Sarna discusses 'When Grant Expelled the Jews'

Historian's new book traces general's onorous order and turn-about

With his new book, “When Grant Expelled the Jews” (Schocken Books), Professor Jonathan D. Sarna takes readers back to the Civil War, when General Ulysses S. Grant issued a little-known order to expel all Jews in his territory. General Order 11, as it was known, came just weeks before Abraham Lincoln announced the Emancipation Proclamation, and after a swift lobby from the Jewish community, was rescinded by the commander in chief.

Sarna is the Joseph H. and Belle R. Braun Professor of American Jewish History and the chief historian of the National Museum of American Jewish History. In his book, which hit shelves this month, he explores the motivation for the order, Grant’s subsequent apology and how it impacted his run for president and historical legacy.

BrandeisNOW: What was Grant’s motivation for General Order 11?

Jonathan Sarna: The cause is certainly smuggling. He believed, I think perhaps with some justice, that smuggling was harming the war effort, that it was bringing money into the coffers of the Confederacy. Many of the generals believed it was impossible to trade with an enemy and defeat the enemy simultaneously. The problem is that Grant, like a lot of people in the war, identified a widespread problem with a visible group, meaning that all sorts of people were smuggling, but as far as he was concerned the smugglers were Jews. Just like Yankee becomes a catch-all term, so Jew becomes a catch-all term. That led him to the erroneous conclusion that you could end smuggling by expelling the Jews.

But there’s also an occasion which is very telling. We now know that Grant’s own father, Jesse Grant, had become involved in a scheme with the [Jewish] Mack Brothers of Cincinnati, who were in the clothing trade, to move southern cotton northward and Jesse Grant would get 25 percent of the profits if he managed to secure passes from his son Ulysses. Of course, Ulysses was enraged when he learned of this and immediately expelled Jews from his war zone, but as John Simon, who edited the Grant papers, wrote, in a sense he expelled the Jews instead of his father.

How long was it before the order was rescinded and were many Jews affected by it?

A few weeks – Dec. 17 to Jan. 3. It is rescinded quickly and it’s even more quickly than you imagine because it’s only on Dec. 28 that the order reaches Paducah, [Ky.,] and Cesar Kaskel, who is a staunch Union supporter, ironically, his brother actually recruited for the Union – once he’s expelled sends a telegram to Lincoln and sends out press releases which get to the Associated Press, and personally travels down to Washington and thanks to a friendly Congressman gets in to see Lincoln and with that, the order is given by the commander in chief, obviously, to revoke General Order 11. Relatively few Jews were affected by the order.

But it sent a bad message and awoke fears from the old country?

Exactly. Jews had come to America thinking America was different and suddenly it didn’t seem very different at all. It seemed just like all the other countries. From a Jewish point of view, it had a big impact on them. Once it was revoked, then of course America did seem different. Because in Spain and England and France, when Jews were expelled, they were expelled, and in America they were not.

The order was not well-known to public. Is that because of the brevity of the period of expulsion?

There are a lot of episodes in the Civil War that are not known. Of course, Grant was a national hero and I think it’s understandable perhaps why less attention was paid to the order. We don’t pay that much attention to anti-Catholic, anti-black episodes. They are a series of rather unpretty episodes of the Civil War that in the course of time were forgotten.

Did this order come back to haunt Grant when he ran for president?

Once Grant runs for president in 1868, the order becomes very significant. Grant’s enemies naturally pounce on the order and use it to try and besmirch his reputation and use it, I think, to try to get Jews, who are growing in number, to say, “A man who could expel Jews from his war zone is not somebody we should elect as president of the United States.”

For Jews it was a huge problem, because the Democratic Party, Grant’s opponents, opposed Reconstruction, were an openly racist party that wanted to deny black Americans the vote. So the question was: Can you vote for a Democratic Party that’s bad for the country just because you don’t want to vote for the Republican candidate who was bad to the Jews? Some people felt that you should vote for the better party and ignore who the candidate was. Some people said, “no, how can we vote for a man who wanted to expel Jews as a class from his war zone?” But Grant wins the election by quite a lot of votes.

Why did the Jewish community ultimately forgive him for the order?

What’s really amazing is that he apologizes, which is unprecedented. He sends a kind of open letter that “I do not pretend to sustain the order. I have no prejudice against sect or race but want each individual to be judged by his own merit,” and Jews take that as an apology. As president, Grant is astonishing in the number of Jews he appoints to office and how he steps up to the bat to promote Jewish rights abroad when Jews are persecuted in Russia and in Romania. Even after he steps down as president, not only is he the first president to visit the land of Israel, but when Jews are persecuted in 1881 – a famous group of pogroms – Grant signs a call for a public meeting in protest. He spends the rest of his life atoning in different ways for this order. Jews knew that and that’s why they forgave him. When he died, he’s mourned in synagogues across the country. Jews participate in his funeral.

What would be lessons in the book for the contemporary Jewish community or politicians?

First of all, it is an important lesson that people can change and just because somebody expels Jews in 1862 as a general, doesn’t mean that we should put them into the category of anti-Semite forever and not try and help them change. In that sense, it’s a very hopeful book that people can learn from their mistakes.

I think that in terms of Jews and politics this is really the beginning of Jewish politics in America and I think it’s timely that it appears in a presidential election year when once again people wonder how Jews will vote. And there are Jewish Democrats who wonder should I vote for the other party in order to avoid voting for a president who I think is, in some cases, not sufficiently pro-Israel, they say. I think there are interesting parallels to the 1868 election.

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