How Jewish Soldiers Celebrated Passover in the Midst of the Civil War

A group of Union men from Ohio held a makeshift Seder in the western Virginia woods in 1862

Union soldiers in their camp
In 1866, Joseph A. Joel, a Jewish private in the 23rd Ohio Volunteer Infantry Regiment, wrote a detailed account of an 1862 Passover Seder. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

In April 1862, approximately a year into the Civil War, Union soldiers with the 23rd Ohio Volunteer Infantry Regiment camped out in the woods near what is now Fayetteville, West Virginia. Joseph A. Joel, a Jewish private, knew that Passover was quickly approaching, and despite the circumstances, he wanted to celebrate the holiday properly.

As Joel later recalled in an April 1866 article for the Jewish Messenger, he and 20 of his “comrades and co-religionists belonging to the regiment” approached their commanding officer, future President Rutherford B. Hayes, and asked for temporary relief from duty so they could mark Passover. Hayes agreed.

The 23rd’s Seder wasn’t the only celebration of its kind to take place during the Civil War. Accounts shared by Jewish soldiers tell of impromptu Seders on the battlefield, a mother who invited one of the Union men occupying her Virginia town to a Passover meal, even a Confederate infantryman who purchased enough matzo to ensure that he observed the “festival in a truly Orthodox style.”

Joseph A. Joel, author of the 1866 account about the 23rd's Passover celebration
Joseph A. Joel, author of the 1866 account about the 23rd's Passover celebration Courtesy of the Rutherford B. Hayes Presidential Library and Museum

But Joel’s story stands out as a unique “convergence of cultures happening in 1862,” says Drew Gruber, executive director of Civil War Trails, a nonprofit organization that has placed more than 1,500 interpretive markers at historical sites in six states.

“It’s a heartstrings moment,” Gruber adds. “In the midst of this dark moment in American history, these soldiers just show up in the wilds of West Virginia. The [local] communities help them cobble together [supplies] for their [holiday].”

After receiving permission from Hayes, the men of the 23rd asked their Jewish sutler (a civilian merchant who follows armies to sell provisions to soldiers), who was about to head home to Cincinnati, to buy and ship them matzos. Around the middle of the morning on the eve of Passover, a supply train arrived at camp with seven barrels of matzos, two copies of the Haggadah (a Jewish text that sets forth the order of the Passover Seder) and prayer books. While some members of the group went foraging in the village to obtain more food, others built a makeshift log cabin.

Rutherford B. Hayes, Joel's commanding officer and lifelong friend
Rutherford B. Hayes, Joel's commanding officer and lifelong friend Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

The foragers returned to camp with two kegs of cider, several chickens and some eggs they’d acquired from helpful townspeople, as well as a lamb—a traditional element of a Passover Seder, with a lamb bone holding a symbolic place on the Seder plate.

“We were still in a great quandary; we were like the man who drew the elephant in the lottery,” Joel wrote. “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.”

A very bitter herb used in lieu of parsley and horseradish, which are often eaten at the Seder to symbolize the bitterness of the Jews’ enslavement in Egypt, caused great thirst in the men, who drank all the cider before the meal. Some “became excited,” Joel recalled. One man thought he was Moses. Another believed he was Moses’ brother Aaron. A third claimed to be the pharaoh who ruled over Egypt when Moses led the Jews’ Exodus to freedom.

A 15th-century painting of a Passover celebration by Dieric Bouts
A 15th-century painting of a Passover celebration by Dieric Bouts Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Joel gave the blessing before the Seder, asking for God’s blessing and protection. As he later wrote:

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. 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 G-d and our cause, would have imagined themselves amongst mortals, enacting this commemoration of the scene that transpired in Egypt.

In April 2023, Civil War Trails unveiled a marker in Fayetteville at the bottom of a heavily wooded hill, where the 23rd’s Seder is believed to have taken place. The sign stands on the grounds of the Love Hope Center for the Arts, a gallery located in a converted church.

Civil War Trails started working on the sign about a year earlier, after staff connected with Jewish leaders in West Virginia. Researchers examined primary sources like letters and newspaper reports, then talked to local historians and amateur archaeologists to pinpoint the likely site of the Seder.

Installation of interpretive sign about the Civil War Seder
Researchers drew on primary sources and archaeological evidence to pinpoint the likely location of the 1862 Passover celebration. Civil War Trails

Mustered into service at Camp Chase in Columbus in June 1861, the 23rd initially served in western Virginia, which had yet to break from the Confederacy as the separate state of West Virginia. The regiment boasted several notable members, including two future presidents—Hayes, who took office in 1877, and William McKinley, who took office in 1897—and Supreme Court Justice Stanley Matthews.

