Gen. Grant’s Uncivil War Against The Jews

The surprising tale of how he turned into ‘America’s Haman.’

02/28/12
Special To The Jewish Week
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Purim serves as an appropriate moment to recall a man known for a time as “America’s Haman.” That Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s story ended very differently than the story of Haman in the Book of Esther reminds us how America itself is different, and how often it has surprised Jews for the better.

On Dec. 17, 1862, as the Civil War entered its second winter, Gen. Ulysses S. Grant issued the most Haman-like 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 that affected the area under Grant’s command. It required them to leave a vast war zone stretching from northern Mississippi to Cairo, Ill., and from the Mississippi River to the Tennessee River.

Less than 72 hours after the order was issued, Grant’s forces at Holly Springs, Miss., were raided, knocking out rail and telegraph lines and disrupting lines of communication for weeks. As a result, news of General Orders No. 11 spread slowly, and did not reach company commanders and army headquarters in Washington in a timely fashion. Many Jews who might otherwise have been banished were spared.

A copy of General Orders No. 11 finally reached Paducah, Ky. — a city occupied by Grant’s forces — 11 days after it was issued. Cesar Kaskel, a staunch union supporter, as well as all the other known Jews in the city, were handed papers ordering them “to leave the city of Paducah, Kentucky, within twenty-four hours.” As they prepared to abandon their homes, 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 on contemporaries. Some Jewish leaders feared that Jews would replace blacks as the nation’s stigmatized minority.

Kaskel decided to appeal to Abraham Lincoln in person. Paul Revere-like, he sped down 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 whatsoever of the order, for it had not reached Washington. According to an oft-quoted report, he resorted to biblical imagery in his interview with Kaskel, 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 drawled, “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 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.”

In the aftermath, Grant found himself compared in Jewish newspapers to historic enemies of the Jewish people, Haman in particular. The Hebrew journal Hamagid, published in the Prussian town of Lyck, in recounting the Grant episode for Hebrew-speaking Jews across Europe, used the very language of the Book of Esther to underscore parallels between the biblical story and the contemporary one. It also anticipated that Jews would one day have their revenge on the general: “The day will come,” it predicted, “when he will pay in judgment for all of the damage that he wrought upon the Children of Israel by his ignorant and wicked order, and his deeds will recoil upon his own head.”

We now know that Grant’s expulsion order was linked to a visit he received from his 68-year-old father, Jesse R. Grant, who was accompanied by members of the prominent Mack family of Cincinnati, significant Jewish clothing manufacturers. The Macks, as part of an ingenious scheme, 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 raged at the Jewish traders who “entrapped his old father into such an unworthy undertaking.” In a classic act of displacement, 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. Many Jews could not bring themselves to vote for “Haman.” Following his victory, though, Grant 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 critical of his benevolent policy toward African Americans ranked him close to the bottom among all American presidents. At one point, only Warren G. Harding ranked lower.

A re-examination of Grant’s career makes clear that he deserved better. His transformation from “Haman” to “Mordecai,” from a general who expelled “Jews as a class” to a president who embraced Jews as “individuals,” serves as an apt Purim-time reminder that even great figures in history can learn from their mistakes. Hatred can be overcome.

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.  His book “When General Grant Expelled the Jews” has just been published by Schocken/Nextbook.

Last Update:

01/18/2014 - 21:36

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Mr. Regenstein, the first commenter on this book review, like me, lives here in Atlanta. Unlike me, he continues to fight the Civil War. He is a regular defender of "the Lost Cause" including attacking and delegitimizing those who fought for and defended the Union as if this will change the outcome of that war. Fortunately, the great majority of us who now live in the South--natives and transplants alike, realize that what happened 150 years ago was a tragedy and a colossal mistake in many ways and we no longer live in that past or have any desire to relive it. The historical record shows that U.S. Grant also realized the mistake that he had made and spent the remainder of his life doing t'shuva (acts of repentance) for it. Let him and the Civil War rest in peace.

Pity there is not a whit of introspection, no wondering or consideration that there is causation at play, just self pitying innocent victims, unfairly singled out. In the middle of an ugly civil war (while young men are dying by the thousand daily) taking no patriotic intrest whatsoever in the fight, just looking for an nice oppotunity to profit from it, think about it, how disgusting is that?. How is it possible to be so blind? Instead of still complaining 150 years after the fact about the results of your appalling behavior, look and learn from it people-antisemitism is a reaction to an action, not the other way around.

