OTD in History… December 17, 1862, Grant Issues General Order № 11 expelling Jews during the Civil War
By Bonnie K. Goodman, BA, MLIS
(Originally published on the History News Network on Tuesday, December 11, 2007)
On this day in history, December 17, 1862, Union General Ulysses S. Grant issues General Order Number 11, expelling Jews from areas of Tennessee, Mississippi, and Kentucky during the Civil War. General Order Number 11 stands out in American history as the first instance of a policy of official anti-Semitism on a large scale. The anti-Semitic order had deeper roots; many Northerners and Union army officials harbored anti-Jewish resentments. Jews in Union-occupied Southern cities and towns faced the brunt of this prejudice. As Bertram Wallace Korn explains in his authoritative work, American Jewry and the Civil War (1951), “Some of the most prominent people in the Union were imbued with prejudice against the Jews.” (Korn, 164) It was this anti-Semitism within the ranks of the Union army that led to General Grant’s General Order №11 that called for all Jews to be expelled in his district, which covered the states of Tennessee, Mississippi, and Kentucky.
Underlying the order was a negative image of the Jewish merchant and the belief that Jews were part of a black market in Southern cotton. Although at war, the North and South still relied on each other economically. The North especially needed the South’s surplus cotton for the production of military tents and uniforms. The Union army would have implemented a ban on trade with the South completely; President Abraham Lincoln preferred a limited trade in cotton. The Battle of Shiloh made this trade possible by opening up the Mississippi River down to Vicksburg. This soon became very profitable for both sides; army officers, treasury agents, and individual speculators became involved, although Jews were distinctly a minority.
Army officers especially took advantage of the moneymaking possibilities to such a great extent that Lincoln complained, “the army itself is diverted from fighting rebels to speculating in cotton.” Although neither side prohibited the trade, President Lincoln ordered that all of the cotton that was traded had to be licensed by the Treasury Department and the army. Army commanders were responsible for the cotton trade in their respective areas. General Ulysses S. Grant was the commander of the Department of the Tennessee, and therefore responsible for the licenses in that area. The limited trade in cotton and the overwhelming need for cotton in the Northern army led to soaring prices. This prompted many traders to bribe officials to be able to sell cotton without a permit. Jesse Grant, Grant’s father, took a prominent role in trading cotton and obtaining permits.
By the fall of 1862, trading was getting out of hand. Grant was annoyed that requests for licenses were distracting him from planning the capture of Vicksburg. Grant was getting an abundance of requests for licenses, and when Grant’s father sought them for a group of Cincinnati merchants, among whom were some Jews, the general issued his order. Although some of the traders were Jewish, most were not. Among the high ranks of the Union Army, the words “Jew,” “profiteer,” “speculator” and “trader” all meant the same thing (Feldberg, 118), while the Union commanding General Henry W. Halleck lumped together “traitors and Jew peddlers.” Grant concurred, describing Jews as “the Israelites,” an “intolerable nuisance.” It was because of old European prejudices and anti-Semitism that Jews were singled out. As in Europe, Jews were made scapegoats. History was repeating itself, but it this time it was in America.
On November 9 and 10, Grant sent his commanders in Jackson, Tennessee, orders that “no Jews are to be permitted to travel on the railroad southward [into the Department of the Tennessee] from any point.” Grant also noted his disdain for Jews to C.P. Wolcott, Assistant Secretary of the Army. Grant claimed Treasury regulations were being violated “mostly by Jews and other unprincipled traders.” (Feingold, 93) However, the illegal trading of cotton continued and Grant continued to believe it was the fault of the Jewish merchants. On December 17, 1862, he issued Order 11:
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 [the “Department of the Tennessee,” an administrative district of the Union Army of occupation composed of Kentucky, Tennessee and Mississippi] within twenty-four hours from the receipt of this order. Post commanders will see to it 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 headquarters. No passes will be given these people to visit headquarters for the purpose of making personal application of trade permits.
