Jewish slave traders, Civil War heroes, spies and foot doctors

by Eric Ginsburg

When I think of the Civil War, I never think about Jewish people. Not until recently, at least. When I saw an announcement for a film screening of Jewish Soldiers in Blue and Gray, I knew I couldn’t miss it.

It’s not surprising that most people don’t know about Jewish involvement in slavery or the Civil War, because it’s not a narrative held up in most historical accounts of the time or by the Jewish community. But I’m Jewish, I majored in history, and I live in the South. How did I miss this?

In part because so many Jews attempted to assimilate into mainstream white culture, their narrative is lost. For starters, my framework for Jewish history in the United States is based off my family history and what I’ve taught myself.

When I was a kid, my parents took me to Ellis Island and taught my sister and me about how my dad’s ancestors fled religious persecution in Lithuania and Romania, one relative hiding in the back of a hay cart in order to sneak out. My Jewish lineage came to the United States around the turn of the 20th century.

Historical Jewish figures that I’ve taught myself about, like Emma Goldman, arrived in waves around 1885. According to Temple Emanuel’s website, the first permanent Jewish settlers came to Greensboro in the same time period. Temple Emanuel was formed not long after, but it wasn’t until the 1940s that the Greensboro Jewish Federation and Beth David Synagogue were formed, with the American Hebrew Academy coming much later.

It’s a lousy historian who takes what he knows and assumes it to be the full truth without stopping to think about what he isn’t considering. Maybe it’s because I grew up in the North and almost all my Jewish family has always lived there, but I couldn’t connect Judaism and the Civil War until 150 years later.

The auditorium at the Greensboro Historical Museum was packed but we were able to find seats together in the back row. In a style reminiscent of the History Channel, the film began to unfold the complex history of Jewish involvement on both sides of the Civil War.

Jewish Major Mordecai, of North Carolina, resigned when war broke out rather than align himself with either army. A ring reading “Raleigh” in Hebrew was dug up at a battlefield.

All told, about 3,000 Jewish soldiers fought for the Confederacy, some defending their hometowns and others their slave plantations. The film explored personal stories of soldiers requesting time off for religious holidays, a female spy ring in the capital, and even the rise of Judah Benjamin, a Jewish senator who became the Confederate secretary of war and later secretary of state.

Approximately 7,000 Jews fought for the Union. In a time when the national Jewish population was 150,000, the film noted that an estimated 10,000 Jewish servicemen was a remarkable percentage.

The film portrayed Lincoln in an unflinchingly positive light, never alluding to the fact that he didn’t always oppose slavery. Instead it focused on his decision to allow a Jewish chaplain in the Union army and to send his Jewish foot doctor to negotiate with the Confederacy. It also noted that five Jews were awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for their Union service.

Most shocking to me, however, was learning about General Ulysses S. Grant’s General Order No. 11, where he called for the forcible eviction of all Jews living within “the department” under his control, a large area including parts of Tennessee, Mississippi and Kentucky, within 24 hours.

I remember my dad telling me that in places like where I grew up, there used to be laws against Jews owning land, but I had never heard of this. When I mentioned Grant’s order to a fellow Jewish student of history — who has been known to surf Wikipedia for hours filling his brain with information that could one day help him win “Jeopardy” — he said he already knew about it but couldn’t remember where he heard it. I walked out of the film thinking, once again, about how much of my own history I don’t know.

The movie was slow at times, and might seem even slower to someone who doesn’t place so much importance on history or have a specific interest in Jewish history. Nonetheless, the film explored the disagreements within the Jewish community about whether owning slaves contradicted the Passover teachings, pushing my perception of both the Civil War and my own people.

Part of the larger exhibit at the Greensboro Historical Museum about Jewish life in North Carolina, the film illustrated a different lens through which to view the Civil War and a more complex picture of Jewish history in the country. It’s also a reminder that we are all constantly students, learning regardless of whether school’s out for the summer or school is out forever.