Is the history of the chaplaincy being rewritten? According to one researcher, the relatively straightforward account of how America’s military chaplaincy became open to the first Jewish clergy is darker and more complicated than the oft-repeated one.
The apparently apocryphal story goes that in December 1861, New York cantor Rabbi Arnold Fischel of the Fifth Pennsylvania Cavalry convinced President Abraham Lincoln to open up the military chaplaincy to Jews. At that time, only Christian ministers were permitted to serve as spiritual leaders and mentors in the US military chaplaincy. Fischel had supposedly been nominated to replace CPT Michael (Meir) Allen, a Jewish lay leader and scholar of Sephardic descent who had briefly served as a chaplain in Colonel Max Friedman’s Fifth Pennsylvania Cavalry, also known as “Cameron Dragoons,” after Lincoln’s secretary of war, Simon Cameron. New York newspapers reported that Allen had been forced out of his position by a member of the YMCA who was appalled that a Jewish person was pushing his way into a Christians-only role. These newspapers hailed Friedman as a hero for protesting the unfairness of the chaplaincy restrictions and praised him for carefully selecting Fischel to lead a campaign that would open chaplaincy to other faiths.
Rabbi Fischel then headed to Washington to meet with the president. A few days later, Lincoln sent Fischel a letter. “I find there are several particulars in which the present law in regard to Chaplains is supposed to be deficient, all which I now design presenting to the appropriate Committee of Congress,” he wrote, adding, “I shall try to have a new law broad enough to cover what is desired by you on behalf of the Israelites.”
Sure enough, in 1862 a new law was passed that opened the chaplaincy to non-Christian chaplains.
But when historian and researcher Professor Adam Mendelsohn looked into the story for the Shapell Roster, a research database committed to confirming and correcting misinformation regarding Jewish military service in the Civil War, he found some inconsistencies. According to his research, presented in his new book, Jewish Soldiers in the Civil War, there is no evidence that Colonel Friedman handpicked Fischel, nor did he ask him to lead a campaign to expand the chaplaincy.
In fact, Friedman did not want Fischel to become the cavalry’s chaplain, as Friedman was trying to stay out of the limelight. The reason for this was simple, albeit unethical: When unit commanders submitted payroll requests for soldiers, it was common for them to pad the numbers with soldiers who either didn’t show up or didn’t exist. This was the case with Friedman, a dubious character who collected salaries for invisible soldiers, swiped a percentage of earnings from government contractors, helped himself to military resources at will, and engaged in other fraudulent behaviors. Perhaps as a result of his nefarious activities, among other reasons, this unit eventually became known as one of the most inept of the northern forces in the Civil War.
Meanwhile, erstwhile “chaplain” Michael Allen was a liquor dealer, which indicates he had been selected to provide the unit’s liquor needs. In all probability, he was given this responsibility because he was a friend of Friedman’s—as another common practice among commanders was to hire friends for officer positions. Also rampant among officers was arranging secret liquor sales and sharing the profits they skimmed with their liquor dealers. Because this was so common, it’s not unreasonable to think that Friedman might have worked out such a deal with Allen.
In addition, Allen had not been forced to leave his post by a Christian group; he resigned, officially due to ill health, though his letters suggest that he didn’t want to be so far from home, especially during the High Holidays. It is interesting to note that one of the cavalry soldiers claimed their unit was not a fan of Allen. But if that was the real reason that caused Allen to resign, it did not become known.
As far as Rabbi Fischel goes, he wasn’t handpicked by Friedman—quite the opposite, in fact. Friedman actually admitted to the newspapers that with barely 20 Jews in his 700-strong cavalry, the unit had never requested a Jewish chaplain, nor did they need one. Rather, Fischel’s contract with his New York synagogue was expiring, which meant he urgently needed a new job. He didn’t even know about the religious restrictions until after he applied. And in the end, when he was turned down for the position, a disappointed Fischel left the continent to pursue other opportunities in Europe.
It’s not surprising that Friedman ultimately resigned from his post, and was later investigated for his questionable activities. The tricky part of this story is that the motivations of the individuals involved will never be fully known and understood. Patriotism and questionable ethics have long waged war within individuals, and still does. Conflicting ideals especially thrived in the wild environment of our nascent country.
With these salacious details, the story becomes far more complex, although the outcome remains the same. The Jewish community was full of determined individuals who came together to advocate for the law to be changed, and ultimately, it was: the word “Christian” was replaced with “religious” in the chaplaincy qualifications.
Originally printed in the Shavuot 5783 issue of the Jewish-American Warrior.