‘Jewish Soldiers in Blue and Gray’ recounts little-known yet significant aspect of Civil War history

Image from the film “Jewish Soldiers in Blue and Gray.”

By Cate Marquis, Special to the Jewish Light

April marked the 150th anniversary of the beginning of the Civil War, which makes a documentary about Jewish Americans in the Civil War especially timely.

“Jewish Soldiers in Blue and Gray” reveals the largely untold history of Jews on both sides of the Civil War. Despite their relatively small number in the general population at the time, Jews played a surprisingly significant part, volunteering in greater numbers than their proportion in the nation.

About 10,000 Jews fought in the Civil War, approximately 3,000 for the Confederacy and 7,000 for the Union, according to this well-researched, visually appealing film. Yet, most Civil War histories overlook their role. As this documentary tells us, the war was a turning point for Jews in America. Many regarded it as a chance to show their loyalty to their country. They served as officers on both sides but the war also revived hidden prejudices.

The documentary starts with shocking quote from General Ulysses S. Grant’s General Order 11, expelling Jews from the territories his army occupied. The film eventually gives the full story of that disturbing episode, including Lincoln’s order rescinding it.

The film gives a quick review of the history of Jews in America before focusing on notable events before, during and after the war. The documentary uses voice-over narration, illustrated by archival still photos, illustrations, documents and letters, along with interviews by experts and descendents. The film covers the big-picture events but also includes individual stories.

One story featured is that of Judah P. Benjamin, who was elected Senator from Louisiana while living in New Orleans and later became the Confederacy’s Secretary of State. Another man spotlighted was Isachar Zacharie, Lincoln’s foot doctor, who served as a Union spy.

Like other Americans, the war divided Jewish families and the documentary strives to balance stories of both sides. Particularly illuminating is its discussion of Jews in the South, in a society where race, not religion, was the basis of discrimination.

The debate over slavery within the Jewish community played a significant role in the national discussion. While Southerners justified slavery using the Torah, abolitionists expressed outrage that people who had once been slaves themselves could condone slavery. In the North, some synagogues were part of the Underground Railroad, while in the South, some Jews owned, or even bought and sold, slaves.

There are tales of heroism in battle, soldiers rising through the ranks and five Congressional Medal of Honor winners, a remarkable number considering the small numbers of Jewish Americans. Ironically, there was a post-war effort to discount the participation of Jews, roundly rebuffed by a Washington lawyer who published a book listing the names of Jewish Civil War soldiers.

“Jewish Soldiers in Blue and Gray” is a fascinating, well-made documentary, and a must-see for history buffs.

“Jewish Soldiers in Blue and Gray”

WHEN: 5:30 p.m. Tuesday, June 14

WHERE: Landmark Plaza Frontenac Cinema