Tag Archives: Adrienne Usher

A Special Memorial Day Thank You to Bayside Cemetery Volunteers from the Shapell Roster Project Researchers

Editor’s Note: This is a guest post by the Shapell Roster Project research team.

Cemeteries are interesting places that attract all sorts of people: family and friends of those interred; dog owners, runners, and others who enjoy a quiet, usually beautiful oasis in the middle of a bustling city or suburbs; volunteers; vandals… wait, what?

That’s right, vandalism—and not just tagging or petty theft. I mean opened crypts, bodies left lying in plain view—serious stuff. Serious enough incidents for a lawsuit and a whirlwind of press coverage, but not enough to encourage those responsible for the care and upkeep of an old cemetery to do the right thing. But, I’ve gotten ahead of my story. This story began last year for the Shapell Roster Project team when I sent a series of emails out into the ether about a soldier who was supposedly buried in a Jewish cemetery called Bayside, located in Ozone Park, Queens, New York. We knew the soldier was Jewish, but we couldn’t (and still haven’t) determined in what regiment he served. Sometimes that information is available in cemeteries. A few days later I received an email from an Anthony Pisciotta.

I try really hard not to name profile, but I did not expect a guy with an Italian sounding name to get back to me about a Jewish cemetery. Anthony is not Jewish, yet he probably knows more about Bayside Cemetery than anyone. The story he told me about his connection to Bayside was fascinating. Back when he was a kid, he heard tales about cemetery desecration that, like a good campfire ghost story, stayed with him into adulthood. Today, Pisciotta works for the city driving a truck and his route goes right by Bayside Cemetery. One day, he noticed a tomb, wide-open with two damaged coffins with the skeletal remains exposed—just like the stories from his youth! Since then, he’s become one of Bayside’s most dedicated advocates and volunteers.

Pisciotta researches genealogy to find descendants to let them know about the condition of their ancestors’ final resting place and helps descendants who contact him find their relatives. In one case, he sealed the mausoleum of Marcus Witmark to prevent any future vandalism, after securing Witmark’s descendants’ permission. There are many more mausoleums he’d like to similarly protect, but some are too dangerous to even fix, and he’s not a rich man.


Photo courtesy of Anthony D. Pisciotta
Photo courtesy of Anthony D. Pisciotta

Recently, Pisciotta launched a crowdsourcing fundraiser for a permanent flagpole to honor the many Veterans interred at Bayside.

Photo courtesy of Anthony D. Pisciotta
Photo courtesy of Anthony D. Pisciotta

Pisciotta doesn’t shy away from talking to the press, but he has a simple agenda: the dead deserve better. And Pisciotta isn’t just talking about the problem, he and his children frequently pick up trash that accumulates in the cemetery and just this week he escorted a Boy Scout troop through Bayside, placing flags on Veterans’ graves for Memorial Day.

We at the Shapell Roster Project are extremely grateful to Pisciotta and other volunteers at Bayside Cemetery for helping us find Civil War soldiers not included in Simon Wolf’s 1895 roster and for confirming that some soldiers listed in Wolf’s roster are, in fact, Jewish (because many are not, but that’s a topic for another post).

George Samuels

Thanks to the National Museum of American Jewish Military History, we discovered the name (but not the regiment) of George Samuels in the Minutes Book of the Hebrew Union Veterans Association.

Courtesy, National Museum of American Jewish Military History
Courtesy, National Museum of American Jewish Military History

Unfortunately, with so many soldiers named George Samuels serving in the Civil War, we had no idea which one he was!

When Anthony sent me a photograph of a tombstone for a George Samuels buried at Bayside,

Tombstone for George Samuels
Tombstone for George Samuels

the death date lead us to a soldier who served in the 9th PA Cavalry.

This led us to Norm Gasbarro’s blog post, “Who is George Samuels?”

After a flurry of emails in which Gasbarro, Pisciotta and I excitedly exchanged the pieces of the puzzle we each had, Gasbarro posted an update entitled, “New Information on George Samuels.

Lob Turk

We found out about Lob Turk (alias Lewis Blake) from his descendant, who contacted us via the Shapell Roster website’s contact form. She wanted to make sure that her ancestor was included in our roster so his patriotism was not forgotten. As it turned out, we were able to help Turk’s descendant gain access to his Pension Record (which she had previously been told by the National Archives was lost or destroyed). She, in turn, told us that Turk was buried in the Mokom Sholom part of Bayside Cemetery, and put us in touch with long-time volunteer, Florence Marmor.

The history of Bayside Cemetery and the adjoining Acacia and Mokom Sholom cemeteries on IAJGS’ International Jewish Cemetery Project website for Ozone Park was written by Marmor. In most cases, references to Bayside include the other two cemeteries and vice versa. Collectively, the remains of more than 35,000 Jews are interred in the Bayside, Acacia, and Mokom Sholom cemeteries. Lob Turk and George Samuels are just a few.

No matter how I try, I just can’t understand how (or why) a cemetery in the middle of Queens could be subject to such a long history of misfortune and neglect. Bayside was the cemetery of choice for hundreds of Congregations and Burial Associations since 1865, including the Hebrew Benevolent Society, who buried poor deceased Jews like Lob Turk for free.

