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A Very Jewish Civil War

A project at the National Archives to identify all the Jewish soldiers of the great American conflict is turning up more than expected

Debbie Nathan
November 11, 2015

In 1891, a disturbing article appeared in the North American Review, which was the 19th-century version of today’s Time—it was the country’s most popular public-affairs magazine. The article charged that Jews tended to shirk service in the military. It was soon followed by a letter to the editor from a non-Jewish Civil War veteran. He wrote that during months of service in the Union army, he had never seen a soldier who was a Jew.

Many Jewish leaders were infuriated with what they considered a bald display of anti-Semitism. One so powerful, apparently, that Mark Twain would repeat the claim (“unpatriotic disinclination to stand by the flag as a soldier”) in an essay titled “Concerning the Jews,” published a few years later. One of the angriest Jews was Washington, D.C., attorney Simon Wolf, head of that city’s B’nai B’rith. He vowed to debunk the libel and spent over three years compiling the names of every co-religionist he could find who had fought in American wars: from independence from England, to the war with Mexico, to the biggest conflict to date—the Civil War. In 1895 he published the names in a ponderous tome, The American Jew as Patriot, Soldier and Citizen. You can see it today on Google.

Wolf’s Civil War list contains some 10,000 names. About 7,000 are said to have fought for the Union, and 3,000 for the Confederacy. For generations, Wolf’s has been the only Jewish-soldier count available to historians.

Not long ago, however, the list came under review by the Shapell Manuscript Foundation. Begun by a Jewish family who live in Los Angeles and Israel, the foundation collects original historic documents, including items connected with Civil War President Abraham Lincoln. As the war’s sesquicentennial approached in 2011, the foundation decided to update Simon Wolf’s 1890s work, using contemporary research methods. They call their updating “The Roster Project.”

The project is staffed by a handful of investigators who have practically taken up residence in the quiet, antique rooms of the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) in Washington. NARA holds a musty trove of military-service records that were not available to Simon Wolf in 1895. Examining these files, the researchers have found hundreds more Jewish Civil War soldiers than Wolf knew about. They’ve also found stunning and unexpected heirlooms: everything from crumbling ketubahs to anguished battlefield letters written by Jewish sons to their mothers.

Everything interesting (and beautiful) gets scanned. The Roster Project’s long-term hope is that descendants of Jewish Civil War soldiers will see and enjoy these treasures. Plans call for them to be available for free viewing online in 2017.

The slideshow highlights some of what’s been found.

Debbie Nathan is a New York-based writer whose latest book is Sybil Exposed: The Extraordinary Story Behind the Famous Multiple Personality Case.

Debbie Nathan is a New York-based writer whose latest book isSybil Exposed: The Extraordinary Story Behind the Famous Multiple Personality Case.