The year was 1865 and Corporal Myer Samuel Levy, a Union soldier from Philadelphia, was in Virginia near the close of the Civil War.

For years, it was thought that Jews didn’t fight in that war, nor in other American conflicts. Mark Twain once wrote that American Jews harbored an “unpatriotic disinclination” to fight for their country. In reality, historians have found that thousands of Jews fought in the American Civil War: approximately 7,000 in the Union army and about 3,000 for the Confederacy.

The Civil War was the bloodiest conflict in American history: over 650,000 soldiers died in the war and the wounds of the war are still felt today. The American Jewish community, like wider America, was riven by the conflict. When war loomed, the abolitionist Jewish leader in Baltimore Rabbi David Einhorn fled to New York, fearful he’d be attacked for his pro-Northern views. Many of his opponents included his own congregants.

Historian Max I. Dimont recalls the sense of division in those days: “When the Civil War broke out, Southern rabbis exhorted Jews to volunteer for the Confederate gray, and Northern rabbis exhorted Jews to volunteer for the Union blue.”

Historian Bertram Korn explained that Jews “totally” identified with their non-Jewish neighbors; like the country, American Jewry was gravely divided, with friends turned against friends and even families torn by competing loyalties.

By the end of the conflict, there were nine Jewish generals in the Union army and hundreds of Jewish officers in both the North and the South. The highest ranking Jew to hold military position during the Civil War was Judah P. Benjamin, who served as Attorney-General, Secretary of War, and Secretary of State in the Confederacy. Though he faced continued anti-Semitism and was blamed for many of the South’s misfortunes, he continued to proudly assert his Jewish identity, as did many high-ranking Jews during the conflict.

Some Jewish soldiers went to extraordinary lengths to maintain their Jewish practice during the horrific conditions of the Civil War. Kosher food was nearly impossible to obtain, and for most soldiers the thought of obtaining Jewish ritual items was only a dream. In 1862, the newspaper the Jewish Messenger published an account of an extraordinary Seder that took place in Fayette, West Virginia, among soldiers of the 23rd Ohio Volunteer Regiment. About 20 Jewish soldiers were granted leave to hold a Passover Seder. One member of the Regiment, who was home on leave in Cincinnati, sent matzah and Haggadas to the group. The soldiers foraged for other items they would need for their Seder. “Horseradish or parsley we could not obtain,” they wrote, “but in lieu we found a weed whose bitterness...exceeded anything our forefathers enjoyed.”

Three years later, after the grinding destruction of even more years of war, the idea of obtaining supplies for a Passover Seder must have seemed an even more distant dream for any soldier in Virginia. That was the position that Corporal Myer Levy found himself in. When he saw a boy sitting outside his home eating a piece of matzah, he seemingly didn’t hesitate. Even though he was wearing the Union blue and the Virginia boy was from the south, Cpl. Levy asked the boy if he could spare a piece.

A young boy at that time would have little memory of a nation in which northerners and southerners fraternized. He seems to have been shocked and terrified, for Myer Levy later recounted to his family that the boy ran inside, screaming, “Mother, there’s a...Yankee Jew outside!” Even wracked by war, the boy’s mother looked at Cpl. Levy and saw the person inside, another human being, instead of merely the uniform he wore. She invited him to share in her family’s Seder that night.

Cpl. Levy never forgot that Seder. Years later, his niece Miriam Levy recounted her uncle’s words to the historian Bertram Korn. Myer Levy lived to a ripe old age. After the Civil War he returned to Philadelphia, married a woman named Sarah, and together they raised ten children. All his life, he made sure that his children and relatives knew the story of his inspiring Seder of 1865, when one southern woman was able to overlook the deep, visceral divisions of war and nation, and was able to see not a soldier or opponent, but recognized a fellow Jew.