Historian sheds new light on a famous story about Abraham Lincoln and a New York cantor


(New York Jewish Week) — A new book untangles one of the best known incidents involving Jews in the American Civil War — and suggests the real version is both more complicated and more interesting than the legend.

In “Jewish Soldiers in the Civil War: The Union Army,” historian Adam D. Mendelsohn recalls the story of Arnold Fischel, the Dutch-born hazan, or cantor, at New York’s Shearith Israel Congregation, and how he persuaded President Abraham Lincoln to support the idea of allowing Jews to serve as military chaplains. 

That much is true, as Mendelsohn explained in an online talk Tuesday sponsored by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. Under a congressional statute, only Christian ministers could be chaplains, so in December 1861 Fischel traveled to Washington to argue his case directly to the president. Lincoln agreed to see Fischel, and a few days later wrote the cantor saying he would “try to have a new law broad enough to cover what is desired by you in behalf of the Israelites.”

On July 17, 1862, Lincoln signed the law permitting Jews to serve as chaplains.

And yet, in research for his new book — which relied in large part on a vast database of Civil War soldiers known as the Shapell Roster — other parts of the story don’t hold together, Mendelsohn explained. 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 was about to expire, and he sought the cavalry job because 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 20 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. 

“It is a much more tangled tale than originally thought, but the outcome is the same,” Mendelsohn, director of the Kaplan Centre for Jewish Studies and Associate Professor of History at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, said Tuesday. “In fact, the Jewish community does lobby Lincoln to change the law, and there is a considerable effort to do so.”

Mendelsohn said the story of Fischel and Lincoln underscores the need to dig more deeply into American Jewish history, with the help of emerging resources like the Shapell Roster. His book about the 1,700 Jewish soldiers who served in the Union Army is, he writes, “a story of ordinary men in extraordinary times, as fine and as flawed as their fellow soldiers, and Jewish too.” 

As for Fischel, he served for a time as sort of a chaplain-at-large to the Army of the Potomac, but never got the lucrative appointment he sought. Lincoln appeared skeptical of his request that a Jewish clergyman was needed as a hospital chaplain in Washington, where Jews were but a tiny fraction of the dead and wounded. Denied that commission, a disappointed Fischel returned to Europe.