Why a reappraisal of Jewish participation in the Civil War?
(For in-depth answers on the methodology, please visit the Methodology page.)
The first survey of Jewish participation during the Civil War, The American Jew as Patriot, Soldier and Citizen, was compiled and published by Washington, DC based attorney Simon Wolf in 1895, in an effort to repudiate the claims against the patriotism of American Jewish citizens. Starting with the Revolutionary War and concluding with the Civil War, the latter section lists 8,115 soldiers and comprises more than half of the book. In addition to the soldiers listed by state, he also included a section called “Brothers in Arms,” rosters of Officers in the Regular Army and Navy, and a list of seven Jews who received the Medal of Honor for meritorious service during the Civil War.
More than 100 years later, Wolf’s list was still considered the authority on the topic. Benjamin Shapell referred to The American Jew as Patriot, Soldier and Citizen in his personal library when collecting Civil War-era manuscripts, but the structural hierarchy (state in alphabetical order, then regiment by ordinal number, and finally, name in alphabetical order) rendered it cumbersome and time consuming. More importantly, it was incomplete – even by Wolf’s own admission:
“[T]his compilation must therefore, in the very nature of the case, be more or less imperfect and incomplete[.] Several hundred names of soldiers from Indiana alone were finally excluded from my present lists, notwithstanding their pronounced Jewish character, such as Marks, Abrahams, Isaacs and others of a similar strain, whose owners were ascertained by my correspondents to be non-Jews, while on the other hand many soldiers bearing names of decidedly non-Jewish derivation were authenticated as Jews.”1
Envisioning a sortable roster that was accurate by 21st century standards and more user-friendly, the Shapell Roster was born.
Initially, the scope of work was limited to verifying service for the names in Wolf and adding any soldiers Wolf omitted. The general consensus among Jewish historians was that if not every name in Wolf was Jewish, that number was so small as to not be noteworthy. Within the first year of research, it became very clear that more than just a few of the soldiers in Wolf were not Jewish. Expanding the project scope to collect primary (and/or secondary, as required) sources as documented proof of both military service and Judaism resulted in the creation of a flexible, powerful database, and a shift in focus that more accurately reflects the Shapell Manuscript Foundation’s mission of making historical documents, and the evidence of human vulnerability they contain, more accessible to the public.
Who was Simon Wolf and what was his methodology?
Bavarian-born Simon Wolf immigrated to America in 1848, at age 12; and eventually made his way to Washington, DC, where he became known as a prominent Jewish lawyer, author, and philanthropist. In response to a growing wave of general antisemitism and published allegations that Jews were not willing to fight for their country, Simon Wolf wrote The American Jew as Patriot, Soldier and Citizen, which was published in 1895.
It is no small thing to accomplish such an ambitious endeavor, but Simon Wolf was not one to rest on his laurels. When Mark Twain’s essay, “Concerning the Jews,” was published in 1898, he received an expected wave of criticism from Jews and Christians alike. Wolf responded by sending him a copy of his book, which inspired Twain to pen a postscript to his initial essay. Entitled “The Jew as Soldier,” Twain proclaimed his ignorance “of the fact that the Jew had a record as a soldier” and refers to The American Jew as Patriot, Soldier and Citizen not by name, but as “the official statistics,” before proceeding to quote heavily from it. Simon Wolf not only changed the heart and mind of the 19th century’s greatest American writer, he also reached Twain’s constituency, which is also no small thing.
Since its publication, “Wolf’s roster” has been widely regarded as the standard-bearer on the topic of 18th and 19th century Jewish American military history amongst Jewish scholars focused on 19th century American Jewish life. So much so that it is generally accepted without question that “10,000 Jews served in the Civil War.” Archivist Sylvan Morris Dubow attempted, in 1970, to point out the flaws in Wolf’s tome, but he refrained from exploring how it was accomplished or correcting its known inaccuracies.2
Because Simon Wolf’s personal papers are not extant, his methodology for compiling his Civil War roster is somewhat of a mystery. What could have prevented someone, heralded as the “Nestor of American Jewry,” who spent fifty years advocating for Jewish causes, from not donating his life’s work to any of the many Jewish, German, or American preservation institutions with whom he was closely affiliated?3 Wolf died unexpectedly in 1923, and his estate, which included his noteworthy library, passed into the hands of his widow. In one of Wolf’s many obituaries, it warranted mentioning as part of his legacy: “he accumulated more than 15,000 volumes, one of the best private collections in the city.4“ There is nothing in the historical record that indicates what happened to his personal papers, which almost assuredly were part of his library, and would, ostensibly, have included correspondence related to The American Jew as Patriot, Soldier and Citizen.
What little we do know has been gleaned from Wolf’s publications, newspaper clippings and ephemera found in various archives. In summary, we know that:
- Wolf, in his capacity as an attorney, helped Veterans and Widows obtain pensions.
- Abraham Hart, Wolf’s law partner, was a soldier and worked at the Bureau of Pensions for a period of time.
- The Secretary of War detailed an officer to search the Union archives for Wolf.
- Eugene Henry Levy, a Confederate veteran, was tasked by Wolf with identifying Jews who fought for the South.
- Wolf wrote letters and appealed to his extensive network of contacts, and newspapers across the country alerted their readership to the venture and his request for names of Jewish soldiers, Union and Confederate.5
- Levy, who worked for the New York Tribune, reported that several Grand Army of the Republic Post commanders sent in lists of their Hebrew members.6
What Simon Wolf accomplished was extraordinary for his time, but because his accounting of Jewish service in the American Civil War has not been questioned until now, all of his names are in the Shapell Roster – along with the results of our research.
