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Joseph Joel, 23rd Ohio Volunteer Infantry

Holidays are perhaps the most difficult time for soldiers stationed far from home and family. For 19-year-old Private Joseph Joel, serving in the hills of West Virginia during the Civil War, it was the feast of Passover that left him longing for home, friends, and familiar rituals. It had been nearly a year since Joel and his 20 Jewish comrades had enlisted in the 23rd Ohio Volunteer Infantry at Cleveland, Ohio.

After much deliberation, the men agreed that Joel should ask their commander Rutherford B. Hayes if they might be temporarily relieved of their duties to observe Passover, the annual Jewish commemoration of the deliverance of the Jews from Egypt. Hayes granted the soldier's request. A year after the close of the Civil War, Joel wrote an account of the event in the Jewish Messenger [March 3, 1866 "Passover in Camp."] .

"Our next business was to find some suitable person to proceed to Cincinnati, Ohio, to buy us Matzos. Our sutler, being a co-religionist and going home to that city readily undertook to send them. We were anxiously awaiting to receive our [matzos] and about the middle of the morning of {written in Hebrew] a supply train arrived in camp, and to our delight seven barrels of Matzos. On opening them, we were surprsed and pleased to find that our thoughtful sutler had enclosed two Hagodahs and prayer-books.

We were now able to keep the [written in Hebrew] nights, if we could only obtain the other requisites for that occasion. We held a consultation and decided to send parties to forage in the country while a party stayed to build a log hut for the service. About the middle of the afternoon the foragers arrived, having been quite successful. We obtained two kegs of cider, a lamb, several chickens, and some eggs. Horse-radish or parsley we could not obtain, but in lieu we found a weed, whose bitterness, I apprehend, exceeded anything our forefathers "enjoyed."

We were still in a great quandary; we were like the man who drew the elephant in the lottery. 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 could have the right part. The necessaries for the choroutzes we could not obtain, so we got a brick which, rather hard to digest, reminded us, by looking at it, for what purpose it was intended.

At dark we had all prepared, and were ready to commence the service. There being no Chasan present, I was selected to read the services, which I commenced by asking the blessing of the Almighty on the food before us, and to preserve our lives from danger. The ceremonies were passing off very nicely, until we arrived at the part where the bitter herb was to be taken. We all had a large portion of the herb ready to eat at the moment I said the blessing; each eat his portion, when horrors! 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 a 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. This slight incident did not take away our appetite, and, after doing justice to our lamb, chickens, and eggs, we resumed the second portion of the servce without anything occurring worthy of note.

There, in the wild woods of West Virginia, away from home and friends, we consecrated and offered up to the ever-loving God 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 God and our cause, would have imagined themselves amongst mortals, enacting this commemoration of the scene that transpired in Egypt.

Since then a number of my comrades have fallen in battle in defending the flag they volunteered to protect with their lives. I have myself received a number of wounds all but mortal, but there is no occasion in my life that gives me more pleasure and satisfaction than when I remember the celebration of Passover of 1862. Joseph A. Joel"

Joel eventually married, moved to Staten Island, and became an editor and publisher. He never forgot the kindness of the commander who had granted his request to observe the celebration of Passover during the Civil War. He and Rutherford B. Hayes remained lifelong friends. In 1871, Joel wrote to Hayes, announcing the birth of his second daughter. Using the online Diary and Letters of Rutherford B. Hayes, you can read Hayes' reply. A year later, Joel wrote again, informing Hayes that his wife had given birth to their first son, whom he had named Rutherford B. Hayes Joel.

The hand-tinted albumen print of Joel in his Civil War uniform was a gift from Joel to President Hayes. The picture is part of the Rutherford B. Hayes Photograph Collection.