For American Jewry during the Civil War, the Passover story was especially powerful. Northern soldiers saw clear parallels between the Union freeing the Souths slaves and Moses leading the ancient Hebrews out of Egypt. However, creating a seder during in a war zone requires flexibility and creativity.
In 1862, the Jewish Messenger published an account by J. A. Joel of the 23rd Ohio Volunteer Regiment of a seder celebrated by Union soldiers in Fayette, West Virginia. Joel and 20 other Jewish soldiers were granted leave to observe Passover. A soldier home on leave in Cincinnati shipped matzot and hagaddot to his colleagues. Joel wrote:
Yankee ingenuity indeed! Historian Bertram Korn observes, "It must have been quite a sight: these twenty men gathered together in a crude and hastily-built log hut, their weapons at their side, prepared as in Egypt-land for all manner of danger, singing the words of praise and faith in the ancient language of Israel." The seder proceeded smoothly until the eating of the bitter herbs. Joel recounted:
More problematic was the situation of Union soldiers who, unable to form their own seders, were forced to "fraternize" with local Jews. Myer Levy of Philadelphia, for example, was in a Virginia town one Passover late in the war when he saw a young boy sitting on his front steps eating a piece of matzo. According to Korn, when Levy "asked the boy for a piece, the child fled indoors, shouting at the top of his lungs, Mother, theres a damn Yankee Jew outside! The boys mother invited Levy to seder that night. One wonders how the Virginian family and the Yankee soldier each interpreted the hagadah portions describing the evils of bondage.
On the eve of the fifth day of Passover (April 14), 1865, Abraham Lincoln was shot and died of his wounds in the early morning of April 15th, which had already been scheduled as a national day of prayer to mark the end of the Civil War. Jews across the land were gathering in synagogues to give thanks. When news of Lincolns death arrived, Korn notes, the synagogue altars were quickly draped in black and, instead of Passover melodies, the congregations chanted Yom Kippur hymns. Rabbis set aside their sermons and wept openly at their pulpits, as did their congregants. Lincoln had been protective of American Jewry, overturning General Grants infamous General Order #11 expelling Jews from the Department of the Tennessee and supporting legislation allowing Jewish chaplains to serve in the military. The Jewish Record drew the analogy between Lincoln not having lived to see the reconciliation of North and South and Moses dying on Mount Pisgah before he saw the Israelites enter the Promised Land.
When no American armed forces are in combat anywhere in the world, it is easy to forget how difficult it can be for Jewish soldiers to serve their country while maintaining the traditions that beautify Judaism. Nevertheless, for Jewish Union soldiers fighting between 1861 and 1865 to free others from slavery, the Passover parallels must have made each seder particularly sweet and meaningful.
Sources: American Jewish Historical Society