When General Grant
Expelled the Jews
By Jonathan D. Sarna
Nextbook/Schocken, 224 pages

In December 1862, from his military headquarters in Mississippi, Major General Ulysses S. Grant issued a directive expelling “Jews as a class” from the immense war zone known as the Department of the Tennessee. General Orders No. 11 was the most notorious anti-Jewish edict ever issued by an official of the U.S. government, and it was overruled by the commander in chief, President Abraham Lincoln, as soon as he learned of it in Washington.

Notwithstanding its sweeping terms, the order turned out to have little immediate impact on the thousands of Jews living in the area under Grant’s command. Only about 100 Jews were uprooted, primarily in northern Mississippi and in Paducah, Kentucky. Grant’s expulsion order had no discernible effect on the war or on his own military career, either. Lincoln later promoted him to lieutenant general—a rank previously held only by George Washington—and named him commander of all Union armies. Grant became a national hero and was twice elected president. 

And yet General Orders No. 11 proved to be far more than merely an interesting footnote to the Civil War. As Jonathan D. Sarna recounts in When General Grant Expelled the Jews, his engaging and splendidly researched new book, the ugly episode reverberated for decades. The expulsion order galvanized American Jewish politics and played a part in Grant’s run for the White House in 1868. “The issue thrust Jews, for the first time in American history, into the center of the political maelstrom,” writes Sarna, Brandeis University’s distinguished historian of Jewish life in America.

More striking by far was the order’s long-term effect on Grant himself. He came to regret deeply what he had done and went to great lengths to make amends—so much so that the eight years of the Grant administration would prove to be the first golden age for American Jewry. As president, Grant appointed more Jews to public office than any of his predecessors had and displayed remarkable sensitivity to the plight of persecuted Jews abroad. At his death in 1885, Grant was fervently mourned in the nation’s synagogues. “Seldom before,” one Jewish newspaper remarked at the time, “has the Kaddish been repeated so universally for a non-Jew as in this case.”

Ulysses Grant, a hero of the Jews? Nowadays—when the 18th president is caricatured as a corrupt and brutal drunkard, and when his entry in the Encyclopaedia Judaica begins by noting that “Grant’s name has been linked irrevocably with anti-Jewish prejudice”—such a characterization might strike many as startling. In the 1860s, it would have been flatly unthinkable. To the nation’s tiny Jewish minority—Jews then were about 0.5 percent of the American public—General Orders No. 11 echoed some of the most tragic episodes in Jewish history, when “Jews as a class” were expelled en masse from lands where they had lived for generations. Grant was “compared, in some Jewish circles, to historic enemies of the Jewish people,” Sarna writes—especially to Haman, the villain of the Book of Esther who schemed to destroy the Jews only to be destroyed himself when the king overturned his plans. 

Yet the expulsion order had less to do with anti-Semitic hostility than with Grant’s seething frustration at the smugglers and profiteers who were undercutting Union efforts to suppress the black market in Southern cotton. Some of the speculators were certainly Jews, enough so to feed a popular stereotype that “Israelites” were the worst offenders. Upon learning that his own father had teamed up with three Jewish traders from Cincinnati in a scheme to procure cotton at a discount, the general lashed out in anger and issued the order expelling all Jews “within twenty-four hours from the receipt of this order.”

Resistance to Grant’s directive sprang up at once. When Cesar Kaskel, of Paducah, a Jewish businessman and avid supporter of Lincoln and the Union, was handed a copy of the “scarcely-to-be-believed order,” he set off for Washington as quickly as possible, hoping to get the order rescinded by the president. He wasn’t the only one. “Deputations of Jews are arriving here to solicit the President to countermand or modify the order of Gen. Grant excluding Israelites from his lines,” the New York Tribune reported from the capital. Jews elsewhere lobbied in the court of public opinion. The Missouri lodges of B’nai B’rith publicly petitioned Lincoln “to protect the liberties even of your humblest constituents,” who had been “driven from their homes, deprived of their liberty, and injured in their property without having violated any law or regulation.”

Lincoln acted with gratifying speed. Learning from Kaskel of General Orders No. 11 on January 3—two days, it so happened, after the Emancipation Proclamation took effect—he immediately revoked the edict. In one account, doubtless apocryphal, the president invoked biblical language in his meeting with Kaskel:

LINCOLN: And so the children of Israel were driven from the happy land of Canaan?

KASKEL: Yes, and that is why we have come unto Father Abraham’s bosom, asking protection.

LINCOLN: And this protection they shall have at once.

