“Faithful to our God and Our Cause”: Ohio Soldiers Celebrate Passover, 1862

On a spring night in West Virginia, twenty Union soldiers gathered in a log hut. Before them were cooked lamb and chicken, eggs, barrels of cider, strands of some bitter herb and stacks of matzos, the unleavened flatbread of Jewish tradition. These twenty men were Jewish soldiers of the 23rd Ohio Volunteer Infantry gathered together in the mountain wild to share the Seder meal of Passover. The likely date for this event was April 14, 1862.

Joseph Joel

That night these soldiers participated in a ritual dating back thousands of years that continues today. The Jewish feast of Passover commemorates the release from slavery in Egypt and the leadership of Moses to the Promised Land. I find the story of these men celebrating their faith during a war that ended American slavery inspirational and moving. We know about this event because an Ohio soldier named Joseph Joel wrote about it after the war, and his full account is featured in this post.

Major General Frederick C. Salomon, a Jewish officer in the Union Army.

The role of Jewish soldiers and Jewish citizens on both sides of the conflict hasn’t gotten the attention it deserves, but that has begun to change. The Shapell Manuscript Foundation, an organization dedicated to preserving historical documents, has been working to compile as accurate a list as possible of Jews in both Union and Confederate service. Researchers have been verifying and updating information from a book published by an attorney named Simon Wolf in the late 1800s. Wolf’s book, entitled The American Jew as Patriot, Soldier, and Citizen, listed Jewish men who fought in all of America’s major conflicts up to and including the Civil War. He wrote the book in response to attacks on Jewish patriotism and the notion that Jews were inherently disinclined to fight. Even Mark Twain, known for his vigorous attacks on racism, imperialism and other nasty inclinations of the human species, contributed to this notion with an article called “Concerning The Jews.”

General Grant at Cold Harbor.

There had also been some nastiness during the war. Because there was black market trading in cotton between north and south during the war, General Grant had issued his notorious Order No. 11 expelling Jews “as a class” from the Department of Tennessee, which included Kentucky, Tennessee, and Mississippi. The order was bigoted, aroused an uproar, and Lincoln had General Henry Halleck rescind the order. Some Jews were involved in the black market, but so were plenty of non-Jewish operators. The topic is the subject of a recent book by the scholar Jonathan D. Sarna called When General Grant Expelled The Jews. Grant later worked to repair his reputation with Jewish-Americans.

Another high-ranking Jewish officer: Union Brigadier General Fredrick Knefler.

As noted above, Jews served on both sides of the conflict. The number of Jews in the United States was fairly small at this time, many of them German Jews who had come to America in the 1840s and 1850s. Simon Wolf claimed that around 7,000 Jews served the Union and around 3,000 served the Confederacy. Researchers from the Shapell Foundation have turned up additional names not listed in Wolf’s book. Some Jews held high positions. Jewish officers in the Union army included Major General Frederick C. Salomon and Brigadier General Fredrick Knefler. Judah Benjamin, a former U.S. Senator and wealthy slaveholder, became Secretary of State for the Confederacy. Dr. Simon Baruch, father of financier Bernard Baruch, was a Confederate surgeon who served on Robert E. Lee’s staff.

Dr. Simon Baruch, a high ranking Jewish officer in the Confederate army and a member of General Robert E. Lee’s staff.

It is understandable to think of the war as largely fought by white men of mostly Protestant background. It seems safe to say that this describes the vast majority of the men on either side. But there was more diversity when we look at all the different kinds of units from across the country. Both sides had units made up of Germans and Irish, particularly the north. Many of the Irishmen were Catholic, and many German immigrants were either Catholic or Protestant. There were men who had no religious affiliation and considered themselves freethinkers.

A religious service in camp: Father Thomas Mooney of the 69th Infantry Regiment of the New York in Virginia saying Mass in June, 1861. During this same month the 23rd Ohio Volunteer Infantry was being organized.

Immigrants from various European countries joined both sides. The 39th New York Volunteer Infantry Regiment, known as the “Garibaldi Guard” for the Italian soldier and revolutionary Giuseppe Garibaldi,  included soldiers from Germany, Hungary, Switzerland, France, Italy, Spain and Portugal. The Confederacy and Union alike had American Indians in their ranks. One historian puts the number of Indian soldiers at 20,000. The story of African-American soldiers in the Union Army has become better known, and Hispanic Americans served also, principally with the Confederacy in Texas. While the numbers of minority American and recent immigrant soldiers may be relatively small in the larger scheme, they still point to a more complex history of the war and the times and highlight the fact that diversity has long been a keynote of American history.

