By Michael Freund
The Jerusalem Post
It was April 24, 1864, at the height of the American Civil War, and in between his duties as an infantryman, young Isaac J. Levy sat down in camp on one of the intermediate days of Passover to write a short letter to his sister back home.
Levy, who served in the 46th Virginia infantry unit, was a soldier in the Confederate army which was battling on behalf of the southern states that sought to secede from the United States.
The war had just entered its fourth year, and it would prove to be the bloodiest conflict in American history. New research published last year in the journal Civil War History by demographic historian J. David Hacker of Binghamton University revealed the death toll may have been as high as 750,000 people.
Levy and his regiment, which included his brother Ezekiel, who served as a captain, were posted at Adams Run, South Carolina, and the fog of war had cast a shadow over his observance of the holiday.
“No doubt you were much surprised on receiving a letter from me addressed to our dear parents dated on the 21st which was the first day of Pesach,” he wrote to his sister Leonora, with the word “Pesach” carefully printed in Hebrew letters. “We were all under the impression in camp that the first day of the festival was the 22nd,” and he had therefore unwittingly failed to observe the holiday’s start on the appropriate day.
But Levy went on to assure her that his brother had purchased matza “sufficient to last us for the week” in the city of Charleston at the cost of two dollars per pound, and that they were “observing the festival in a truly Orthodox style.” Sadly, just four months later, Isaac Levy was killed in the trenches during the Siege of Petersburg on August 21, 1864. He was 21 years old.
On the eve of the Civil War, which began in April 1861, 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.
Most of the immigrants were German Jews looking for greater opportunity and freedom.
Like their fellow Americans, the Jews of the United States quickly found themselves caught up in the war between the North and the South, and it had a profound influence on them.
As historian Eli N. Evans has written, “For Jews in America, the Civil War was a watershed that involved Jewish soldiers from all over the nation.”
“Serving their countries under fire and fighting side by side with their gentile comrades in arms,” Evans argued, “accelerated the process of acculturation, not only through their self-perceptions, but also because of the actions of the community around them.”
Indeed, an estimated 10,000 Jews – 3,000 southern Confederates and 7,000 Northerners – fought in the war, with nine Jews reaching the rank of general and 21 attaining that of colonel.
One of the most famous American Jews in the military was Commodore Uriah P. Levy. A veteran of the War of 1812 against Great Britain, Levy had endured frequent anti-Semitism throughout his naval career. He briefly served in the Union Navy at the start of the Civil War but retired shortly thereafter.
Another Jew – Judah P. Benjamin – served as secretary of state and secretary of war for the Confederacy, overseeing the administration of the conflict for the South.
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.”
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.
Despite the loyalty and courage they demonstrated, Jewish soldiers often encountered anti-Semitism, and Jews nationwide were subjected to accusations of being “war profiteers” and even aiding the enemy.
In fact, it was at the height of the Civil War that the most infamous act of anti-Semitism in American history took place, when Union Gen. Ulysses S. Grant issued General Order No. 11 on December 17, 1862, expelling Jews “as a class” from the Tennessee military district. When Abraham Lincoln learned of the order, he rescinded it.
To what extent Jewish soldiers during the Civil War were allowed to observe their faith is not entirely clear, though 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 holydays.” 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.”
Armed with some of the basics, Joel turned his attention to obtaining “the other requisites for that occasion.” A number of the Jewish soldiers were dispatched to the countryside to find various food items for the festive Seder meal while others stayed behind “to build a log hut for the service,” a possible reference to a temporary synagogue.
Given the difficulties of war, Joel and his fellow Jewish servicemen had to improvise as best they could. He recalled that “Horseradish or parsley we could not obtain, but in lieu we found a weed, whose bitterness, I apprehend, exceeded anything our forefathers ‘enjoyed.’” Similarly, Joel was unable to obtain the necessary ingredients to make haroset, the dish intended to remind participants at the Seder of the mortar used by the Israelites to make bricks in ancient Egypt.
So he and the other soldiers did the next best thing: They “got a brick which, rather hard to digest, reminded us, by looking at it, for what purpose it was intended.”
That evening, Joel and the 20 other Jewish soldiers sat down and conducted the Seder, one that he later said he would remember for the rest of his life.
“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,” he wrote.
“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,” Joel related.
While a number of the participants in that memorable Passover commemoration later died in battle, Joel survived a number of wounds and after the war he moved to Staten Island with his wife.
With the deliverance of the Jewish people from slavery serving as one of Passover’s central themes, it is difficult not to wonder whether the Jewish soldiers of the North and South viewed the titanic struggle between the states through the prism of the festival, particularly since the issue of slavery lay at the heart of the conflict.
Did southern Jewish combatants see the irony when they recited the section in the Haggada which declares, “We were slaves unto Pharaoh in Egypt,” even as they fought to preserve the enslavement of blacks? Did Jewish Union soldiers imagine themselves as deliverers of another people from servitude? We may never know.
Nonetheless, despite the carnage of the fratricidal conflict and the ideological divide between the two sides, the onset of Passover occasionally still had a unifying effect.
In his 1961 classic, American Jewry and the Civil War, the late Bertram W. Korn relates a story signifying how the fraternal bond among Jews could overcome political differences.
“One day during a Passover,” Korn wrote, “Union soldier Myer Levy of Philadelphia was walking through a captured Virginia town, when he saw a boy sitting on the steps of his house and eating matza. When Levy asked for some, the boy leaped up and ran into the house shouting, ‘Mother, there’s a damn-Yankee Jew outside!’ The boy’s mother came out and invited Levy to return that evening for a Passover meal.”
The name of that gracious woman has been lost to history, but the power of her kindness, and the lesson it teaches, has not. Through her action, she paid homage to the words of the Haggada, which states: “Whoever is hungry let him come and eat, whoever is in need let him come and celebrate Passover.”
When we gaze back at the American Civil War, and the Jews who struggled to preserve their traditions even amid the gunpowder and cannon-fire, it is an example well worth remembering.