In recent decades, Ulysses S. Grant has been much criticized for issuing General Orders No. 11 during the Civil War, expelling all “Jews as a class” from his area of command in states along the eastern bank of the Mississippi River from Kentucky through Tennessee down to Mississippi.
The Encyclopaedia Judaica writes that in Jewish memory, “Grant’s name has been linked irrevocably with anti-Jewish prejudice.”
Jonathan Sarna, professor at Brandeis University and chief historian at the National Museum of American Jewish History, thinks that Grant has gotten a bum rap. In When General Grant Expelled the Jews, Sarna writes that Grant was criticized for his order to expel Jewish people without considering his later regret of the order along with his many years of work afterwards to support Jewish interests.
Starting in the 20th century, criticism of Grant for alleged anti-semitism paralleled criticism of Grant by promoters of the Lost Cause of the Confederacy who wanted to take down Grant’s reputation because he beat their hero Robert E. Lee, helped free the enslaved and stood up for Black Southerners’ civil rights during Reconstruction.
Sarna finds that the truth is more complicated and more favorable to Grant.
Grant’s record with respect to Jews now requires revision. During his administration, Jews moved from outsider to insider status in the United States, and from weakness to strength. Having abruptly expelled jews in 1862, Grant as president significantly empowered them. He insisted, over the objections of those who propounded narrower visions of America, that the country could embrace people of different races, religions, and creeds. He endeavored, as president, to further human rights at home and abroad.
The trouble started when on December 17, 1862, Grant issued General Orders No. 11, which stated: “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.”
Only the full text conveys the sense of the order:
General Orders No. 11
Head Quarters 13th Army Corps,
Department of the Tennessee,
Oxford, Miss. Dec. 17, 1862.
I.. 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.
II.. Within twenty-four hours from the receipt of this order by Post Commanders, they will see that all of this class of people be furnished passes and required to leave, and any one returning after such notification will be arrested and held in confinement until an opportunity occurs of sending them out as prisoners, unless furnished with permit from Head Quarters.
III.. No permits will be given these people to visit Head Quarters for the purpose of making personal application for trade permits.
By Order of Maj. Genl. U.S. Grant
JNO. A. RAWLINS
Ass’t Adj’t Genl.
Grant issued the edict in an attempt to stop smuggling cotton from the Confederacy in exchange for gold and badly needed goods to help the enemy war effort from the area under the command of Grant’s Department of the Tennessee. Some of this illegal trade was conducted by Jewish traders.
Grant’s father, Jesse, an aggressive and even obnoxious businessman, was allied with two Jewish traders known as the Mack brothers. At the time, Jesse was pressing his son to issue government permits to allow the Macks to trade cotton with the South, what amounted to a special favor for a family member. In frustration and in midst of the fog of war, Grant issued an order aimed at smugglers that was too broad, affecting all Jewish people in the military district.
The order was immediately denounced by Jews and non-Jews alike.
At least thirty Jewish families living in Paducah, Kentucky were forced to leave their homes. Newspapers denounced Grant’s order, and he was nearly censured by Congress. In response to lobbying from Jewish leaders, Abraham Lincoln rescinded the order soon after it was issued. And when he took the opportunity to comment on it, Grant later took full responsibility for the order and admitted that he regretted ever having issued it.
“I do not pretend to sustain the Order,” Grant wrote just after elected president for the first time in 1868. “The order was issued and sent without thinking of the Jews as a sect or race. 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. It never would have been issued if it had not been telegraphed the moment it was penned, and without reflection.”
Grant spent the rest of his career not only apologizing for General Orders No. 11, but also trying to make up for the ill-considered military edict by befriending Jewish Americans on the personal level and promoting Jewish interests politicly once he became president. “Having apologized for his anti-Jewish order in 1868, he became highly sensitive, even hypersensitive, to Jewish concerns,” Sarna writes.
Sarna argues that Grant’s presidency was a “golden age” for American Jews, with more appointed to federal positions than ever before, including the first Jewish governor of an American territory and the first Jewish diplomats to represent the United States abroad. Grant also, at the urging of American Jewish leaders, stood up for the human rights of Jewish minorities in Russia and Romania who were being persecuted by their governments.
After Grant left office, opportunities closed for American Jews, just as they closed for African Americans. It would be decades before either group enjoyed the respect and chances for advancement they had while Grant was president.
At his death in 1885, Jewish leaders joined other Americans in paying tribute to a leader who they compared to leaders in history like Moses and to the most famous Jewish leader of the time, who died a few days after Grant, British financier and philanthropist Sir Moses Montefiore. “At Covenant Hall in Philadelphia and at an Orthodox synagogue in Wilmington, portraits of Montefiore and Grant hung side by side,” explains Sarna.
The legend of Grant as a friend of the Jewish people grew so strong that one cookbook author claimed that Grant was inspired by his book to eat his meat kosher style.
On the sabbath following Grant’s death, nationally known Rabbi EBM Browne announced to his New York congregation that “the Jews have lost a great friend in the death of Gen. Grant.”
For most Jewish leaders, Grant had more than made up for his mistake in issuing General Orders 11 by his earnest support of equality and human rights for Jewish Americans and Jews abroad.
When Grant’s tomb was completed in New York City in 1897, Jewish groups played a prominent role in honoring the ex-president. A massive “Grant Parade” of 50,000 marchers included pupils from the Hebrew Orphan asylum “with their famous band,” 75 cadets from the New York Hebrew Institute and “many lads of Jewish parentage” from the public schools.
Simon Wolf, a Washington, DC attorney appointed by Grant Recorder of Deeds for the District of Columbia, published this eulogy of Grant in several Jewish newspapers: “His tomb will stand on the banks of the Hudson but his memory and achievements will live in the hearts of all men who love liberty and admire nobility of character for all time to come.”