We asked Shapell Manuscript Foundation researchers at the National Archives in Washington D.C. about their work and experience there. The team is working on the Shapell Roster – an updated and accurate roster of Jewish soldiers who served in the American Civil War.
Responses from Caitlin Eichner, Shapell Roster Researcher.
“What’s been your favorite discovery so far?”
It’s really hard to narrow down what my favorite find from the project has been so far. There are so many incredible documents at our fingertips at the Archives. And I always try to see the files we create for individual soldiers from the viewpoint of a future descendant, or researcher focused on a specific soldier, using our database. If I had a personal or heightened connection to a soldier, what would be really exciting to find? So it’s hard to choose one find, but here are the three I think stand out the most in my mind:
Hand Colored Photograph of Samuel Cline-
I found this in my first few days working for the Foundation. I got incredibly lucky with the first batch of files I requested. Lots of great first hand accounts, evidence of soldiers being Jewish, and this this photograph. I was spoiled early on! But it was great motivation to dig deeper into files, and know what could potentially be unearthed.
Samuel Cline is one of the most interesting soldiers I have come across in the past year and a half. He served in the military under the alias Simon Newmark. Two different accounts were given for this:
1st story- Cline said he adopted the name Simon Newmark, the name of his elder cousin, to serve without his relatives in New York knowing, but after the war returned to “his own name.”
2nd story- Cline’s parents passed away when he was 12 and living in Poland. He then went to Germany to learn a trade and took the name Simon Newmark because as a subject of Russia he was not permitted to reside there. He resumed the name Samuel Cline at the time of his marriage because “he desired his children to have the name of his ancestors.
To establish that Cline and Newmark were one and the same, the photograph was provided to the pension examiner to show to other members of the soldier’s companies.
Henry Adler Letter Home
I think by far the most poignant find I have had was a letter sent from Private Henry Adler home to his mother. It was the last letter he ever sent to her; he died on the train back from a Confederate prison on his way to being paroled. One of the last things he wrote to her in the letter was “we are all ready to march and maybe never to come back any more but I want you to pray for my safety and I do what I can towards it now.” Mrs. Adler sent the letter in to the pension officer to prove her relationship with her son, along with the envelope it was sent in, on which she wrote “This is the last letter we got from our son, and the only one we have at this present time [sic] please return this letter when done with it, if it’s no benefit to you” Unfortunately for her, the letter was never sent back. Finding these personal keepsakes is very bittersweet- we are excited to be able to see and document such important, intimate objects; but we also must mourn the loss to the families who never got these items back.
There are only two Henry Adlers who served in New Jersey, and Wolf listed two from the state in his roster. But, Adler is one of the soldiers found in Wolf that we cannot find evidence for, showing that he was Jewish. As researchers going through these records over one hundred years later, we know that Wolf would have had access to contemporary resources that may have evidence of a soldier being Jewish, and therefore we cannot rule out these names.
Click to view full-size images.
Lately, I have had a fantastic run pulling court martial records and coming across Abraham Lincoln signatures. To date, I have seen four of these signatures; two of which were previously undocumented. Holding the documents the person you are researching held, wrote, signed is a pretty incredible feeling in of itself. But when that person is arguably the greatest president of all time, it takes that feeling to a whole other level. It amazes me the range and amount of these cases Lincoln personally reviewed or inquired about. In spite of how busy he was, he took the time to make sure justice was being carried out for individuals- whether it was a senator asking him to look into the case, or a wife who barely spoke English.
“What’s the longest you’ve gone without making any headway on a soldier/case?
I would say I’ve probably spent two or three days on a soldier, occasionally, where I just am not able to sort the information out to get him added to our database. We have so many records, that overall, we try not to get stuck on one guy too long – leaving these more complicated soldiers for after we have made it through the multitude of names to get just the basic information ready for them to be put on our public site. But there is nothing more frustrating than having a guy you really think was Jewish, who has a huge pension file to sift through, with a ton of really interesting stuff, but who ends up not being Jewish, or doesn’t have any evidence to support him being Jewish. You get invested in guys you then cannot add.
“How long does it usually take to qualify or disqualify a soldier from the Roster?”
It totally depends. Some guys we find a marriage certificate or a death certificate right away, and “bam!” they’re in the roster. Other guys, it takes more work. Sifting through newspapers, contacting descendants, tracking families through census records and finding the local synagogue records.
“What’s your favorite/least favorite thing about work at the national archives?”
My favorite thing about working at the National Archives is the amazing range of resources located there, spanning hundreds of years, and how accessible these records are. And Pizza Fridays in the cafeteria.
“What have you learned from your research and the research process?”
Don’t give up! Just when you think you’ve run out of resources, or you’ll never figure a soldier’s record out, you find another place to look, and things all fall into place. We’re really lucky with the team we have, where if one of us hits a wall, we can punt the problem over to someone with a fresh perspective, who will attack the problem from a different angle and suddenly make headway. Everyone is happy to pitch in and share in difficult records, along with the goldmines.
Interested in staying updated with the latest research news and discoveries? You can follow the research team’s progress as it’s made at the Shapell Manuscript Foundation Facebook Page and Roster Project Album, or by following @ShapellManu on Twitter, #ShapellRoster, or check back at our blog for more interviews and news from the archives.