Fayetteville’s commemoration of the 23rd goes beyond the historical marker. Every spring, members of the local Jewish community gather at the home of married couple Linda Stein and Dan Doyle for the Passover Seder. Before the meal, the attendees—averaging about 12 to 20 people in a typical year—read Joel’s words aloud and reflect on what the Union soldiers experienced more than a century and a half ago.

Doyle, 78, finds it amazing that Joel and his comrades were able to come up with such a resourceful plan, given that they were stationed in the woods during wartime. Stein, 76, calls the story a testament to faith and survival.

Passover in the Field | Joseph A. Joel and the Passover of 1862

“For me, when I think about the Civil War, I don’t think about particularly having a group of Jewish guys together in one spot,” she says, “so that is pretty astonishing to me—just the resourcefulness of it, and that they were supported in doing that.”

Even today, Stein says, being Jewish in West Virginia can be a somewhat isolating experience. According to a 2020 survey, fewer than 1 percent of West Virginians identify with a non-Christian religion such as Judaism, Islam, Hinduism or Buddhism.

When the Civil War broke out in April 1861, around 125,000 Jews lived in the North, while another 25,000 lived in the South. Historians have traditionally estimated that as many as 10,000 Jews served in the conflict. But Adrienne DeArmas, director of the Shapell Manuscript Foundation’s Shapell Roster, which conducts an ongoing reappraisal of Jews’ military service on both sides of the Civil War, says this figure is too high. Shapell researchers are constantly updating the roster and finding new names; a recent count identified 1,742 Jewish soldiers in the Union Army and 1,387 in the Confederate Army.

Jewish men on both sides of the Civil War largely shared the sentiments of the general military population, DeArmas says. Some Jewish Union soldiers favored abolition, while others were only concerned with preserving the Union. Some Jewish Americans favored the Confederacy because they were textile merchants, and the destruction of the Southern cotton industry would wreck their livelihood. Others were immigrants who were willing to risk their lives to be accepted as Americans.

Judah Benjamin (left) and Edward Selig Salomon (right)
Jews served on both sides of the war. Judah Benjamin (left) was the second Confederate secretary of war. Edward Selig Salomon (right) was a brevet brigadier general in the Union Army. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

“The Jews are no different than anybody else in that time period,” DeArmas says. “[Their] stories are as unique and commonplace as they are for any other group of Americans at the time.”

As for Joel, he was born in Plymouth, England, in 1844, and later immigrated to the United States. He initially enlisted in Company F of the 23rd but requested a transfer due to antisemitic bullying by men in his unit. Joel’s commanding officer, Hayes, agreed, allowing Joel to move to Company A.

Both Joel and Hayes were wounded at the Battle of South Mountain on September 14, 1862. Though Joel didn’t want to leave the fight, his injuries proved severe, and he was discharged for disability in February 1863. Joel and Hayes maintained a lifelong friendship, and Joel even named his son Rutherford B. Hayes Joel. A jack of all trades who worked as a farmer, writer, editor, publisher and Post Office employee, Joel died in 1906 in New York City.

A print of the Battle of South Mountain, where Joel was wounded in September 1862
A print of the Battle of South Mountain, where Joel was wounded in September 1862 Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Divisions

Some historians, among them DeArmas and Adam Mendelsohn, author of Jewish Soldiers in the Civil War: The Union Army, have cast doubt on the veracity of Joel’s account. The private mentions 20 “co-religionists” who celebrated Passover with him, but DeArmas finds it unlikely that a regiment of around 1,000 men included that many Jewish soldiers in its ranks. She suspects that Joel exaggerated some details of the event for dramatic effect.

“Did a Passover happen? Probably,” DeArmas says. “Did it happen like he said? Not really. I think it’s a parable.” Still, she adds, “It’s a positive story about the Civil War. … Joel was a very patriotic man and very proud of his military service.”

Gruber, for his part, says that archaeological evidence—like buckles, buttons, bullets and hooks—found at the site where the sign now stands supports the story of the Seder taking place there. He finds Joel highly credible, though he acknowledges that distant history always contains an element of mystery that can’t be proved or disproved.

“Obviously, none of us were there 160 years ago, so the onus for us is to interpret as accurately [as possible] the history as determined by the primary source evidence,” Gruber says. “We should always be skeptical of these stories. … It adds to our understanding of them. At the end of the day, I hope that this story inspires people to want to go out and find additional evidence about this.”

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