It’s not one of the four Passover questions, but it’s one that Jonathan Gruber, director of the documentary “Jewish Soldiers in Blue and Gray,” can’t help pondering.
“What was it like to be having a Seder [in the antebellum South] and to be talking about coming out of slavery while in the midst of this institutional slavery? One hundred-fifty years later, it’s still a sensitive subject,” Gruber says. “But I wanted not to shy away from the evils of slavery and also to understand why people fought for the South.”
In a documentary category that has been pretty well plundered for interesting stories (before and after Ken Burns’ PBS series “The Civil War” in 1990), Gruber’s film promises to bring compelling life to some very specific footnotes.
The documentarian will be at the Atlanta Cyclorama & Civil War Museum when his film is screened there Thursday. It’s the first event in “The Jewish Experience of the Civil War,” a partnership between the Cyclorama and the William Breman Jewish Heritage Museum. The partnership is intended in part to broaden the focus of both institutions.
“It was fascinating, learning about why some Jewish soldiers fought for the Confederacy,” says Gruber, a New Yorker who was fairly fresh to this history when he started his research. “Most people from New York are not well steeped in Civil War history, except for some of the low-hanging fruit. This was fascinating for me, because the Jewish experience in the United States, from my perspective, was New York- and East Coast-based.”
In fact, until the early 1800s, Charleston, South Carolina, had the United States’ largest Jewish population. One of the challenges facing Gruber, who also produced and wrote “Jewish Soldiers,” was winnowing down some 10,000 stories to a manageable onscreen number closer to 10.
While 7,000 Jewish soldiers are said to have fought for the Union, the 3,000 who fought for the Confederacy represented a proportionally larger force. Among the Confederacy’s prominent Jewish leaders was Judah P. Benjamin, secretary of war.
Gruber thinks the Jewish soldiers’ mind-set might have had its roots in their histories as refugees from persecution in Central Europe. “In the United States, they were no longer the lowest people on the totem pole,” he posits. “Coming from a place of being persecuted to a place where they were treated well felt like home to them. So when it came to fight, that’s what they did.”
Yet in one of the Civil War’s strangest footnotes, which is covered in the film, Union General Ulysses S. Grant, thinking that a black market in Southern cotton was somehow the work of Jews, expelled them from his military district, comprising parts of Tennessee, Mississippi and Kentucky, in 1862. President Abraham Lincoln rescinded the order a few weeks later.
“Jewish Soldiers in Blue and Gray” is narrated by an interesting choice: John Milus, a testosterone-loving Hollywood figure whose screenwriting credits include “Jeremiah Johnson” and “Apocalypse Now,” “Conan the Barbarian” and “Red Dawn” (the originals, in both cases).
“I met him when I was doing a History Channel show,” Gruber says. “We just hit it off. His family in Missouri had a connection to the Civil War, and he was into it.
“And his voice,” he adds, “is fantastic.”
Reception with Jonathan Gruber, 6:30 p.m.; screening at 7 p.m. $10; $8 seniors, children 4-12 and Breman Museum members.