A Miserable Hanukkah in Kentucky: When Jews Were Almost Expelled From the American South

Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Go to comments
Confederate soldiers burning cotton in 1888.
Confederate soldiers burning cotton in 1888.Credit: UIG via Getty Images
Ushi Derman, Beit Hatfutsot - The Museum of the Jewish People
Ushi Derman, Beit Hatfutsot - The Museum of the Jewish People

The eve of Hanukkah, 25 Kislev 5623 — 1862. A snowstorm raged while the town’s Jews gathered around the hanukkiah in their homes. The scent of latkes filled the warm living rooms, dreidels were spun, blessings sung. Suddenly, bangs on the door and loud calls: “Jews Out!” Copies of an expulsion order were nailed to the doors. General Order No. 11 was on.

Sounds like a classic pogrom in Europe or North Africa? Not exactly. The above took place not in Galicia, Baghdad, Aden, Prussia, Alexandria or the Atlas Mountains, but rather in the small U.S. town of Paducah, Kentucky. General Order No. 11 was carried out not by Polish nobles, Slav tenants, Spanish inquisitors or SS officers, but by Yankee soldiers.

Even in tolerant America, with its stable constitution and strong values of equality and liberty, Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, the legendary war hero who saved the Union and went on to serve as president, had a brief anti-Semitic phase.

What made this great commander sign the order for the expulsion of all Jews from Tennessee, Kentucky and Mississippi in the midst of the Civil War?

At about the same time, across the ocean, Karl Marx was laboring on his masterpiece. Perhaps Marx's work can explain the reason for this with some simple economic principles.

As we know, the official reason for the outbreak of the Civil War was slavery. Before the war, that it until 1861, some 32 million people lived in the United States. Of the 12 million in the South, four million were slaves, a free resource that the white cotton tycoons were not going to give up without a fight.

Gen. Ulysses S. Grant.Credit: Library of Congress  

Historians disagree as to the exact causes for the disputes that led to the actual war. Was it the bleeding heart of the North awakening after the publication of the sentimental novel "Uncle Tom’s Cabin"? Or the news about the cruelty of the slave catchers chasing blacks up the Mississippi River? Or the rage after the execution of the white abolitionist John Brown? Or the secession of the South from the Union?

Either way, according to Marx, the economic factor was the crucial one. During the war, which lasted from 1861 to 1865, the price of cotton rose frantically. Anti-Semitic rumors marking the Jews as cotton profiteers begain to spread. They started in one town and escalated to the claim that all Jews sold cotton on the black market.

Profiteering ‘fact’

Soon enough it became a known “fact” that all the Jews are profiteering from cotton, which had very little to do with reality: The fact was that out of 200 sellers who traded with the South, only four were Jewish. The concept of fake news was certainly not made up in 2016.

A Jewish street in Cincinnati, Ohio, USA, 19th century.Credit: Beit Hatfutsot, The Oster Visual Documentation Center

It was a snowball effect. American Jews were marked as blood-sucking traitors selling their homeland for some extra bucks. One of America’s most popular newspapers, Harper’s Weekly, published an aggressive editorial pointing a finger at all Jews.

It was also published that three Jews were caught smuggling medicine to New Orleans, which was under siege, and might be executed for the crime. A few local newspapers called for the annihilation of the entire Jewish community.

Was Grant acting on personal motives? Was he really an anti-Semite? As it turns out, not just "greedy" Jews were trying to make profit from the war. There were also a few white Protestants who wished to do the same. One of them was Jesse Grant, an unsuccessful businessman and the father of Ulysses S. Grant. He had some business with three Jewish textile traders from Cincinnati, the Mack brothers. When his son heard about the deal, he was furious, convinced that the brothers were swindling his father. Soon after, General Order No. 11 was issued.

Jewish newspapers around the world published the news. The Magid in Europe reported that a group of Jews from Paducah, Kentucky, led by Cesar Kaskel, sent Lincoln a telegram condemning the order as an “enormous outrage on all laws and humanity ... the grossest violation of the Constitution and our rights as good citizens under it.” Shortly thereafter Kaskel arrived at the White House. He showed Lincoln General Order No. 11 and said “that is why we have come to Father Abraham for protection.” Lincoln replied: “And this protection they shall have.”

Three days later Lincoln was supposed to sign the Emancipation Proclamation. How can that be reconciled with such a racist act as deporting the Jews of Kentucky, Tennessee and Mississippi? Lincoln ordered a telegraph sent to Grant, telling the general to cancel General Order No. 11. The latter obeyed right away, and the Jews of Paducah returned to their homes.

Cartoon depicting Ulysses Grant crying "crocodile tears" over the Jews. Credit: Bernhard Gillam/ PUCK Magazine

Four years later, in 1869, Grant became the 18th president of the United States, and turned from an anti-Semite to one of the most pro-Jewish presidents ever. He was the first president to inaugurate a new synagogue, he appointed the largest number of Jews in governmental positions and fought against the deportations of Jews in Russia by the Czar — only seven years after issuing General Order No. 11.

Beit Hatfutsot blog tells the story and makes accessible materials from the history of the Jewish people, in Israel and the Diaspora, from its distant past until our times in the modern State of Israel. Culture, people, curiosities, new angles on phenomena and well-known cases, or turning the spotlight on those we have never known about.

For Beit Hatfutsot - The Museum of the Jewish People website go to: www.bh.org.il

For the museum's blog: www.bh.org.il/category/blog-items

Click the alert icon to follow topics: