For Private Joseph A. Joel and his brethren, the parallels must have been obvious. Here they were, soldiers in an unfamiliar land with enemies all around, fighting in part to free enslaved people, when they stopped to observe a religious holiday dedicated to remembering their enslaved ancestors and their own escape to freedom.
Joel was one of about 20 Jewish Union soldiers in the 23rd Ohio Infantry to celebrate a makeshift Passover Seder near what is now Fayetteville, W.Va., on April 3, 1862. More than 160 years later, the approximate site of their celebration has been located and a sign unveiled to honor it, with the support of the nonprofit Civil War Trails and local stakeholders.
“In the grand scheme of history, this event is a footnote,” said Joseph Golden of the Temple Beth El congregation in nearby Beckley, W.Va. “But it also gives us a glimpse into the personal involvement of Jewish soldiers fighting for the Union cause.”
About 150,000 Jews lived in the United States at the time of the Civil War. Some were Southern enslavers, like Judah P. Benjamin, a U.S. senator from Louisiana who joined the Confederacy. But most lived in the North, and approximately 7,000 Jews served in the Union Army — including these young men from Ohio.
Much of what we know about this Seder comes from Joel, who was between 17 and 19 years old at the time. Four years after their improvised observance, in 1866, he recounted it in a letter to the Jewish Messenger newspaper.
The regiment made its winter camp in backwoods of what was then Virginia — West Virginia had not yet become a state — just outside a village called Fayette, now Fayetteville. The group of Jewish soldiers asked their commanding officer, future president Rutherford B. Hayes, for time off to celebrate Passover, “which he readily acceded to,” Joel wrote.
Though in this instance Hayes allowed the men to practice their religion unimpeded, other Jews in the Union army faced unaccommodating and even antisemitic commanders. Another future president, Ulysses S. Grant, issued a general order expelling Jews from the Department of Tennessee; when President Abraham Lincoln found out, he ordered Grant to rescind it.