The Arty Semite

Friday Film: Jewish Confederates and Jewish Yankees

By Margaret Eby

  • Print
  • Share Share

Almost 150 years after shots rang out at Fort Sumter, the United States has yet to fully recover from the brutalities of the Civil War. The conflict ripped families apart along regional lines, and pummeled the economy and infrastructure of many Southern cities into such disrepair that many are still working on their reconstruction. When the increasingly bitter fight over slavery and states’ rights developed into full-on war, thousands of men on both sides rushed to volunteer for the armed services, including hundreds of Jewish Americans. And yet, according to the documentary “Jewish Soldiers in Blue & Gray,” screening February 13 and 22 at the Atlanta Jewish Film Festival, Jewish militiamen’s accomplishments have been woefully overlooked.

The film aims to redress this historical oversight, analyzing the well-worn story of the Civil War through the eyes of Jewish participants. Like the rest of the country, Jewish Americans were split on the issues of slavery and secession. The Confederacy, it turns out, was home to a considerable Jewish population. Charleston, South Carolina, was the largest Jewish American hub in the country until the middle of the 19th century. Louisiana senator Judah Benjamin, who the film follows at length, was not only the first elected Jewish representative of that state, he also served as Jefferson Davis’s right hand man. His likeness even appeared on the Confederate two dollar bill.

Of course, there were Jewish abolitionists as well as Jewish slave-owners. Perhaps the greatest unsung Jewish hero of the Civil War was Isachar Zacharie, Abraham Lincoln’s doctor-turned-spy for the boys in blue. “Jewish Soldiers in Blue & Gray,” using the standard documentary arsenal of historical experts and close-ups of dog-eared documents, gives a convincing representation of the valor of Jewish Americans in battle, and has a few touching stories of troops bonding together to preserve religious traditions even in the heat of a military campaign. One Passover, for example, soldiers substituted fermented cider for wine and hot peppers for maror.

The creeping tendrils of anti-Semitism made Jewish military accomplishments all the more impressive. Though Lincoln worked specifically against discrimination by religion, Jewish soldiers still had to fight for representation by a Jewish chaplain on the battle field. The most shocking blow against Jewish American families during the war was Ulysess S. Grant’s General Order 11, which ordered Jewish families in the Tennessee territory — an area that included Kentucky and parts of Mississippi — to evacuate their homes with only 24 hours notice. Though Lincoln overturned the order, the specter of the proclamation lingered, becoming a point of contention during Reconstruction.

“Jewish Soldier in Blue and Gray” certainly highlights the contributions that Jewish Americans made during the war effort, but it also shows how integrated Jewish immigrants already were into American culture at that time. Just like other Americans, Jewish Americans either supported slavery or didn’t, fought for their home in the sweltering South or the industrial North, sacrificed their limbs and livelihoods for the sake of principle. The only Jewish military cemetery in the world outside of Israel is located in Richmond, Virginia. As Lawrence Grossman has pointed out in an essay in this newspaper on the topic of Jews in the Civil War, the division of the country was an Americanizing process for recent Jewish immigrants. Jewish soldiers, whether in blue or gray, became American soldiers.


Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: Reconstruction, Margaret Eby, Jewish Soldiers in Blue and Gray, Isachar Zacharie, Judah Benjamin, Jefferson Davis, Fort Sumter, Film, Confedracy, Civil War, Atlanta Jewish Film Festival, Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses S. Grant

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.




Find us on Facebook!
  • “Everything around me turns orange, then a second of silence, then a bomb goes off!" First installment of Walid Abuzaid’s account of the war in #Gaza:
  • Is boredom un-Jewish?
  • Let's face it: there's really only one Katz's Delicatessen.
  • "Dear Diaspora Jews, I’m sorry to break it to you, but you can’t have it both ways. You can’t insist that every Jew is intrinsically part of the Israeli state and that Jews are also intrinsically separate from, and therefore not responsible for, the actions of the Israeli state." Do you agree?
  • Are Michelangelo's paintings anti-Semitic? Meet the Jews of the Sistine Chapel: http://jd.fo/i4UDl
  • What does the Israel-Hamas war look like through Haredi eyes?
  • Was Israel really shocked to find there are networks of tunnels under Gaza?
  • “Going to Berlin, I had a sense of something waiting there for me. I was searching for something and felt I could unlock it by walking the streets where my grandfather walked and where my father grew up.”
  • How can 3 contradictory theories of Yiddish co-exist? Share this with Yiddish lovers!
  • "We must answer truthfully: Has a drop of all this bloodshed really helped bring us to a better place?”
  • "There are two roads. We have repeatedly taken the one more traveled, and that has made all the difference." Dahlia Scheindlin looks at the roots of Israel's conflict with Gaza.
  • Shalom, Cooperstown! Cooperstown Jewish mayor Jeff Katz and Jeff Idelson, director of the National Baseball Hall of Fame, work together to oversee induction weekend.
  • A boost for morale, if not morals.
  • Mixed marriages in Israel are tough in times of peace. So, how do you maintain a family bubble in the midst of war? http://jd.fo/f4VeG
  • Despite the escalating violence in Israel, more and more Jews are leaving their homes in Alaska to make aliyah: http://jd.fo/g4SIa
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.