The Jewish population of the United States in 1860 was somewhere between 150,000-200,000. Approximately 3,000 Jews fought on the Confederate side in the Civil War while 7,000 were found on the Union side.
President Abraham Lincoln’s administration was marked by a few noteworthy incidents affecting the Jews as a body, the most important being the attempt to appoint a Jewish chaplain in 1861-62,1 and the proposed expulsion of the Jews “as a class” from within the lines of General Grant’s army in 1862-63.2
On two occasions Lincoln was sharply criticized by the Jews for his objectionable phraseology. In his first inaugural address he said that “Intelligence, patriotism, Christianity, and a firm reliance on Him who has never yet forsaken this favored land are still competent to adjust in the best way our present difficulty.”3
Clearly Jews were not pleased with his reference to Christianity and the blatant exclusion of other religions.
In his November 15, 1862 General Order Respecting the Observation of the Sabbath Day in the Army and Navy, Lincoln announced:
The importance for man and beast of the prescribed weekly rest, the sacred rights of Christian soldiers and sailors, a becoming deference to the best sentiments of a Christian people, and a due regard for the Divine will demand that Sunday labor in the Army and Navy be reduced to the measure of strict necessity.4
This order, which made no mention of soldiers of other religions, generated a fair amount of discussion in Jewish circles. It also elicited a moving letter from a Mr. Bernhard Behrend, the father of an observant Jewish soldier who had enlisted in the Union Army:
To His Excellency Abraham Lincoln, the President of the United States5
By your order of the 16th day of November, 1862, you recommend that the officers and men of the army shall observe the Sabbath and do no work on Sunday, because we are a Christian people. But according to the Declaration of Independence and according to the constitution of the United States, the people of the United States is not a Christian people, but a free, sovereign people with equal rights, and each and every citizen of the United States has the right and liberty to live according to his own consciousness in religious matters, and no one religious denomination, be it a majority or minority of the people, can have a privilege before the other under this our beloved constitution.
Now by the order of your Excellency you give the privilege to those officers and men in the army who by their religious creed do observe the Sunday as a holy day and a day of rest; but you make no provision for those officers and men in the army who do not want to observe the Sunday as a holy day, (as for instance those Christians called the Seventh-day Baptists and the Jews, who observe the Saturday as a holy day and a day of rest,) that they may enjoy the same privilege as those who observe the Sunday as a holy day, as well as for the heathen or the so called infidels, who do not want to celebrate either the Sunday or the Saturday as a Sabbath, but choose perhaps some other day as a day of rest.
Now I stand before you as your namesake Abraham stood before G-d Almighty in days of yore, and asked, “Shall not the Judge of all earth do justice?” So I ask your Excellency, the first man and President of all the United States, Shall you not do justice? Shall you not give the same privilege to a minority of the army that you give to the majority of it? I beseech you to make provision, and to proclaim in another order, that also all those in the army who celebrate another day as the Sunday may be allowed to celebrate that day which they think is the right day according to their own conscience; and this will be exactly lawful, as the Constitution of the United States ordains it, and at the same time it will be exactly according to the teaching of the Bible, as recorded in Leviticus xix. 18: “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.”
About the Author: Dr. Yitzchok Levine served as a professor in the Department of Mathematical Sciences at Stevens Institute of Technology, Hoboken, New Jersey before retiring in 2008. He now teaches as an adjunct at Stevens. Glimpses Into American Jewish History appears the first week of each month. Dr. Levine can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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