When General Grant Expelled the Jews (Jewish Encounters Series)
Jonathan D. Sarna
224 pp., $24.95
On December 17, 1862, in the midst of the Civil War and only weeks before Abraham Lincoln announced the Emancipation Proclamation, General Ulysses S. Grant issued General Orders No. 11. The order expelled Jews "as a class" from the territory of the Department of Tennessee, a region under Grant's command that included Mississippi, western Tennessee, and parts of Kentucky and Illinois. Grant had been informed that some Jews were running a black market in Southern cotton and he wanted to put a stop to this violation of wartime trade regulations. (Both Jews and non-Jews were involved in this illegal trade. Rather than targeting the individual Jews and non-Jews who were leading the ring, Grant went after Jews "as a class").
Historian Jonathan Sarna has called this the "most notorious anti-Jewish order by a government official in American history." It instilled both fear and anger in the roughly 150,000 Jews living in the United States during the Civil War. Many were already worried that Lincoln's decision to free the slaves would result in Jews replacing African Americans as "the nation's most despised minority," and Grant's decree only enhanced these concerns. Jewish leaders stormed Washington in protest, and Abraham Lincoln quickly rescinded the order. Grant would later apologize. Even his wife called it "obnoxious."
And yet the story is ultimately one of reconciliation and Jewish empowerment. When Grant ran for president in 1868, the order became a campaign issue. For the first time in American history, Jews found themselves in the midst of a "political maelstrom." Grant was embarrassed by the way his wartime decision had haunted him during the election and compensated by appointing more Jews to government positions than any other president to date. In fact, Grant's administration became a Jewish-friendly one—a veritable "Golden Age" for American Jews. He extended support to persecuted Jews in Russia and Romania and rejected an attempt by the National Reform Association to pass an amendment to the Constitution declaring that the United States was a "Christian nation." Under Grant, Judaism won recognition as a faith coequal to Protestantism and Catholicism, and the level of anti-Jewish prejudice in the country declined.
When General Grant Expelled the Jews is a fascinating slice of Civil War and American Jewish history. It should also be considered as part of a larger attempt by historians in recent years to rehabilitate the reputation of Ulysses S. Grant.
John Fea teaches American history at Messiah College in Grantham, Pennsylvania. His book Was America Founded as a Christian Nation? A Historical Introduction (Westminster/John Knox) was one of three finalists for the George Washington Book Prize. He is completing a book on historical thinking.
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