Three weeks before President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, Union General Ulysses S. Grant issued General Orders Number 11. The order expelled Jews as a Class from Grant’s war zone, which included parts of Kentucky, Tennessee, Illinois and Mississippi.
Grant believed Jewish residents were smuggling goods from the south. There was active smuggling in the war zone at the time, but it was not limited to Jewish residents. Grant’s own father, in fact, was involved in a cotton smuggling scheme.
But Grant’s decision to make the order specific only to Jewish residents made the order something of a disaster. Grant’s camp was attacked by Confederate soldiers shortly after the order was issued, so only a few residents were expelled. The telegraph lines were cut, and news of the order took weeks to reach President Abraham Lincoln.
Expelled Paducah businessman Cesar Kaskel helped bring the order to the president’s attention. Lincoln quickly rescinded the order. And even though few residents ever saw the effect of General Orders Number 11, the directive haunted Grant for much of his career.
As president, Grant campaigned against anti-semitic leaders abroad, but his efforts were mocked as political stunts. And Grant is still tagged as an anti-semite by some historians.
But that image is changing. Jonathan D. Sarna is the Joseph H. and Belle R. Braun Professor of American Jewish History at Brandeis University and chief historian of the National Museum of American Jewish History. He sees his new book When Grant Expelled the Jews as part of a national reexamination of Grant’s presidency and alleged anti-semitism.
Sarna says Grant did much to regain Jewish Americans’ trust at a time when the minority was short on allies. The Jewish community was not entirely comfortable in the south or with the abolitionists, who were often fervent Christians. They favored the politics of the Republican Party, but feared Grant’s history. Sarna tells the story of Grant’s years of effort to repair his image and portray himself as accepting and unprejudiced. The efforts weren’t successful in the short term, but may end up paying off, nearly 130 years after Grant’s death.
Jonathan Sarna speaks here with WFPL’s Gabe Bullard. Sarna will give a presentation at 7pm on April 25 at the Louisville Free Public Library.