Lost in Hebrew Translations

August 22, 2018
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61st PA Infantry 5th Sergeant Joseph Benedict’s Ketubah. National Archives and Records Administration, National Archives Building, Washington, DC.{1}

Charles Newburgh was ever the friend of the immigrant Civil War veteran.  A large percentage of Union soldiers were foreign-born, and some returned to their homelands after the war.  When these soldiers applied to the US Government to receive veteran benefits, many of their submitted documents — pension applications, birth certificates, medical records, etc. — were written in foreign languages, and typically were not accompanied by a translation.  The US Bureau of Pensions, therefore, needed translators to decipher these records so the claims could be processed. Enter Charles Newburgh. Newburgh worked as one of the Bureau’s many translators for German documents being presented in pension claims; he is the only known Hebrew translator. For every ketubah and every synagogue birth record submitted from the late 1880s up until the early 1920s, Newburgh was there.  He helped Jewish soldiers prove the details of their lives so they could receive crucial benefits. Consequently, more than a century later, he continues to help the Shapell Roster Project team.

Perhaps Charles Newburgh helped champion the claims of those immigrants who proudly served their adopted homeland because he was one of them.  Newburgh was born in Oettingen, Bavaria, Germany, on April 27, 1837. He came to America by way of Liverpool, England, on the S. S. City of Philadelphia in 1854, and settled in New York City prior to the war.  Newburgh became an American citizen in 1860, and so answered his new country’s call to arms almost exactly a year later; enlisting in the 7th NY Infantry for 18 months under the name of Otto Zoeller. He was wounded in action at the Battle of Malvern Hill on July 1, 1862, in Henrico County, VA, receiving a gunshot wound in his left arm.  Due to this injury, Newburgh was discharged for disability, and his military career was brought to an end.

Newburgh’s Declaration for Increase of Pension from 1924. The applicant states “his occupation has been Examiner, Bureau of Pensions, Wash., D. C.” National Archives and Records Administration, National Archives Building, Washington, DC.{2}

It is unclear why Charles Newburgh served under an alias.  Many soldiers hid their identities because they were too young to serve, and their families refused to give them permission to join.  Newburgh was 21 years old at enlistment, comfortably over the age of majority. The affidavit he provided to the Bureau of Pensions provides no explanation.  Newburgh simply states he served under this alternate name, likely because he was already an employee in the department and had no need to prove his identity.

Zoeller is a German name of Bavarian origin, so Newburgh chose a new name from his homeland.  Like so many surnames, Zoeller was originally the name of an occupation: a tax collector, or toll gatherer.  This was a prominent and lucrative position to hold, so families with this name were often wealthy.

Speculating as to why the soldier chose to use an alias, it could have had something to do with his younger brother receiving an appointment as Captain of the 10th NY Infantry six months earlier; while Charles was a lowly private.  Joseph Newburgh, by records showing his age across the years, appears to have been born the year after Charles.  He enlisted at the start of the war, and like his brother was wounded in action. Joseph was shot in both the arm and the side at the Battle of Fredericksburg on December 13, 1862.  When Joseph was discharged for disability, he re-enlisted in the Veteran Reserve Corps.

After the war, Joseph Newburgh provided Charles with an affidavit in support of his pension claim; confirming Charles’s identity as Otto Zoeller, and stating that they had run into each other regularly during the war around Newport News and on the Chickahominy River.  Joseph even saw Charles the day after Malvern Hill and observed his wound. A few years later, Charles repaid the favor, and gave an affidavit on behalf of Joseph’s widow, Sophie. Joseph met an unfortunate end on a steamboat named the Sandy Fashion. There was an explosion on board the Sandy Fashion along the Big Sandy River, and Joseph Newburgh drowned.  Sophie applied for a widow’s pension, but at the time of her application, a veteran’s death had to be directly related to an injury or condition that occurred or began during and due to his service. Charles gave testimony that prior to the war, based on observations Charles made when the brothers would go bathing in the river, Joseph was “a good swimmer.” After the war, the injuries to his arm had left Joseph “crippled… to such an extent that he could not swim afterwards.”  Other passengers of the Sandy Fashion survived the accident, swimming back to shore; but Joseph was unable to do so. The Bureau of Pensions did not agree with the Newburgh family’s assessment that Joseph’s death would not have happened but for his injuries during his military service, so Sophie’s claim was unfortunately rejected. Joseph’s funeral was held at what was then The Plum Street Temple in Cincinnati, OH; today it is the Isaac M. Wise Temple.

