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Washington April 3, 1862

Dear Sir,

I send you herewith a brief report of my mission with the request to lay it before the Board of Delegates. In accordance with the wishes expressed at their Meeting in December 1861, I undertook the twofold task of officiating as chaplain to the Jewish soldiers on the Potomac, and agitating the repeal of the Act of Congress by which Jewish Ministers are excluded from the office of Chaplain in the U.S. Army. Shortly after my arrival in Washington, I had an interview with the President, delivered to him the letter of the Board, and requested him to use his influence for the repeal of the law, which excluded from office a class of citizens who by the Constitution are entitled to complete political equality. The President did not hesitate to express his full concurrence in my views, and promised that he would take the matter into serious consideration. A day or two after, he sent me a note in which he stated that he would recommend Congress to modify the law to which the Israelites objected, and subsequently submitted to the Military Committee of the Senate and the House the two following articles for their adoption, vis.

  1. "That so much of Section Nine of Chapter Nine, approved July 22, 1861, and of Section 7 Chapter 42 approved August 3, 1861 as require army Chaplains to be of some "Christian denomination" be, and they are hereby repealed.
  2. That in such of the prominent hospitals as the President may deem it necessary he may appoint one or more Chaplains of different denominations."

In order to ensure the speedy attention of the Committee, I submitted to them a written statement in which I pointed out the unconstitutionality of the Act, and the danger of infringing on the principle of religious liberty in a country containing so many distinct religious denominations. These views I explained more fully, in conversation, to the members of the Military Committee, to a majority of the Senators, and to a large number of influential members of the House of Representatives, all of whom seemed to admit the justice of our claims and in every instance promised earnest support. The articles submitted by the President were incorporated in the Army Bill (S. 139) and introduced into the Senate on the 8th of January 1862 by Mr. Wilson, Chairman of the Military Committee. Having been informed that there was some opposition to the first of the above clauses because the wording implied a positive repudiation of the Christian religion, it was agreed that in deference to the conscientious scruples of the Christian community, the language should be altered and be presented in the following form:

"That so much of Section 9 of the act approved July 22, 1861 and of Section 7 of the "Act providing etc. etc." approved August third 1861 as defines the qualifications of Chaplains in the army and volunteers, shall hereafter be construed to read as follows: That no person shall be appointed a chaplain in the United States army who is not a regularly ordained Minister of some religious denomination."

The Bill containing the last clause relating to Chaplains was thus incorporated with another Bill and finally passed the Senate (S. 175) on the 12th March 1862, and although there was considerable discussion in reference to some portions of the Bill, not the slightest opposition was offered to the above articles. Considering the enormous amount of business that claimed the attention of Congress, I think we have reason to congratulate ourselves on the prompt attention paid to our claims. In order to test the sense of the House of Representatives on the subject, Mr. Johnson proposed on the 20th of January the following resolution:

"That the Committee on Military Affairs be instructed to inquire into the expediency of changing the existing law as to the employment of chaplains in the Army, so as to authorize the appointment of brigade chaplains, one or more of which shall be of the Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish religions."

This resolution was unanimously adopted, although at the last session a similar motion, proposed by Mr. Vallandingham, was rejected by a large majority. This change in public opinion could only have been caused by the energetic action of the Board of Delegates, and it shows that we have a Government which is ready at all times to listen to the just claims of every class of citizens. The Senate Bill was read a second time in the House of Representatives on the 14th of March, and although I shall not be in Washington to watch its further progress, yet I have the promise of leading members that it will shortly pass into law. I feel confident that this matter would have altogether neglected, had not the Board of Delegates undertaken the task; for however influential individuals may be, they can never carry with them the weight that a Board representing so many leading Congregations can command, and the present instance has, therefore, conclusively demonstrated the necessity of such an Institution among the Israelites of the United States. It is to be hopes that this fact will be duly appreciated by all the Jewish congregations of this country.

The time occupied in agitating the repeal of the obnoxious law, did not in any way interfere with my attention to the spiritual wants of the Jewish soldiers in the Hospitals. After having visited the various divisions of the Army of the Potomac, which covered an immense area with a base over sixty miles long, I concluded to confine my attention to the Hospitals in Washington, Georgetown and Alexandria. I very much regret that the suggestion made at the commencement of the war, of having a separate Hospital for the Jewish soldiers was not carried into effect. The expense would have been insignificant, as Government would have provided competent surgeons, medicine and everything except the cost of the house, which could have been easily obtained by public subscription in New York City alone. There would have been sufficient patients to justify that expense as I found generally from thirty to forty in the Hospitals, and had there been a battle on the Potomac, the number would have exceeded one hundred. It would have been duly appreciated by the soldiers who, without exception expressed to me their wish in sickness to be surrounded by their own people, and to be buried among their kindred. Most of the Jewish soldiers, seeing that no provision had been made for them, had joined the Society of Odd Fellows and other associations that undertake to return the bodies of the dead to their relatives, and one instance came under my notice in which a messenger was sent from California to recover the body of a soldier who was a member of some association in that state. In the future, however, there will be no necessity for the Jewish soldiers to go outside of their community for those charitable ministrations, as the passage of the Bill will enable the President to appoint an adequate number of Jewish chaplains for the Hospitals. These duties were to me a labor of love and I look back with satisfaction to the many opportunities afforded me for officiating in that capacity, whilst I have reason to believe that my services have been welcome to many a sufferer.

Your obdnt srvt

A. Fischel

Henry I. Hart, Esq.
Pres't, Bd. of Delegates of American Israelites
New York

Fischel Letters