Jew­ish Sol­diers in the Civ­il War: The Union Army

January 4, 2022

What was it like to be a Jew in Lincoln’s armies? The Union army was as diverse as the embat­tled nation it sought to pre­serve, a unique mix­ture of eth­nic­i­ties, reli­gions, and iden­ti­ties. Almost one Union sol­dier in four was born abroad, and natives and new­com­ers fought side-by-side, some­times uneasi­ly. Yet though schol­ars have parsed the tri­als and tri­umphs of Irish, Ger­mans, African Amer­i­cans, and oth­ers in the Union ranks, they have remained large­ly silent on the every­day expe­ri­ences of the largest non-Chris­t­ian minor­i­ty to have served.

In ways vis­i­ble and invis­i­ble to their fel­low recruits and con­scripts, the expe­ri­ence of Jews was dis­tinct from that of oth­er sol­diers who served in Lincoln’s armies. Adam D. Mendel­sohn draws for the first time upon the vast data­base of ver­i­fied list­ings of Jew­ish sol­diers serv­ing in the Civ­il War col­lect­ed by The Shapell Ros­ter, as well as let­ters, diaries, and news­pa­pers, to exam­ine the col­lec­tive expe­ri­ence of Jew­ish sol­diers and to recov­er their voic­es and sto­ries. The vol­ume exam­ines when and why they decid­ed to enlist, explores their encoun­ters with fel­low sol­diers, and describes their efforts to cre­ate com­mu­ni­ty with­in the ranks. This mon­u­men­tal under­tak­ing rewrites much of what we think we know about Jew­ish sol­diers dur­ing the Civ­il War.

Discussion Questions

Adam D. Mendelsohn’s Jew­ish Sol­diers in the Civ­il War rep­re­sents one of the most ambi­tious treat­ments to date of Jew­ish life dur­ing the Civ­il War. Uti­liz­ing mate­ri­als from the Shapell Man­u­script Foun­da­tion, Mendel­sohn makes a com­pelling argu­ment that the Union wartime expe­ri­ence (fight­ing and observ­ing) had a trans­for­ma­tive impact on Jew­ish life. Fight­ing along­side immi­grants and oth­er faith groups, Jews grap­pled with their own reli­gious and cul­tur­al iden­ti­ties, some­times feel­ing embold­ened to place their Jew­ish­ness above oth­er social mark­ers and on oth­er occa­sions try­ing to Amer­i­can­ize” it, soft­en­ing their dif­fer­ences to bet­ter fit in with their fel­low soldiers.

Mendelsohn’s painstak­ing research fills in schol­ar­ly gaps on the emer­gence of the Jew­ish chap­lain­cy dur­ing the Civ­il War and the dynam­ics of reli­gious obser­vance on the bat­tle­fields. In addi­tion, where­as ear­li­er his­to­ri­ans argued that the Civ­il War engen­dered a short-lived spir­it of tol­er­ance between Jews and non-Jews, Mendel­sohn shows that the Civ­il War cre­at­ed social insta­bil­i­ty and did much to enable anti-Jew­ish hate in the ensu­ing decades. Mendelsohn’s writ­ing shines through­out this hand­some vol­ume, with many col­or images, side­bar pro­files, and a series of appen­dices to pro­vide read­ers with a fuller appre­ci­a­tion of the Foundation’s Shapell Roster.