Interestingly, as of 2022, our research into the service status of the Union names in Wolf reveals that less than 1% did not serve, 89% did serve, and 11% are still to be determined. This indicates that the service information he collected was predominantly accurate. In contrast, our research into the Jewish status of the same individuals identifies 14% as Jewish and 12% as not Jewish, and 73% to be determined. As our research is ongoing, these latter numbers will change.
Does the Shapell Roster use name profiling?
During the 19th century, name profiling was a respectable research methodology employed by Jewish historians and others, and Simon Wolf makes reference to the practice in his own roster. That is no longer the case, but there are some names that are more likely to be Jewish, and warrant investigation. In contrast, soldiers William Ford, Solomon Smith, and Patrick Hamilton were actually Jewish, but serving under aliases. Had Myer Raphael, Bernard Rosenblatt and Simon Adamsky not applied for Union pensions, we might never have found them.7 And then there’s Adam Brown, Joseph Smith, Beverly Jefferson, and Edgar Johnson – also Jewish, without an alias. The reality is, not every Cohen is Jewish, and not every Jew is buried in a Jewish cemetery.
Who was the highest ranking Jewish officer in the Union?
Henry Moses Judah, a West Point graduate whose previous service in the Mexican War earned him a commission as Colonel of the 4th CA Infantry in 1861, was quickly promoted to Brigadier General, and served as such until the end of the war.
There were Jews in America in the 1860s?
Yes. The presence of Jews in this country pre-date its “birth.” The first Jew to visit North America, circa 1585, is believed to be Joachim Gans. The first Jewish community was established in “New Amsterdam” (New York City) in 1655. By 1860, according to Jewish historians, there were approximately 150,000 Jews in America.8
How many Jews served in the Civil War?
This is a much more complicated question than it seems. As our research is ongoing, the answer changes every day, whether that is due to a newly found name or recently discovered information that changes the research status of a Wolf name from “To Be Determined (TBD)” to confirmed service and/or Jewish/not Jewish. On the Union side, nearly a thousand of the Wolf names have a Jewish Status of TBD, meaning it is equally probable that they are Jewish as not Jewish. Another seven hundred names from Wolf have yet to be uniquely identified in the historical record (e.g. David Jones is listed in Wolf ‘s “Unclassified as to Command” section, under the heading of New York, with no regimental information. There are almost a hundred soldiers named David Jones who served in New York regiments, and it requires extensive further research to know which soldier, if any, was Jewish). With regards to the Confederacy, our preliminary research indicates that there are many names waiting to be discovered.
Simon Wolf believed “that the enlistment of Jewish soldiers, north and south, reached proportions considerably in excess of their ratio to the general population.9“ Unfortunately, the numbers don’t support this conclusion. 9.3% of the estimated white population in 1860 served in the Union. In contrast, if every name in the Shapell Roster who served in the Union was Jewish, that would mean an estimated 4.8% of the Jewish population served in the Union.10 In conclusion, after a decade immersed in the lives of the Jews who wore Blue and Gray, our answer to “how many?” is to invite the public to explore the Shapell Roster; to ponder more nuanced questions about American Jews during this complicated period of history; and to pursue more revealing answers, like those found in Jewish Soldiers in the Civil War: The Union Army.
How many Medal of Honor recipients were Jewish?
This question illustrates, quite succinctly, why the Shapell Roster exists. Simon Wolf listed seven soldiers who were awarded the Medal of Honor for meritorious service during the Civil War. Our research determined that of those, only four, Abraham Cohn, Leopold Karpeles, Benjamin Bennett Levy, and David Urbansky, were actually Jewish. But, the answer is five. Interestingly, Eugene P. Jacobson was included in Wolf’s roster, but not as a Medal of Honor recipient.
Why are some documents not accessible?
Many of the documents attached to the soldier pages come from subscription-based online websites and brick-and-mortar repositories that do not allow us to share the document. In those cases, we provide the Document Source and the citation so that you can find the document yourself. If you have any problems accessing the document, please contact us and we will be happy to provide additional information.
Where can I find information about Jewish sutlers?
At this time, we do not include Sutlers in the database, but we do recognize the value of their contributions to the soldiers, so if you have an ancestor who was a Jewish sutler, please contact us.
Wolf, Simon. The American Jew as Patriot, Soldier and Citizen. Philadelphia, PA: The Levytype Company, 1895. p. 9.
Dubow, Sylvan Morris. “Identifying the Jewish Serviceman in the Civil War: A Re-appraisal of Simon Wolf’s The American Jew As Patriot, Soldier and Citizen.” American Jewish Historical Quarterly, vol. 59, no. 3, March 1, 1970, pp. 357-369.
“Simon Wolf.” The Reform Advocate. 16 June 1923, vol. 65, no. 20, p. 726.
“Sleep and Don’t Worry, Simon Wolf Says at 86.” newspaperarchive.com. Original data: The Washington Herald [Washington, DC], no. 5835, 27 Oct. 1922, p. 3.
“Hebrew Veterans.” newspapers.com. Original data: The Journal [Meriden, CT], 23 Dec 1891, p. 4; “Hebrews in the Civil War.” The New York Times, vol. XLI. no. 12,577, 17 December 1891. p. 6.
“Grand Army Bugle Notes.” New York Tribune. Vol. LI. No. 16,570. March 28 17, 1892. p. 11.
https://roster.shapell.org/soldier/13616; https://roster.shapell.org/soldier/13402; https://roster.shapell.org/soldier/13324.
Simon Wolf. The American Jew as Patriot, Soldier and Citizen (Philadelphia, PA: The Levytype Company, 1895). p. 10.
White Union soldiers: 2.5 million, white population in 1860: 27 million; Shapell Roster Union records: 7200, Jewish population in 1860: 150,000.