MENDELSOHN: Jewish Soldiers in the Civil War (2023)

Jewish Soldiers in the Civil War: The Union Army by Adam D. Mendelsohn. New York University Press, 2022. Cloth, ISBN: 978-1479812233. $35.00.

For more than 100 years, the go-to reference book about Jewish soldiers in the Civil War was Simon Wolf’s The American Jew as Patriot, Soldier, and Citizen. Wolf wrote it primarily to counter Gilded Age antisemitism claiming that Jews had put profiteering ahead of their patriotic duty. He knew that his estimate of Jewish participation was, at best, an estimate, but was confident “the enlistment of Jewish soldiers, north and south, reached proportions considerably in excess of their ratio to the general population.”

In 2009, the Shapell Manuscript Foundation, an organization dedicated to the collection of original manuscripts and historical documents, began to verify the names Wolf had collected. It soon became clear that Wolf’s book was not as reliable as once thought. In 2017, the foundation selected Adam Mendelsohn to use the the collection as a basis for producing a more comprehensive and nuanced examination of Jewish participation in the Civil War. This volume on the Union armies is an extraordinary combination of twenty-first century technology and research methodology. The project is on-going, and a second volume on Confederate Jews is planned.

More than answering just the question of how many, Mendelsohn probes deeper to explore the personalities of Jewish recruits, both native-born and immigrant; their mustering-in experiences; how they lived in camp; their relationship with overwhelmingly gentile comrades-in-arms; and their attempts to connect with other Jews scattered among hundreds of regiments and thousands of companies. Mendelsohn considers how Jewish soldiers maintained or, more often-than-not, ignored traditional religious practices; their reactions to nativism and overt acts of antisemitism; how they fought and how they died; and, finally, how their experiences under arms affected their postwar lives. In prose both empathetic and compelling, Mendelsohn succeeds in explaining how Jews “were complex actors with their own individual and collective interests who lived and operated in the complicated ecosystem of wartime armies.”

Mendelsohn contends that studying the Jewish experience in the Civil War is important because “in ways visible and invisible to their fellow recruits and conscripts, the experience of Jews was distinct from that of other soldiers — other ethnic minorities included — who served in Blue and Gray.” Although the 1860 census counted between 125,000 and 200,000 Jews living in the United States, Mendelsohm opines that they “occupied an outsize place in the American imagination.” As soldiers, Jews had few distinguishing markers to their identity and often served under assumed names. Unlike their Irish or German comrades, Jews never formed a majority in any company or regiment. “At least half of all Jewish soldiers,” Mendelsohn has found, “spent part or the whole of their time in uniform in a regiment that had five or fewer Jews” even though they were “the largest non-Christian minority in both armies.”

Scattered throughout the book are anecdotes that Mendelsohn uses to illustrate more complex issues. For instance, four of every five Jews who enlisted in the Union armies were foreign born. At the war’s outset, most Jews enlisted to preserve the Union, not to abolish slavery. This made similar to the vast majority of their American born comrades. Not surprisingly, Mendelsohn concludes Jews “were strikingly visible and invisible at the same time.”

Two additional points are important. Mendelsohn’s appendices are particularly informative. They include the methodology used by the Sharpell Roster; Jewish recipients of the Medal of Honor; a map detailing locations where Jewish soldiers enlisted; a list of Jewish soldiers by regiment; and Jewish soldiers by place of birth. And NYU Press merits acknowledgment for the high production quality in its layout and design. They make Jewish Soldiers in the Civil War both pleasing to the eye and informative for the reader.

Gordon Berg, who writes from Gaithersburg, Maryland, has penned articles and reviews for numerous Civil War publications.

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