The order implied that all Jews in the region were speculators and traders, which they were not. Despite this, Grant’s subordinates carried out the order around his headquarters in Holly Springs and also Oxford, Mississippi, and Paducah, Kentucky where the Jews of these communities had to evacuate from their residences within a 24-hour period. In Holly Springs, the Jewish traders in the area had to walk 40 miles to evacuate the area. Thirty Jewish families who had been longtime residents of the town also had to evacuate even though none of them engaged in the cotton speculation and two of them had been veterans of the Union Army.
The order caused uproar and was criticized by both the Jewish community under Union command, and non-Jews in opposition to the Union’s Republican Party. The anti-Semitic order was a shock for a Jewish community that had been rarely discriminated against. Democrats and others opposed to the administration believed the order represented another example of Lincoln’s willingness to trample on civil liberties. Peace Democrats complained that the Republicans were more concerned with the rights of blacks than of Jews, who were white. Jewish leaders organized protest rallies in St. Louis, Louisville and Cincinnati, while the leaders of the Jewish communities in Chicago, New York, and Philadelphia sent telegrams to Lincoln protesting the order.
Residents of the expelled Jewish communities denounced the order. Cesar Kaskel, a merchant and president of the Paducah Union League, sent a telegram to Lincoln condemning Grant’s actions as an “enormous outrage on all laws and humanity, … the grossest violation of the Constitution and our rights as good citizens under it.” (Feldberg, 119) Kaskel also led a delegation to Washington to meet with Lincoln directly. He arrived in Washington just two days after the Emancipation Proclamation became law. Kaskel met with the influential Jewish Republican, Adolphus Solomons, and was accompanied to the White House by Cincinnati Congressman John A. Gurley. They showed Lincoln documents proving that the Jews who had been expelled from their homes were upstanding citizens not involved in cotton speculation.
Lincoln ordered General Halleck, General in Chief of the Army, to revoke the order immediately. Halleck wrote to Grant on January 4, “A paper purporting to be General Orders, №11, issued by you December 17, has been presented here. By its terms, it expells [sic] all Jews from your department. If such an order has been issued, it will be immediately revoked.” Grant complied three days later, but the mass evacuation of the Jewish communities in Holly Springs and Oxford, Mississippi, and Paducah, Kentucky had already been carried out.
The Jewish community was grateful to President Lincoln for his swift revocation. On January 7, Rabbis Isaac M. Wise and Max Lilienthal of Cincinnati, Martin Bijur of Louisville, and Moses Strauss of Baltimore led delegations to Washington to express their gratitude to the President. Lincoln tried to make amends to the Jewish community. He said he had been surprised by Grant’s order and said he did not discriminate between Jews or Gentiles and would not allow any American to be discriminated against based on their religion. Lincoln told them he believed that “to condemn a class 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.”
General Order №11 was a rare instance of officially ordered anti-Semitism in American history, but just the fact that an order was signed and implemented punishing a religious community, as historian Henry Feingold states, “without due process of law,” put a spot on America’s reputation of religious tolerance. (Feingold, 94) It was an act more reminiscent of the anti-Semitism Jews endured in Europe for centuries; where without reason Jewish communities were expelled from towns and countries at a moment’s notice. The order revealed a disdain for Jews by high ranking officials in the Union army among them Grant, William T. Sherman, and H. W. Halleck. It demonstrated that Jews in both the North and South were not sheltered from official anti-Semitism even in the safe haven of America.
SOURCES AND READ MORE
Henry L. Feingold, Zion in America: The Jewish Experience from Colonial Times to the Present, (Twayne Publishers, 1974).
Michael Feldberg, Blessings of Freedom: Chapters in American Jewish History, (KTAV Publishing House, Inc., 2002).
Bertram Wallace Korn, American Jewry and the Civil War, (Jewish Publication Society of America, 1951).
Meyer Weinberg, Because They Were Jews: A History of Anti-Semitism, (Greenwood Press, 1986).
Bonnie K. Goodman has a BA and MLIS from McGill University and has done graduate work in Judaic Studies at Concordia University, where her thesis was about the unconditional loyalty of Confederate Jewish women during the Civil War. She is a journalist, librarian, historian & editor, and a former Features Editor at the History News Network & reporter at Examiner.com where she covered politics, universities, religion, and news. She has over a dozen years of experience in education & political journalism.