In 1862, the Jewish Messenger published A.J. Joel of the 23rd Ohio Volunteer Regiment’s narrative of Passover seder celebrated by Union soldiers in Fayette, West Virginia. Joel and 20 other Jewish soldiers were given permission to leave to go celebrate Passover.
A soldier that was home on leave in Cincinnati shipped matzahs and haggadahs to his fellow soldiers. Joel wrote:
We . . . sen[t] parties to forage in the country [for Passover food] while a party stayed to build a log hut for the services. . . 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 got the right part.
The necessaries for the choroutzes [haroset] 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.
Historian Betram Korn observed to MyJewishLearning.com, “It must have been quite a sight: these twenty men gathered together in a crude and hastily-built log hut, their weapons at their side, prepared as in Egypt-land for all manner of danger, singing the words of praise and faith in the ancient language of Israel.”
The seder continued to go smoothly until it came time to eat the bitter herbs. Joel recounted:
We all had a large portion of the herb ready to eat at the moment I said the blessing; each [ate] his portion, when horrors! What a scene ensued . . . 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 . . . we drank up all the cider. Those that drank more freely became excited and one thought he was Moses, another Aaron, and one had the audacity to call himself a 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.
What was more problematic was the situation of Union soldiers who were unable to form their own seders and forced to “fraternize” with local Jews. For example, Myer Levy of Philadelphia was in a Virginia town late in the war when he noticed a young boy sitting on his front steps eating matzah. According to Korn, when Levy “asked the boy for a piece, the child fled indoors, shouting at the top of his lungs, Mother, there’s a damn Yankee Jew outside!” The boy’s mother invited Levy to their seder that night.
On the eve of the fifth day of Passover, April 14, 1865, Abraham Lincoln was shot and ultimately died early in the morning on April 15, which had previously been scheduled as a national day of prayer to mark the end of the Civil War. Jews across the country were gathering to give thanks in their synagogues. However, Korn notes that when news of Lincoln’s death arrived, the synagogue alters were quickly draped in black, and, instead of singing Passover melodies, the congregants chanted Yom Kippur liturgy. Rabbis set aside their sermons and openly wept at their pulpits along with their congregants. Lincoln had been very good to American Jewry, as he overturned General Grant’s infamous General Order #11, which expelled Jews from the Department of Tennessee and supporting legislation to allow Jewish chaplains to serve in the military. The Jewish Record made the comparison between Lincoln being unable to see the reconciliation between the North and the South and Moses dying on Mount Pisgah before he saw the Israelites enter the Promised Land.