On December 17, 1862, as the Civil War entered its second winter, General Ulysses S. Grant issued the most notorious anti-Jewish official order in American history: “The Jews, as a class violating every regulation of trade established by the Treasury Department and also department orders, are hereby expelled from the department within twenty-four hours from the receipt of this order.”
Known as General Orders No. 11, the document blamed “Jews, as a class” for the widespread smuggling and cotton speculation in Tennessee, Mississippi and Kentucky, the area under Grant’s command. It required the Jews to leave.
Less than 72 hours after the order was issued, 3,500 Confederate troops led by Major General Earn Van Dorn raided Grant’s forces at Holly Springs, Mississippi. Grant’s lines of communication were disrupted for weeks. As a consequence, news of his order expelling the Jews spread slowly and did not reach army headquarters in a timely fashion. This spared many Jews who might otherwise have been banished.
A copy of General Orders No. 11 finally reached Paducah, Kentucky—a city occupied by Grant’s forces—eleven days after it was issued. Cesar Kaskel, a staunch Union supporter, and all the other known Jews in the city received papers ordering them “to leave the city of Paducah, Kentucky, within twenty-four hours.” Devastated, Kaskel and several other Jews dashed off a telegram to President Abraham Lincoln describing their plight.
Lincoln, in all likelihood, never saw that telegram. He was busy preparing to issue the Emancipation Proclamation. The irony of his freeing the slaves while Grant was expelling the Jews was not lost. Some Jewish leaders feared Jews would replace African-Americans as the nation’s stigmatized minority.
Kaskel decided to appeal to Abraham Lincoln in person. Paul Revere-like, he sped to Washington, spreading news of General Orders No. 11 wherever he went. With help from a friendly Congressman, he obtained an immediate interview with the President, who turned out to have no knowledge of the order, for it had not reached the capital. According to an oft-quoted report, Lincoln invoked biblical imagery in the meeting, a reminder of how many 19th-century Americans linked Jews to Ancient Israel, and America to the Promised Land.
“And so,” Lincoln is said to have declaimed, “the Children of Israel were driven from the happy land of Canaan?”
“Yes,” Kaskel responded, “and that is why we have come unto Father Abraham’s bosom, asking protection.”
“And this protection,” Lincoln declared, “they shall have at once.”
General-in-Chief of the Army Henry Halleck, ordered by Lincoln to countermand General Orders No. 11, chose his words carefully. “If such an order has been issued,” his telegram to Grant read, “it will be immediately revoked.”
In a follow-up meeting with Jewish leaders, Lincoln reaffirmed that he knew “of no distinction between Jew and Gentile.” “To condemn a class,” he emphatically declared, “is, to say the least, to wrong the good with the bad. I do not like to hear a class or nationality condemned on account of a few sinners.”
Anti-Jewish prejudices during the Civil War were likely heightened by the prominence of several Jews—notably Jefferson Davis’s right-hand man and cabinet secretary, Judah P. Benjamin—in the ranks of the Confederacy. In addition, smuggling, speculating, price gouging, swindling and producing “shoddy” merchandise for the military—all were laid upon the doorstep of “the Jews.” Indeed, “Jews” came to personify wartime profiteering. They bore disproportionate blame for badly produced uniforms, poorly firing weapons, inedible foodstuffs and substandard merchandise that corrupt contractors supplied to the war effort and sutlers marketed to unsuspecting troops. In the eyes of many Americans (including some in the military), all traders, smugglers, sutlers and wartime profiteers were “sharp-nosed” Jews, whether they were or not. The implication was that Jews preferred to benefit from war rather than fight in it.
If that was the cause of Grant’s order, it does not explain its timing. That was linked to a visit Grant received from his 68-year-old father, Jesse R. Grant, and members of the prominent Mack family of Cincinnati, significant Jewish clothing manufacturers. The Macks had formed a secret partnership with the elder Grant. In return for 25 percent of their profits, he agreed to accompany them to his son’s Mississippi headquarters and act as their agent “to procure a permit for them to purchase cotton.” According to an eyewitness, General Grant waxed indignant at his father’s crass attempt to profit from his son’s military status, and he raged at the Jewish traders who “entrapped his old father into such an unworthy undertaking.” In a classic act of displacement, according to Grant scholar John Y. Simon, he “expelled the Jews rather than his father.”
Subsequently, Ulysses S. Grant never defended General Orders No. 11. In his Personal Memoirs, he ignored it. His wife, Julia, proved far less circumspect. She characterized General Orders No. 11 as nothing less than “obnoxious.”
General Orders No. 11 came back to haunt Grant when he ran for President in 1868. Following his victory, he released an unprecedented letter that told Jews just what they wanted to hear: “I have no prejudice against sect or race, but want each individual to be judged by his own merit. Order No. 11 does not sustain this statement, I admit, but then I do not sustain that order.”
During the remainder of his life, Grant demonstrated that his apology was genuine. He appointed more Jews to public office than all previous presidents combined, and spoke out for Jewish rights on multiple occasions. As a result, when he died of cancer in 1885, Jews mourned him deeply. Kaddish was recited in his memory in many synagogues.
Subsequently, of course, Grant’s reputation sank like a stone. Historians of the South’s “Lost Cause” criticized his benevolent policy toward African-Americans and ranked him among the country’s worst presidents ever. A reexamination of Grant’s career makes it clear that he deserved better. His transformation from enemy to friend, from a general who expelled “Jews as a class” to a President who embraced Jews as “individuals,” reminds us that even great figures in history can learn from their mistakes.
Jonathan D. Sarna, Joseph H. & Belle R. Braun Professor of American Jewish History, Brandeis University.