To commemorate the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War, the National Museum of American Jewish History presented Jewish Soldiers in Blue & Gray, a first-of-its-kind documentary that reveals the little-known struggles that faced Jewish-Americans both in battle and on the home front during the Civil War. This film reveals an unknown chapter in American history when allegiances during the War Between the States deeply split the Jewish community. It examines a time when approximately 10,000 Jewish soldiers fought on both sides; 7,000 Union and 3,000 Confederate. It exposes General Ulysses Grant’s controversial decision to expel all Jews from his territory, and tells the stories of President Lincoln’s Jewish doctor who serve as a spy in the South and how five Union Jewish soldiers received the Congressional Medal of Honor. It features commentary by noted historians, with Sam Waterston as the voice of Abraham Lincoln and narration by Oscar-nominated screenwriter John Milius (Apocalypse Now).
This moving film allowed me to discover many surprising facts about American Jews during the Civil War.
More after the jump.
Various rabbis argued both for and against slavery. Rabbi David Einhorn of Baltimore wrote in support of abolitionism in his German-language newspaper “Sinai”. In 1861, he was run out of town by the local pro-slavery community. Imagine how differently the Civil War would have played out had Gov. Thomas Hicks allowed Maryland to join the Confederacy.
The word Jew was used mostly as a verb with a negative connotation at that time, so the Jews in the film mostly referred to themselves as following the Mosaic tradition, as Israelites or as Hebrews. This latent anti-Semitism was probably a factor in Jews being excluded from the Chaplaincy in the Army and Gen. Grant’s infamous General Order 11 which expelled all Jews from the Tennessee Territory – the only expulsion of Jews in American history.
Jews were loyal patriots and began to expect fair treatment in return. The Jewish community directly petitioned President Lincoln in both of these cases, and Lincoln was quite understanding. Lincoln appointed our countries first Jewish chaplain, setting the stage for Jewish observances during all future U.S. conflicts. Lincoln also reversed General Order 11. During the 1868 Presidential election, the question of General Order 11 was raised by the secular press; Grant repudiated the controversial order, asserting it had been drafted by a subordinate and he signed the document without reading. Grant won the election, receiving the majority of the Jewish vote. In fact, Grant participated in the dedication of Adas Israel Congregation in Washington, DC becoming the first American President to attend a synagogue service.
Civil War historian Gregory J. W. Urwin, professor of history at Temple University, moderated the post-film discussion with Jonathan Gruber, the film’s director, producer and writer, and Rabbi Lance Sussman, Ph.D. and senior rabbi at Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel, a lecturer and author on Jewish history.
For a list of showings of to order the DVD, please visit the National Center for Jewish Film website.