"A Good Idea." Commercial Advertiser. November 22, 1869. p. 4. via GenealogyBank.com.
“A Good Idea.” Commercial Advertiser. November 22, 1869. p. 4. via GenealogyBank.com.

“A Good Idea.” Commercial Advertiser. November 22, 1869. p. 4. via GenealogyBank.com.

Perhaps it was the wealth of some of the residents of Bayside Cemetery relative to that of the surrounding neighborhood that attracted criminals:

"It Happened in New York." The Washington Post. February 9, 1906. p. 1. Via newspaperarchive.com
“It Happened in New York.” The Washington Post. February 9, 1906. p. 1. Via newspaperarchive.com.

Or perhaps it was anti-Semitism?

“Cemeteries Damaged.” The Kingston Daily Freeman. February 19, 1951. p. 12. via newspapers.com

"Cemeteries Damaged." The Kingston Daily Freeman. February 19, 1951. p. 12. via newspapers.com
“Cemeteries Damaged.” The Kingston Daily Freeman. February 19, 1951. p. 12. via newspapers.com.

Regardless of the reasons, the crimes against the cemetery became more horrific over time. In 1983, a woman’s body was removed from her coffin and in 1997, the coffin of Joseph Geismer was set on fire. Geismer’s niece relies upon Anthony Pisciotta to keep an eye on her family’s plot because she herself can’t bear to visit the cemetery.

The original owner of Bayside Cemetery, Congregation Shaare Zedek, is accused of negligence and fraud. A lawsuit filed in 2007 by John Lucker, a man whose grandparents purchased a perpetual care lot in Bayside, was dismissed in 2011 on a technicality. Lucker continues his crusade against Congregation Shaare Zedek via Bayside Cemetery Litigation while groups like Olive Branch Cemetery Restoration and the Community Alliance for Jewish-Affiliated Cemeteries, and individuals like Marmor and Pisciotta do what they believe is the best for the cemetery and its inhabitants.

The Shapell Roster Project honors the Jews in the service of the Union and Confederate Armies and Navies during the American Civil War period of 1861-1865. We, the researchers behind the Roster Project are grateful to all of the volunteers at Bayside Cemetery and any place where these men were laid to rest. Without your help, our job is just that much harder!

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.


Behind the Scenes on the Shapell Roster Project: Alex Skerry & Adrienne Usher on Soldiers Justinian Alman & Jacob Hyneman

Editor’s Note: This is a guest post by Alexandra Skerry, Shapell Roster Researcher, and Adrienne Usher, Head Researcher – Shapell Roster.

This is the first in a series of “Behind the Scenes” reports on the Shapell Roster Project Team’s collaborative research process. Adrienne Usher and Alex Skerry explain how instincts, attention to detail and team work can transform two names in a database into a story about a post-war death and the woman who connected two soldiers, illustrated with beautiful historical documents.

PART I: Adrienne 

As the Lead Researcher for the Shapell Manuscript Foundation’s Roster Project, my responsibilities include administrative duties, database management, and research. While our primary goal at this stage of the project is to confirm the Civil War service of the names included in Simon Wolf’s 1895 The American Jew as Patriot, Soldier and Citizen, we are constantly adding new names. Periodically, I discover new resources, and when I do – it’s like winning the lottery! Such was the case in March of 2014, when I realized that the New York based newspaper, the Jewish Messenger, was included in our subscription to GenealogyBank – a subscription database of searchable historic newspapers. I stopped what I was doing and immediately began searching for the names of soldiers appearing in the newspaper. My assumption was that if they were written about in the Jewish Messenger, they were, presumably, Jewish, and all I needed to do was figure out their Civil War service to be able to add them to our roster. For every name I found, I had to cross-check the information in the article (if there was any) against ancestry.com and fold3.com. Once I was able to confirm his Civil War service, I then checked the database to see if we already had him. Most of the time, they were in Wolf’s roster, and so not a new name. But, here and there, I struck gold. Such was the case with Justinian Alman.

A search of the Jewish Messenger for the keyword “Cavalry” from 1861-1865 yielded 31 results. #2 in the list was an article dated January 23, 1863 entitled “Virginia.”

Luckily, Captain Alman had a unique first name, which always makes things easier, so I went to the CMSRIs (the Compiled Military Service Record Indexes) on fold3.com. The good news was that I found only one hit – the bad news was that it wasn’t for a New York regiment, as the newspaper article stated. Next stop was to check ancestry.com for a Pension Record Index, and there it was, confirming that there was only one Justinian Alman (or any variation thereof) who served in the Civil War and that his widow applied for and received a Pension on the basis of her late husband’s service. Best news of all, the Pension file was already scanned and online at fold3!

A secondary search of the Jewish Messenger resulted in 3 additional mentions of Alman, including the news of his untimely death. I was confident that Justinian Alman was Jewish and served in the Civil War, so I created what we call a “shell record” for him into the database, including his name, regiment, and links to the supporting documentation. We have two very dedicated researchers who spend Monday through Friday at the National Archives in Washington, DC, reviewing the military records for each name in our database. I knew that at some point, one of them would turn their attention to Justinian Alman, so I moved on to the next discovery…


My favorite aspect of the Roster Project is watching the soldiers’ stories unfold and begin to fit into greater, more comprehensive narratives.  Not only were these soldiers men with individual personal life stories, but they were part of a company and a regiment during the war, and a larger community before and after.  When two lives connect, we usually find that these soldiers directly influenced each other in some way.  We often find soldiers that were brothers, friends, coworkers or even neighbors but sometimes it takes some digging in the records at the National Archives (NARA) and some additional online research to discover more complicated connections.

