Working towards a Long Island that’s working for everyone,
immigrant and native alike.

Facebook Twitter RSS
Jews Fight the Ban on Rabbis as Army Chaplains

October 21, 2011   View Discussion

Jews Fight the Ban on Rabbis as Army Chaplains

Patrick Young, Esq.

by Patrick Young, Esq. - Blogger

Scroll to the bottom for a complete list of articles in The Immigrants’ Civil War series.

The 65th Pennsylvania Regiment 5th Cavalry was not a “Jewish regiment.” In fact, the only member of the Philadelphia unit to win a Medal of Honor was Michael McKeever, an Irish immigrant.1 But the regiment, known a “Cameron’s Dragoons,” was commanded by Col. Max Friedman, one of the highest ranking Jews in the Union army, and it attracted many of Philadelphia’s German Jewish immigrants.2

Col. Friedman was a German businessman who immigrated to the United States in 1848, the Year of Revolution in Europe. Several of his officers came from the same liberal background as their commander.3

Michael Allen

Under Friedman’s command was Michael Allen, a native-born Sephardic Jew who joined the Cameron Dragoons soon after the attack on Fort Sumter. He was an educated and pious man who had once studied for the rabbinate. Needing a chaplain who could minister to the regiment’s Catholics, Protestants, and Jews, the regiment’s officers chose Allen. 4

The new chaplain organized non-denominational services for Christians and Jews. He also ministered to the men’s need for spiritual guidance and ethical advice. Mindful that his unit was filled with immigrants, he made this practical offer to his congregation: “[Since] there are many of you who are good and loyal adopted citizens of our country, and as there are among you those not very well conversant with the English language, I wish for you to consider me as your teacher.” He was not just their “rabbi,” he was their ESL teacher, as well.5

This good man’s service to his regiment became a source of national turmoil when a representative of the YMCA found out that a Jew was serving as a chaplain. Today, we tend to think of “the Y” as a community center or a gym (or the subject of a Village People song), but in 1861 the Young Men’s Christian Association was the leading edge of virile Protestant evangelization. From 1861-1865, the YMCA saw the salvation of the souls of Civil War soldiers as its primary objective. Young men, many of them farm boys who had never traveled far from their homes, were being mixed up in the armies with urban Catholics, Jews, atheists, and others of presumably low moral standards from whom they could be led from a path of righteousness towards the vices of gambling, drinking, and swearing. To counter these infidels, the YMCA set up the United States Christian Commission and began policing the army for signs of moral slackness.6

In September 1861, one of the YMCA’s officials visited the camp of Cameron’s Dragoons and found out that Michael Allen was the chaplain. He reported this to his headquarters and Protestant activists demanded that Allen be removed. They insisted that the law prohibited Jews from serving as chaplains, even for other Jews. They were right.7

In July, Congress had passed a law authorizing the commissioning of chaplains who were “regularly ordained minister[s] of some Christian denomination.”  At the time, this was considered a liberalization. Previously, Catholics had been excluded from commissions as chaplains, although some served the troops as civilians. Still, the restriction had provoked opposition from Clement Vallandigham, soon to be reviled as a Copperhead, the epithet for a pro-Southern Democrat. The Ohio congressman said that with a rising Jewish population, it was time that the United States recognized that Jews were true patriots and entitled to their own military clergy.8

Vallandingham was right in his assertion that that the Jewish population was on the increase. There were 150,000 Jews in Civil War America, two-thirds of whom were recent immigrants from Germany. New York was the Jewish capital, with thirty congregations, but there were also congregations in every major Upstate New York city. Urban centers like Savannah and Baltimore had large congregations. Even Lincoln’s hometown of Springfield, Illinois, had a Jewish community populous enough to organize a synagogue. Nationally there were 160 synagogues in the United States at the start of the war.9

Jewish America was growing, but this community was new to American politics and so disorganized that it is unclear whether many Jews even knew that a law had been passed restricting Jews from serving as chaplains. Colonel Friedman’s next move insured that everyone knew what was going on.10 

The sale of matzo in New York City during the 1860s. From Frank Leslie’s Journal.

Friedman and other officers of Cameron’s Dragoons decided to appoint a new chaplain. This time they would pick a formally ordained rabbi, Arnold Fiscel. This Dutch immigrant was well known in political circles and he had an active career in civilian life. According to the leading scholar of Civil War Jewry, Rabbi Bertram Korn, Fischel accepted the appointment to create a high-profile test case of a discriminatory law. He was promptly notified by Secretary of War Simon Cameron that as a Jew, he was not eligible to serve.11

Now, the Jewish press took up the cause of repealing the discriminatory law. Articles described the prohibition as a violation of the right to freedom of religion, as discrimination against a loyal part of the population, and as a deprivation of comfort to Jewish soldiers. Editorials asked Jews not to turn their backs on the needs of their brothers who risked their lives daily in the service of the Union. They also warned members of unpopular branches of Christianity that if Jews could be discriminated against today, then Catholics or dissident Protestants might be next.12

