A massive research project is underway to identify Jews who fought in the American Civil War and to catalog their names and biographic information. Previously, in 1895, Simon Wolf published a listing of every Jew he could find information on who served in the Civil War. He included men on both sides and from all branches of the services. His list of soldiers, as well as some sailors, and marines ran 400 pages long. Until recently there had never been an attempt to update the list with all of the new sources that the internet has made available.
Now, the Shapell Manuscript Foundation is several years into the task of creating an entirely new database listing the vital information of every Jew who served on either side in the Civil War. The Shapell Roster Project, as it is called, will be the definitive list replacing the earlier roster that Wolf published. It is being prepared by scholars who are rummaging through Jewish newspapers and community records from a century ago, and visiting Jewish cemeteries to verify Wolf’s volume of Jewish soldiers. While they are using Wolf’s work, they are looking at each of his listings to make sure that the persons he listed are actually Jewish.
Simon Wolf had been pressed into compiling his list of Jews in the Civil War because of the importation in the 1890s of a new brand of Antisemitism from Germany. Allegations that Jews did not integrate into the larger society and that they avoided military service were leveled by the new “scientific” racists of the period. These biases were retailed in America by men as prominent as Mark Twain. Wolf hoped that by documenting Jewish service in the war he would quiet the bigots.
While Wolf’s book was valuable in the argument in the 19th Century over Jewish acculturation in America, its flaws as a scholarly resource became apparent over the decades. Many Jewish servicemen were not included in the book, some non-Jews were misidentified as Jews, and Wolf sometimes made mistakes in identifying the units the men belonged to.
Whatever the problems associated with Wolf’s book, it has been the starting point for the creation of Shapell’s roster database. Modern research methods have eliminated some of Wolf’s entries which were found to be duplicates or erroneous. Still, the names in the Shapell Roster already greatly outnumber those in Wolf.
When the Shapell Roster project started right before the beginning of the Civil War Sesquicentennial, there was one professional researcher working on it. The foundation hoped to complete the project by 2015. Now, four full time staff are at work compiling information on the soldiers and the project is expected to be completed in 2017. The list has grown, and so has the information on each soldier.
Chief Researcher Adrienne Usher says that the depth of work to verify the Jewish backgrounds of the men is very involved, and that new soldiers missed by Wolf keep popping up. “We are finding so many new Confederate names that were not in Wolf,” she told me. “Many of the records are handwritten,” she said, “and it can take hours to figure out what they say.” Ms. Usher told me that her younger researchers, growing up in the digital age, are not used to deciphering cursive handwriting. Research in the National Archives is time consuming but incredibly rewarding.
With so much original research being done, Ms. Usher says that unlike most projects that preserve history, the Roster Project is resuscitating it. “These men were forgotten beyond their immediate families until we opened their pension files,” she told me.
Marriage certificate of New York soldier Jacob Jacobs.
In addition to the roster, the Shapell Roster project will also tell the stories of some the men it lists. Many of them were immigrants. Here are a few of the men profiled:
Jacob Jacobs was born in Posen, Germany in 1836. He immigrated to New York. Jacobs enlisted in the army a month after the Confederate attack on Fort Sumter in the 83rd NY Infantry. A corporal at the beginning of the war, he would rise through the ranks to become a captain. Although he was wounded on the first day of Gettysburg, he continued to serve until 1864 when he was honorably discharged because of his wounds, He returned to New York, dying in Astoria in 1922.
Moritz Lowenstein was a 21 year old German Jewish immigrant cigar maker when the war broke out. A few weeks after the first shots were fired in the war he joined the army as a musician. He soon left the musical arm of the army to become an infantryman and then an artilleryman. He was promoted to Lieutenant in January 1865 and he was wounded in action on March 31, 1865 at Plank Road, Virginia. He was discharged for his wounds and returned to New York. He became an early member of the Sinai Temple in Mt. Vernon, NY, where he died in 1916 according to the Shapell Roster.
Eugene Jacobson was a Prussian immigrant who enlisted in the army at the age of 19 three weeks after the war began. He would later win the Medal of Honor for heroism at Chancellorsville. He rose from private to captain over the course of the war.
For many of the soldiers, the Shapell Roster does not just have the bare facts, it has links to primary source documents related to their lives, everything from marriage certificates to service records. Here is the service record of Moritz Lowenstein.
Service record of Moritz Lowenstein
When it is completed, the Shapell Roster will be an invaluable resource for historians and genealogists alike. The Immigrants’ Civil War will keep you informed on the progress of this important project.
The Immigrants’ Civil War is a series that examines the role of immigrants in our bloodiest war. Articles will appear twice monthly between 2011 and 2017. Here are the articles we have published so far:
43. Union Leader Ben Butler Seeks Support in New Orleans-When General Ben Butler took command in New Orleans in 1862, it was a Union outpost surrounded by Confederates. Butler drew on his experience as a pro-immigrant politician to win over the city’s Irish and Germans.