Many people may not be aware that Jews fought in the American Civil War. Searching for Jewish soldiers has become my retirement project. That period of American history was probably the most transformative period of our country. I believe that combining Jewish and Civil War histories of Wisconsin is of interest to the Jewish community because it adds to the story of who we are.
A total of 91,000 men enlisted in the Union Army from Wisconsin. Based on a Jewish population of around 2,000, 100 to 200 Jewish soldiers may have volunteered from Wisconsin. Finding them is like looking for several needles in a large haystack because the military never recorded the religion of soldiers during that war.
The first attempt to identify Jewish Civil War soldiers was done in 1895 by Simon Wolf. Wolf was one of the most well-known Jews in the U.S. at the time. In response to an antisemitic article accusing Jews of shirking their duties during the Civil War, Wolf wrote a book identifying Jewish Civil War soldiers. Without access to computerized records, his book was quite inaccurate. He named many people who were not Jewish and missed many soldiers who were. Despite this, Wolf’s book provided a great place to start my research.
I have identified 27 soldiers with Jewish heritage from Wisconsin. Most came from the German-speaking areas of Europe in the 1840s and 1850s. Some became financially successful after the war, and some had prominent relatives as listed below:
- Beverly Jefferson — 1st Wisconsin Infantry, and his brother, John Wayles Jefferson – 8th Wisconsin Infantry. Although they never practiced Judaism, their maternal grandparents were David Isaacs, a Jewish merchant in Charlottesville, Virginia, and Nancy West, a free woman of color, who had a common law relationship together. Their paternal grandparents were Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings.
- Nathan Neustadtl – 24th Wisconsin Infantry, killed at the Battle of Chickamauga. In 1847, his father, Isaac Neustadtl, held the first community Jewish service (Yom Kippur) ever in Milwaukee. The twelve Bohemian Jews who attended eventually organized Congregation Emanuel.
- Barnett Nathan – 24th Wisconsin Infantry. He was the nephew of Isaac Nathan, an English composer and friend of Lord Byron who put Byron’s poems to music.
- Rene Schleisinger – 6th Wisconsin Infantry. His uncle was Baruch Schleisinger-Weil, the Jewish founder of the town of Schleisingerville, the name of which was eventually shortened to Slinger, Wisconsin.
- Theodore Levy – 10th Wisconsin Infantry. His father, Jacob Levy, was Mayor of La Crosse, WI, and the cantor of the synagogue in La Crosse.
My research has included searching census records, newspaper articles and cemetery records. I have received help from researchers at the Shapell Manuscript Foundation in Los Angeles. They examine soldiers’ records at the National Archives in Washington, D.C. for evidence of their Jewish heritage. That organization is searching for Jewish soldiers from both the North and South to produce the Shapell Roster Project. If readers know of any Jewish ancestors who fought in the Civil War, please contact me through the Wisconsin Jewish Chronicle (email Chronicle@MilwaukeeJewish.org) so that their names can be added to my research or passed on to the Shapell researchers.
Dr. Richard S. Kane, Glendale, is a retired physician. He and his wife, Diane, are members of Congregation Shalom and he is a member of the Men’s Club at the Harry & Rose Samson Family Jewish Community Center.