About The Shapell Roster: Jewish Service in the American Civil War

Jewish Soldiers Who Served in the American Civil War

What is the Shapell Roster?

A microcosm of the American story, the Civil War was a crucible for the Jewish community. The Shapell Roster and its accompanying research exemplify the experiences of that period and illuminate the social, political, and religious struggles of the time.

As Jewish immigration to the United States grew throughout the mid-19th century, Jews faced the expected challenges of the immigrant experience and like many immigrants of the era, they joined the military in large numbers. Nonetheless, their efforts at integration were often undermined by the pervasive antisemitism of the time. Contrary to the high enlistment numbers, the patriotism of Jewish Americans was often either doubted or ignored over the centuries, including by President Grover Cleveland and other notable public figures.

In 1895, Simon Wolf compiled and published The American Jew as Patriot, Soldier and Citizen in an effort to repudiate the claims against the patriotism of Jewish citizens. His book includes Jewish service in the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, the Mexican War, the Civil War, military and civic service, in addition to other relevant topics. The section on the Civil War is approximately 400 pages and lists 8,115 soldiers.

Methodologies and access to resources to determine Jewish identity have evolved significantly since the 19th century. Simon Wolf’s technique often relied upon name-profiling and word-of-mouth; our researchers corroborate or contradict each soldier’s lineage by mining multiple repositories for clues from his life, such as letters home or requests to a local rabbi. Jewish applicants for widows pensions often sent their ketubot (Jewish marriage license) to the Union pension bureau to prove their matrimony with soldiers since deceased. Taken together, the material is painstakingly analyzed to provide a historically accurate account of both military service and civilian life of Jewish Americans.

To date, the Shapell Roster researchers have added more than a battalion’s worth of new names; 1,213 Jewish soldiers who served in the Civil War, but who were not on Simon Wolf’s list. This number will continue to grow as our research continues.

Transcript

Jonathan Sarna:
Anyone who works on American Jewish history in the 19th century is going to get the question, “Well, how many Jews fought in the Civil War and how many on each side?”

Adrienne Usher:
The goal of the Shapell Manuscript Foundation’s Roster Project is to identify as best we can every single man who served in the Civil War who was Jewish. In 1895, Washington DC-based lawyer named Simon Wolf wrote a book called The American Jew, Patriot, Soldier And Citizen. He wrote this book in response to the claim that Jews were not patriotic.

Jonathan Sarna:
And once the scholarly study of American Jewish history got going, and people look critically at that list, they realize it’s inadequate and yet that’s the book that exists. Hidden in the records at the national archive is a great deal of information about these individuals as individuals, because their families often wrote for pensions and from those letters and the documentation, we could paint a much more accurate picture. The roster will not only tell us about Jewish soldiers who fought in the Civil War, it will tell us an enormous amount about those soldiers.

Caitlin Eichner:
On the roster project, my main responsibility is pulling files at the national archives for soldiers whose names came from Simon Wolf’s book.

Alexandra Apito:
You look at each individual soldier listed and we expand on them. We find out if they served in the Civil War and we also try to confirm whether or not they were actually Jewish.

Caitlin Eichner:
You’ll get two types of files, compiled military service records, and the pension records.

Adrienne Usher:
It was a 19th century norm to name profile. Every traditional Jewish sounding names, they all made it into this roster.

Caitlin Eichner:
Birth information can be helpful when you have a soldier whose birth was recorded in a synagogue. Marriage records are great for confirming a soldier is Jewish.

Alexandra Apito:
In the record that we looked at this morning and the soldier had a death certificate that was sent over from his widow in Germany. It was in German, which was really interesting, but the Bureau of Pensions also employed translators. So we have a translation of his death certificate, which says not only that he was of the Jewish faith, but it also mentions that his father was a rabbi. Personally known, living in Greer gave notice that Mr. Adolf Meyer, 69 years old, Jewish faith living in Greer died February 26th, 1907, 7:30 AM. So we were able to confirm that Adolf Meyer was Jewish by looking at his death certificate.

