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First Army Jewish Chaplains

Chaplain Rabbi Jacob Frankel

Chaplain Rabbi Jacob Frankel

Approximately 6,500 Jewish Soldiers fought in the Union Army during the Civil War. But until 1862, the Union Army’s Volunteer Bill stipulated that only “regularly ordained ministers of some Christian denomination” could serve as Army chaplains.

Representative Clement Vallandigham, a democrat from Ohio who was not Jewish, objected to the wording of the 1861 law, arguing in front of the House of Representatives that, “There is a large body of men in this country, and one growing continually, of the Hebrew faith … whose adherents are as good citizens and as true patriots as any in the country … While we are in one sense a Christian people, and yet in another sense not the most Christian people in the world, this is not yet a ‘Christian Government,’ nor a government which has any connection with one form of religion in preference to another form.”

The 65th Regiment of the 5th Pennsylvania Cavalry – “Cameron’s Dragoons,” with 1,200 Jewish men – was the first to have a Jewish chaplain, thus testing the constitutionality of the law. First, Michael Mitchell Allen, a Jewish cantor, served as regimental chaplain for the Dragoons – serving men of all faiths with a non-denominational service on Sundays. When someone outside of the regiment discovered that their chaplain was neither Christian nor an ordained minister, Allen resigned. Next, the regiment elected Rabbi Arnold Fischel. With the support of many others, Fischel lobbied against the current law and even traveled to Washington to request and receive a personal audience with President Lincoln.

Chaplain Frankel commission

Chaplain Jacob Frankel’s chaplain commission certificate signed by President Lincoln

On 17 July 1862, qualified non-Christian clergymen were officially allowed to serve when the language was updated to read that regimental chaplains must be “regularly ordained ministers of some religious denomination.” On 18 September 1862, the first official Jewish U.S. Army Chaplain, Rabbi Jacob Frankel of Philadelphia’s Roden Shalom Congregation, was commissioned by President Lincoln and served for almost three years. The first rabbi to serve as a regimental chaplain and to see combat as an American Army chaplain was Ferdinand Leopold Sarner. A native of Germany, he was elected chaplain by the officers of the “Schwarze Jaeger,” the 54th New York Volunteer Regiment. He served between 10 April 1863 and 3 October 1864, when he was discharged for medical disabilities resulting from a serious wound received at the Battle of Gettysburg.

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Text from the U.S. Army Chaplain Corps Facebook page.

Photo and certificate from The Jacob Rader Marcus Center of the American Jewish Archives.

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