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Only 15-Years-Old and Anchors Aweigh: Lee Rothschild’s Escape Into the US Navy


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The USS Cricket. Credit: "U.S. gunboat Cricket." [Photographed between 1861 and 1865, printed between 1880 and 1889]. Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress, Washington, DC. LC-DIG-ppmsca-34013.
Lee Rothschild's Pension Questionnaire, Featuring Birth Date and Tattoo Description. National Archives and Records Administration, National Archives Building, Washington, DC.

Leopold, or “Lee,” Rothschild was born February 8, 1849, in Sien, Prussia, making him one of the latest born soldiers and sailors included in The Shapell Roster. Lee’s mother died in 1851, shortly after giving birth to his sister Barbara, and Lee’s father immigrated to America to start a new life, but left his eight children with family in Prussia. One by one, the Rothschild children also made the journey to the new world. Lee came to America on his own at age 14 in 1863, in the middle of the Civil War; thus finding both national and domestic conflict upon his arrival. The nation’s war was already affecting the Rothschild family; Lee’s older brother, Louis, had enlisted the year before in the 2nd US Artillery and been wounded at the Second Battle of Manassas. The battle within the Rothschild clan was just starting. Lee went to Pittsburgh, to live with his father, now remarried and starting a new family, and by June 1864, the adolescent’s living situation felt intolerable, and teenage angst took over.

Department of the Interior. Bureau of Pensions. Case Files of Approved Pension Applications of Widows and Other Dependents of Civil War Veterans, ca. 1861-ca. 1910. Microfilm Publication and Textual Records, ARC Identifier no. 561929: Records of the Department of Veterans Affairs, 1773-2007, Record Group 15. National Archives and Records Administration, National Archives Building, Washington, DC.

“Boy[-]like, I ran away from home and went to Cleveland, Ohio and went to the house of my sister, Henrietta Rothschild, who was living with a man by the name of Wolf. He kept a boarding house and my sister worked for him. My sister took care of me and I sought work and found it as a boy to run errands in a dry goods store. One day, after I had been there a few days and had rec[eive]d wages once at least, I went to the house of my sister and some one [sic] of the boarders said to me, ‘Your father is here after you.’ Without a word to my sister or my father, I ran out of the back door, ran to the depot, jumped on a train and went to Cincinnati.”

Once in Cincinnati, however, Lee realized he had no money, food, or place to go.

Affidavit by Lee Rothschild, November 1903 Credit: Department of the Interior. Bureau of Pensions. Case Files of Approved Pension Applications of Widows and Other Dependents of Civil War Veterans, ca. 1861-ca. 1910. Microfilm Publication and Textual Records, ARC Identifier no. 561929: Records of the Department of Veterans Affairs, 1773-2007, Record Group 15. National Archives and Records Administration, National Archives Building, Washington, DC.

“I went into a restaurant and asked for a meal. Here I met some one [sic] who talked to me about the navy. This man took me to a recruiting office on the levee. I was asked my age and I said I was 15. I recall that this man said to the recruiting officer that ‘It was all right. He is 21.’ After some formality which I do not recall, I was taken to the receiving ship which was tied to the wharf, I think, on the Ohio shore. Within the first hour, someone called out ‘Fresh Fish’ at me and I was in a fight. It resulted in my being bitten on the cheek by a man who had been in the service longer and whose name was Moore or Williams, I think, and I carry the scar to this day. There is a scar ½ inch beneath my left eye which is the shape of a horse shoe, the convexity down, and in size about a half inch across.” 

Such was how Lee found himself enlisted and inducted as a sailor of the US Navy. In this chaos, he also accidently ended up on the rolls under his older brother’s name, a mistake he had to explain to the Bureau of Pensions in 1903 to confirm his identity and receive his benefits:

Affidavit by Lee Rothschild, May 1903. Credit: Department of the Interior. Bureau of Pensions. Case Files of Approved Pension Applications of Widows and Other Dependents of Civil War Veterans, ca. 1861-ca. 1910. Microfilm Publication and Textual Records, ARC Identifier no. 561929: Records of the Department of Veterans Affairs, 1773-2007, Record Group 15. National Archives and Records Administration, National Archives Building, Washington, DC.
US Treasury Department Report of Lee, Aka Louis, Rothschild's Service. Credit: Department of the Interior. Bureau of Pensions. Case Files of Approved Pension Applications of Widows and Other Dependents of Civil War Veterans, ca. 1861-ca. 1910. Microfilm Publication and Textual Records, ARC Identifier no. 561929: Records of the Department of Veterans Affairs, 1773-2007, Record Group 15. National Archives and Records Administration, National Archives Building, Washington, DC.

