Jewish Participation in the Civil War

By John R. Sellers

This is the second year in a four year sesquicentennial celebration of the American Civil War. Across the nation, libraries, museums, historical societies, and numerous related organizations are honoring the participants in this momentous event through publications, exhibitions, lectures, symposia, and the reenactment of individual battles and skirmishes. The Shapell Manuscript Foundation (http://www.shapell.org/) is contributing to the observance with a roster of Jewish participants in the Civil War. The new roster will greatly expand the list of names provided by Simon Wolf in his acclaimed study, The American Jew as Patriot, Soldier and Citizen (1895). Through some unknown methodology, Wolf managed to identify 7,914 men he believed to be Jewish that served in the Civil War, and another 800 he described as “unidentified as to command.” The consolidation of military records in the early twentieth century, combined with the recent advantages of digital technology, has enabled researchers to significantly expand Wolf’s roster, and at the same time, eliminate duplicate names, variant spellings of the same name, as well as the names of soldiers whose religious affiliation, upon closer examination, was either Christian or cannot be established.

In his defense, Wolf faced several obstacles in confirming the ethnicity of Jewish soldiers. Jews made up less than one percent of the total population in 1861, and although anti-Semitism was less prevalent than in Europe, it was nevertheless an obstacle to their acceptance as equals in the military. Few Jews had ever fought in the defense of a country or form of government. This led many Jewish volunteers, particularly in the Union Army, to conceal their identity, either by altering the spelling of their surnames or adopting a pseudonym. And in a somewhat humorous reverse action, Christian recruits in the few predominately Jewish units, such as Company C of the 82nd Illinois Infantry, the 27th Pennsylvania Infantry, and the 5th Pennsylvania Cavalry, sometimes assumed Jewish names to ensure acceptance in unfamiliar surroundings.

Wolf doubtless realized his Civil War roster was incomplete. He could scarcely have missed the fact that he did not have a single Jewish soldier from the states of Minnesota and Delaware, and he must have known that there had to be more Jewish soldiers in service than the solitary names he published under the states of Maine and Vermont, or the two listed for Florida. Although the research for the revised Jewish Civil War roster is ongoing, current estimates are that as many as 13,000 Jews, North and South, may have volunteered for service in the American Civil War.

Another significant difference in the current Jewish roster and Wolf’s early work is that the update will take full advantage of the benefits of digital technology. The scientific method in historical research was in its infancy in the late 19th century, and Wolf understandably failed to identify his sources. However, it would be expensive and unnecessarily restrictive to publish the wealth of sources cited in the revised roster. Instead, the editors elected to create an online database of manuscript sources. Not only will the database have almost unlimited capacity, it will be open-ended. New sources can be inserted as they are uncovered. The bibliography for the roster will also be available online, and many readers will take special delight in the digital scans of many of the original documents consulted in the construction of the roster.

The Shapell Manuscript Foundation has spared no expense in making this updated Jewish Civil War roster as complete and accurate as possible. Anyone with information on the subject is encouraged to contact the Foundation directly or its project director, Dr. John R. Sellers at jselsr@aol.com.

Dr. John R. Sellers is the Project Director of the Jewish Civil War Roster, at the Shapell Manuscript Foundation. He is a former Exhibition Curator and Historian, Manuscript Division, of the Library of Congress, and current President Lincoln’s Cottage Scholarly Advisor Group member.

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