Letters from Commissioner Winfield Scott on Newburgh’s Claim. National Archives and Records Administration, National Archives Building, Washington, DC.{3}

Charles Newburgh led a much longer, less tragic life than his brother after the Civil War.  He moved around frequently before settling in Beloit, WI for over a decade. There he met and married his wife Kate, and started his family.  In 1887, Newburgh was hired as a translator by the Bureau of Pensions and moved to Washington, DC. In Washington, he was known as Professor Charles Newburgh, although it is unknown if he ever served on the faculty of any school.  He translated Hebrew and German documents for the Bureau, and proved to be not only an expert in languages, but in comparative religions as well. Newburgh gave many lectures around DC, primarily on behalf of the Washington Secular League, discussing, among other things, the origins of different religions’ central texts, and “the philosophy of the Hebrews.”

Charles Newburgh’s sharp mind can be readily observed reading the appeals he submitted to his office on behalf of his own pension claim.  The Bureau of Pensions held that Newburgh’s injury during the war had not left the veteran “unfit for manual labor” and that he was therefore not entitled to the benefits he claimed.  In his appeal, Newburgh analyzed the language of the law under which he filed his claim, and like a skilled litigator, pulled apart its meaning, and explained why the Bureau had misinterpreted the legislative purpose and incorrectly found that he did not qualify:

Letters from Commissioner Winfield Scott on Newburgh’s Claim. National Archives and Records Administration, National Archives Building, Washington, DC.{3}

“As to the law: The act provides ‘That any person who served in the military or naval service of the United States during civil war and received an honorable discharge, and who was wounded in battle or in line of duty and is now unfit for manual labor by reason thereof, or who from diseases or other causes in line of duty resulting in his disability is now unable to perform manual labor, shall be paid the maximum pension under this Act, to wit, thirty dollars per month, without regard to length of service or age.’

This clause of said Act divides claimants into two distinct classes: 1., persons wounded who are by reason of such wounds now unfit for manual labor, and 2., persons who by reason of disability resulting from disease are now unable to perform manual labor.

Webster’s Dictionary defines unfit by ‘not fit; not suitable.’  For instance, a lame horse is not fit, not suitable to be driven, but may nevertheless be made to pull a buggy or a cart.

Unable is defined by the same authority by ‘not able; not having sufficient strength, means, knowledge, skill or the like; impotent, weak; helpless; incapable.’  A horse unable to pull a buggy or a cart is a very different description and expression from unfit for such work. What the Act contemplates and the distinction intended by it is expressed in perfectly plain words.”

Article about Charles Newburgh with photo
Profile on Charles Newburgh from The Washington Herald.{4}

Newburgh argued, based on this understanding of the language of the law, that the fact that the Bureau found that he could still perform some physical acts, in spite of his wounded left arm, did not mean he was suitable for physical labor.  His injury did leave him unfit to do much physical work. The special examiner in Newburgh’s case was forced to concede that the translator put forth a compelling argument, but still rejected the claim. Years later, Commissioner of Pensions Winfield Scott would help push through Newburgh’s claim at a rate of $90 a month, after the latter had exceeded the age of 80 and was entitled to hefty age-based benefits.

Charles Newburgh served in the Bureau of Pensions over 30 years before retiring; helping countless veterans prove their claims.  He died January 26, 1930, in Washington, DC, and was interred at the historic Glenwood Cemetery. His work continues to be a boon to the Shapell Roster Project, and we are pleased to be able  acknowledge both his military and administrative service.