“I was a green German boy and did not understand or speak at all well the English language. When the officer who enlisted me asked me my name, I told him it was L. Rothschild. He said to me ‘Louis?’ and I, not half understanding him, answered him, ‘Yes.’ And it was so put down in the rolls. The fact is that the officer did not give me a chance to explain, had I understood him.

I had a brother by the name of Louis so that it was embarrassing to have the name of Louis used after I came home from the Navy. He and I talked the matter over and we decided I should use the first part of my German name, Leopold, and that I should make the name, Lee and I did so, and have been known as Lee Rothschild ever since[.]”

Lee enlisted in the Navy in July 1864 as a Landsman, with less than a year left of the Civil War to go. But, he served on four ships–the USS Grampus, the USS Great Western, the USS Cricket, and the USS Romeo–and he saw his fair share of action, which he detailed in his pension affidavits.

“On one occasion, we took Gen[eral E. R. S.] Canby up the river and I was assigned to duty that day as his orderly. I accompanied him to the hurricane deck. He and Cap’t Cronin were there together and I was following at the proper distance. A shot was fired from the bank and Gen’l Canby was hit. Cap’t Cronin helped him down to the officer’s cabin with my assistance.”

Affidavit by Lee Rothschild, November 1903. Credit: Department of the Interior. Bureau of Pensions. Case Files of Approved Pension Applications of Widows and Other Dependents of Civil War Veterans, ca. 1861-ca. 1910. Microfilm Publication and Textual Records, ARC Identifier no. 561929: Records of the Department of Veterans Affairs, 1773-2007, Record Group 15. National Archives and Records Administration, National Archives Building, Washington, DC.
Portrait of Major General Edward R. S. Canby, Taken by Jewish Confederate Soldier and Photographer Theodore Lilienthal. Credit: Lilienthal, Theo, photographer. "Portrait of Maj. Gen. Edward R. S. Canby, officer of the Federal Army." [Between 1860 and 1865]. Civil war Photographs, 1861-1865, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress, Washington, DC. LC-DIG-cwpb-07417.

Lee continued to explain that Canby was hit in a particularly private place, but allowed the surgeon to examine and treat him without any anesthetic. It became a joke amongst the sailors who stated “that the ball [fired] was the most important one of the War as it wounded Gen’l Canby, his staff, and all his privates.” The type of humor one would expect from a group of teenage sailors. Lee additionally recounted getting drunk in New Orleans, the flag being lowered on board his ship when they received news of the assassination of President Lincoln, and how medicine given to him for a fever and ague “made [his] teeth loose.” His pension questionnaire also shows he partook in another significant part of the Navy culture, and like so many sailors before him, got a tattoo: his initials with a shield beneath on his left forearm, taboo in most Jewish families. Small anecdotes that really help to paint a picture of what this then 15 year-old’s life was like on board a Navy ship during the Civil War.

Son's Letter on Lee Rothschild & Co. Stationary. Credit: Department of the Interior. Bureau of Pensions. Case Files of Approved Pension Applications of Widows and Other Dependents of Civil War Veterans, ca. 1861-ca. 1910. Microfilm Publication and Textual Records, ARC Identifier no. 561929: Records of the Department of Veterans Affairs, 1773-2007, Record Group 15. National Archives and Records Administration, National Archives Building, Washington, DC.

At his discharge, Lee was in very poor health. According to brother Louis;

“When he came home from the service, he was thin and emaciated; he was taken to Alleghany, Pa. About a month later, he was taken, sick as he was, to my sister[‘]s at Cleveland. He continued to get worse and was given up to die. He was jaundiced and was so low that I was told that I had better come. I went from Phil[adelphi]a to Cleveland to see him. This sickness was a continuation of what he had in the service. His mouth was so sore that he could not eat. I recall that I carried him from the car to the carriage when he went to Cleveland. He was months in getting at all well.”  

Lee recovered, and, after Lee spent time in Bucyrus, OH, the brothers ultimately settled together in Omaha, NE. Lee was a livestock dealer and Louis was an inspector for the city engineering department. Both are buried in the Pleasant Hill Jewish Cemetery in Omaha.

Lee Rothschild's Meat Shop, Bucyrus, OH, 1882. Credit: Courtesy of the Ohio History Connection, https://ohiomemory.org/digital/collection/p267401coll32/id/14162/

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