Passover During the Civil War

    April 2012          
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Antagonist's Civil War Passover

By Louis Arthur Norton

The years 2011 through 2015 mark the sesquicentennial of the American Civil War. During this turbulent and divisive time, what was it like being a member of the Jewish community at Passover? Certainly Jews celebrated the calendar's yearly religious festivals and holy days, but the celebration of Passover, when Jewish families and friends gather to read the story of the Israelite exodus from Egypt dramatized with additional stories in the Haggadah, is somewhat like Shabbat. The joyous celebration occurs outside the synagogue, usually without the benefit of clergy. This holiday is unique. The centerpiece recapitulates a Biblical story via a ritual meal that proceeds in a prescribed order (Seder) with certain dishes given symbolic meanings to recall the events of that story. Every family constructs its own minor variations on the theme, but the retelling of the story is basically the same with certain Passover traditions differing in detail from community to community. Keeping these traditions and rituals were difficult for a religious soldier away from home and family and even more trying in the midst of a bloody war where one's enemy may be a fellow Jew fighting for what he believes is a righteous cause.

This was especially true during the American Civil War from April 1861 through May 1865. The largest Jewish community until the 1830's in the United States was in Charleston, South Carolina, with other large populations in New York and Philadelphia in the north. During the Civil War the total American Jewish population was about 150,000. Approximately 3,000 Jewish men fought on the Confederate side and 7,000 fought on the Union side with Jews playing leadership roles on both sides. Nine Jews were generals and twenty-one colonels. An aging Commodore Uriah Levy briefly served in the Union Navy during the very first months of the conflict before being retired. Judah Benjamin, a non-observant Jew, served as Secretary of State and acted as Secretary of War of the Confederacy. Several Jews in the banking industry helped provide financing for both sides during the Civil war.i

For Jewish soldiers who fought on both sides during these especially trying times, Passover was both emotional and perplexing. Slavery, perhaps the original sin of humanity, was most certainly the original sin in the founding of the United States. Therefore there was an obvious parallel between the story of Moses leading the enslaved ancient Hebrews out of slavery in Egypt and the cause of the Abolitionists to free slaves on American soil, the high moral ground that required personal blood sacrifice.

At the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861, the primary issue for the Northerners was fighting against secession and its implication for the future of the nation. The preservation of the Union surpassed all other considerations including slavery. The threat to nationalism and an abiding patriotism constituted the call to duty. In fact, congress stated that the war was not waged for the purpose of overthrowing or interfering with the rights of individual states or their "established" institutions (read slavery). The issue of freeing the slaves for most of the soldiers only gained in importance as the war ground on with the Emancipation Proclamation of 1 January 1863.ii Southerners also saw the war as a patriotic cause, the defense of their families and homes. But even more, they fought for the preservation of the sovereign rights of the states; southern states that had welcomed them and allowed many to rise to positions of prominence. Believing that these states had the right to preserve their own "domestic institutions" (code word for slavery), their response was to aggressively defend a threat to their way of life.

Jewish soldiers in the Union Army were just as committed to Judaism as those who fought for the Confederacy and both the Northern and Southern Jewish soldiers understood that Passover was the observance of their ancestors historic escape from the bonds of slavery. Slavery in America, although a political issue at the time, did not seem to have much primacy as these adversaries performed the ritual celebration on two sides of the battle lines. That noted, providing for the ritual symbols of a Seder in the scattered war zones required ingenuity and a bit of adaptability. Published accounts from letters from a Union and a Confederate soldier during this time put our modern home-based celebrations into perspective.

A Confederate soldier named Isaac Levy, 46th Virginia Infantry, described his Passover in the portion of an 1864 letter to his sister Leonora.

Dear Leonora

. . . . [My brother] Zeke [Capt. Ezekiel J. Levy of the 46th VA] . . . purchased [Matzot] sufficient to last us for the week. . . . We are observing the festival in a truly Orthodox style. On the first day we had a fine vegetable soup. It was made of a bunch of vegetables which Zeke brought from Charleston containing new onions, parsley, carrots turnips and a young cauliflower also a pound and a half of fresh [kosher] beef, the latter article sells for four dollars per pound in Charleston. Zeke did not bring us any meat from home. He brought some of his own, smoked meat, which he is sharing with us. He says that he supposes that Pa forgot to deliver it to him.