Justinian Alman is a soldier who I keep coming back to over and over again.  His story continues to intrigue me as it has evolved through a small connection from a seemingly singular history to an expanded, wider narrative.  Every time I think our team has exhausted our knowledge of Alman—learning of his tragic death, reviewing his interesting documents, and finding out about his connection with another soldier in our database—additional bits and pieces of his story seem to emerge.

When I began my research on Alman, all I had to go off of was what Adrienne had entered into the “shell record” she had created for him.  I had his name, his Compiled Military Service Record Index (CMSRI), his Pension Record Index (PRI) and the article she had found in the Jewish Messenger.  I was able to fill out a “Request for Military Records” pull slip based off of the information on Alman’s CMSRI and submit it in order to receive Alman’s files at NARA.

Pull Slip submitted to NARA
Request for Military Records pull slip submitted to NARA.

With this pull slip, Alman’s Compiled Military Service Record (CMSR) was retrieved for me to review.  Each volunteer soldier has a CMSR for each regiment in which they served during the war.  The CMSR generally contains basic information that was taken from original muster rolls about the soldier’s military service.  A CMSR will usually contain dates such as enlistment and discharge, record if the soldier was wounded in action or became a prisoner of war, and may report on a soldier’s age or place of birth.  Some CMSRs contain more information than others, depending upon the thoroughness of the original record-keeper.

By reviewing Alman’s CMSR at NARA, I was able to confirm that Alman enlisted in the 1st PA Cavalry on September 9, 1861 as a 2nd Lieutenant, transferred to the 2nd PA Cavalry Co. K, which subsequently became the 5th PA Cavalry Co. K.  Transfers, detachments, and re-enlistments were very common during the Civil War. Luckily for us, all of Alman’s records were compiled into one envelope, his record for the 5th PA Cavalry.

Alman was promoted to 1st Lieutenant and was mustered out as such on December 16, 1862 to accept a commission as a Captain in the 5th PA Cavalry.  He was commissioned as a Major on April 4, 1865.  Alman served in the 5th PA Cavalry until the end of the War when he was discharged on June 6, 1865.

Many soldiers and their widows, minor children, and parents applied for a pension after the Civil War. Pension files often contain additional information about what the soldier did during and after the war which could include information such as specifics on the soldier’s military service, medical history, place of residence, dates of birth and death, proof of marriage, etc.  The extent or the amount and kind of information available varies greatly from case to case and depends on the relationship of the person who is applying to the soldier.

According to Alman’s PRI, his wife Augusta applied for a pension.

Justinian Alman Pension Record Index (PRI)
Justinian Alman Pension Record Index (PRI)

A widow’s pension file often includes proof of marriage (such as a marriage certificate) as well as information about family and children. Since the pension record was online, there was no need to submit a second pull slip at NARA.

Justinian Alman Pension Record at fold3.com
Justinian Alman Pension Record at fold3.com

From Augusta’s pension, I discovered Justinian’s additional military service after the Civil War, details concerning the circumstances of his death, information about family, and some very fascinating newspaper articles submitted by the soldier’s mother, Alicia Marks (formerly, Alman).

According to the PR, Alman continued his military service after the Civil War by enlisting in the 4th US Cavalry.  While on duty with his regiment, Alman was killed on March 17, 1868, while on board a small boat crossing the Black Cypress Bayou in Texas.  He was struck by the wheel of the steamboat “J.M. Sharp” when his boat collided with the vessel, and drowned.

Justinian Alman Obituaries
Justinian Alman Obituaries

Despite the pension being a “Widow’s Pension,” the bulk of the documents included were from and about the soldier’s mother.  Included in Alman’s pension record was an inquiry from Alicia asking the Pension Bureau if she was also eligible to receive benefits.  Alicia’s letter included dates and locations from Alman’s letters home, as well as transcriptions from newspaper clippings she kept concerning her son.

Letter from Alicia Alman on Justinian Alman’s service. Click to view full-size image.

Two of the clippings are from the Jewish Messenger.  Alicia writes: “I have framed & hung near his full length likeness in uniform.  It was copied from the Jewish Messengerof New York by a communal paper dated Feb 20, 1863.” The article she transcribes states that Alman received a promotion for bravery.

An article from the Jewish Messenger reads: “One of the most gallant achievements of the present campaign was the recent capture of prisoners, commissary stores, &, at the White House on the Pamunkey River.  The affair has been warmly commended by the Press.  We learn that the officer who captured the train loaded with stores, &, was a young coreligionist, Justinian Alman a Captain in one of out New York Calvary RegimentsCapt Alman entered the service as a private and won his way by simple merit to his present position.  He was highly complimented for his handsome conduct on the White House expedition.  His command [sic] were out for two days and nights, and penetrated to within fifteen miles of Richmond.  Capt. Alman will make his mark promoted from the ranks he has already distinguished himself on occasions demanding the exercise of true courage and presence of mind.


