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Jewish Soldiers in Blue and Gray

Directed by Jonathan Gruber; Indigo Films

For 19th-century Jews, whose ancestors had experienced bigotry for thousands of years, the United States seemed a haven of relative tolerance in a world of persecution. So how did American Jews line up during the Civil War?

This earnest but engaging film documentary reveals that Jews, like all Civil War–era Americans, were painfully divided but patriotic. About 10,000 Jews—7,000 Union and 3,000 Confederate—enlisted, a higher percentage than any other ethnic group. Five Jewish soldiers in the Union Army received the Congressional Medal of Honor. Some Northern synagogues were stations on the Underground Railroad, but Northern rabbis and their congregations split over emancipation. One leading New York rabbi cited the Torah to defend slavery; an abolitionist Baltimore rabbi was driven out of town. Southern Jews, slaveholders or not, often felt they were repaying acceptance into the community by fighting for the Confederacy.

General Ulysses S. Grant united Northern Jews in December 1862. Trying to throttle the thriving black market in Southern cotton in his Department of the Tennessee, Grant issued General Orders, No. 11, which expelled all Jews from the region within 24 hours. The order’s flagrant racism raised an outcry. Eminent Jewish Unionists, led by Cesar Kaskel of Paducah, Ky., immediately intervened directly with Lincoln, knowing “Father Abraham” had a sympathetic ear. Instantly grasping the constitutional implications, Lincoln (the voice is Sam Waterston’s) had General in Chief of the Army Henry Halleck countermand Grant’s order. The wording displays Lincoln’s lawyerly craftiness: “A paper purporting to be General Orders, No. 11, issued by you December 17, has been presented here. By its terms, it expells [sic] all Jews from your department. If such an order has been issued, it will be immediately revoked.” That defused the situation—and the questions it raised about Union commitment to equality. It also let Lincoln avoid a direct rebuke of his most effective general. Grant took his cue and rescinded the order three days later.

Threading the vignettes is Hollywood filmmaker John Milius’ narration. (Milius’ Jewish ancestors fought with the Missouri Partisan Rangers, Confederate irregulars.) At times, onscreen commentators yield to overstatement. Otherwise, this informative intro delivers history we should know.


Originally published in the October 2012 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here.