Confederate Secretary of State Judah P. Benjamin.

Joseph Joel’s account of the Seder he shared with his comrades has received more attention in recent years and has even been the subject of a couple of children’s books. His account was published in the Jewish Messenger in 1866. The 23rd Ohio Volunteer Infantry was organized in June of 1861 at Camp Chase in Columbus, Ohio. Joel’s fellow soldiers in this unit included future Presidents Rutherford B. Hayes and William McKinley. The 23rd served in West Virginia and fought at South Mountain, Antietam, Winchester and Opequan. Rutherford B. Hayes became the unit’s commanding officer and is probably the commanding officer who gave the men permission to have the Seder.

Future President Rutherford B. Hayes–“Hayes of the 23rd”–during the Civil War.

I have retained the spelling and punctuation of Joel’s account. I found this passage in the Anthology of Western Reserve Literature, a collection of fiction and nonfiction writing edited by David R. Anderson and Gladys Haddad. The Western Reserve is a term for part of northeast Ohio.

The Camp Chase Confederate Cemetery on part of the old Camp Chase site in Columbus, Ohio. The Union camp was eventually devoted to holding POW’s. The 23rd Ohio Volunteer Infantry was organized at Camp Chase in the summer of 1861 (authors’ photo).

In some places in the text, Joel uses individual Hebrew words. I have replaced those with the translations but indicated their presence by using italics. The bitter weed used by Joel and the other men is supposed to be what is called maror, a food representing the bitterness of slavery. Horseradish root is often used, but the men found some kind of substitute. The herb or plant they actually used is a mystery. The men were also unable to make haroset (“choroutzes” in his account) which is a kind of mock clay or mortar made by mixing fruits, nuts and wine. There are different recipes for this part of the meal from various Jewish traditions. Haroset represents the hard work of brickmaking performed by the Israelites when they were slaves in Egypt. Joel and the other men opted to have a real brick on the table to represent this part of the meal, and it’s little touches like these that lend charm to his account.

Another view of the Camp Chase Cemetery in Columbus, Ohio (author’s photo).

Joel also mentions my hometown of Cincinnati is his piece. By the mid 1800s Cincinnati had a thriving Jewish community, and the city’s beautiful Plum Street Temple was completed in 1866, one year after the war ended and the same year in which Joel published his account. Reform Judaism was born in Cincinnati thanks to Rabbi Isaac Meyer Wise, who was its founder and was rabbi for the Plum Street congregation. The synagogue is now known as Isaac M. Wise Temple.

Rabbi Isaac Meyer Wise

I hope you enjoy reading Joseph Joel’s account of the Passover in the field in the spring of 1862. Joel’s account has its lighter moments, and his affection for his comrades and his love of his country and faith come through.

“The approaching feast of Passover, reminds me of an incident which, transpired in 1862, and which as an index of the times, no doubt, will prove interesting to a number of your readers. In the commencement of the war in 1861, I enlisted from Cleveland, Ohio, in the Union cause to sustain intact the Government of the United States, and became attached to the 23rd Regiment, one of the first sent from the “Buckeye State.” Our destination was West Virginia—a portion of the wildest and most mountainous region of that State, well adapted for the guerrillas who infested that part, and caused such trouble to our pickets all through the war.”

The Garibaldi Guard parading past President Lincoln.

“After an arduous march of several hundred miles through Clarksburgh, Weston, Sommerville, and several other places of less note, which have become famous during the war, we encountered on the 10th of September, 1861, at Carnifax Ferry, the forces under the rebel Gen. Floyd. After this, we were ordered to take up our position at the foot of Sewell Mountain, and we remained there until we marched to the village of Fayette, to take it, and to establish there our Winter-quarters, having again routed Gen. Floyd and his forces. While lying there, 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. The first point was gained, and, as the Paymaster had lately visited the Regiment, he had left us plenty of greenbacks.”

Winslow Homer’s painting “The Brierwood Pipe” depicts two Zouaves. Zouaves were infantrymen who wore uniforms based on the original Zouaves who served in North Africa with the French army. Both Union and Confederate armies had Zouave units. There was wide variation in uniforms during the Civil War. One Zouave unit in the south–the Tiger Rifles–was made up mostly of Irish soldiers.

