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Jews, the Civil War and the Incident of Sharing Matzah at a Passover Seder

Jews, the Civil War and the Incident of Sharing Matzah at a Passover Seder

In 1865, one southern woman overlooked the deep divisions of war and saw her fellow Jew, not an opponent.


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.

August 20, 2017

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Visitor Comments: 5

(5) Anonymous, September 7, 2017 1:39 AM

The Yankee at the Seder by Elka Weber

There is a book about this incident, the Yankee at the Seder by Elka Weber. I've been reading it to my grandchildren for many years. It is a favorite. At the end there is a picture and the authentication of the story's truth. Thank you for writing this article.

(4) Shoshana Stubin, September 1, 2017 1:42 PM

Colonel Marcus Spiegel, another high-ranking Jew

I enjoyed reading this article, and wanted to share that the highest-ranking Jew in the Union army was my great-great grandfather, Colonel Marcus Spiegel, a German immigrant whose gratitude to his new country inspired him to enlist. Colonel Spiegel, who led an Ohio regiment, sent many letters home to his wife and young children, which were compiled into a book, "Your True Marcus", by my cousin, Jean Soman. In his letters he shares the his delight in sporadic encounters with Jewish families who invite him to share a Shabbos meal or a Chanukah celebration. He also writes poignantly about the coming Yomim Noraim, reminding his wife to buy new clothing for the children. Although Colonel Spiegel was wounded in battle, he insisted on returning to his men; he died during the Red River Campaign while attempting to raise a white flag of surrender, leaving behind his grieving widow and five young children. I am inspired by by my ancestor, who gave his life to defend the ideals that drew him to America in 1848.

(3) Eliyahu, August 31, 2017 8:02 PM

Gimmer of Divine mission - 2

However, those who chose to put themselves completely outside the pale of integration within the Jewish Center--this is Erev Rav--and we can but hope for their change of heart and return before their own evil finds them. No one trusts or respects a traitor to their own people, no matter how useful--especially when later looking for 5th columnists.

As to the proof of their non-Jewish loyalty:

At the death camps where German Jews were to be found, they would ask if anyone had proof that they served the fatherland in the first world war, to bring it forward. Logically expecting better treatment, those who had iron crosses, insignias, anything--certainly came forward with them. The items were then confiscated and they were told: "You are the ones who stabbed Germany in the back! -- and they were immediately put to death."

Rachmanus Etzlan, I only mean such extremes as Max Naumann's pre-war Association of German National Jews, and today's revelations of those who didn't even know that they were Jews, regarding their support of national socialism and Hitler, y''sh!

Today the unimaginable continues, with Jews marching proudly with those seeking the annihilation of their brethren in Israel. This is not the 19th and early 20th century anti-Zionist activism of Orthodox or Liberal concerns over the threats of a potential secular Jewish national state to their views of Jewish mission--its support for the destruction of half of 21st century Jewry. This whether from 500 ultra-"Orthodox" Jews who care not for the opinions of any of today's Gadolim, nor vastly larger numbers of Liberal Jews who put every cause above their brother's blood.

To walk with Amalek is to not be the kind of ideologue that can rise above it. Ultimately, everything will balance out--one way or another, Unity integrates everything for there is no peace but in the balance of opposites. For now, we can't work with them except by spiritual influence.

(2) Eliyahu, August 31, 2017 7:16 PM

A glimmering into the Divine purpose - 1

1 - First, thank you Dr. Miller for this historic, yet very timely piece. Indeed, it is hardly an accident that we Jews have been placed by Providence into the supportive core, if not the leadership of virtually every ideological camp under the sun.

Yet this is the whole point. It is not the elimination of any opinion, but its integration at some level.

By Jews doing this with themselves--they will similarly unite the world.

The singular bond--whatever the religiosity or ideology--is as expressed in our ancient Shabbat Mincha Amida prayer: "You are One, and Your name is One, and who is like Your people Israel--one nation (the nation representing your Unity) on earth." Even the Atheist can understand such a national purpose seen in Infinity, the objectively unique and vital greatness of this purpose. It is a changeless core that can adopt to all changes--balance all changes. It is a declaration of social nationalism--the exact opposite of the Nazi to the right or left--a declaration of eternal war only with that Amalek, for its master is Death. We are love over hatred--unity not coming from the extinguishing of difference any more than separating from it--but rather mutually-responsibility that integrates differences into the balance. The purpose is Life.

And integrations into unities of mutual-responsibility lead to grander brotherhoods--not blood hatreds.

(1) Laura, August 31, 2017 3:00 PM

Wow, this is so awesome!

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