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General Grant and the Jews

Mitchell Abidor
May 28, 2013

by Mitchell Abdior

Reviewed in this Essay:
When General Grant Expelled the Jews, by Jonathan Sarna. 2011, Schocken, 224 pages.

US GrantIf 1862 ended badly for the Jews, with General Ulysses S. Grant’s General Orders No. 11, (December 17th) expelling them from his war zone in the west, for the North it had been a fairly bad year all around.

By the time Grant issued the order, Union morale was at rock bottom. Though there had been some successes in the west — with victories at Pea Ridge, Arkansas, the seizing of New Orleans, and the repelling of a Confederate invasion of Kentucky — even positive results were not unmitigated successes. The victory in April at Shiloh, in southwestern Tennessee, for example, cost the Union 13,000 wounded, missing, and captive.

In the east, meanwhile, the Union’s Commanding General George McClellan made a dilatory march up the Virginia Peninsula that never reached its intended target, Richmond. Defeat had been sustained elsewhere in Virginia in the Seven Days battles and at Second Bull Run. A Confederate advance into Maryland had resulted in the Battle of Antietam, the bloodiest day in American history, but McClellan had failed to pursue the defeated Southerners on their retreat and finish them off. President Lincoln’s unpopular dismissal of McClellan as commander of the Union army had then been followed by the bloody defeat of his successor, Ambrose Burnside, at Fredericksburg ­— and by Democratic gains in the November elections.

Amid all of this, General Orders No. 11 was a minor event, not even mentioned in the chronology of the year in the Library of America’s recently published documentary history of the second year of the Civil War. There is no question that in the broader scheme of things this decree, issued only two weeks before Lincoln’s epochal Emancipation Proclamation freeing the slaves in all the rebelling states, deserves at best a footnote in any general history of the war.

In a mere 102 words, the decree expelled the Jews “as a class” from the western Department of Tennessee, the expulsion to take place “within twenty-four hours from the receipt of this order.” In a war that had mobilized hundreds of thousands on both sides, the direct result was felt only by thirty Jewish families in Paducah, Kentucky — but as Jonathan Sarna demonstrates in his fascinating When General Grant Expelled the Jews, the decree reverberated far beyond the people, time, and place at which it was aimed. For Sarna, the decree, the reaction to it on all sides, and its aftermath add up to a defining moment in American Jewish history.

The two decades leading up to the Civil War saw the American Jewish population, north and south, triple to nearly 150,000. Cities on both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line had major Jewish communities, although the overwhelming majority, some 125,000, lived in the North. If two-thirds of them were immigrants, as Bertram Korn tells us in his American Jewry and the Civil War (2009), they were nevertheless already Americans — or rather, already Northerners or Southerners.

Robert Rosen reminds us in The Jewish Confederates (2000) that “Southern Jewry was an integral part of the Confederate States of America, that Charleston had three synagogues, that New Orleans had more Jews than Chicago, and that Jews were scattered across the South in cities big and small.” David Yulee (Levy) of Florida was the first Jew elected to the Senate, and Judah Benjamin of Louisiana, after a successful antebellum career, was to be one of the Confederacy’s central figures. The most important Jewish figures could be found in the North, however — such as Isaac Leeser, a Westphalian Jew who served nearly four decades from 1829 at Mikveh Israel Congregation in Philadelphia; Samuel Isaacs, editor of the Jewish Messenger in New York; and Isaac Mayer Wise, who would eventually found the Hebrew Union College and invent the tripartite institutional system (rabbinical school, rabbinical association, congregational association) that every American Jewish denomination follows today.

North or South, when Jews took positions on the issues of the day — or rather, the issue of the day — they took them less as Jews than as regional Americans, and their positions didn’t differ greatly from those of their fellow sectional citizens. Abolitionism was a distinctly minority cause, and New York’s Rabbi Morris Raphall attacked the Brooklyn-based Henry Ward Beecher for advocating it. “I would ask the reverend gentleman from Brooklyn and his compeers,” Raphall said on January 4th, 1861, just three months before the outbreak of the war, “how dare you denounce slaveholding as a sin? When you remember that Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Job — the men with whom the Almighty conversed . . . that all these men were slaveholders.” (Rabbis in both regions used Raphall’s speech to back their argument that rabbis were fit to say the opening prayers at the Virginia House of Delegates and that Jews were loyal citizens.)

