Shepherd Snyder Published

Historians, Local Jewish Congregation Recognize Civil War Passover Feast In Southern W.Va.

Two people, a man and a woman, install a Civil War historic location sign.
Stacey Tope, executive director of the Love Hope Center for the Arts (right) and Jason Shaffer, operations director for Civil War Trails (left), install a sign commemorating a Passover Seder outside Fayetteville.
Drew Gruber/Civil War Trails, Inc.

Civil War historians are recognizing a unique local celebration that happened during the conflict in the wilds of southern West Virginia near what’s now known as Fayetteville, when 20 Jewish Union soldiers came together during the conflict for a Passover feast known as a Seder.

Reporter Shepherd Snyder spoke with Joseph Golden, Jewish researcher and secretary of the Temple Beth El congregation in Beckley, along with Drew Gruber of Civil War Trails, about this celebration’s historical significance.

The transcript below has been lightly edited for clarity. 

Snyder: Starting off with the main topic of the interview, and for our listeners who might not know, can you give me some background on what a Passover Seder is? Can you talk a little bit about the holiday and the event?

Golden: Passover Seder is a ceremony that you usually have at home, but you can have it at your congregational headquarters, that commemorates the Exodus from Egypt by the ancient Hebrews. They were slaves to the Egyptians for hundreds of years. And as the Bible has told us, Moses answered the call of God, to lead the ancient Israelites out of Egypt and onto the land of Canaan, which they got to in about 40 years. 

So for centuries, the Seder has been celebrated as the beginning of Passover, and Passover is that holiday commemorating the Exodus. And there are many ways of celebrating Passover. There is usually a text, which we call Haggadah. And there are many different variations on the Haggadah, it’s not a deeply religious text, it’s more of one that tells the story, has songs, has readings and such and you go through it to various degrees at your Seder. “Seder” itself means a set formula of how to do something. So there’s different steps along the way in doing these commemorations.

Gruber: Speaking of a set way to do things, one of the most fascinating parts of this project for me was thinking about the Seder dinner items and the symbology behind each one of those items, and how the soldiers from this regiment had to adapt the traditional menu to the bounty that’s available in Appalachia in the spring of 1862.

Snyder: I do want to circle back to that here in a second. But before we get to that, I do want to ask if the both of you could provide some historical context on this Seder in particular. Why is something like this interesting in the context of the Civil War and in the context of West Virginia history?

Golden: It’s basically a footnote through the movement of troops and the battles that took place. But it’s also an insight into the various, diverse members who entered the Union army from various backgrounds. Apparently, 23 percent of the Union Army were foreign born. Now, some of these Jews may have been foreign born, some may have been first generation here in the United States. But it was an example of something that’s little known. There were Germans, and there were Irish, large contingents, and there were approximately 7,000 Jews who were in the Union army. And there were also about 3,000 estimated Jews in the Confederate army, mostly from South Carolina. 

But for the Jews to be there away from their usual communities, [the purpose of this ceremony was] to bond and to commemorate something that is basic in their culture and traditions of having a Seder. And they were in winter quarters, there was some guerrilla activities around it, but no major battles or confrontations. So they had more time on their hands. And so they decided to ask permission to get together and to go through this ritual. 

And to remember, they would use, from the Seder, “Always remember that you were slaves in Egypt,” that’s a basic expression. So it commemorates their knowledge and their awareness of slavery, or at least what it meant Biblically.

Gruber: For us at Civil War Trails, although the story may be a footnote in history, it’s exceptional. And as much as we see in this dark period in our nation’s history, this beautiful bright spot [is also there]. And it’s not just these individual soldiers, but it is the community in the area and the greater Jewish community at large that sort of enables this bright spot and offers up a moment of peace and beauty and what is otherwise a pretty terrible season in American history.

Snyder: I want to dive a little bit more into how or what the significance of this event was to the soldiers themselves during wartime. Why was this important to them, how was it important? And how does that historical significance translate to the present day?

Golden: I’d say it was on different levels. We have [Private] Joseph Joel’s account. And in his account, he doesn’t really go into how far afield these Jewish members came from, but they’re from Ohio, and most likely they came out of the cities of Columbus and Cincinnati, and possibly Cleveland, and maybe some smaller cities. They were young men, Joseph Joel was 17 or 19 when this took place. He was born in 1844, is what’s recorded. And it’s sharing a compatriotship. It’s sharing a cultural observance that’s deep into their childhood and their families. And it also, in his relation to when he wrote it down, some of these people, some of these men had died. He himself was wounded at South Mountain. 

