When the Civil War started, in 1861, Jews were not allowed to serve as chaplains in the army or in military hospitals. Yet they fought on both sides during the war.
The House of Representatives had adopted a bill permitting each regiment’s commander to appoint a chaplain – so long as he was “a regularly ordained minister of some Christian denomination.”
|Rep. Clement L. Vallandigham|
Only Rep. Clement L. Vallandigham of Ohio protested that the bill discriminated against Jewish soldiers. Vallandigham argued that the Jewish population of the United States, “whose adherents are … good citizens and as true patriots as any in this country,” deserved to have rabbis minister to their soldiers. Vallandigham was not Jewish.
A few months later, a YMCA worker visiting a field camp in Pennsylvania learned that the officers had elected a Jew, Michael Allen, as regimental chaplain. Allen was knowledgeable about Judaism, but not a rabbi – and not an ordained Christian minister. The YMCA representative filed a complaint; the Army forced Allen to resign.
Then Col. Max Friedman and the other officers of the regiment, called Cameron’s Dragoons, elected an ordained rabbi, Arnold Fischel of New York’s Cong. Shearith Israel, to serve as chaplain. But when Fischel applied for certification, the secretary of war, Simon Cameron, rejected Fischel’s application. (The regiment had been named for Cameron.)
On Dec. 11, 1861, Fischel met with President Lincoln to argue the case for Jewish chaplains. Lincoln did not need much persuading. He promised that he would submit a new law to Congress “broad enough to cover what is desired by you in behalf of the Israelites.”
Seven months later, on July 17, 1862, Congress adopted Lincoln’s changes to the chaplaincy law to allow the appointment of chaplains “of the Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish religions.”
The Jewish Virtual Library writes that the new law was “a major step in the Americanization of the Jewish religion.”