Otto Nusbaum

A presentation by the Shapell Manuscript Foundation and the Columbus Jewish Historical Society shows a compilation of information used to learn the story of Columbus Civil War veteran Otto Nusbaum, almost a century after his death. 

A new project sheds light on the lives and experiences of Ohio’s Jewish Civil War soldiers, aiming to share stories and history that have likely been forgotten through generations.

“The Shapell Roster: Jewish Service in the American Civil War,” is the first comprehensive, national data archive documenting Jewish soldiers who served in the war, according to the Shapell Manuscript Foundation’s website. A virtual program focusing on Ohio soldiers was presented in conjunction with the Columbus Jewish Historical Society Sept. 13, where researchers from Shapell and CJHS shared some interesting findings from their work thus far.

Adrienne Usher, director of the Shapell Roster, said building the roster started with inspecting a previously created roster by Simon Wolf, a prominent Washington, D.C.-based lawyer and social justice advocate who published the book, “The American Jew as Patriot, Soldier and Citizen” in 1895. Wolf, who was born in Germany and immigrated to Ohio, compiled the book about Jewish service in American wars to refute anti-Semitic claims that American Jews are not patriotic.

However, Usher said her team found some soldiers in Wolf’s roster were actually not Jewish. Moreover, she found there was a higher rate of inaccuracy among soldiers studied in Ohio compared to the Union as a whole.

Shapell researchers speculate Wolf may have generously characterized soldiers as Jewish, albeit inaccurately, because of his personal connection to the state – a low number of Jewish soldiers may have “negated the premise of his work,” Usher said.

“We do think it reveals Ohio as unique within Wolf’s roster,” she said.

Usher said she worked with Toby Brief, CJHS executive director and curator of its Eleanore G. Yenkin Historical Collection, to identify additional Jewish soldiers from Ohio. During the webinar, Brief noted CJHS is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year.

To identify soldiers, Shapell studied a range of sources, such as military issued documents, accessed either on ancestry websites or at archival locations. When service records did not exist, to confirm if a Jewish individual served in the war, Shapell studied diaries, memoirs, lists of membership in veterans’ organizations, newspapers and the 1890 Veterans Census, Usher said.

While today, the United States military collects soldiers’ religions, it did not back during the Civil War. To determine if a soldier was Jewish, one significant source was pension files – which were submitted by soldiers or their widows to investigators to approve pension claims, and which sometimes included ketubot or birth, marriage or death records that confirmed they were Jewish.

Usher said there is still not an accurate estimate of the total number of Jewish Civil War soldiers because more are identified each day, and many are still missing, especially from the Confederate side.

In response to an audience question about whether descendants of Jewish Confederate soldiers may be reticent to come forward because they fought to support slavery, Usher said many Jews who fought were immigrants, and soldiers were drafted into service to fight for the confederacy whether or not they supported slavery. In fact, even those who were considered “not able-bodied” had to do something to support southern war efforts, said Caitlin Winkler, a researcher for the Shapell Roster.

Winkler also said it’s important to have these types of conversations about one’s heritage that may bring to light unsettling history, rather than to “sweep it under the rug.”

The researchers then shared the stories of several Ohio Jewish Civil War veterans they uncovered.

One soldier was Otto Nusbaum, who served in the 101st Ohio Infantry. He was born in Germany and upon immigration to the U.S., was the first known Jewish child to live in Columbus.

Nusbaum’s dates of service are unknown, however, the researchers found he worked as a traveling salesman and served on Columbus City Council. He was also a founder of the first B’nai B’rith lodge in Central Ohio.

A well-known Ohio Civil War soldier was Leopold Markbreit, who served as mayor of Cincinnati from 1908 until his death in 1909. He also briefly shared a law practice with Rutherford B. Hayes, who later became the 19th U.S. president. They both joined the war effort, and Markbreit was honored for his bravery.

While Markbreit was not a practicing Jew, the American Israelite, Cincinnati’s Jewish newspaper, reported on his Judaism.

Another Ohio Jewish soldier, Adolph Mayer, who served in the 27th Ohio Infantry returned Germany after the war to raise his family. After he died, his widow applied for a pension for his service, and related documents suggest he suffered from PTSD before the disorder was understood. His symptoms were referred to as “a severe sickness of the brain which was of service origin.”

Shapell Manuscript Foundation researchers have worked on the project since 2009, aiming to bring to the forefront Jewish immigrant experiences and stories of American patriotism. The foundation is headquartered in Israel and the researchers who spoke during the webinar are based around the United States.

CJHS, based in Columbus, preserves the stories, artifacts, images and heritage of the Jewish communities of Central Ohio.

Shapell is still researching for the roster and aims to make it available to the public in the next few years. Additionally, those with Jewish ancestors who served in the Civil War are advised to contact the roster’s Eliza Kolander at eliza@shapell.org.

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