Passover is the holiest time in the Jewish calendar. It commemorates the Exodus of the Jews from Egypt. It also is the time when Jesus was crucified by the Romans. It seems to be the right time to celebrate the service of Jews to both sides during the American Civil War.
On the eve of the Civil War American Jewry numbered an estimated 150,000 people, out of a total population of some 31 million. The overwhelming majority of American Jews at the time were recent arrivals: just a decade earlier, there had been 50,000 Jews living in the United States. During the war an estimated 10,000 Jews fought on both sides: 3,000 southern Confederates and 7,000 Northerner Unionists. Despite these small numbers, nine Jews reached the rank of general and 21 attaining that of colonel.
A number of Jewish soldiers distinguished themselves in the Civil War and were granted the Medal of Honor, the US military’s highest award, for exceptional bravery on the battlefield.
One such soldier, Sgt.-Maj. and Adjutant Abraham Cohn of the New Hampshire Infantry, was singled out by the assistant adjutant general of the United States for “conspicuous gallantry displayed in the Battle of the Wilderness [of May 1864], in rallying and forming disorganized troops under heavy fire; also for bravery and coolness in carrying orders to the advance lines under murderous fire in the Battle of the Mine, July 30, 1864.”
Adjutant Cohn has the most gratifying testimonials from his superior officers. Before enlisting in the 6th New Hampshire he had served in the 68th New York as a private and rose gradually to be captain. Owing to sickness he was honorably discharged, being then, in the opinion of the surgeons, unfit for further duty. Notwithstanding his discharge as Captain, when strong and able again, he re-enlisted as Private, in the 6th New Hampshire, and rose to the rank of Adjutant.
Judah P. Benjamin served as secretary of state, secretary of war and attorney general for the Confederacy, overseeing the administration of the conflict for the South. Benjamin was the first Jewish appointee to a Cabinet position in a North American government, and the first Jewish American to be seriously considered for nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court (he twice declined offers of nomination).
Jews also played a key part in helping to finance both sides in the conflict. German-born Jewish banker Joseph Seligman used his connections in the German and Dutch financial markets to help the North dispose of $200 million in bonds, thereby providing the federal government with a financial lifeline that enabled it to prosecute the war. This feat W. E. Dodd said was ‘scarcely less important than the Battle of Gettysburg'”.
Celebrating religious days must have been difficult for Jewish soldiers. As a clear minority in all units, they must have been hard pressed to celebrate the Passover. The experience of one unit is perhaps indicative of the difficulty and the extent that Jewish soldiers needed to take. We can gain an insight from the experience of 19-year-old Private Joseph Joel of the 23rd Ohio Volunteer Infantry, an account of which he published after the war in the March 3, 1866 issue of the Jewish Messenger.
Joel had the good fortune of serving together with 20 other Jews, and as Passover approached in 1862, they found themselves encamped in Fayette, West Virginia. Together, they “united in a request to our commanding officer for relief from duty in order that we might keep the holy days.” Their commander, Rutherford B. Hayes, who would later go on to become the 19th president of the United States, “readily acceded.”
Having been granted the hoped-for permission, Joel and his comrades went about making the necessary preparations for the holiday. “Our next business,” he wrote, “was to find some suitable person to proceed to Cincinnati, Ohio, to buy us Matzos.”
Fortunately, they found a Jewish merchant who sold supplies to the army and was heading home to Cincinnati, and he agreed to help, sending them “seven barrels of Matzos” along with “two Hagodahs and prayer-books.” After collecting the necessary supplies or reasonable substitutes, the 21 men proceeded with their services.
“At dark we had all prepared, and were ready to commence the service. There being no Chasan present, I was selected to read the services, which I commenced by asking the blessing of the Almighty on the food before us, and to preserve our lives from danger.”
“There, in the wild woods of West Virginia, away from home and friends, we consecrated and offered up to the ever-loving God of Israel our prayers and sacrifice. I doubt whether the spirits of our forefathers, had they been looking down on us, standing there with our arms by our side ready for an attack, faithful to our God and our cause, would have imagined themselves amongst mortals, enacting this commemoration of the scene that transpired in Egypt.”
“Since then a number of my comrades have fallen in battle in defending the flag they volunteered to protect with their lives. I have myself received a number of wounds all but mortal, but there is no occasion in my life that gives me more pleasure and satisfaction than when I remember the celebration of Passover of 1862. Joseph A. Joel”
Joel eventually married, moved to Staten Island, and became an editor and publisher. He never forgot the kindness of the commander who had granted his request to observe the celebration of Passover during the Civil War. He and Rutherford B. Hayes remained lifelong friends. In 1871, Joel wrote to Hayes, announcing the birth of his second daughter. A year later, Joel wrote again, informing Hayes that his wife had given birth to their first son, whom he had named Rutherford B. Hayes Joel.