Last night, for the second time, I watched the 2011 documentary film, “Jewish Soldiers in Blue and Gray” and heard a talk back with the producer, Jonathan Gruber. The program, held at the Rockville JCC, was sponsored by the Foundation for Jewish Studies, an organization whose board I am now serving on.
If you get a chance to see this film (and the DVD can be purchased or rented), see it. It is very well made and engrossing, and will probably teach you something you didn’t know.
The point was made that for a long time, there was little talk, either from Civil War historians, or Jewish historians, about the role of Jews in the Civil War. Why this was so, I am not sure, but times have changed, and now there has been much research on the topic, and many new documents have turned up to back up the research.
In 1860, there were about 150,000 Jews in the United States (and this included women, children, elderly, the sick, etc.). During the Civil War, there were at least 10,000 Jewish soldiers, a percentage participation higher than among the non-Jewish.
You can speculate why there was so much Jewish participation. The film suggests that it has to do with Jews as recent arrivals (the population increased by 200% between 1850 and 1860), who were welcomed into this strange land of (for some) freedom, and wanted to show their appreciation and their patriotism and their social assimilation. And this is probably true to a great extent. But I am sure there is more, although I cannot speculate on what it might be.
At any rate, 7000 of these 10,000 fought for the Union and 3000 for the Confederacy, and by and large they were good soldiers, ranging from foot soldiers to at least one Major General. The film talks of 8 or 10 soldiers, north and south, showing a little of their background, and their wartime activities.
The Jews of the south were perhaps more integrated into society than those of the north. Whether they were plantation owners (there were a few) or traders (there were many), they seemed to fit right in. As most southern whites supported slavery, so apparently did most southern Jews. Some even owned slaves and few (and I think no rabbis) were engaged in visible abolitionist work. The Jews of the north were congregating in the cities, and may have been more recently arrived in the country. The southern Jews had a long history in this country and even longer in this hemisphere; until 1835, Charleston had the largest Jewish population in the country. The northern Jewish population (with exceptions) did not have the same pedigree.
Just as non-Jews were devastated by the Civil War, just as non-Jewish families were torn apart, with family members fighting in opposite armies, so it was with the Jews. The film focused on one Illinois based family, whose sons had spread out, some of whom fought for the South. And on another man, a West Point graduate and high ranking army officer, who resigned his commission, because he could not fight against his family in the South, and could not fight for the South against the army he had so well served.
A few specific incidents were also cited, including General Grant’s infamous Order #13, which gave the Jews of the Tennessee territory 24 hours to leave the territory. Much has been written about this bizarre and troublesome incident, almost immediately quashed by President Lincoln, including Jonathan Sarna’s recently released book “When General Grant Expelled the Jews”. Grant became very contrite, saying that the order was issued without thought, and became close to the Jewish community after the war, including throughout his presidency.
Then there was Mark Twain, who issued a statement suggesting that the Jews typically chose not to serve in the war, and that their patriotism was questionable. Washington lawyer Simon Wolf responded to Twain by putting together a book that listed the 10,000 Jewish member of the military who served. Like Grant, Twain recanted and said that Wolf’s book has put this question to rest. Today, the Shapell Manuscript Foundation, one of the film’s sponsors, is trying to update Wolf’s book, as it is clear that he did not have all of the necessary documentation at his disposal.
In addition to Sarna’s book, you may want to consider Eli Evans’ “Judah P. Benjamin: the Jewish Confederate”, a biography of the former Senator from Louisiana who became Secretary of State and of War for the CSA, as well as Robert Rosen’s “The Jewish Confederates”, which deals with the Jews of the Confederacy during the war.