written by our summer intern Brian Horowitz from Montgomery College, Maryland.
As an intern at the Library of Congress, Science Business and Technology Division, I have been able to wander in the books stacks of the Library of Congress. It was there that I met Brevet Major Alfred Mordecai, a man of quiet habit, forthright manner, known for his dedication to his job and country. In fact, I literally stumbled upon him, sitting, perhaps forgotten, on the Library shelves (an uncomfortable position for such a man). Three gigantic folios entitled Artillery for the United States Land Service (atlas folio) were not large enough to contain him, only to give an insight into him.
Printed in 1849 these plates offered only a small taste of Mordecai’s life. The plates were designed for the United States Army Ordnance Dept. and were part of a larger work that contained detailed, measured plans for all types of artillery and equipment that the Army had in United States at the time. As I turn through the pages of these plates, I am fascinated by the diagrams and am able to understand the evolution of artillery that has occurred over the past century. As I research information about these plates, I am fascinated with the life of Mordecai and the many difficult decisions which he faced throughout his life.
Alfred was born in Warrenton, North Carolina in 1804 and was brought up in an Orthodox Jewish household and, therefore, he had a difficult time being observant while attending the United States Military Academy at West Point. While attending West Point, he was unable to keep the kosher dietary rules and the Sabbath. Despite this discomfort, in 1823 he graduated first in his class and was assigned to the Corps of Engineers. After a period as assistant professor of engineering at West Point, he moved to Washington, D.C. and in 1828 became an assistant to the chief engineer. In 1832, he become the Captain of Ordnance and became a member of the Ordnance Board until 1860. On May 30, 1848, he was brevetted Major for his honorable service during the Mexican-American War.
As the Civil War approached, Alfred had to make the toughest decision of his life. His parents pressured him to support the Confederates, however, he did not want to fight against his brother soldiers. Rather than choose sides, he chose to retire from the military life to which he had devoted himself and instead became a treasurer for a canal company, a job he kept until his death in 1887. I have great admiration for a man whose talent was so obviously displayed in his works, but who turned it all down and chose a different career path rather then fight in a war of brother against brother.
The Library has Alfred Mordecai’s papers