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On April 3, 2023, the community of Fayetteville, West Virginia unveiled a brand new Civil War Trail sign on the 161st anniversary of the first known Passover seder in the state. To date, it is the only Civil War Trails site in the country which champions the story of Jewish soldiers.

Historical records show that 20 Jewish Union soldiers under the command of President-to-be Rutherford B. Hayes managed to put together a Passover seder while camped in the dense West Virginia forest. As Drew Gruber, who oversees the multi-state Civil War Trails (CWT) program, says, “In the midst of our nation’s darkest hour, these soldiers came together, enabled by the larger community and in doing so, they offered peace and hope to a nation at war.”

The story goes that as Passover 1862 approached, a group of Jewish Union Army soldiers from the 23rd Ohio Infantry Regiment camped in West Virginia were given leave to celebrate Passover. They asked the camp sutler, who was Jewish, to send them matzah once he returned home to Cincinnati, where he planned to spend Passover. The sutler said he would do so. Sure enough, seven barrels of matzah arrived for the soldiers on the morning before Passover started, and he even included several haggadahs. The historic trail marker that marks the occasion depicts a sutler coin used by Union camps to purchase goods— with the name GW Forbes on it. It is believed that Forbes was the sutler of this story.

PVT Joseph Joel of that Ohio regiment recorded the Passover preparations and subsequent seder in his diary:

Soldiers then set out in small groups to scrounge up other ingredients for the seder. They managed to find two kegs of cider, a lamb, chickens, and some eggs.  However, they could not get horseradish or parsley, but according to Joseph Joel they did find a bitter weed “whose bitterness, I apprehend, exceeded anything our forefathers ‘enjoyed.’”

He continued:

We had the lamb, but did not know what part was to represent it at the table; but Yankee ingenuity prevailed, and it was decided to cook the whole and put it on the table, then we could dine off it, and be sure we got the right part.

Since the group was unable to get charoset, they got creative by using a real brick which reminded the soldiers—literally—of the bricks that their forefathers had been forced ton craft by hand. Then came time for the seder, which Joel was asked to lead. Everything was going well until they got to the maror:

What a scene ensued in our little congregation, it is impossible for my pen to describe. The herb was very bitter and very fiery like Cayenne pepper, and excited our thirst to such a degree, that we forgot the law authorizing us to drink only four cups, and the consequence was we drank up all the cider. Those that drank the more freely became excited, and one thought he was Moses, another Aaron, and one had the audacity to call himself Pharaoh. The consequence was a skirmish, with nobody hurt, only Moses, Aaron and Pharaoh had to be carried to the camp, and there left in the arms of Morpheus.

Fortunately, the rest of the group finished the seder without any major mishaps. Joseph Joel concluded his account by saying:

There, in the wild woods of West Virginia, away from home and friends, we consecrated and offered up to the ever-loving G-d of Israel our prayers and sacrifice. I doubt whether the spirits of our forefathers, had they been looking down on us, standing there with our arms by our side ready for an attack, faithful to our G-d and our cause, would have imagined themselves amongst mortals, enacting this commemoration of the scene that transpired in Egypt.

At the unveiling, CSM Sam Yudin, CA ARNG and president of the Jewish American Military Historical Society, says he relates to the Union soldiers’ struggle to find items for their Passover seder. While stationed in places such as Korea and Kosovo, he had a hard time as well. As a Jewish service member overseas, he had to get creative in order to find supplies for a seder. “Trying to get matzah in Korea over 20 years ago pre-Chabad presence and Kosovo seven years ago relates back to this Civil War story from 160-plus years ago,” he says. “When I was returning from the unveiling I had a conversation with a friend in Iraq who was busy trying to get some supplies at the last minute for their Seder. We are lucky, however, as we have organizations like the Aleph Institute who like that sutler in 1862 send us the supplies we need. In 2016, Chaplain Ruderman, then stationed in Germany, flew down to Kosovo a week before Passover with supplies. Rabbi Dovid Grossman of Civil Air Patrol and others also sent Passover food that year to ensure we had all we needed. ”

The trail marker was sponsored by Civil War Trails, Temple Beth El, Love Hope Center for the Arts, and the New River Gorge Convention & Visitors Bureau (CVB). Dr. Joseph Golden, Secretary of the Temple Beth El congregation, read from the soldiers’ diaries during their own Passover celebrations. Golden says that this historical anecdote rings true for the Jewish community even today. “Commemorating this Passover seder celebrated by 20 Jewish Union soldiers has importance to the Jewish community in Fayette and Raleigh Counties,” he adds. “Although we are a minority, and they were a minority in the Union Army, they were and we are part and parcel of the diverse fabric that make up this nation of ours.”

The team at the New River Gorge CVB, the sustaining partner for the CWT program in the County, is equally excited about the new site. “This is an asset to our growing tourism industry and community,” says Becky Sullivan, Executive Director of the CVB. “We are finding more and more that people love learning the history of the places they visit.” This sentiment was echoed b by Secretary Chelsea Ruby of West Virginia Tourism, whose office assists in promoting the over 150 Civil War Trails sites and stories across the state. As Secretary Ruby says, “West Virginia has such a rich, diverse history that deserves to be celebrated, and this site is no exception. Travelers get to experience history first-hand with the help of the Civil War Trails signage. I’m thrilled that another stop has been added to honor this event in our great state.”

Visitors planning a trip to Civil War Trails can call 757-378-5462 with questions, or request a free brochure at 

Originally published in the Shavous 5783 issue of the Jewish American Warrior.