In 1862, in the heat of the Civil War, General Ulysses S. Grant initiated one of the most blatant official episodes of anti-Semitism in 19th-century American history. In December of that year, Grant issued his infamous General Order No. 11, which expelled all Jews from Kentucky, Tennessee and Mississippi:
The immediate cause of the expulsion was the raging black market in Southern cotton. Although enemies in war, the North and South remained dependent on each other economically. Northern textile mills needed Southern cotton. The Union Army itself used Southern cotton in its tents and uniforms. Although the Union military command preferred an outright ban on trade, President Lincoln decided to allow limited trade in Southern cotton.
To control that trade, Lincoln insisted it be licensed by the Treasury Department and the army. As commander of the Department of the Tennessee, Grant was charged with issuing trade licenses in his area. As cotton prices soared in the North, unlicensed traders bribed Union officers to allow them to buy Southern cotton without a permit. As one exasperated correspondent told the Secretary of War, Every colonel, captain or quartermaster is in a secret partnership with some operator in cotton; every soldier dreams of adding a bale of cotton to his monthly pay.
In the fall of 1862, Grant's headquarters were besieged by merchants seeking trade permits. When Grant's own father appeared one day seeking trade licenses for a group of Cincinnati merchants, some of whom were Jews, Grant's frustration overflowed.
A handful of the illegal traders were Jews, although the great majority were not. In the emotional climate of the war zone, ancient prejudices flourished. The terms Jew, profiteer, speculator and trader were employed interchangeably. Union commanding General Henry W. Halleck linked traitors and Jew peddlers. Grant shared Halleck's mentality, describing the Israelites as an intolerable nuisance.
In November 1862, convinced that the black market in cotton was organized mostly by Jews and other unprincipled traders, Grant ordered that no Jews are to be permitted to travel on the railroad southward [into the Department of the Tennessee] from any point, nor were they to be granted trade licenses. When illegal trading continued, Grant issued Order No. 11 on December 17, 1862.
Subordinates enforced the order at once in the area surrounding Grant's headquarters in Holly Springs, Mississippi. Some Jewish traders had to trudge 40 miles on foot to evacuate the area. In Paducah, Kentucky, military officials gave the town's 30 Jewish familiesall long-term residents, none of them speculators and at least two of them Union Army veterans24 hours to leave.
A group of Paducah's Jewish merchants, led by Cesar Kaskel, dispatched an indignant telegram to President Lincoln, condemning Grant's order as an enormous outrage on all laws and humanity, ... the grossest violation of the Constitution and our rights as good citizens under it. Jewish leaders organized protest rallies in St. Louis, Louisville and Cincinnati, and telegrams reached the White House from the Jewish communities of Chicago, New York and Philadelphia.
Cesar Kaskel arrived in Washington on Jan. 3, 1863, two days after the Emancipation Proclamation went into effect. There he conferred with influential Jewish Republican Adolphus Solomons, then went with a Cincinnati congressman, John A. Gurley, directly to the White House. Lincoln received them promptly and studied Kaskel's copies of General Order No. 11 and the specific order expelling Kaskel from Paducah. The President told Halleck to have Grant revoke General Order No. 11, which he did in the following message:
Grant revoked the order three days later.
0n January 6, a delegation led by Rabbi Isaac M. Wise of Cincinnati, called on Lincoln to express its gratitude that the order had been rescinded. Lincoln received them cordially expressed surprise that Grant had issued such a command and stated his conviction that to condemn a class is, to say the least, to wrong the good with the bad. He drew no distinction between Jew and Gentile, the president said, and would allow no American to be wronged because of his religious affiliation.
After the war, Grant transcended his anti-Semitic reputation. He carried the Jewish vote in the presidential election of 1868 and named several Jews to high office. But General Order No. 11 remains a blight on the military career of the general who saved the Union.
Sources: American Jewish Historical Society and Karp, Abraham, From the Ends of the Earth: Judaic Treasures of the Library of Congress. DC: Library of Congress, 1991.