Union soldiers during the civil war
Union soldiers during the Civil War. Photo by Wikimedia Commons
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Wikimedia Commons
Abraham Lincoln. Photo by Wikimedia Commons

On September 18, 1862, Rabbi Jacob Frankel, of Philadelphia, was appointed the first Jewish chaplain in the U.S. Army. The selection of Frankel, who at the time was cantor of Congregation Rodeph Shalom, in that city, resulted from an impassioned campaign on the part of American Jewry to have the sectarian needs of its soldiers in the Union army tended to. Only by engaging the help of President Abraham Lincoln did they succeed.

The military chaplaincy law of 1861 stipulated that any clergymen serving as chaplain to Union forces in the Civil War must be a “regular ordained minister of some Christian denomination.” An effort by an Ohio congressman, Clement Vallandigham, to have the wording be made more inclusive – he argued in the House of Representatives that “There is a large body of men in this country, and one growing continually, of the Hebrew faith … whose adherents are as good citizens and as true patriots as any in the country” – was shot down by his colleagues, and so the law went into effect on July 22, 1861.

Over the course of the Civil War, some 7,000 Jews served with the Northern forces against the Confederates, whose chaplaincy law, by the way, required only that one be a “minister of religion.” (The total Jewish population of the country at the time was some 250,000.) 

Several days before President Lincoln signed the chaplaincy law, the 65thRegiment of the 5th Pennsylvania Cavalry appointed a Jewish businessman from Philadelphia, Michael Allen, to be its chaplain. As historian Karen Abbott noted in an article in the New York Times in 2011, it’s likely that the regiment acted without knowledge of the pending new law. In any case, Allen, who was not an ordained rabbi, spent several months tending in a non-denominational manner to the spiritual needs of soldiers both Jewish and non-Jewish. In September 1861, however, when the news of Allen’s commission reached the adjutant general’s office, the liquor salesman from Philadelphia was forced to resign, citing “poor health.”

The 65th Regiment, whose commander was named Max Friedman, was not about to back down, however. It soon elected Rabbi Dr. Arnold Fischel, the minister of New York’s Shearith Israel congregation, to replace Allen. There was no question as to Fischel’s academic credentials, and when the War Department turned down the request for his commission, he and the Board of Delegates of American Israelites were ready to wage their own mini-military campaign on Washington.

Rabbi Fischel showed up at the White House on the morning of December 11, 1861, and requested to meet the president. He was told that was not likely to happen, but he decided to take his chances, and joined the line of several hundred waiting in the hope of exchanging a word with Lincoln, some of them having been there for as long as three days, according to Abbott.

In fact, when Lincoln learned of Fischel’s presence, he had him admitted immediately, receiving him, noted Fischel, with “marked courtesy.” The rabbi came armed with letters of recommendation from several Republican politicians (the president’s party) and also petitions from a variety of communities around the country, signed by both non-Jews and Jews, arguing that the existing law was unconstitutional and unfair.

Lincoln told Fischel he had not known about the discrimination against Jewish clergy, and several days after their meeting, he sent the rabbi a letter in which he promised to urge the Congress to pass “a new law broad enough to cover what is desired by you in behalf of the Israelites.”

Despite fervent opposition from some Protestant groups (one evangelical newspaper warned that a change in the law might lead to “Mormon debauchees, Chinese priests and Indian conjurors” requesting recognition as chaplains), and back-handed support from some Jewish leaders (who argued that they supported the reform of the law, but denied the right of the Board of Delegates, in whose name Fischel had visited the White House, to speak on behalf of U.S. Jewry), Congress was convinced of the rightness of Fischel’s argument. On July 17, 1862, it sent Lincoln an amendment to the law, stipulating that chaplains needed to be ordained only by “some religious denomination.”

Lincoln himself signed Rabbi Frankel’s commission on September 18. The Bavarian-born Frankel (1808-1887) was assigned to a hospital in Philadelphia, in response to a request from the Board of Ministers of the Hebrew Congregations of that city. The request followed the deaths of two Jewish soldiers there, without their being afforded the attentions of clergy of their faith.

Two other Jewish clergymen served with Northern forces during the Civil War. Arnold Fischel, however, was not one of them. Although the Board of Delegates requested he be assigned to tend to Jewish soldiers in Washington, D.C., hospitals, the army surgeon-general reckoned that there weren’t enough Jews in the area’s hospitals to warrant the commission. In October 1862, Fischel left the U.S. for his native Netherlands, and never came back. He died in 1894.