Research at the U.S. National Archives, with Alexandra Skerry

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Publication Date: June 20, 2020
By Alexandra Skerry

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 Alexandra Skerry, Shapell Roster Researcher.

Alexandra Skerry, Shapell Researcher.

“What’s been your favorite discovery so far?”

It’s so hard to choose just one “favorite discovery” so far because I feel like every day is a hunt for something exiting!  Anything that I find that can help me imagine what the soldier’s life or experiences may have been like are a treasure.  An exciting discovery that sticks out to me is finding a photograph in a soldier’s service record.  Soldier Louis Sholem has a photograph of himself attached to his Certificate of Disability for Discharge.  Proving he was also Jewish was icing on the cake!  I also love when we find connections between soldiers in the database.  I have come across a few soldiers who have given affidavits for each other saying they knew each other during the war and stayed friends for years after.  Even better, is finding connections to soldier’s that we don’t already have.  Every time we add new soldiers I feel like someone else’s story gets to be told.  This week, Adrienne (Adrienne Usher, Head Researcher) added soldier Aaron Dreyfuss who had one brother Gustave already in the database and I was able to find an additional brother Max who also served.

Certificate of disability for Sholam Louis.

“What’s your favorite/least favorite thing about work at the National Archives?”

I love working at the National Archives!  There are so many documents just waiting to be discovered.  The staff there is so knowledgeable and I feel like the girls and I have made some great connections with people who have been able to bring our research to the next level.  I honestly can’t think of anything I dislike about working at NARA.

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

I have definitely learned that if you get stuck in your research, there is always somewhere else you can look or someone else you can ask.

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

This depends on what records we have to look at.  Sometimes if a soldier has a Pension Record, I open it up am there is a marriage certificate or a death record that confirm the soldier is Jewish immediately.  Other times it takes some digging online or looking at additional records.

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

Usually not too long, because we have so many resources (and so many soldiers) to look at.  One case sticks out in my mind where I was looking for a soldier named Paul Bauer that was only mentioned as having served in his obituary.  The only record that could be found didn’t mention his first name and just that he served in the 5th US Cavalry.  After exhausting online resources I went to “Finding Aids” at NARA on four separate occasions to see if they could pull the muster rolls of the 5th US Cavalry for me (something they don’t normally do, because of their fragile state).  Adam (Adam Geibel, Researcher) was finally able to contact a researcher who had them pulled for him because he knew the exact location and box numbers of the documents I was looking for.  Even though we didn’t find our guy in the end, this experience helped me have a better relationship with one of the employees in the Finding Aids office, who has helped me again since!