How Abraham Lincoln Was Convinced the U.S. Army Should Have Jewish Chaplains

February 10, 2023 | Andrew Silow-Carroll
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Historians have long known that in the midst of the Civil War, a Dutch-American cantor named Arnold Fischel successfully put forth the case to President Lincoln that the Union army should have Jewish, and not only Christian, chaplains. But the details of the story are quite different from the widely circulated version, concludes Adam D. Mendelsohn in his book Jewish Soldiers in the Civil War. Andrew Silow-Carroll writes:

According to a frequently retold version of the story, Fischel had been nominated to replace a Jewish layman named Michael Allen who had been forced out as chaplain of the Fifth Pennsylvania Cavalry, allegedly at the request of a visiting delegation from the YMCA. Horace Greeley’s crusading New York Tribune and other papers picked up the story and made a hero of the Jewish officer who had mustered the cavalry, Colonel Max Friedman, supposedly for “leading the charge against the unjust law.”

In fact, writes Mendelsohn, Allen was not kicked out as chaplain but probably resigned because he wasn’t enjoying his army service far from home. As for the colonel, “There is no evidence of a coordinated campaign by Friedman and his fellow Jews to elect Arnold Fischel in place of Allen.” Instead, Fischel’s contract with Shearith Israel, [the Manhattan synagogue where he served as cantor], was about to expire, and he sought the cavalry job because he was in “urgent need” of the army’s relatively generous pay for chaplains.

Friedman, meanwhile, vigorously denied press reports that his 700-man cavalry, which had fewer than twenty Jewish soldiers, needed a Jewish chaplain. Mendelsohn found evidence that Friedman shrank from the attention, in part because he was a bit of a scammer: like many officers in his day, he charged the government for no-show recruits, sold commissions to officers, and got a cut of the profits from government contractors, known as “sutlers.” Even Michael Allen—who sold liquor—might have been in on the grift.

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