Jewish Chaplains in the Civil War

Jews enlisted in both the Union and the Confederate armies during the Civil War, but they were not allowed to serve as chaplains to provide religious and emotional support, as well as to preside over Jewish funerals.

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For Jews who wish to observe the rituals of their faith, wartime may pose seemingly insurmountable challenges. The exigencies of war can make the observance of the Sabbath, holy days, and kashrut rules very difficult. As the Arab attack on Israel during Yom Kippur of 1973 made clear, Jewish soldiers must, on occasion, subordinate religious observance to combat. Despite the frequent priority of war over religion, there are times, such as the funeral of a fallen Jewish soldier or at the bedside of a wounded Jew, when religion can shape war policy.

At the outbreak of the Civil War, Jews could not serve as chaplains in the U.S. armed forces. When the war commenced in 1861, Jews enlisted in both the Union and Confederate armies. The Northern Congress adopted a bill in July of 1861 that permitted each regiment’s commander, on a vote of his field officers, to appoint a regimental chaplain so long as he was “a regularly ordained minister of some Christian denomination.”

Only Representative Clement L. Vallandigham of Ohio, a non-Jew, protested that this clause discriminated against soldiers of the Jewish faith. Vallandigham argued that the Jewish population of the United States, “whose adherents are . . . good citizens and as true patriots as any in this country,” deserved to have rabbis minister to Jewish soldiers. Vallandigham thought the law, which endorsed Christianity as the official religion of the United States, was blatantly unconstitutional. However, there was no organized national Jewish protest to support Vallandigham and the bill sailed through Congress.
Arnold Fischel
Three months later, a YMCA worker visiting the field camp of a Pennsylvania regiment known as “Cameron’s Dragoons” discovered to his horror that the officers had elected a Jew, Michael Allen, as regimental chaplain. While not an ordained rabbi, Allen was fluent in the Portuguese minhag (ritual) and taught at the Philadelphia Hebrew Education Society. As Allen was neither a Christian nor an ordained minister, the YMCA representative filed a formal complaint with the Army. Obeying the recently enacted law, the Army forced Allen to resign his post.

(Image on the left: Arnold Fischel. Courtesy of American Jewish Historical Society.)

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Michael Feldberg, Ph.D. is executive director of the George Washington Institute for Religious Freedom. From 1991 to 2004, he served as executive director of the American Jewish Historical Society, the nation's oldest ethnic historical organization, and from 2004 to 2008 was its director of research.

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