In the death of Major Alman the service has lost a most useful and efficient officer and his many friends a warm hearted and true companion.  Although Major Alman had been with us for a short time he had made hosts of friends by his high toned conduct and was the life of the social circle.

At the conclusion of her letter, Alicia discusses a drawing she includes in the packet she mails to the Secretary of War that depicts a colored lithograph of a soldier’s memorial.  She writes:

Should it be necessary to substantiate any statement to any member of the American Legation in this country I shall be most pleased and ready to submit to their inspection the originals of what I have herein copied as well as letters and the beautiful colored lithograph of the Soldier’s Memorial presented to my son of which I have endeavored to give some idea whilst at the same time particularising [sic] individuals in the regiment.

Alicia painstakingly recreates the lithograph in order to send it to the Pension Bureau so she could keep the original. This is by far the most interesting document I have ever discovered in a PR at the National Archives!

Justinian Alman "Soldier's Memorial"
Justinian Alman “Soldier’s Memorial”

Each week I write up any interesting stories, significant findings, and questions I have to Adrienne, who reads over and responds to my reports.  So, on May 31, 2014, I reported on Justinian Alman and all of the really cool documents in his Pension record, and his tragic story.

PART III: Adrienne

Upon reading Alex’s update about Justinian Alman two months later, I admit, I’d forgotten all about finding him in the first place. I was particularly excited about Alicia’s painstaking facsimile of the memorial she submitted, and asked Alex to inquire if NARA would permit her to access the original to scan it in color. Once pension records are digitized and available online, the records themselves are closed, to preserve these 100+ year old documents.  NARA only permits access to the originals if a special need is shown. She was granted permission, but once she saw the condition and size of the document, she felt that attempting to scan it in color would cause additional damage, so she did not.

Alex Skerry, Researcher, with "Soldier's Memorial" document submitted by Alicia Alman, mother of Justinin Alman.
Alex Skerry, Researcher, with “Soldier’s Memorial” document submitted by Alicia Alman, mother of Justinin Alman.

As I reviewed Alman’s record, something was bothering me, but I couldn’t put my finger on it. Nothing bad, mind you, just something odd. But, the record was more complete than most in the database, so I moved on to the next item in my to do list. Sometimes, history reveals itself when we least expect it.

Fast forward to October, 2014: Alex and our other researcher at NARA, Caitlin, were finishing the review of the Pennsylvania soldiers, while Adam, our Pennsylvania-based researcher, and I were focusing on a soldier from Wolf named “Ullman,” no first name. According to Wolf, he supposedly served in the 5th Pennsylvania Cavalry, but we had not yet found evidence of him doing so. As I tried to find evidence of anyone named anything even close to Ullman in the 5th Pennsylvania Cavalry, Justinian Alman’s name appeared in one of my searches. I wondered, was “Ullman” Alman? I studied the details of Alman’s life closely and nothing about him matched what we knew about the mythical Ullman, so that was a dead end, but in doing so, I realized what was bothering me about his record! When a soldier dies, his wife or mother can collect a pension, but not both. Why would Alman’s mother attempt to collect a pension when it was already granted to his widow? I re-examined the Pension Record and realized that the Pension Bureau dropped Augusta Alman from their rolls as “unclaimed.” Had she died? I ran her name through my usual gauntlet of searches and no, Augusta Alman hadn’t died, she just kind of disappeared… However, an Augusta Davidson, with the same information as Alman’s widow, re-appeared in the historical record. Strange, but not really germane to the project, or was it?

Per the copy of the marriage certificate in his Pension record,

Justinian Alman Marriage Certificate copy
Justinian Alman Marriage Certificate copy

Justinian Alman married Augusta Davidson at the residence of the bride’s father, Dr. J. Davidson. Augusta’s application for a Pension was witnessed by Esther A. Davidson. In 1870, two years after Alman died, Augusta is back living with her family in Philadelphia, including father, Dr. Julius Davidson and sister Esther. My next stop was to look for the Davidson and Alman families in the most comprehensive published Jewish genealogical resource: Malcolm Stern’s First American Jewish Families. The only result I found was in one of the Hyneman family trees which had Civil War soldier Jacob Ezekiel Hyneman listed with two marriages: first to “Alman” and then to “Augusta Davidson.” What, I wondered, were the chances that there were two, unrelated Augusta Davidsons in Philadelphia, born circa 1846? Even though Hyneman’s Pension record had been previously reviewed, I asked Alex to request it again and see if there was any mention of Justinian Alman in it – if so, what started out as a sense that something was odd would turn into a connection between two seemingly unrelated Civil War soldiers! I couldn’t wait to hear what Alex would discover…


There was the proof of the hunch!  Included in Hyneman’s PR is a Questionnaire provided by the Pension Bureau asking the soldier to fill out information such as: “State your wife’s full name and her maiden name” and “If your present wife was married before her marriage to you, state the name of her former husband, the date of such marriage, and the date and place of his death or divorce, and state whether he ever rendered any military or naval service, and, if you, give the name of the organization in which he served….” Hyneman lists “Justinian Alman,” that he was a Lieutenant in the 4th US Cavalry, and that he drowned while in the service.  We also see from this document that Augusta was married to Hyneman on May 7, 1877, three days after the Pension Bureau dropped her from the rolls of receiving the widow’s pension for Alman.  Augusta died on January 15, 1912.

