During the Civil War thousands of American Jews enlisted in the armed forces of both the Union and the Confederacy. In July of 1861 the United States Congress passed a bill which provided for the appointment of chaplains from any recognized Christian denominations. In a Pennsylvania regiment called the Cameron Dragoons, Rabbi Arnold Fischel was appointed chaplain. Ironically it was Simon Cameron, as Secretary of War, and for whom the regiment was named, who denied the appointment of Fischel as contrary to law.
However, Fischel didn’t give up and moved to Washington, ministered to wounded Jewish soldiers and lobbied the Lincoln administration to allow the appointment of Jewish chaplains. On December 11, 1861, the Rabbi met with the President . He described the meeting in this letter:
332 Pennsylvania Avenue
Washington, Dec. 11, 1861
My dear Sir,
Since I saw you on Monday morning, I have been incessantly at work to promote the object of my mission, and, as you will perceive from this letter, with considerable success. I arrived in Philadelphia on Monday Evening and called at once on the Rev. I. Leeser and other gentlemen who are getting up petitions to Congress, with the view of ensuring conjoint and harmonious action on the part of all who are interesting themselves in this matter. In this I succeeded, so that the subject will be forced on the attention of Congress from various influential quarters at one and the same time.
Having further obtained important letters of introduction to Senators, I started for Washington where I arrived on Tuesday Evening, and went at once to work to obtain an interview with the President. All the influential gentlemen, with whom I spoke on the subject, assured me that it would be impossible for me to get an audience, as the President’s time was altogether taken up with public business. The same opinion was expressed by Mr. Nicolay, his private secretary, who even told me that Mr. Lincoln would not have time to read the letter in which I solicited an interview, and that there would be little chance for me to see him before the adjournment of Congress, that, in fact, none but Cabinet Ministers, Senators and army officers could be admitted.
Seeing that I could not obtain admission by the usual process, I had to devise a plan whereby the subject could be at once brought under the notice of the President, and in this I was perfectly successful. I called this morning at ten o’clock at the White House where hundreds of people were anxiously waiting for admission, some of whom told me that they had been for three days awaiting their turn. I was, nevertheless, at once invited to his room and was received with marked courtesy. After having read the letter of the Board and delivered to him several letters of introduction, he questioned me on various matters connected with this subject and then told me that he fully admitted the justice of my remarks, that he believed the exclusion of Jewish chaplains to have been altogether unintentional on the part of Congress, and agreed that something ought to be done to meet this case. I suggested that he might do for the Jewish what he had done for the Christian volunteers and take upon himself the responsibility of appointing Jewish chaplains for the Hospitals. He replied that he had done that at a time when Congress was not in session deeming the subject to require immediate attention, but that after the Meeting of Congress he would not be justified in taking the responsibility upon himself. Finally, he told me that it was the first time this subject had been brought under his notice, that it was altogether new to him, that he would take the subject into serious consideration, that I should call again tomorrow morning and if he has five minutes to spare he would receive me and let me know his views. I thanked him for his kind reception, and expressed to him my best wishes for his welfare. In the course of my remarks, I gave him clearly to understand that I came to him not as an office seeker but to contend for the principle of religious liberty, for the constitutional rights of the Jewish Community and for the welfare of the Jewish volunteers, which he seemed fully to appreciate.
This afternoon I shall visit the Hospitals and camps, and as soon as I have anything of importance to communicate, I will write to you at once. In mean time, you will agree with me that the days I have been at work have not been without useful results, and hoping that we may fully succeed in this matter.
Your obt svt
Henry I. Hart, Esq.
On July 17, 1862, at the request of the Lincoln administration, the chaplain act was amended to provide for the appointment of Catholic, Protestant and Jewish chaplains.
No Confederate Jewish chaplains were appointed during the war, but that was probably due to the relatively small number of Jews in the South. About 2,000-3,000 Jews fought for the Confederacy and most Jewish historians have noted that the Confederate military was free from anti-semitism. Of course Judah P. Benjamin served as Secretary of War for a time, and was a cabinet official throughout the war.