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Seder in Fayetteville: Passover During the Civil War


Passover during the Civil War

During the Civil War, there were about 7,000 Jewish soldiers serving in the Union Army. Many of them saw the war’s effort of freeing the slaves of the South as their modern-day efforts akin to Moses leading the Hebrews out of Egypt.

One of the Union soldiers was Pvt. Joseph A. Joel of the 23rd Ohio Infantry. He was born to Sol Joel and Rosina Hyman in 1844. Joseph Joel enlisted in 1861 and was discharged with multiple gunshot wounds less than two years later.

In 1866, Pvt. Joel recounted his time in service via an article he wrote for the Jewish Messenger, a Jewish weekly newspaper that was established in 1857 and published in New York City. The newspaper pledged to be “a messenger of good tidings,” and devoted itself to “the interests of our coreligionists, the Jewish religion, Jewish intelligence and literature.”

Joel’s piece highlighted a Passover Seder he helped to create in 1862 with 20 of his fellow Jewish soldiers.

In the newspaper article, Joel wrote: “Our camp duties were not of an arduous character, and being apprised of the approaching Feast of Passover, twenty of my comrades and co-religionists belonging to the Regiment, united in a request to our commanding officer for relief from duty, in order that we might keep the holydays, which he readily acceded to.”

What Joel didn’t mention was that the commanding officer was none other than future President Rutherford B. Hayes. The two continued their correspondence after the war as Joel was later invited to celebrate Hayes’ 25th wedding anniversary at the Executive Mansion (the precursor to the White House). Joel named his son after Rutherford, and Hayes responded by saying, “Let him be as brave and honorable as his father, and he will be a credit to his parents and namesake.”

Given the days off­ and funds to work with, Joel noted, “Our next business was to find some suitable person to proceed to Cincinnati, Ohio, to buy us מצות (Matzos). Our sutler being a co-religionist and going home to that city, readily undertook to send them. We were anxiously awaiting to receive our matzos and about the middle of the morning of ערב פסח (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 and prayer books.”

With matzo in hand, the Seder could occur, and Joel continued: “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.’”

Joel went on to explain that he and his men were still in a great quandary. “We were like the man who drew the elephant in the lottery. 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 o­ 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.”

As Joel was selected to lead the service, he noted: “The ceremonies were passing on­ 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.

U.S. Civil War Union officers in tent (1862). Photo courtesy of Penn State Special Collections

 “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.”

There in the wild woods of West Virginia and away from home and friends, Joel wrote that the group “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.”

Fast-forward to April 3, 2023, when Civil War Trails, Inc., unveiled a marker on the site of the Seder to commemorate the historical event.

Civil War Trails is a nonprofi­t organization that was founded in 1994 and works to support more than 1,200 Civil War sites throughout Virginia, Maryland, North Carolina, Tennessee, Pennsylvania and, of course, West Virginia. Drew Gruber, executive director of the organization, said the Seder site marker is the fi­rst out of a total of 1,400 in the nation that tells the story of Jewish soldiers.

Marker commemorating Civil War Passover feast in Fayetteville.

The Rutherford B. Hayes Presidential Library & Museums in Fremont, Ohio, distributed a press release to memorialize the marker’s dedication.

“We are so excited to be a part of this important project,” presidential library officials stated. “We often think of the Civil War and its battles, but stories like this show the humanity of those who fought and lived during this time. Although 161 years separate us from the day of this Passover Seder, we are reminded that these soldiers were people like us, people who missed home, people who wanted to celebrate holidays and keep their culture.”

The press release went on to describe the three-decades-long friendship shared by Hayes and Joel: “Hayes would acknowledge that friendship in his correspondence to Joel, closing one letter: ‘I shall always cherish you as one of the true friends, and shall be interested in whatever befalls you.’”

Pvt. Joel died in New York City on Dec. 27, 1906, and was buried in the Mokom Sholom Cemetery in Queens, New York.

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