“Our next business was to find some suitable person to proceed to Cincinnati, Ohio, to buy 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 mazzot and about the middle of the morning of Ereb Pesah (the day before 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 to find that our thoughtful sutler had enclosed two Hagodahs (the text to follow during the Seder) and prayer-books. We were now able to keep the Seder nights, if we could only obtain the other requisites for that occasion. We had 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. Horse-radish or parsley we could not obtain, but in lieu we found a weed, whose bitterness, I apprehend, exceeded anything our forefathers “enjoyed.” We 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 off it, and be sure we had the right part. The necessaries for the choroutzes (Haroset) we could not obtain, so we got a brick, which, rather hard to digest, reminded us, by looking at it, for that purpose it was intended.”

Sutlers at Petersburg, Virginia.

“At dark we had all prepared, and were ready to commence the service. There being no Chasan (cantor) present, I was selected to read the services, which I commenced by asking the blessing of the Almighty on the food before us, and to preserve our lives from danger. The ceremonies were passing off 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. 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 a 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. This slight incident did not take away our appetite, and, after doing justice to our lamb, chickens and eggs, we resumed the second portion of the service without anything occurring worthy of note.”

Portrait of Moses by Philippe de Champaigne.

“There, in the wild woods of West Virginia, away from home and friends, we consecrated and offered up to the ever-loving God 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 to an attack, faithful to our God and our cause, would have imagined themselves amongst mortals, enacting this commemoration of the scene that transpired in Egypt.”

The Isaac M. Wise Temple, formerly known the Plum Street Temple, erected in Cincinnati in 1866.

“Since then a number of my comrades have fallen in battle in defending the flag, they volunteered to protect with their lives. I have myself received a number of wounds all but mortal, but there is no occasion in my life that gives me more pleasure and satisfaction then when I remember the celebration of Passover of 1862.”

Patrick Kerin

Anthology of Western Reserve Literature edited by David R. Anderson and Gladys Haddad. The Kent State University Press: Kent, Ohio and London, England. 1992

“Jews in the Civil War: Jewish-American History on the Web”


“How Many Jewish Soldiers Were There?” Tablet Magazine, November 11, 2015


“The Secret Jewish History of the Civil War–The Forward” by Barry Bredze. March 7, 2017.


“Passover on the Battlefields of the U.S. Civil War.” The Jerusalem Post, March 24, 2013.


“Ohio In The Civil War: 23rd OVI” by Larry Stevens


American Indians and the Civil War. Official National Park Service Handbook. Edited by Robert K. Sutton and John A. Latschar. National Park Service, 2013.

Wikipedia sources on military history of American Jews, Rabbi Wise, Plum Street Temple, Garibaldi Guard. I will use Wikipedia for some basic information if the pages are reliable.


  1. Mike Martin on April 14, 2017 at 8:39 pm

    Great post, Patrick! One should never underestimate the American GI who can “make do” under most every circumstance, in this case the Seder meal. I’d love to know what the proxy bitter herb actually was.
    You mentioned native American soldiers. One who kind of fascinates me was Union Brevet Brigadier Ely Parker, a Seneca from New York and someone who could be fairly called a polymath. He read law for three years but was denied the opportunity to take the bar exam because Indians were not considered US citizens until 1924. He later studied civil engineering and worked in the field until he was commissioned a lieutenant colonel in 1863 and became Grant’s adjutant. At Appomattox, he was drafted to write out the final surrender document as he was acclaimed as having the best penmanship of the assembled officers.
    There’s your military historical factoid du jour. Thanks again for an interesting post!

    • buckeyemuse on April 28, 2017 at 2:03 am

      Thanks, Mike! I am always impressed by that can-do spirit of our servicemen and women–if there’s not a way to make something happen, they will still find one. That information is interesting about General Parker. I’ve seen pictures of him, and knew that he was at Appomattox, but I didn’t know about his role there or much about his biography. The whole topic of Indians in the war fascinates me. Back in 2002 and 2003 I made trips to the Pea Ridge Battlefield in Arkansas. Indians were involved in that fight on the Confederate side. Stand Watie was a Cherokee Indian who served as a general in the Confederate Indian forces. Definitely a topic I want to read more about. Thanks, again!

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