In the middle of the Civil War, General Grant expelled all Jewish persons out the area controlled by his armies. It is a near-forgotten episode, in part because of President Lincoln’s remarkable decision to overturn his most popular general in the middle of the war.
In 1862, Grant’s armies controlled territory that included portions of Kentucky, Tennessee, and Mississippi. As commander over this “department,” Grant was responsible for governing his territory. This included tight regulation of cotton sales, as limited supply had led to speculation and black markets.
As part of regulating the cotton trade, the Treasury Department required merchants to have trade permits. Grant’s father arrived from Missouri in November 1862 with some merchants seeking permits. When Grant realized that his father’s colleagues were Jews, Grant ordered travel restrictions for Jews and a ban on their involvement in the trade of cotton. In December, Grant went even further. He issued his infamous Order No. 11 stated:
The Jews, as a class violating every regulation of trade established by the Treasury Department and also department orders, are hereby expelled from the department within twenty-four hours from the receipt of this order.
Post commanders will see to it that all of this class of people be furnished passes and required to leave, and any one returning after such notification will be arrested and held in confinement until an opportunity occurs of sending them out as prisoners, unless furnished with permit from headquarters. No passes will be given these people to visit headquarters for the purpose of making personal application of trade permits.
That’s right: Grant ordered the immediate expulsion of all Jews living in the area under his command. The order went out by telegraph and was put into action. Jews protested, but were forced to move immediately. In Paducah, Kentucky thirty Jewish families were expelled.
Cesar Kaskel was one of the Jewish men living in Paducah. He traveled to Washington. When he arrived, he met with a prominent Jewish Republican Adolphus Solomons, who put him in touch with Ohio Congressman John Gurley (who was friends with a local rabbi). Gurley escorted Kaskel and other Jewish leaders to the White House to meet with Lincoln.
Lincoln welcomed the group and reacted quickly. According to reports,* Lincoln and Kaskel had a pleasant, albeit unusual, exchange:
Lincoln: And so the Children of Israel were driven from the happy land of Cannan?
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.
Lincoln went on to tell Kaskel and the others,
to condemn a class is, to say the least, to wrong the good with the bad. I do not like to hear a class or nationality condemned on account of a few sinners.
Grant was sent a brief telegram ordering him to reverse his Order No. 11, which Grant did.
Grant never apologized for the incident, but he later wrote that his order did not reflect his belief that each man should be judged on his own merit, not because of his religion. Order 11, he said, was written and distributed in haste. Historians writing on Order 11 often note that when Grant ran for the presidency, he received the backing of Jews. As president, he appointed Jews to prominent positions in his administration.
Eli Evans argues that this incident turned out to be something positive for Americans who were Jewish. Many had emigrated from countries where expulsions and mistreatment were often endorsed by government. In this case, the president took their side even though it required him to overturn an order by a popular general in the midst of a civil war. The protection of religious minorities was not an empty promise, even if it took one of the most atrocious anti-Semitic episodes to make that apparent.
* The conversation between Lincoln and Kaskel is reported in Bertram Korn’s American Jewry and the Civil War, which was quoted by Eli Evans in Jews and the Civil War: A Reader
This is a revised version of a previous post.