Adrienne Usher:
We allow for Jewish law, so a soldier’s mother was Jewish. We also allow for Jewish by genealogy. A lot of times, they immigrated as a result of antisemitic issues in their home country. Being Jewish fell a little low on the priority list. So even though they were Jewish, they didn’t live an outwardly Jewish lifestyle.

Alexandra Apito:
Ways we came through from people are Jewish outside of your basic birth, death and marriage information include newspaper searches, contemporary accounts of the soldier, local histories.

Adrienne Usher:
Every single day, more and more historic references are digitized.

Adam Geibel:
I use open source, anything that is available legally to access through the internet, or even hard copies. Online digitized newspapers, Fold3, Ancestry, and just generally information that is out there in the internet.

Caitlin Eichner:
When we see contemporary accounts in pension records from other soldiers, sometimes there’d only be one, two, three Jews in a regiment. So that’s how a soldier would be known in the regiment. This is Samuel Jacobs. During the war, he served under the alias Charles or Charlie Davis. I recall that his correct name was Jacobs, can’t say as to his correct given name. The boys used to jolly him about his fictitious name. Yes, he was a Jew, they called him the Sheeny. I recollect that very well.

Adrienne Usher:
A lot of immigrants who came over from Germany didn’t want their family back in the old country to worry so they would enlist under aliases. We started reading these accounts because the war department would want to know, “Well, why did you serve under an alias?” If they died, they knew that names of the fallen were published in newspapers overseas, and they didn’t want their mother to know.

Adam Geibel:
One of the most decorated Jewish soldiers that has struck me is Sergeant Major Karpeles. He was a color bearer. Color bearer has to be in front of the unit leading them, because gun smoke creates difficulty seeing what’s going on. You cannot necessarily hear the orders of your officers over the roar of musketry, but you can see if the flag’s moving forward, you’re following that flag. So can the enemy, the enemy aims at the flag.

Caitlin Eichner:
In the 1840s, the late 1840s, there were a bunch of revolutions over in Europe, over class distinctions, monarchies, things like that, different boundaries disputes.

Adam Geibel:
It put forward the same ideas that common man could rule himself. It was covered in the French Revolution and our own revolution.

Caitlin Eichner:
We call the men who fought in that, those revolutions, were these free thinkers of the period, 48ers. A lot of those men found their way over to America after their movements failed and they were enemies of their states.

Alexandra Apito:
And they came to the United States, generally having military experience, so a lot of these 48ers became officers.

Adam Geibel:
Many of those men in the communities that were forming companies of militia were the only people that had ever heard guns fired in anger. They became the drill masters, the sergeants and the junior officers.

Adrienne Usher:
One of the most exciting aspects of the roster project is were there are more Jews on the union side or more Jews on the Confederacy side?

Caitlin Eichner:
With the Confederates. It’s a lot more trying to piece together what the soldiers service is. Records were lost, records were burned.

Adam Geibel:
We may be the only people to remember these guys’ tales. Everybody else that would have known about them is gone.

Caitlin Eichner:
The most exciting part of my job is getting to learn all of these individuals’ stories and reading all of these primary source documents and putting together piece by piece, what this person’s life would have been like.

Alexandra Apito:
We’ll find out the two of our soldiers were friends and not only were they friends during the war, maybe they were tent mates or they ate together every day. But then after the war, they lived near each other and were in the same community and their wives were friends.

Adrienne Usher:
I once spoke to a demographer and when he found out about the project, he said, “You do understand, this has never been done before?” Without the Shapell Manuscript Foundation, a project of this magnitude would never be possible.

Caitlin Eichner:
I hope people want to use it and I hope people learn more about their ancestors or just people they’re researching because they’re academics.

Adam Geibel:
I am positive that people have pieces of the jigsaw puzzle that they don’t know how it fits in. They have their family’s stories. We need people to come out and take a look at what we have.

Alexandra Apito:
I think historical research projects like the Roster Project are really important in today’s society. Not only keeps history alive, but it keeps people interested in learning about the past and about our own history and our own culture. The more we know about our past, the better our future will be.