Jacob Hyneman Pension Bureau Questionnaire
Jacob Hyneman Pension Bureau Questionnaire

This discovery lead me to equally interesting documents in Hyneman’s Pension Record.  Hyneman received an inquiry from the pension department about his date of birth on file.  Apparently, the pension department claimed that Hyneman listed both August 5, 1843 and August 15, 1843 as his date of birth on different forms.

Jacob Hyneman letter regarding date of birth.
Jacob Hyneman letter regarding date of birth.

To clear up the error, Hyneman writes: “I know my birthday to be August 5th, 1843 as that day is impressed on my mind for many years.  I am enclosing birthday cards mailed principally August 4th, received August 5th.” There are seven beautiful, brightly colored birthday cards included in Hynman’s PR.

Jacob Hyneman Birthday Postcard Collection. Click to view full-size image.

The discovery of the connection between these two soldiers untimely lead to stumbling upon some of the most interesting and colorful (literally) documents I have reviewed thus far during the roster project!

Part V: Adrienne

The Shapell Roster Project’s database is full of amazing stories just like this one, and for every story we’ve uncovered, we know there are many, many more. If you have a Jewish ancestor who fought in the Civil War, we’d love to hear from you! Please contact us via the Shapell Manuscript Foundation and share your stories!

As of October 2014, of the 7100 Union soldiers in our database, we have identified and confirmed the service for 6000 of those men. To date, our team has added 646 new names to Simon Wolf’s original roster and continue to add new names every week.

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.

Research at the U.S. National Archives, With Adrienne Usher

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 Adrienne Usher, Head Researcher, Shapell Roster.

Adrienne Usher


What’s been your favorite discovery so far?

I’ve had so many amazing discoveries on this project, it’s like trying to pick your favorite child! Finding my first ketubah will always be in the top ten, and it was by finding multiple ketubah translations that I began my obsession with Charles Newburgh. At some point in his career as a clerk employed by the Pension Bureau, Newburgh began to translate documents, submitted to the Pension Bureau by veterans and their widows, written in Hebrew and Yiddish). By 1910, he is specifically working in the Civil War Division of the Pension Bureau, and, I imagine, handling all of the pension records of Jewish soldiers. My dream discovery would be to find a list of the Pension records for which Newburgh provided translation services. This, of course, would require that Newburgh kept such a list and that I could find it in the Archives – but one can dream!

Salinger, Adolphus. Marriage Certificate. Salinger, Adolphus. Marriage Certificate. 2

First Ketuba Discovered.

Gold, Henry. Ketubah Translation

Charles Newburgh Translation.

Of actual discoveries, the D’Ancona family is my favorite as of today because it illustrates the research process so well. A search of the “Jewish Record” on genealogybank.com led to one soldier being added to the database. But, where there is one, there might be more. The census records revealed this soldier had a brother and a father, and the military files showed service for men with the last name of Ancona matching the age and residence of the brother and the father. A family tree on ancestry.com led me to a descendant with whom I corresponded, and she confirmed that yes, all three served and the family was Jewish.


D’Ancona family in the newspaper.

What’s your favorite/least favorite thing about work at the national archives?

When I started working on the Shapell Roster three years ago, I spent a great deal of time at the National Archives. Since then, we’ve added Caitlin, Kim and Alex to the team to do the work of reviewing the military service records at the National Archives. Currently, I spend all my time managing the workflow of the project and conducting online and primary resource research on new additions to the roster. When I did work at the the Archives regularly, I loved having access to such a rich repository of documents! There is nothing quite like opening a pension record and finding a ketubah – it’s a bittersweet moment because it is undeniable proof that the soldier in question is Jewish, but it’s sad that the Pension office never returned the document to the family. I hope that descendants will be excited to find out that their great-great grandparents’ marriage document is in the National Archives, preserved and protected.

My least favorite thing about the National Archives stems from my training as a museum collections manager – it’s hard for me to watch the way some of the visitors at the archives handle primary source documents. I appreciate the mission of the National Archives and am grateful that WE have access to these documents, but I am very happy that the records are being digitized so that the general public has access to them without the risk of further degradation to the documents.

What have you learned from your research and the research process?

I’ve been a researcher-for-hire for more than twenty years. My primary clients are museums with small budgets and tight deadlines. Since I’m not a subject specialist, I must learn quickly. Three years ago, I did not know, specifically, when and where the Civil War started and ended. Today, I can tell you the difference between a paroled, returned and exchanged POW, and can tell you when and where most of the major battles took place. I also didn’t know much about 19th century American Jewish culture, but today, I can discuss the immigration of “the ‘48ers,” and where in the midwest Jewish immigrants tended to settle and why.

As for what I’ve learned from the research process – wow – The US National Archives, ancestry.com and fold3.com are amazing resources! So are the collections of the American Jewish Archives in Cincinnati, Ohio. And for as much as I’ve learned, I continue to learn something new every day. This is why our work is like “shooting a moving target from a moving vehicle.” As the collective historical record is digitized, more information is added to the world wide web every minute. What wasn’t there yesterday might be there tomorrow. And we have to weigh the validity of the resources as they become available. I place more faith in a book written in 1900 by a Rabbi about Civil War veterans in his congregation than I do in a book published in 2010 by a “scholar” who, by not including citations, asks his reader to take his word on who was Jewish and who was not. Which brings us to the most important aspect of our research process – transparency. In the Shapell Roster, we provide citations, copies or links to everything we’ve accessed. We provide all of the necessary information for anyone to check our work and we invite them to do so.