Grant accepted Lincoln’s revocation of the order without protest and made no attempt to defend his actions when Congress debated the incident. Nor did he comment as editorials about it appeared in the press. Even in newspapers sympathetic to Grant, writes Sarna, the dominant view was that Jews should have been treated as individuals and not stigmatized as a class. “All swindlers are not Jews,” observed the New York Times. “All Jews are not swindlers.”

That might have been the end of the matter had Grant not run for president in 1868. Democrats, eager to diminish his heroic stature, played up the story of the scandalous wartime order. Never before had a significant “Jewish issue” been involved in a national political campaign, and never before had American Jews had reason to fear that a presidential nominee was overtly anti-Semitic. 

For Jews who supported the Democratic Party, such as Cincinnati’s celebrated Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise, the decision to denounce Grant was easy. “We will consider it our duty to oppose him and the party nominating him,” he wrote. “Worse than General Grant none in this nineteenth century in civilized countries has abused and outraged the Jews.”

But for the many Jews who shared the Republican Party’s anti-slavery principles, the memory of what Grant had done six years earlier posed a vexing quandary. The election of 1868 was shaping up as a national referendum on Reconstruction and black suffrage, with Democrats determined to crush any hope of equality for the freed slaves. Sarna closely explores the dilemma Jewish voters confronted: “Should they vote for a party they considered bad for the country just to avoid voting for a man who had been bad to the Jews?” It was a problem made more acute by the fear of being charged with dual loyalties. A prevalent belief then was that Jews in a democracy were obliged to vote in the best interest of the nation, without regard to their own parochial sentiments. 

Just how far this conviction could be taken was illustrated by another notable rabbi of the time. Liebman Adler, the spiritual leader of Chicago’s oldest synagogue, insisted that if the political party that he deemed best for “the welfare of the country, so far as the advancement of human rights was concerned” were to nominate the odious Haman himself, “I should say, ‘Prosper under Haman, my fatherland, and here you have my vote, even if all the Jew in me mourns.’”

Flip Flop? A cartoon by Bernhard Gillam published in the February 15, 1882 issue of Punch contrasts Grant’s General Orders No. 11 with his speech deploring anti-Semitism in Russia.

 Amid journalists’ overblown estimates of the Jewish vote and the impact it might have in November, the Grant campaign—through an indirect choreography that by 21st-century standards seems wonderfully quaint and restrained—put out the word that the nominee repudiated General Orders No. 11. Once the election was behind him, Grant made his disavowal explicit. “I do not pretend to sustain the Order,” he wrote in a letter released to the public. “[It] was issued and sent without any reflection….I have no prejudice against sect or race, but want each individual to be judged by his own merit.”

That may have sounded like self-justifying boilerplate. But Grant meant it. He had come to regard the order as a blot on his reputation. It embarrassed him profoundly. Throughout his presidency and beyond, he would never stop reaching for opportunities to atone for having “failed to live up to his own high standard of what it meant to be an American.” 

In the end, as nearly half of Sarna’s book persuasively documents, Grant turned out to be one of the most important allies of the Jewish people ever elected president. He appointed Jews to government positions they could never before have aspired to, such as governor of Washington (then a federal territory) and recorder of deeds for the District of Columbia (a post that Frederick Douglass would later hold). He opposed a campaign to amend the Constitution to acknowledge explicitly “the Lord Jesus Christ as the Ruler among the nations.” And, breaking with precedent, Grant publicly condemned the mistreatment of Jews overseas. “The sufferings of the Hebrews of Roumania profoundly touches every sensibility of our nature,” he said in 1870—a sensibility he underscored by the unprecedented selection of a Jewish consul-general to Bucharest. 

Late in his second term, Grant became the first American president to attend the dedication of a new synagogue, Washington’s Adas Israel. His appearance was a powerful symbol of Judaism’s acceptance in American life. “The man who had once expelled ‘Jews as a class’ from his war zone personally came to honor Jews for upholding and renewing their faith,” Sarna writes. For good measure, he made a substantial personal contribution to the new congregation’s coffers. More impressive: He remained through the entire three-hour ceremony.

When General Grant Expelled the Jews is a compelling, even inspiring, tale of redemption. “Akin to the biblical seer Balaam,” Sarna remarks, “he had been expected to curse the Jews and ended up blessing them.” Sarna’s fine work is a heartening reminder that even politicians are sometimes touched by the better angels of their nature, and it’s a welcome revision to the 18th president’s place in American and Jewish history.

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