Nor did Jewish anti-abolitionism end with the firing on Fort Sumter. Two months after Grant’s order expelling the Jews, Sarna tells us, Isaac Leeser wrote against the Emancipation Proclamation, in an article that Sarna justly describes as “outrageous and prejudiced.” “Is there to be freedom for the colored races,” Leeser scoffed,

who have never furnished a genius of towering intellect to the world, while we who produced for Israel and mankind the greatest of mortals, Moses son of Amram, and for the Christians the founder of their faith . . . are even now to be ill-used and stigmatized for adhering to our faith? Why are tears shed for the sufferings of the African in his bondage, by which his moral condition has been immensely improved, in spite of all that may be alleged to the contrary, whereas for the Hebrew every one has words of contempt or acts of violence?

To be sure, Abolitionist voices did exist in the Jewish community, yet as Bertram Korn tells us, when one of the most prominent among them, Rabbi David Einhorn of Baltimore, “perceived a fundamental relationship between the rights of the Jews and the rights of the Negro” and published an attack on Morris Raphall and his pro-slavery ideas, Einhorn was disavowed by the Jews of Baltimore and ordered to remain silent on the subject. His newspaper was trashed, and he left his pulpit in May, 1861 to move to Philadelphia.

“As in so much of their behavior surrounding issues of the Civil War, Jews simply resembled their white neighbors,” Sarna concludes. Then why General Orders No. 11?

It was precisely the reality that Jews lived on both sides of the conflict that made them suspect. With Southern trade with Kentucky cut off in the spring of 1861, and Grant’s later occupation of Paducah further restricting trade, smuggling was rampant, and “suspicion,” explains Sarna, “fell particularly upon the Jews, long stereotyped in Christian culture as being financially unscrupulous.” The small, largely foreign-born Jewish community in the Kentucky town played a disproportionate role in trade and were an easy target for suspicion and resentment. As Union Brigadier General James Tuttle said, “You are Jews and . . . neither a benefit to the Union or the Confederacy.”

Furthermore, Grant had already shown signs of anti-Jewish prejudice. In July, 1862, he had instructed the commander of the District of Mississippi to “examine all baggage of all speculators coming south . . . Jews should receive special attention.”

On December 28th, 1861, Cesar Kaskel became the first victim of General Orders No. 11, a document that had passed unnoticed in the eleven days since its promulgation. Kaskel sent a telegram to President Lincoln asking for “his immediate attention to this enormous outrage.” For Sarna, what followed was truly significant: The General Orders, as a result of skillfully applied Jewish pressure, were quickly rescinded, and “in the end General Orders No. 11 greatly strengthened the American Jewish community.”

In fact, Kaskel’s telegram was never given to Lincoln, but it did reach General-in-Chief Henry Halleck, who had not previously heard about Grant’s act. Kaskel, meanwhile, began a massive publicity campaign, sending an account of his travails to the press. In Cincinnati, he received messages of support from influential Jews and, most importantly, drew Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise into the fray. Wise knew of the orders independently, and immediately attempted to draw his fellow Jews into the fight, writing that “it is your duty, the duty of self-defense . . . to bring this matter before the President of the United States and demand redress.”

Grant’s order was already causing confusion in Union ranks. Were Jewish soldiers to be expelled? What about sutlers (civilian merchants who sold goods to the military)? The order did, after all, name Jews “as a class,” with no distinctions. One general, Jeremiah Sullivan, refused to execute Grant’s decree, saying “he thought he was an officer of the army and not of a church.”

Kaskel arrived in Washington on January 3rd, 1863, where he enlisted the support of Cincinnati Congressional Representative John Addison Gurley, and went to see President Lincoln. Like General Halleck, Lincoln was unaware of Grant’s order, and the following exchange is supposed to have occurred:

Lincoln: And so the children of Israel were driven
from the happy land of Canaan?
Kaskel: Yes, and that is why we have come unto
Father Abraham’s bosom, asking protection.
Lincoln: And this protection they shall have at once.

Whether this was the actual discussion or not, Lincoln was as good as his word. On January 4th, he wrote to Grant: “If such an order has been issued it will be immediately revoked.” It was, and there the matter lay — until it became a political issue after the war, in Reconstructionist America.