So by recording it, perhaps he reignites that sense, our togetherness, compatriotship, sharing, that may resonate with those who survived, and perhaps the families of those who didn’t survive. And it reflects the importance of other people hearing about it, Jewish people hearing about this, and reflecting on the importance of Passover to them as well. That you didn’t need to be in a metropolitan area or city area, to acknowledge Passover and to celebrate it and to share in that.

Gruber: For our team, interacting with this story, highlights the fact that as historians have focused on the Civil War, they’ve often focused, at least for the last 150 years, on the military maneuvers, and sort of the macabre idea of how many soldiers were killed at this engagement or how they got there, and what the results of that individual battle were. But every time we have an opportunity to work with communities and they share the stories of their soldiers who came through their community, it is these bright moments that the soldiers choose to recognize in their letters and their diaries. They don’t go into a huge amount of detail about how a battle went down or occurred, they’ll usually refer to a friend who was lost. 

But these bright spots of interacting with somebody who would otherwise be the enemy on a picket post and exchanging a newspaper is a bright moment for them to share because it’s, again, that bright, peaceful spot in this war. And I think it’s Joel, who comments in the latter part of the 1860s, he says something to the effect of like, there’s no other occasion in his life that gives him more pleasure than remembering that 1862 Passover. And that should tell you something about this soldier who’s wounded at a major engagement and sees multiple campaigns, but this is the moment that gives him the most pleasure to recall.

Golden: I would say that Joel’s rendition of the event is analogous to a letter home to your folks. But here it’s a letter home to all the Jews in the country at that time, tying them to something that they can relate to and they can cherish.

Snyder: Can you tell me again who Joel is and his significance in all this?

Golden: He was a private in the Ohio 23rd Volunteer Infantry, along with these other compatriots, and their commander was at that time, Major [later President] Rutherford B. Hayes. And they had gone into western Virginia, because West Virginia was not yet a state, and had come up the Kanawha River they had fought at the Battle of Droop Mountain [in Pocahontas County]. Then they crossed the Kanawha River to go into winter quarters at Fayetteville, or the village of Fayette; it was just a few houses, apparently, at that time. And so there are bivouacs there. They went on to be in battles, going south into Wytheville, Virginia. And then later, in September of 1862, fought at the Battle of South Mountain [near Boonsboro, Maryland], which preceded Antietam by about three days.

Snyder: I want to also talk about the celebration and the actual events of the Seder itself. I know you mentioned the dinner items that might be unique to a Civil War, West Virginia 1860s Seder, I was wondering if you could shed a little bit more light about that kind of thing.

Gruber: I’ll leave that up to Dr. Golden. He and my coworker Victoria sort of cracked the code of the traditional Seder menu and then how the soldiers adapted that menu for being in the wilds of West Virginia. But most excitingly for us, working with some private collectors and the Rutherford B. Hayes Presidential Library and Museum, we were able to put on the sign [commemorating the event in Fayetteville] a photo of Joseph Joel and a photo of a sutler token. So a sutler is a shopkeeper who’s moving with each regiment during the Civil War. And there’s a token from the sutler of the 23rd Ohio Infantry, the same regiment that is represented by the soldiers here. And it’s possible that this sutler helps these soldiers sort of create this Seder menu.

Golden: The food has symbolic meaning. The main one that most people know about is matzah, which is unleavened bread, it’s almost like a large cracker. And it commemorates that Hebrews were leaving Egypt without time to bake their bread and let it rise to be leavened, so they just had to put out the water and the flour and such and let the sun bake it and move on. 

Then there are bitter herbs, which are to symbolize the bitterness of slavery. Traditionally, in today’s age, we use horseradish, but they went foraging for bitter herbs in their environment and came up with something. They didn’t say what it was, but they said it was very powerful, and it could have been ramps, it could have been something else. 

There’s four cups of wine that commemorate certain parts of the order of the Seder meal. They couldn’t find wine, but they found cider, so they had at least a keg of cider. There’s something called charoset, which is a mixture of apples and nuts and cinnamon wine, which was supposed to be symbolic of the mortar that went between the large stones that the Hebrews had to work on. They couldn’t find that, so instead they had a brick. 

There was a shank bone that commemorates the Paschal lamb that was sacrificed just before the Exodus took place, but they couldn’t find that, so they had chicken. 

And usually there’s something that’s green, representing springtime, but I think they use the herbs that they had for that. I think they had some eggs as well, and eggs are symbolic of life and symbolic of Spring.

Gruber: We’ve found a lot of people are really intrigued by this blending of cultures, all the things that we know and promote today as the beauty that is Appalachian foodways. And how this intersects with these Jewish traditions is, I think, just very invigorating, and enamoring for people to think about happening and what was otherwise sort of the wilds of West Virginia at the time.

