Friday, November 18, 2022

Booknotes: Jewish Soldiers in the Civil War, The Union Army

New Arrival:
Jewish Soldiers in the Civil War: The Union Army by Adam D. Mendelsohn (NYU Press, 2022).

From the description: "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 Mendelsohn's Jewish Soldiers in the Civil War: The Union Army "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 narrative history portion of the book (running just under 225 pages and interspersed with many topical sidebars) "examines when and why [Jewish Union soldiers] 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." A lot of effort went into materials and presentation. Thick, glossy paper stock gives the book a considerable size to heft ratio and allows the profusion of color illustrations of all kinds (among them photographs of individuals, artifacts, documents, broadsheets, etc.) to be seen in their best light.

As indicated above, Jewish Soldiers in the Civil War was produced in conjunction with the ongoing efforts of The Shapell Roster (2009 to present), a massive scholarly reservoir of documents and material associated with the thousands of Jewish officers and men who served in the Union and Confederate military forces. The "biographical, genealogical, and service-related" information for each individual roster entry is "paired with evocative primary source documents: service records, photographs, affidavits, obituaries, pension claims, personal letters, and a myriad of other sources." The online database contains "nearly 100 searchable fields of data, more than 7,000 soldier records,...and more than 50,000 historical documents."

The Shapell Roster respectfully updates the classic one (the accuracy and methodology of which has long been questioned) that was compiled by Simon Wolf and published in his 1895 book The American Jew as Patriot, Soldier, and Citizen. Mendelsohn's appendix section explores the origins and methodology of the Shappell Roster and presents select aspects of it in creative ways. Appendix 3 breaks down, in maps and numbers, the national origins of Jewish Union soldiers as well as the US states in which they enlisted. By far the greatest number enlisted in New York, followed by Pennsylvania and Ohio. Other data in Appendix 3 includes a compilation of Jewish enlistment numbers by regiment, a numbered breakdown of specialized military occupations, a register of high-ranking Jewish officers (in case you were wondering, the cover photo is of Edward Salomon, a Lt. Col. of the 82nd Illinois), Jewish Medal of Honor recipients, and a list of Hebrew Union Veterans Association members.

As one might have guessed from the title, a Confederate volume will follow this one at an as yet undetermined date.

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