Research at the U.S. National Archives, with Adrienne Usher

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Publication Date: July 7, 2020
By Adrienne Usher

We asked Shapell Manuscript Foundation researchers at the National Archives in Washington, D.C., about their work and experience there.  The team is working on the Shapell Roster – an updated and accurate roster of Jewish soldiers who served in the American Civil War.

Responses from Adrienne Usher, Head Researcher, Shapell Roster.








What’s been your favorite discovery so far?

I’ve had so many amazing discoveries on this project, it’s like trying to pick your favorite child! Finding my first ketubah will always be in the top ten, and it was by finding multiple ketubah translations that I began my obsession with Charles Newburgh. At some point in his career as a clerk employed by the Pension Bureau, Newburgh began to translate documents, submitted to the Pension Bureau by veterans and their widows, written in Hebrew and Yiddish). By 1910, he is specifically working in the Civil War Division of the Pension Bureau, and, I imagine, handling all of the pension records of Jewish soldiers. My dream discovery would be to find a list of the Pension records for which Newburgh provided translation services. This, of course, would require that Newburgh kept such a list and that I could find it in the Archives – but one can dream!


First Ketuba Discovered.


Charles Newburgh Translation.

Of actual discoveries, the D’Ancona family is my favorite as of today because it illustrates the research process so well. A search of the “Jewish Record” on led to one soldier being added to the database. But, where there is one, there might be more. The census records revealed this soldier had a brother and a father, and the military files showed service for men with the last name of Ancona matching the age and residence of the brother and the father. A family tree on led me to a descendant with whom I corresponded, and she confirmed that yes, all three served and the family was Jewish.

D’Ancona family in the newspaper.

What’s your favorite/least favorite thing about work at the national archives?

When I started working on the Shapell Roster three years ago, I spent a great deal of time at the National Archives. Since then, we’ve added CaitlinKim and Alex to the team to do the work of reviewing the military service records at the National Archives. Currently, I spend all my time managing the workflow of the project and conducting online and primary resource research on new additions to the roster. When I did work at the the Archives regularly, I loved having access to such a rich repository of documents! There is nothing quite like opening a pension record and finding a ketubah – it’s a bittersweet moment because it is undeniable proof that the soldier in question is Jewish, but it’s sad that the Pension office never returned the document to the family. I hope that descendants will be excited to find out that their great-great grandparents’ marriage document is in the National Archives, preserved and protected.

My least favorite thing about the National Archives stems from my training as a museum collections manager – it’s hard for me to watch the way some of the visitors at the archives handle primary source documents. I appreciate the mission of the National Archives and am grateful that WE have access to these documents, but I am very happy that the records are being digitized so that the general public has access to them without the risk of further degradation to the documents.

What have you learned from your research and the research process?

I’ve been a researcher-for-hire for more than twenty years. My primary clients are museums with small budgets and tight deadlines. Since I’m not a subject specialist, I must learn quickly. Three years ago, I did not know, specifically, when and where the Civil War started and ended. Today, I can tell you the difference between a paroled, returned and exchanged POW, and can tell you when and where most of the major battles took place. I also didn’t know much about 19th century American Jewish culture, but today, I can discuss the immigration of “the ‘48ers,” and where in the midwest Jewish immigrants tended to settle and why.

As for what I’ve learned from the research process – wow – The US National Archives, and are amazing resources! So are the collections of the American Jewish Archives in Cincinnati, Ohio. And for as much as I’ve learned, I continue to learn something new every day. This is why our work is like “shooting a moving target from a moving vehicle.” As the collective historical record is digitized, more information is added to the world wide web every minute. What wasn’t there yesterday might be there tomorrow. And we have to weigh the validity of the resources as they become available. I place more faith in a book written in 1900 by a Rabbi about Civil War veterans in his congregation than I do in a book published in 2010 by a “scholar” who, by not including citations, asks his reader to take his word on who was Jewish and who was not. Which brings us to the most important aspect of our research process – transparency. In the Shapell Roster, we provide citations, copies or links to everything we’ve accessed. We provide all of the necessary information for anyone to check our work and we invite them to do so.

Another thing I’ve learned on this project is that I can’t teach anyone my research instinct – but I can teach my research methodology by example. When I communicate with the team via email, I give them the step-by-step process I went through to reach my conclusion. That process is not the same every time, but the goals are. We have to prove two things for every name we add to the Shapell Roster – that they served in the Civil War and that they were Jewish. Finding a Jacob Adler from Philadelphia who served in a Pennsylvania regiment and finding a Jacob Adler who is buried in a Jewish cemetery is not the end of the task. I have to prove that the Jacob Adler who is buried in the Jewish cemetery is the same Jacob Adler who served in the 27th Pennsylvania Infantry, Company B, and that there were no other soldiers named Jacob Adler who served in Pennsylvania or are buried in a Jewish cemetery. Imagine trying to do that with “John Smith”!

 What’s the longest you’ve gone without making any headway on a soldier/case?

As a rule, I don’t spend more than a day on chasing my tail on any one soldier. After I’ve gone through my normal checklist of places to look for information, if I’m stuck, I will either ask Adam to try his luck, or I’ll write up a summary of the case, and file it for later. If I find a descendant and reach out to them, it can take weeks or months before I get a response.

The good news is that all of my “open files” are very interesting! One case, now open for 2 years, involves 5 brothers from Philadelphia, one of whom, as a Surgeon, amputated his own brother’s leg during the war. If they are actually Jewish, it will be through their maternal grandmother. I need a genealogist who specializes in Jewish communities in Amsterdam to find the grandmother so I can either close the case or add the brothers to the database. Another case is about a year old – it involves three Jewish businessmen from Santa Fe whose service records, along with many others, are missing. The court files with the details are in an archive in Albuquerque and I need to travel there to go through the archives so I can prove that these men actually served as they claimed on the 1890 Veterans Census. And then there are the Hebrew Union Veterans Association members – we know they are Jewish, we know they served, but we have no idea in what regiment. This last case is about 6 months old.

 How long does it usually take to qualify or disqualify a soldier from the Roster?

We have two types of names in the Shapell roster – those who were in Simon Wolf’s 1895 roster of Jewish soldiers and sailors who served in the Civil War and new names we’ve found through research. Getting into the Shapell Roster is not easy if the soldiers were not already in Simon Wolf’s roster! Like I said, the soldier or sailor has to have service records and we have to have something that indicates they are Jewish. So, it completely depends on the resources available. Currently, in order to establish quality control, we only add soldiers and sailors who served in Federally recognized regiments – so that can disqualify a new name very quickly, even a Rabbi’s son! At a later date we will travel to State Archives to research the many state militia and home guard soldiers. If we can find service records, then we have to make sure they actually served – we have more than one “habitual enlister/deserter” – men who never actually served, despite having many “service records.” If they have proven service, then it’s a matter of proving them Jewish if we’re adding them to the roster. If they’re already in the roster because they were in Simon Wolf’s roster, finding evidence that they are Jewish is great, but not required at this point. In most cases, it’s easier to find proof of service for someone we know was Jewish than the other way around. By way of example, I’m currently working from a list of Jewish Civil War veterans buried in Cook County, Illinois. I added 11 new names to the roster yesterday, but that’s a great day, not necessarily a “normal” day.