Snyder: I also want to talk a little bit about faith. You hear a lot of these stories about soldiers during wartime coming together to celebrate their faiths. I think the most famous example, or the one that comes to mind for me, immediately, is the World War I Christmas truce. But I was wondering if either of you could speak a little about why and how religious faith matters to soldiers during wartime and why that’s so important.

Gruber: I’ll start by saying I’m by no means an expert in this. And I can just speak generally to this concept that throughout the Civil War, especially as the military campaigns wind down and you sort of hit the winter periods, there are multiple revivals in camps, both north and south. And those revivals run the gamut of religious perspectives. So we often see that once the military campaigns sort of quiet down a little bit, that soldiers will turn back to these things and also chat with each other about their faith.

Golden: I think that in conflicts facing possible death, just about everybody gets in touch with their spiritual self. And whatever faith, tradition they come out of, they turn to that to help maintain their spiritual connection and their sense of purpose in the conflict. Both the Confederacy and the Union invoked God as the protector, you might say. When this was mentioned to Abraham Lincoln by someone, Lincoln said, “The real matter is, are we on God’s side?” That’s how Lincoln phrased it, but I think in military conflicts, you turn to your deeply ingrained religious experience that you’ve had growing up and rely on that to maintain your faith that your role is righteous.

Snyder: How are you recognizing this Passover Seder today? Can you get a little bit into how this project came about and how it’s being recognized?

Gruber: Absolutely. So it was about two years ago this month that I got an email from Dr. Golden that said, “I hear your organization is interested in this story that took place in our backyard.” And that was in response to me calling some folks in and around the Kanawha River Valley and saying, “Do you know anything more about this story?” My coworker Victoria and I had sort of stumbled across it just doing some reading about the average lives of Civil War soldiers. And we were just simply enamored by it, especially given the context of everything that’s happening in America right now, as far as antisemitism is concerned. 

So for Civil War Trails, we don’t really pursue stories per se. But this one was just really evocative to us and stuck with the team here. So we began by making some calls in and around the greater Charleston area, and in a really beautiful turn of events was introduced to Dr. Golden, who, you know, we consider to be the expert on this topic. 

And that’s not where it ended, working with the Rutherford B. Hayes Presidential Library and Museum in Ohio, who connected us with other collectors, other archives, we started interacting with people who’ve lived in the area who have done some amateur archaeology, who were able to find examples of the unique uniforms that Joseph Joel and his comrades were wearing, and through both oral history and amateur archaeology, pinpointed the location of their camp. And it’s very much in fitting with the 1862 Passover itself, it’s very much been the situation where the community has come together from all walks of life and all perspectives to bring this to fruition, 161 years later. So it’s been a beautiful project for us, for our team to be part of.

Golden: I first encountered the narrative in about 2001, and someone heard that I was from West Virginia, and told me about the story that they had read, and sent me a copy of it and read through it. And then I started sharing this at the usual place where my wife and I go for Seder, with some friends who live in Fayetteville. And there were about 10 to 14 people around the Passover table, and we read through it, and it brought a little bit more home to it, that we were in the same locale as them, separated by all these years but I could appreciate the setting and the experience. And so we continue to read portions of this at each Seder.

Snyder: Why is it worth recognizing these diverse, off the beaten path events in history, or celebrating these voices that we might not typically hear from in more general history books? 

Golden: I think it personalizes our connection to the people who were there, the troops, the men who are fighting, and the areas in which they went through. By knowing these people as people, it’s not just about a bit of data. It’s allowing us to empathize and to learn from them personally.

Gruber: For us, the stories are about that particular place, standing in that moment. And as Dr. Golden said so eloquently, it’s being able to empathize with these people who seem so far away and realizing that they’re not too much different than you and I.

Snyder: Did you have anything else worth mentioning or any closing thoughts we didn’t get to before we wrap this up?

Golden: I think there are many other stories out there from people from other nationalities and religious backgrounds. Jews were quite different because of their religion. But there are stories of Irish and African American and German, and even some French that emphasize how their particular experience was shaped by their cultural upbringing.

Gruber: My hope is that other communities see this community step up with a story that maybe isn’t recognized as a traditional Civil War story, and they will be sort of empowered and emboldened to want to add their story to this collective narrative. And in part, we’ve already seen this through two discussions in western Maryland and Tennessee about Union soldiers who are Muslim. And that is my hope with this project, that not only can we lift up the story of Dr. Golden’s congregation and the story of these men who gave thanks in 1862, but also encourage other communities to step up and add their story to the collective Civil War narrative.