Abraham Lincoln & Jews of the Civil War
This is a storified documentation of Lincoln's interactions with Jewish Americans during the Civil War.
Case #1: Arnold Fischel & the Effort for Jewish War Chaplains
- On December 11, 1861, Lincoln received a visitor, Rabbi Arnold Fischel of New York. Rabbi Fischel came to Washington seeking to change a Congressional order that barred Jewish Chaplains from serving on Union battlefields.
- In the letter below, Fischel describes his meeting with President Lincoln to Henry Hart, President of the Board of Delegates of American Israelites. Fischel expresses his optimism regarding Lincoln, writing, "I have succeeded in obtaining the favorable consideration of the President". He also reveals a similar hope after meeting the following day with a member of Congress, noting, "I feel quite sure, that he will do his best to promote the object of the Board of Delegates."
- A day later, Fischel received a brief response from Lincoln. In his letter, Lincoln suggests a commitment to amending the "deficient" law:
- Fischel reacted positively to Lincoln's letter. He wrote again to Hart, also describing his investigation of the condition of Jewish soldiers. Fischel writes that the soldiers were often covert about their Judaism, yet secretly longed for religious authority alongside them. "As a general rule, they are not known as Jews," he writes, "but hundreds with whom I have conversed express their anxiety and hope that some provision may be made for them, so that in case of sickness or death, they be not left to the mercy of strangers." The full text of this letter can be found below:
- After three more months of advocacy by the Board of Delegates, Congress officially lifted the ban in March of 1862 by explicitly allowing chaplains of the Jewish faith. Following this outcome, Fischel again wrote to Hart. Reflecting on the influence of Lincoln, he wrote, "The President did not hesitate to express his full concurrence in my views, and promised that he would take the matter into serious consideration." Fischel goes on to extol the merits of American democracy, noting "we have a Government which is ready at all times to listen to the just claims of every class of citizens." The full text of this letter is below:
- Despite Fischel's optimism, however, President Lincoln did not immediately act on his newfound ability to appoint Jewish chaplains. While no response of Fischel's can be found on this matter, the responses of fellow Jews reveal a certain frustration with the President's inaction. In October of 1862, Hart, still president of the Board of Delegates, co-authored a letter to Lincoln with Rabbi Myer J. Isaacs. In the letter, the men ask of Lincoln, "May we not once again call your Excellency's attention to the necessities of the Jewish volunteers? We know your time is fully occupied with the engrossing cares of state, but feel sure you will require no apology for bringing once more to your notice the case of our coreligionists who, expending their life's blood in the noble cause of country, are still, when racked by pain and suffering, debarred the privilege of the ministrations of spiritual advisers of their faith." The full text and image of this letter are found below:
- Lincoln, upon receiving this renewed request, commissioned a study to determine the number of Jewish soldiers in treatment at local hospitals. Despite the report indicating only seven such individuals, Lincoln nonetheless granted the Board's request later that Fall. Rev. Jacob Frankel of Philadelphia and Dr. Ferdinand Serner of New York were appointed military chaplains by the President. Fischel, meanwhile took his services to the Jewish Hospital in Virginia.In 2011, the New York Times' Karen Abbott captured the entire saga in her piece below. The article that follows describes further heroic actions taken by Fischel on behalf of his fellow Jews.
Case #2 Ulysses Grant's General Order #11
- On December 17, 1862, General Ulysses Grant issued the now infamous General Order #11. The order called for the immediate expulsion of all Jews serving in the Union Army.
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