Having aroused their base and gained interest from Gentiles, Jewish leaders organized petition campaigns demanding repeal. They also sent lobbyists to Washington to meet with congressmen and senators. One of these was Rabbi Fischel himself, who secured a meeting with Abraham Lincoln in December 1861.13

In a letter penned shortly after the meeting, Fischel told Lincoln that he had come to “contend for the principle of religious liberty.” Lincoln asked him to explain the controversy and told the rabbi that he “fully admitted the justice of my remarks…and agreed that something ought to be done to meet this case.” Lincoln had earlier taken it upon himself to appoint Jewish “hospital chaplains” to serve the wounded, but he told Fischel that since there was a legal prohibition on the appointment of military chaplains, he could not make such appointments on his own, but he agreed that “something ought to done,” wrote Fischel.14

A couple of days later, Lincoln sent a note to Fischel telling him that he would soon present suggestions to change the law to Congress that would make its language “broad enough to cover what is desired by you.”15

While he was in Washington, Fischel made a point of visiting Jewish soldiers. What they told him convinced the rabbi that the fight for Jewish chaplains was more than a philosophical struggle.  He wrote to his colleagues on December 20, 1861:

Now that I have visited all the camps and hospitals in Virginia, I have a distinct idea of what has to be done, and what can be done. The number of Jews in the army is very large, I found some even among Berdan’s Sharpshooters. As a general rule, they are not known as Jews, 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. This was more forcibly impressed upon my mind by the numerous Jewish patients I visited in the Hospitals, nearly all of whom complained that they had not seen a “Yehudee” since they entered the Hospitals, that they have in addition to the sufferings of disease, to submit to the torture of religious controversy, forced upon them by Christian clergymen, who are anxious “to save their souls” (!), and all expressed the wish to be interred in a Jewish burial-ground. I had to write letters for some of them, who had not been able to communicate with their friends.16

Lincoln knew he would meet opposition to any change. Congressmen trying to get a compromise on the contentious issue had already met with leaders of the YMCA who warned that they would oppose Jewish chaplains even in a regiment in which every soldier was a Jew.17

The depth of opposition to non-Protestant chaplains is seen in this article in the Protestant Presbyter of Cincinnati:

Our government has already gone a great length in this respect in appointing Roman Catholic and Universalist Chaplains to the army; but here is a proposal immeasurably beyond anything it has yet done. These denominations at least call themselves Christians, and profess to honor the Lord Jesus, however much they may really dishonor Him… But Jews regard Jesus of Nazareth as an imposter… And yet…the government would in effect say that one might despise and reject the Savior of men, and thus trample under foot the son of God…and yet be a fit minister of religion!18

In spite of this aroused anti-Semitism, Lincoln pressed Congress to repeal the prohibition. After much wrangling, and with the YMCA threatening to denounce Congress for repealing Christianity, Congress inserted a clause into the law explaining that the requirement that chaplains be “regularly ordained minister[s] of some Christian denomination” should be interpreted as including anyone ordained by any religious denomination. So, in Congress’s inimitable way, it ended discrimination against Jewish chaplains by deciding that they, and all non-Christian chaplains, somehow fit within the definition of being ordained by “some Christian denomination.”19

Fischel said that Congress had “so amended the Bill that it does not appear like a positive repudiation of the Christian religion, which most Christians believe would be a national sin and bring with it great calamities. The Chaplains of Congress have recently said as much in their prayers.”20

Historian Bertram Korn writes that the successful resolution of the “Chaplain Controversy,” as it has come to be called, was the “first major victory [for American Jewry] of a specifically Jewish nature.” Col. Friedman, Rabbi Fischel, and Abraham Lincoln had teamed up to end legal discrimination against non-Christian chaplains in the United States Army.

Jacob Frankel’s chaplaincy certificate, March 2, 1864. Frankel was the first official Jewish chaplain in American history, and was commissioned in September 1862.


For Fischel’s letters written during the controversy, click here.

1. Pennsylvania Volunteers Civil War

2. “Dragoons” were cavalry who were expected to dismount during a battle and fight on foot using carbines (short rifles that were easy to carry by a mounted man).

3. The Jews of Philadelphia: Their History From the Earliest Settlements by Henry Samuel Morais, The Levytype Co., (1894) p. 484

4. American Jewry and the Civil War by Bertram W. Korn, Atheneum Books (1951) (1970 edition) pp. 68-69

5. American Jewry and the Civil War by Bertram W. Korn, Atheneum Books (1951) (1970 edition) p. 60. Michael Allen’s journal from Sept. 1861 is available here.