Another thing I’ve learned on this project is that I can’t teach anyone my research instinct – but I can teach my research methodology by example. When I communicate with the team via email, I give them the step-by-step process I went through to reach my conclusion. That process is not the same every time, but the goals are. We have to prove two things for every name we add to the Shapell Roster – that they served in the Civil War and that they were Jewish. Finding a Jacob Adler from Philadelphia who served in a Pennsylvania regiment and finding a Jacob Adler who is buried in a Jewish cemetery is not the end of the task. I have to prove that the Jacob Adler who is buried in the Jewish cemetery is the same Jacob Adler who served in the 27th Pennsylvania Infantry, Company B, and that there were no other soldiers named Jacob Adler who served in Pennsylvania or are buried in a Jewish cemetery. Imagine trying to do that with “John Smith”!

 What’s the longest you’ve gone without making any headway on a soldier/case?

As a rule, I don’t spend more than a day on chasing my tail on any one soldier. After I’ve gone through my normal checklist of places to look for information, if I’m stuck, I will either ask Adam to try his luck, or I’ll write up a summary of the case, and file it for later. If I find a descendant and reach out to them, it can take weeks or months before I get a response.

The good news is that all of my “open files” are very interesting! One case, now open for 2 years, involves 5 brothers from Philadelphia, one of whom, as a Surgeon, amputated his own brother’s leg during the war. If they are actually Jewish, it will be through their maternal grandmother. I need a genealogist who specializes in Jewish communities in Amsterdam to find the grandmother so I can either close the case or add the brothers to the database. Another case is about a year old – it involves three Jewish businessmen from Santa Fe whose service records, along with many others, are missing. The court files with the details are in an archive in Albuquerque and I need to travel there to go through the archives so I can prove that these men actually served as they claimed on the 1890 Veterans Census. And then there are the Hebrew Union Veterans Association members – we know they are Jewish, we know they served, but we have no idea in what regiment. This last case is about 6 months old.

 How long does it usually take to qualify or disqualify a soldier from the Roster?

We have two types of names in the Shapell roster – those who were in Simon Wolf’s 1895 roster of Jewish soldiers and sailors who served in the Civil War and new names we’ve found through research. Getting into the Shapell Roster is not easy if the soldiers were not already in Simon Wolf’s roster! Like I said, the soldier or sailor has to have service records and we have to have something that indicates they are Jewish. So, it completely depends on the resources available. Currently, in order to establish quality control, we only add soldiers and sailors who served in Federally recognized regiments – so that can disqualify a new name very quickly, even a Rabbi’s son! At a later date we will travel to State Archives to research the many state militia and home guard soldiers. If we can find service records, then we have to make sure they actually served – we have more than one “habitual enlister/deserter” – men who never actually served, despite having many “service records.” If they have proven service, then it’s a matter of proving them Jewish if we’re adding them to the roster. If they’re already in the roster because they were in Simon Wolf’s roster, finding evidence that they are Jewish is great, but not required at this point. In most cases, it’s easier to find proof of service for someone we know was Jewish than the other way around. By way of example, I’m currently working from a list of Jewish Civil War veterans buried in Cook County, Illinois. I added 11 new names to the roster yesterday, but that’s a great day, not necessarily a “normal” day.

Adrienne Usher, Sylvia Sellers, Kim Packett, Alex Skerry, John Sellers, Caitlin Eichner

From left to right: Adrienne Usher (Head Researcher), Sylvia Sellers, Kim Packett (Researcher), Alex Skerry (Researcher), John Sellers (Project Director), Caitlin Eichner (Researcher). Charlestown Racetrack.

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.

The Shapell Roster Research Team Takes a Fieldtrip… to the Cemetery

Editor’s Note: This is a guest post by Adrienne Usher, Head Researcher – Shapell Roster.

Planning a trip to Jewish cemeteries in Washington, DC, is not as simple as one might think. On a map, it looks like there is one, called Washington Hebrew Congregation Cemetery, bordered by Alabama Avenue SE, 15th Place SE, Congress Heights Metro Station and the infamous St. Elizabeth’s Hospital.

Cemetery Map

Luckily for us, the International Association of Jewish Genealogical Societies provided a different perspective.

Washington Hebrew Congregation Cemetery is the largest of the four contiguous cemeteries collectively known as the National Capitol Hebrew Cemetery: Washington Hebrew Congregation, Adas Israel (also includes Agudas Achim Congregation), Ohev Sholom, and Elisavetgrad – the latter representing the congregations of Beth Sholom (old), DC Hebrew Beneficial Association and District of Columbia Lodge (merged and now closed), Kesher Israel Congregation, The Georgetown Synagogue (Old), Southeast Hebrew Congregation (old) and Tifereth Israel Congregation, aka 14th St. Shul (old). The easiest way in is through Washington Hebrew Congregation Cemetery – which features a welcome center and parking spaces to the left and the oldest part of the cemetery to the right as you enter from Alabama Avenue, SE.

