There are attics in historic Charleston that, taken together, could tell epic stories of the War Between the States. Charred curtains, sword-slashed upholstery, and the odd silver place setting that escaped Yankee looting thanks to some brave female ancestor’s enterprising use of her underclothes are, we are told, many native Charlestonians’ treasured family heirlooms. Such battered household objects are familiar ghosts to those of us living in Southern cities — even if we’ve never laid eyes on any ourselves.

But for all the familiarity that so many down here have with the Civil War and its small, odd details, there’s one set of stories that may have enjoyed comparatively little fame, even among devotees. It’s these stories that are the subject of the documentary Jewish Soldiers in Blue and Gray, which will make its premiere at the Charleston Film Festival.

As the title makes pretty clear, the film explores the history and experiences of American Jews on both sides of the war. Written, produced, and directed by documentarian Jonathan Gruber, the film’s inspiration can be traced partly to a Civil War historian in Virginia named Robert Marcus who, Gruber says, “has all these amazing materials of Civil War Judaica,” and who supplied many of the images used in the film. The stories uncovered through these images, and the intense historical research that was undertaken to produce the film, will be entirely new to most audiences, Jewish or not. Many have never been told before.

Take, for example, one of the more harrowing episodes in the Jewish American experience: General Ulysses S. Grant’s issuing of General Order No. 11, which expelled all Jews from Kentucky, Mississippi, and Tennessee as punishment for their supposed participation in the black market trade in Southern cotton. Revoked three days later by order of President Lincoln, it’s a shocking glimpse of how things could have gone for Jews in America, and a reminder of how deep prejudices can run — not to mention a perfect starting point to begin an alternate history novel.
The filmmakers found many other surprises, not the least of which deals with one of the Civil War’s most basic and brutal realities: slavery.

Considering that the history of Judaism is inextricably linked with flight from persecution, it seems paradoxical that Southern Jews would take up arms to defend institutionalized slavery. But, as is nearly always the case, history is more complicated than it seems. According to Robert Rosen, a local historian, author, and attorney who is interviewed in the film, Jews were well accepted and deeply assimilated in the Southern states. “Jews accepted the Southern way of life like everyone else … [and] slavery pervaded life in the old South,” Rosen says. Jewish Confederates were therefore fighting to defend a home and way of life that had embraced them, allowing them to live freely even as it denied the most basic freedoms to a huge proportion of its population.

“Two things popped into my head: Jews were coming to the South, where slavery was an institution, and every year at Passover they talk about coming out of bondage,” Gruber wonders. Passover is the Jewish holiday that celebrates the emancipation of the Israelites from slavery in ancient Egypt, and Gruber was curious how American slavery would play out in Jewish homes. “I wanted to know how rabbis discussed the concept in the U. S. It turns out that Morris Raphall, a rabbi from New York, was one of the strongest proponents of slavery. He found a Bible verse that said to ‘rest your slave on the Sabbath,’ which therefore meant that slavery was OK.”  

But it wasn’t all anti-Semitism and questionable moral justifications. There were many positive and momentous developments for American Jews during the Civil War, which is part of why Gruber and the many others who worked on the film felt that these stories needed to be told.
First of all, the 19th century was a good time for Jewish immigrants to America. most of those who made the dangerous journey came from central Europe, where they had been persecuted for generations. In the North and the South, Gruber says, there were countless opportunities that weren’t available back home. These opportunities fueled further immigration, and between 1840 and 1880, the American Jewish population grew from 15,000 to 250,000. “It’s a very small story, Jews in the Civil War … but it’s an important part of the American Jewish experience. Jewish people are part and parcel of the American fabric, and this was a time when they became more a part of society,” he says.

The first Jewish chaplains appeared during the war, and one of President Lincoln’s doctors, a Jewish American, served as a spy and diplomatic envoy to the Confederacy. Jewish soldiers tallied up five Congressional Medals of Honor throughout the war, an especially impressive feat when one considers their overall numbers.

One of these Medals of Honor went to a Jewish immigrant named Leopold Karpeles, whose great-great-granddaughter Bryn Greenleaf appears in the film. Karpeles lived in Texas with his brother when war broke out, but left the Confederate state for Massachusetts to follow his convictions and fight for the North. “He was a flagbearer, which was a dangerous position … you weren’t allowed to carry many weapons, you were really symbolic of the country and the first the other side wanted to kill or capture. So it took someone who truly believed in the cause, and had the wherewithal to survive,” Greenleaf says. Karpeles was awarded the Medal for his heroic actions during the Battle of the Wilderness, where he exposed himself to enemy fire to stand up on stumps and rally the troops around the flag, ultimately preventing a retreat.

It was the chance to talk to descendants like Greenleaf, Gruber says, that was one of the most moving experiences of working on Jewish Soldiers in Blue and Gray. “The stories that were passed down, and the pride that these descendants had for their ancestors who fought in the war…it was amazing to see.”

What is equally amazing — or perhaps inspiring is a better word — is that these stories, like all great stories, are about more than the Jewish experience in America. “It’s kind of a niche film, sure, but the story itself is really more about a group of people who come for the American Dream and are able to achieve it, through the democratic principles of the U.S. and fighting for their new country,” Gruber says.

And isn’t that a history that most of us in this melting pot share?