Why General Grant, a decent man, would have issued this abhorrent order has been much debated, and Sarna dismisses the claims made by Grant’s supporters that it was issued on orders of his superiors or that “military personnel wanted the Jews out of the way so that they themselves could monopolize the cotton trade.” Sarna makes a compelling case for the precipitating event being a visit paid Grant by his father and members of a prominent Cincinnati Jewish family, the Macks. Grant père and the Macks made a blatant pitch for Ulysses to use his rank and position to help them procure a permit for the purchase of cotton. A journalist present, whom Sarna quotes, reported that the general “waxed indignant at his father’s crass attempt to profit from his military status, and raged at the Jewish traders who entrapped his old father into such an unworthy undertaking.”

The brief and limited impact of General Orders No. 11 didn’t prevent it from haunting Grant for the rest of his life. He didn’t mention it in his brilliant memoirs, but his wife Julia described it in her own memoir as “obnoxious.” Perhaps Grant’s realization that this characterization was correct, and his wish to atone for it, accounts for his handling of Jewish affairs during his presidency.

When Grant first ran for the presidency in 1868, a pamphlet appeared, “General Grant and the Jews,” calling for Jews to vote against the Republicans. Sarna notes that “what distinguished the 1868 election was that more Jews than ever justified their political loyalties on the basis of their religion. They campaigned as Jews.” This was a major shift: Jews had previously acted as Jewish Americans, not as American Jews.

Deciding what was good for the Jews was not necessarily clear cut, however. Should Jews, as some in Atlanta wrote, “defeat Grant as they defeated Haman?” Or was Grant, as Rabbi Liebman Adler wrote, “the best man for Americans . . . [and] the best man for the Israelites, despite General Orders No. 11”? Though much was made of the potential effect of the Jewish vote, Sarna dismisses its importance: “Ohio and Indiana, two states where Jewish voters were supposed to help Democrats, both went Republican by comfortable margins. The vote in Indiana was closer, but the Jewish vote in that state was too small to make a difference.”

With the election won, Grant made public a letter he’d written concerning the infamous orders: “I do not pretend to sustain the order . . . I have no prejudice against sect or race . . . It never would have been issued if it had not been telegraphed the moment it was penned, and without reflection.” This account lends credence to the order having been issued in a fit of pique, one that would very likely have been incited by the incident with the Macks.

Whatever the reason, no president prior to Grant did as much for individual Jews in America and in support of Jews oppressed in foreign lands. Grant spoke out against the conduct of the Russian government towards its Jews in 1869, and in defense of Romanian Jewry the following year, even appointing a Jew, Benjamin Franklin Peixotto, as U.S. consul in Bucharest, where Peixotto actively worked to defend Romania’s Jews while also encouraging their emigration to the U.S. The President’s conduct was a break with precedent: Buchanan, for example, had refused to speak out on the Mortara case of 1858, one of the most notorious anti-Semitic incidents of the period, in which a Jewish child in Italy was taken from his parents, with papal support, after his family’s servant revealed she had baptized him in secrecy.

Sarna reminds us that the General Orders, for all the fury they fleetingly aroused, were a blip in the Civil War — and that ultimately, in his openness to Jews, Ulysses S. Grant enabled them to move from “outsider to insider status in the United States, and from weakness to strength.” This would have occurred at any rate, and not much later than it did, given the increasing prominence of Jews in both numbers and influence by the last quarter of the 19th century. Still, Grant deserves credit both for seeing the error of his ways and for opening the doors of power to the Jews.

Mitchell Abidor is a contributing writer to our magazine and a translator, musician, and actor living in Brooklyn. He is author of Communards: The Paris Commune of 1871 as Told by Those Who Fought For It.

Mitchell Abidor, a contributing writer to Jewish Currents, is a writer and translator living in Brooklyn. Among his books are a translation of Victor Serge’s Notebooks 1936-1947, May Made Me: An Oral History of My 1968 in France, and I’ll Forget it When I Die, a history of the Bisbee Deportation of 1917. His writings have appeared in The New York Times, Foreign Affairs, Liberties, Dissent, The New York Review of Books, and many other publications.