6. Annual report, Volumes 1-4 United States Christian Commission published by The Commission (1863)

7. American Jewry and the Civil War by Bertram W. Korn, Atheneum Books (1951) (1970 edition) p. 58

8. American Jewry and the Civil War by Bertram W. Korn, Atheneum Books (1951) (1970 edition) p. 57

9. “The War Between Jewish Brothers in America” by Eli N. Evans in The Jews in the Civil War, Kindle edition, pp. 672-679

10. American Jewry and the Civil War by Bertram W. Korn, Atheneum Books (1951) (1970 edition) p. 57

11. American Jewry and the Civil War by Bertram W. Korn, Atheneum Books (1951) (1970 edition) pp. 61-62

12. American Jewry and the Civil War by Bertram W. Korn, Atheneum Books (1951) (1970 edition) pp. 62-64

13. American Jewry and the Civil War by Bertram W. Korn, Atheneum Books (1951) (1970 edition) pp. 65-69

14. Fischel letter, Washington, December 11, 1861

15. American Jewry and the Civil War by Bertram W. Korn, Atheneum Books (1951) (1970 edition) p.70

16. Fischel letter, December 20, 1861

17. American Jewry and the Civil War by Bertram W. Korn, Atheneum Books (1951) (1970 edition) p. 64-70

18. American Jewry and the Civil War by Bertram W. Korn, Atheneum Books (1951) (1970 edition) p. 70-71

19. American Jewry and the Civil War by Bertram W. Korn, Atheneum Books (1951) (1970 edition) p. 70-71

20. Fischel letter, January 4, 1862. A group of reformed rabbis published a letter informing Congress that Fischel did not speak for them.

The Immigrants’ Civil War is a series that will examine the role of immigrants in our bloodiest war. Articles will appear monthly between 2011 and 2015, the 150th Anniversary of the Civil War. Here are the articles we have published so far:

1. Immigrant America on the Eve of the Civil War - Take a swing around the United States and see where immigrants were coming from and where they were living in 1861.

2. 1848: The Year that Created Immigrant America - Revolutions in Europe, famine and oppression in Ireland, and the end of the Mexican War made 1848 a key year in American immigration history.

3. Carl Schurz: From German Radical to American Abolitionist- A teenaged revolutionary of 1848, Carl Schurz brought his passion for equality with him to America.

4. Immigrant Leader Carl Schurz Tells Lincoln to Stand Firm Against Slavery.

5. ...And the War Came to Immigrant America -The impact of the firing on Fort Sumter on America’s immigrants

6. The Rabbi Who Seceded From the South

7. The Fighting 69th-Irish New York Declares War

8. The Germans Save St. Louis for the Union

9. New York’s Irish Rush to Save Washington

10. Immigrant Day Laborers Help Build the First Fort to Protect Washington-The Fighting 69th use their construction skills.

11. Carl Schurz Meets With Lincoln To Arm the Germans

12. Immigrants Rush to Join the Union Army-Why?- The reasons immigrants gave for enlisting early in the war.

13. Why the Germans Fought for the Union

14. Why Did the Irish Fight When They Were So Despised?

15. The “Sons of Garibaldi” Join the Union Army

16. The Irish Tigers From Louisiana

17. Immigrant Regiments on Opposite Banks of Bull Run -The Fighting 69th and the Louisiana Tigers

18. The St. Louis Germans Set Out To Free Missouri

19. Wilson’s Creek Drowns Immigrant Dream of Free Missouri

20. English-Only in 1861: No Germans Need Apply

21. After Bull Run: Mutineers, Scapegoats, and the Dead

22. St. Louis Germans Revived by Missouri Emancipation Proclamation

23. Jews Fight the Ban on Rabbis as Chaplains


Painting of the Return of the 69th from Bull Run Unearthed

Blog Posts

Why I’m Writing The Immigrants’ Civil War

Should Lincoln Have Lost His Citizenship?

The First Casualties of the War Were Irish-Was that a Coincidence?

Civil War Anniversaries-History, Marketing, and Human Rights

Memorial Day’s Origins at the End of the Civil War

Germans Re-enact the Civil War-But Why Are They Dressed in Gray?

Leading Historians Discuss 1863 New York City Draft Riots

The Upstate New York Town that Joined the Confederacy

Book Reviews

The Harp and the Eagle: Irish American Volunteers and the Union Army, 1861 to 1865 by Susannah Ural Bruce

Jews and the Civil War: A Reader Edited by Jonathan Sarna and Adam Mendelsohn

Civil War Citizens edited by Susannah Ural Bruce

Germans in the Civil War: The Letters They Wrote Home edited by Walter Kamphoefner and Wolfgang Helbich

Immigration Vacation -Civil War Sites

Fort Schuyler- Picnic where the Irish Brigade trained.



Stay Informed
Monthly Archives
News Sections
Upcoming Events
December 1, 2016 CARECEN Annual Gala Dinner