When Gen. Grant Expelled the Jews
How a notorious anti-Semitic order changed the course of Jewish life in America—ultimately, for the better.
Photo from Brady-Handy Photograph Collection/Library of Congress.
On Dec. 17, 1862, as the Civil War entered its second winter, Gen. 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 for the widespread smuggling and cotton speculation that affected the area under Grant’s command. That area, known as the “Department of the Tennessee,” stretched from northern Mississippi to Cairo, Ill., and from the Mississippi River to the Tennessee River. Grant ordered Jews expelled from every inch of it and warned that “any one returning ... will be arrested and held in confinement until an opportunity occurs of sending them out as prisoners.” Lest anyone try to change his mind, Grant made clear that “no passes will be given these people to visit headquarters for the purpose of making personal application for trade permits.”
Americans today are often surprised to learn that Ulysses S. Grant once expelled “Jews as a class” from his war zone. It seems incredible that he could blame Jews for the sins of smugglers and traders—most of whom were not actually Jewish at all—and expel them from the entire territory under his command. Some Jews at the time wondered whether their new homeland was coming to resemble anti-Semitic Europe at its worst.
In the end, only a small number of Jews were seriously affected by General Orders No. 11. Within hours of its issuance, Confederate Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest staged a daring raid that tore up rail and telegraph lines around Grant’s headquarters at Holly Springs, Miss. The resulting breakdown in communications meant that news of General Orders No. 11 spread slowly.
Eleven days later, when Jews were belatedly expelled from Paducah, Ky., one of those affected, Cesar Kaskel, rushed to Washington to protest. With help from Cincinnati’s outgoing Republican congressman, John Addison Gurley, who had ready access to the White House, he was able to see Abraham Lincoln at once.
“And so,” Lincoln is said to have drawled when Kaskel displayed General Orders #11 before him, “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.”
Even if (as seems likely) no such conversation actually took place, Lincoln did instantly instruct the general-in-chief of the Army, Henry Halleck, to countermand General Orders No. 11. Two days later, several urgent telegrams went out from Grant’s headquarters in obedience to that demand: “By direction of the General in Chief of the Army at Washington,” they read, “the General Order from these Head Quarters expelling Jews from this Department is hereby 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.” In short order, attention returned to the battlefield, where, within a year, Grant’s victory at Vicksburg elevated him to the status of a national hero.
But like any trauma, General Orders No. 11 turned out to have lingering effects. In the short term, it brought to the surface deep-seated fears that, in the wake of the Emancipation Proclamation, Jews might replace blacks as the nation’s most despised minority. Some Jewish leaders explicitly feared that freedom for slaves would spell trouble for Jews.
Jonathan D. Sarna is the Joseph H. & Belle R. Braun professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University and chief historian of the National Museum of American Jewish History. This article is adapted from his new book, When General Grant Expelled the Jews.