On December 17, 1862, Maj.-Gen. Ulysses S. Grant issued his infamous General Orders Number 11, which instructed Union forces to expel all Jews residing in the “Department of Tennessee,” which was under his command.
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The Department of Tennessee referred to that military theater of the American Civil War that included parts of Tennessee and Kentucky west of the Tennessee River, and sections of Mississippi that were then under Union control.
In the background to Orders No. 11 was the illegal trade taking place between North and South during the war, which had broken out a year-and-a-half earlier. Some commerce was permitted, but it needed to be licensed by both the U.S. Army and the Treasury Department. In particular, Northern textile mills needed raw material, namely Southern cotton, to produce their goods.
As soon as trade became restricted, however, there were those who began to violate the restrictions. Assistant Secretary of War Charles A. Dana reported at one point that “every colonel, captain or quartermaster is in secret partnership with some operator in cotton; every soldier dreams of adding a bale of cotton to his monthly pay.” (Dana was in a position to know: He himself was speculating in cotton.)
Jonathan Sarna, in his 2012 book “When General Grant Expelled the Jews,” endorses the view that the immediate factor that impelled Grant to issue his sweeping order was the visit he had from his father, 68-year-old Jesse Grant, earlier on December 17.
The elder Grant visited his son in the company of three Jewish clothing manufacturers from Cincinnati, Ohio – the brothers Harman, Henry and Simon Mack – who wanted to export cotton from Southern growers to New York. They had agreed to pay Jesse Grant handsomely if he would accompany them to his son’s headquarters and help them procure the necessary papers.
Grant the son, who was at that juncture planning a campaign to take control of the key town of Vicksburg, Mississippi, was appalled that his own father was attempting to abuse his son’s position to turn a personal profit. And he had observed, correctly, that some of those involved in the illicit trade were Jews.
Previously, on December 8, Grant had issued an order requiring "cotton-speculators, Jews and other Vagrants having not honest means of support, except trading upon the miseries of their Country,” to leave the region or face conscription.
But General Orders 11 was unprecedented: It called for the exile not of smugglers who happened to be Jews, but of all Jews across a large region.
By January 6, Grant had been forced to retract his order, which had in practice been very limited in its implementation. A Prussian-born Jewish merchant living in Paducah, Kentucky, Cesar Kaskel, had been among those who was ordered to leave his district within 24 hours, “not for any crime committed, but simply because I was born of Jewish parents,” as he later told a reporter. Kaskel hurried off to Washington, D.C., where, on January 3, 1863, his congressman obtained him an audience with President Abraham Lincoln.
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Lincoln appeared to be unaware of the decree, and immediately asked General-in-Chief Henry Wager Halleck to instruct Grant to cancel the order, “if such an order has been issued.” It had been, of course, and Grant did as he was told.
In March 1864, Grant assumed leadership of all Union forces, and four years later, he was running for president. It was then that the Democrats attempted to revive memories of General Orders No. 11 among Jewish voters.
Grant, on the defensive, worked to dissociate himself from the decree. In a letter he wrote to Isaac N. Morris, a former U.S. Congressman, Grant noted that, “I do not pretend to sustain the order,” which he admitted, had been “issued and sent without any reflection and without thinking of the Jews as a set or race to themselves, but simply as persons who had successfully ... violated an order.”
Grant was elected twice to the presidency, in 1868 and 1872, and he went out of his way to appoint Jews to public positions, and to speak out on issues of concern to Jewish voters, including persecution in both Russia and Romania. He died in 1885.