The oldest portion of the cemetery is on a hill, and many of the tombstones are leaning. Some show signs of repair. Some of the unmarked children’s stones were colorful with lichen, but overall, the cemetery is remarkably well maintained and we saw no evidence of vandalism.

Cemetery Image 1

Our goal was to take photos of the tombstones of men who were of the right age to serve in the Civil War so we could look them up later and perhaps add a new soldier to our roster. Usually, we have to find evidence that a soldier was Jewish, but with these names, we have to figure out if they have a military record.

Cemetery Image 2

Ferdinand J. Linz was a soldier we knew about and hoped to find – which we did within 15 minutes of arriving! An auspicious beginning to our adventure, we decided.

Cemetery Image 3

Walking up the hill to the newer section of the Washington Hebrew Congregation cemetery, we were quite surprised to find another soldier’s name we recognized.

Cemetery Image 4

From left to right: Kim Packett, Caitlin Eichner and Alex Skerry.

On November 18, 1861, Adajah Behrend, not quite 21, enlisted in the US Army as a Hospital Steward with his father’s permission. On December 4th, 1892, his father, Bernard Behrend, wrote a letter to The Occident, a Jewish monthly periodical, addressed to Abraham Lincoln. He asked Lincoln to issue an order so that “all those in the army who celebrate another day as the Sunday may be allowed to celebrate that day which they think is the right day according to their own conscience” and then added that “I taught [my son] also to observe the Sabbath on Saturday, when it would not hinder him from fulfilling his duty in the army.”

Adajah Behrend was the first soldier I “met” three years ago when I began working on the Shapell Roster. He and his family were quite prominent in Washington, DC. I suppose he spoiled me in a way, not every soldier leaves such a rich and plentiful historical record.

The next tombstone we found was that of Simon Wolf – the author of The American Jew as Patriot, Soldier and Citizen.

Cemetery selfie top left down and back up to the right Alex Skerry Caitlin Eichner Adrienne Usher Kim Packett Adam Geibel

Counter-clockwise from top left: Alex Skerry, Caitlin Eichner, Adrienne Usher, Kim Packett, Adam Geibel.

I sincerely hope our slightly irreverent group “selfie” with Simon’s tombstone can be forgiven, but we all have a love/hate relationship with Wolf. On the one hand, the roster he published in 1895 of Jewish soldiers and sailors who served in the Civil War is nothing short of amazing. He did not have the internet, or the military service records at the National Archives. He was well connected in Washington, and many of the soldiers he sought to include in his roster were still living, so that must have helped. On the other hand, I can’t tell you exactly how he found Jewish soldiers – he left no record of his methodology, no notes or references to his work in his personal papers. We are continually scratching our heads over why he included one brother but not another… why he included soldiers who were baptized Lutherans but excluded other soldiers whose application for a Pension he personally handled. We suspect he engaged in the then-common practice of name profiling. So, we respect Simon Wolf, but we really wish we knew what he knew back in 1895.

The next exciting surprise was finding Cherrie Moise Levy’s tombstone! I suppose I should preface the following with *research geek alert* warning, because surely this story would only interest a limited audience…

Cemetery Image 5

In a letter to Secretary of War Stanton dated November 4, 1862, Abraham Lincoln specifically mentions a “C.M. Levy” in the context of commissioning him as a Quartermaster because he believed he had “not yet appointed a Hebrew.” Our team spent hours trying to figure out what the names were behind the “C.M.” abbreviation. Finally, my colleague Adam asked me for the name of the “big book of Jewish genealogy.” Also known as Malcolm Stern’s First American Jewish Families: 600 Genealogies, 1654-1988, a search for “C.M. Levy” produced more of the same: nothing. Then we tried searching on Levy’s famous father-in-law, Rabbi Morris J. Raphall, whose daughter married… a Cherie Moise Levy! The good news was, having two actual names instead of initials opened the door to hundreds of historical documents, including military records, a court martial file or two, and a fair amount of newspaper articles… the bad news was that good old fashioned human error recorded C.M. Levy as Cherie, Cherrie, and worse, Cheme! Adam, Caitlin and I argued back and forth on what his actual name was, and how it was spelled. As of today, C.M. Levy is officially Cherrie Moise Levy. See, I told you that was geeky! PS: Me and Cherrie have the same birthday :0)

To the best of our knowledge, Leopold Karpeles is the only Medal of Honor recipient in any section of the National Capitol Hebrew Cemetery. The sun was a bit too bright to get a better image, but he has a memorial on the website findagrave.com.

Cemetery Image 6

At the back end of the cemetery, a gate separates Washington Hebrew Congregation and Ohev Sholom, which is also identified by a beautiful engraved arch.

Cemetery Image 7

My favorite tombstone in Ohev Sholom was most likely for a child, given the size. In another 50 years, I suppose the tree will envelope the tombstone. Will anyone remember this grave once existed?

Cemetery Image 8

Another gate and a plaque separates Ohev Sholomand Elisavetgrad.

Cemetery Image 9

Elisavetgrad is a long and narrow cemetery compared to the others, and unfortunately, most of the burials were outside of the age range we sought. That left Adas Israel as our final stop. Which, by the way, you should know is only accessible from Alabama Avenue if the gates are open or from Washington Hebrew Congregation through a gate on the right before you leave.