Please do show me Gordon, armed with fact, the multitudes of Jewish profiteers, non-patriots and other assorted ne'er do wells you invoke, and not just as individuals, but as an entire people as a spine to your ridiculous, despicable, yet ultimately impotent comments? No? Nothing? Ah the always amusing internet hatemonger- who needs facts when you can just blather on about how the Jews are no damn good? Find me this causation you speak of, please, causation enough for the entire Jewish people to be punished with Grant's actions. Again, no? Of course not. You sputter over your keyboard ranting about "the jews" with nary a whit of evidence other than your own misinformed, clumsy prejudice. I'm sure you'll be happy to leap into some ridiculous argument about the Palestinians, as if that would have any bearing about what Jews in the 1800's "deserved". You are a clown shoe. Good luck solving all your problems and general lack of success with that keyboard of yours oh Brave Warrior of the Internets. We Jews meanwhile laugh at you.

How Reassuring to know that the spirit of this act still lives on…

Wrong. George Washington visited a synagogue.

President Washington did indeed visit the Touro synagogue in 1781, but for a town meeting, rather than a service. President Grant’s attendance of Adas Israel’s 1876 dedication in Washington was the first time that a president had attended a synagogue service. For more information: http://www.jhsgw.org/grant.php

I would love to know what specific behaviors so vexed the generals that they tried to take their annoyance out on an entire class of people in such a heavy handed way. Were the Jewish peddlers the only lot doing the annoying deeds? And, did the peddlers truly create a problem for the military during wartime or was it a matter of mistaken perceptions? Nevertheless, Haman plotted to destroy an entire community of people and not just temporarily remove them from the scene of some mischief they were allegedly causing. Comparing the piqued Grant to the beastly, evil Haman is somewhat unfair, I think.

I recall reading somewhere that Grant was the first sitting President to visit a Synagogue. Is that correct?

No. It was George Washington-the Sephardic Touro Synagogue in Rhode Island. Oldest synagogue in the US. You can visit and sit in the same seat.

Indeed, Grant came to the 1876 dedication of the Adas Israel synagogue in Washington. This represents the first time that a sitting U.S. president had attended a synagogue service. Not only did Grant attend, he remained for the entire three-hour Orthodox Jewish service, even retaining his hat! He may have visited in atonement for this order. Today the Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington maintains the synagogue Grant visited as the Lillian and Albert Small Jewish Museum. A new exhibition panel in the synagogue's restored sanctuary tells of Grant's visit and his relationship with the Jewish community. Come visit:http://www.jhsgw.org/programs/sanctuary.php. Here is more information on Grant’s visit: http://www.jhsgw.org/grant.php

- David McKenzie, Interpretive Programs Manager, Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington

It cannot be said that Lincoln did not know about this horrendous order beforehand. Indeed, its spirit is consistent with earlier orders and statement by Union officials and generals.
A few months earlier, on 11 August, General William Tecumseh Sherman had warned in a letter to the Adjutant General of the Union Army that “the country will swarm with dishonest Jews” if continued trade in cotton is encouraged. (Sherman, in a letter written in 1858, had described Jews as “…without pity, soul, heart, or bowels of compassion…”).

And Grant also issued orders on 9 and 10 November 1862 banning southward travel in general, stating that “the Israelites especially should be kept out… no Jews are to be permitted to travel on the railroad southward from any point. They may go north and be encouraged in it; but they are such an intolerable nuisance, that the department must be purged of them”.

As a result of Grant’s expulsion order, Jewish families were forced out of their homes in Paducah, Kentucky, Holly Springs and Oxford Mississippi, and a few were sent to prison. When some Jewish victims protested to President Lincoln, the Attorney General Edward Bates advised the President that he was indifferent to such objections, “myself feeling no particular interest in the subject.”

Nevertheless, on 4 January, 1863, Lincoln had Grant’s odious order rescinded, but by then, some Jewish families in the area had been expelled, humiliated, terrified, and jailed, and some stripped of their possessions.

On 21 January, Union General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck wrote to Grant to explain the rescission of the order, stating that “The President has no objection to your expelling traitors and Jew peddlers, which, I suppose was the object of your order; but as it in terms proscribed an entire religious class, some of whom are fighting in our ranks, , the President deemed it necessary to revoke it.”
The officials responsible for the United States government’s most vicious anti-Jewish actions ever were never dismissed, admonished or, apparently, even officially criticized for the religious persecution they inflicted on innocent citizens.
Lincoln cannot escape some blame and responsibility for this outrage.

Lewis Regenstein

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