Book Review: Jewish Soldiers in the Civil War: The Union Army


by Mendelsohn, Adam D.

NYU Press, Nage. 336. Illus., maps, appends, notes, biblio., index. $31.49. ISBN:1479812234

Jewish Men in Blue

In 1895 lawyer Simon Wolf, in response to antisemites’ claims that his fellow Jews did not do their fair share of Civil War service, published The American Jew as Patriot, Soldier and Citizen. Using unit rosters, tax and pension records and other sources, Wolf cataloged names of over eight thousand soldiers from both North and South. Later scholars uncovered thousands of errors from undercounting, double counting, aliases, or inclusion of non-Jews.

Beginning in 2009, Benjamin Shapell and others, benefiting from eleven decades of advances in technology and genealogy, created the “Shapell Roster of Jewish Service in the American Civil War,”, online at .

Despite Jewish Soldiers being a book by Jews, for Jews, there are no hagiographic claims, no in-group bias. Indeed, a main point is that Jews’ Civil War individual experience was primarily of being Americans first, their religion being incidental, or even downplayed. As Mendelsohn writes, “Jewishness was one of many factors shaping the experience of Jewish soldiers during the war and was only sometimes the most determinative. It mattered more at some moments than at others, and less for some individuals than for others.” (p.15).

Though fewer than 200,000 Jews lived in American in 1860 (p.9), racial hostility and stereotyping fell heavily on Jews, whether famous or nondescript. In an era of intellectuals feuding via essays published in leading papers, Simon Wolf, the lawyer-author, had a scuffle with no less than Mark Twain, who had penned an unflattering generalization of Jews’ devotion to the country. A rebuke by Wolf drew a surprising response from Twain (p.7).

Serving in a Christian army posed problems for Jews’ religious observances (p.138), dietary restrictions (p.139-146), and burial (pp. 8, 158). The chapter “Sacred Duties” recounts the difficulties of “the Israelites” in exercising their faithful routines. One warm story involves one Henry Auerbach who with friends visited fellow Jews confined to a military hospital and provided proper Jewish religious burials for the fallen (p. 159).

The lower ratio of participation of Jews compared to other ethnic groups is investigated in the chapter “Mustering In.” Not all Jewish newspapers of the day supported the call to arms. Neither did all Jews oppose slavery (pp. 31, 47), though Moritz Pinner was a noted abolitionist (p. 58).

We all have read otherwise excellent writers who avoid statistics, or we come across statistics lacking narrative. Not Mendelsohn, who deftly combines narrative and numbers. Most facts are straightforward, such as the percentage of all Americans who served in the War, compared to Jews in particular (p.193). Other examples are interpretive, such as the year in which a key percentage of Jewish enlistments occurred, which shows when war enthusiasm to serve peaked – and then declined (p. 43). Mendelsohn has fun with statistics too, using a hypothetical 100-man Jewish infantry company to show the soldiers country of birth in literal “per cent” terms (p. 51). This concentration never occurred in real life; fewer than twenty-five regiments included ten or more Jews (p. 77).

Mendelsohn’s appendix sections make for rich reading. The first shows the origins, flaws, and transformation of the initiatives in history to quantify the Jewish Civil War soldier. Any young historian eager to learn from the best in the business will gain from Mendelsohn’s description of research sources and methods (pp. 234-236). The next section features colorful infographics including a state map of enlistments, origin countries, and a list of common surnames.

I have always considered Jews a most literate and numerate group. Mendelsohn’s work is the iceberg’s tip of their long history of fortune and struggles in modern America, which continues today.

Readers interested in the story of Jews in the American Civil War will find Adam D. Mendelsohn’s 2022 book Jewish Soldiers in the Civil War: The Union Army, a very readable and fact-filled introduction to the Shapell Manuscript Foundation’s massive database of cultural history.

Our Reviewer: Julius Haukser spent four years in the U. S. Air Force (1996-2000) as an F-15 crew chief. An inventory manager and Excel expert, he works in the hazardous waste industry. He previously reviewed General Crook and the Western Frontier , The Battle of Jackson, Mississippi, May 14, 1863, To Save and Army, and Awaiting MacArthur’s Return

Note: Jewish Soldiers in the Civil War is also available in e-editions. 

StrategyPage reviews are published in cooperation with The New York Military Affairs Symposium

Reviewer: Julius Haukser   

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