Love to all,

Your affectionate Brother

Isaac J. Levy iii

From "Passover: A Reminiscence of the War" published in the Jewish Messenger in April 1866, J.A. Joel of the 23rd Ohio Union Volunteer Regiment described how he and twenty fellow Jewish soldiers observed Passover with matzo and Haggadahs shipped to them from Cincinnati to have their Seder in Fayette, West Virginia. An edited description of Joel's of the 1862 event is as follows:

. . . [We requested] our commanding officer for relief from duty, in order that we might keep the holydays, which he readily acceded to. . . . We were anxiously awaiting to receive our matzos and about the middle of the morning of [the Eve of Passover] a supply train arrived in camp, and to our delight seven barrels of Matzos. On opening them, we were surprised and pleased to find that our thoughtful sutler had enclosed two Hagedahs [sic.] and prayer-books. We were now able to keep the [Seder] nights, if we could only obtain the other requisites for that occasion. We held a consultation and decided to send parties to forage in the country while a party stayed to build a log hut for the services. About the middle of the afternoon the foragers arrived, having been quite successful. We obtained two kegs of cider, a lamb, several chickens and some eggs. Horseradish or parsley we could not obtain, but in lieu we found a weed, whose bitterness, I apprehend, exceeded anything our forefathers "enjoyed". . . . We had the lamb, but did not know what part was to represent it at the table; but Yankee ingenuity prevailed, and it was decided to cook the whole and put it on the table, then we could dine off it, and be sure we had the right part. The necessaries for the choroutzes we could not obtain, so we got a brick which, rather hard to digest, reminded us, by looking at it, for what purpose it was intended. . . . .

At dark we had all prepared, and were ready to commence the service. . . . 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. The ceremonies were passing off very nicely, until we arrived at the part where the bitter herb was to be taken. We all had a large portion of the herb ready to eat at the moment I said the blessing; each eat his portion, when horrors! What a scene ensued in our little congregation, it is impossible for my pen to describe. The herb was very bitter and very fiery like Cayenne pepper, and excited our thirst to such a degree, that we forgot the law authorizing us to drink only four cups, and the consequence was we drank up all the cider. Those that drank the more freely became excited, and one thought he was Moses, another Aaron, and one had the audacity to call himself Pharaoh. The consequence was a skirmish, with nobody hurt, only Moses, Aaron and Pharaoh, had to be carried to the camp, and there left in the arms of Morpheus. This slight incident did not take away our appetite, and, after doing justice to our lamb, chickens and eggs, we resumed the second portion of the service without anything occurring worthy of note.

There, in the wild woods of West Virginia, away from home and friends, we consecrated and offered up to the ever-loving G-d of Israel our prayers and sacrifice.

Both describe gatherings that took place in strange surroundings, fraught with the dangers of an ongoing brutal war. Yet both Seders were done creatively and as correctly as possible. The image of the twenty Union soldiers gathered in a hastily built hut, a sort of out-of-season Sukkor, is somehow particularly touching. One does not know about the exact site of the Confederate soldier's Seder, but the purpose was the same for both groups of soldiers: thanksgiving, praise of G-d and the remembrance of the story of their shared historical deliverance. A century and a half later, one must wonder about their thoughts; the Union soldiers fought for the freedom of others, the Confederate soldiers fought for the right of their states to govern themselves and maintain their preferred way of life (another form of freedom). Each of these men volunteered in their own quest for freedom, freedom that had parallels in the Passover Seder. The Rebels had fresh vegetables and Kosher meat for their Seder while the Yankees had a more elaborate and traditional fare with wine, matzo, choroutze [charoses] and their own maror [home-made bitter herbs], etc.. Both groups of soldiers improvised in the spirit of the religious holiday - the gathering of fellow Jews to remember their relationship to G-d, sharing their history and the ritual meal that bonded even "enemies" together.


i Although approximately 40% of the male Jewish population saw service during the conflict, Americans on both sides started to denounce Jews as disloyal war profiteers and accused them of driving Christians out of business and of aiding and abetting the enemy. Tensions over religion, race and immigration, plus economic competition between Jews and non-Jews, caused an outbreak of Anti-Semitism during and especially after the Civil War. This was not unique to the Jewish population. There was open hostility to the recent Irish and German Catholic immigrants as stated in the political platform of the Know Nothing Party.

ii Among northerners, the Republicans were split but largely in favor of the proclamation. Most Democrats were generally opposed.
iii Isaac J. Levy, age 21, was killed in the trenches of Petersburg, VA on 21August 1864.


from the April 2012 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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