We gathered more names to research, from tombstones in various styles and degrees of age:

Upon completing our tour of the cemetery, we headed off to lunch and compared photos and names we discovered. Sometimes it’s good to get out of the office!

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.

Research at the U.S. National Archives, with Alexandra Skerry

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 Alexandra Skerry, Shapell Roster Researcher.

Alexandra Skerry, Shapell Researcher.
Alexandra Skerry, Shapell Researcher.

“What’s been your favorite discovery so far?”

It’s so hard to choose just one “favorite discovery” so far because I feel like every day is a hunt for something exiting!  Anything that I find that can help me imagine what the soldier’s life or experiences may have been like are a treasure.  An exciting discovery that sticks out to me is finding a photograph in a soldier’s service record.  Soldier Louis Sholem has a photograph of himself attached to his Certificate of Disability for Discharge.  Proving he was also Jewish was icing on the cake!  I also love when we find connections between soldiers in the database.  I have come across a few soldiers who have given affidavits for each other saying they knew each other during the war and stayed friends for years after.  Even better, is finding connections to soldier’s that we don’t already have.  Every time we add new soldiers I feel like someone else’s story gets to be told.  This week, Adrienne (Adrienne Usher, Head Researcher) added soldier Aaron Dreyfuss who had one brother Gustave already in the database and I was able to find an additional brother Max who also served.

Click to view full-size images.

“What’s your favorite/least favorite thing about work at the National Archives?”

I love working at the National Archives!  There are so many documents just waiting to be discovered.  The staff there is so knowledgeable and I feel like the girls and I have made some great connections with people who have been able to bring our research to the next level.  I honestly can’t think of anything I dislike about working at NARA.

“What have you learned from your research and the research process?”

I have definitely learned that if you get stuck in your research, there is always somewhere else you can look or someone else you can ask.

“How long does it usually take to qualify or disqualify a soldier from the Roster?”

This depends on what records we have to look at.  Sometimes if a soldier has a Pension Record, I open it up am there is a marriage certificate or a death record that confirm the soldier is Jewish immediately.  Other times it takes some digging online or looking at additional records.

“What’s the longest you’ve gone without making any headway on a soldier/case?  

Usually not too long, because we have so many resources (and so many soldiers) to look at.  One case sticks out in my mind where I was looking for a soldier named Paul Bauer that was only mentioned as having served in his obituary.  The only record that could be found didn’t mention his first name and just that he served in the 5th US Cavalry.  After exhausting online resources I went to “Finding Aids” at NARA on four separate occasions to see if they could pull the muster rolls of the 5th US Cavalry for me (something they don’t normally do, because of their fragile state).  Adam (Adam Geibel, Researcher) was finally able to contact a researcher who had them pulled for him because he knew the exact location and box numbers of the documents I was looking for.  Even though we didn’t find our guy in the end, this experience helped me have a better relationship with one of the employees in the Finding Aids office, who has helped me again since!

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.

Research at the National Archives, with Adam Geibel

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 Adam Geibel, Shapell Roster Researcher.

“What’s been your favorite discovery so far?”

There’s tons of good guys and heroes, but the villain Max Rossvalley (a Confederate faux-Surgeon/crappy spy, who turned coat for the Union) and Rabbi Wise’s post-war mission to expose him as a dastardly liar. This guy is straight out of a Victorian melodrama and I’m still expecting to find out he tied damsels to train tracks while twirling his mustache.

“What’s your favorite/least favorite thing about work at the national archives?”

I do Open Source research (anything that I can reach online, with forays into Philadelphia-local archives). I… occasionally hit libraries, museums and even gun shows.

“What’s the longest you’ve gone without making any headway on a soldier/case?  How long does it usually take to qualify or disqualify a soldier from the Roster?”

I don’t think my figures can be used for a statistical deviation, because 1) I get tossed the ‘hard cases’ and 2) I’ve worked out a ‘firing rotation’, where I work about two hours and if I can’t make headway, I mark my last position and shift to another active information request. That reduces time wasted and frustration levels. Also, Adrienne (Adrienne Usher, Head Researcher) and I have worked out a way to ‘hot potato’ our hard cases – when we hit walls, she looks at mine & I look at hers, so rarely does evidence escape our researcher cross-fire. When it does, that can be an indicator that the subject had a hinky past/event (fake names, mis-remembered stories, hidden crimes, hidden social or moral shenanigans, & etc)

“What have you learned from your research and the research process?”

Like the French say, “plus ça change plus c’est la même chose.” I did some time as a solider and when I’m building up an almost three-dimensional profile of these guys, I’ll frequently think ‘yeah, that sounds like when… he reminds me of…’etc. Soldiers (particularly those from citizen armies) tend to act the same way, the biggest difference being the uniforms and the names on the payroll rosters.

The least favorite is when I’m unraveling someone’s story like a loose thread in a sweater and hit a blank wall – generally this’d be something like records for a synagogue, county or unit having been lost or burnt long, long ago. It also happens when a period newspaper hasn’t been preserved in a morgue somewhere. *I* know exactly where the answer *should be*, it’s just that the tome it’s hiding in may no longer exist. Bang head against wall, rinse, later, repeat. If you’ve ever seen the movie Brigadoon, it’s like the research version of that. Kinda. Sorta.

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.