Grant, Lincoln, and General Order Eleven
May 27, 2011
Despite Sally and I having four parents who served in the armed forces during World War II, my military career was cut short during a physical for the Navy chaplaincy in the early days of 1979. The physical consisted of the doctor asking me two questions, “Do you like girls?” to which I answered, “My wife thinks so” and “How do you feel,” upon which I said, “Fine.” After I passed that part of the physical, I had to have a vision test. The examiner asked me to take off my glasses and look at some letters through a machine. He said, “Please read the letters on the bottom line to me.” I said, “What letters?” That turned out to be the end of my military career. Even though I appealed the decision to the Chief of Naval Surgeons, the rejection stood. While some may regard the Navy’s loss to be the congregation’s gain, others may have wished I spent my entire career in the chaplaincy. This, however, is now a part of American Jewish history. It is to American Jewish history we turn on this Shabbat of Memorial Day weekend as we recount one of, if not the most heinous anti-Semitic incident in American history, the issuing of General Order 11 on December 17, 1862.
Allow me to recount the story. Our country was in the midst of a terrible Civil War. The Confederacy was still on the offensive in the East. The War in the West, taking place in Kentucky, Tennessee, Mississippi and Louisiana along the Mississippi River, was being won by Federal armies under the command of General Ulysses S. Grant. Grant won morale boosting victories for the North throughout the Department of Tennessee. There was another front directly behind the front lines- the economic war of “greed, exploitation, and treachery, fought by unprincipled individualists who took advantage of the needs of the North and South and battened on the profits.” i Speculators from the North descended upon the area, trading gold, silver, medical supplies, and arms to Southern traders for cotton, tobacco, and other Southern agricultural products for which there was a huge demand in the North. The Federal government tried to regulate the trade, but the profits were so tremendous that the Treasury agents and the Army officers charged with policing the commerce became rich in cotton speculation. Even President Grant’s father, Jesse Grant, made a small fortune in the illegal trade. President Lincoln told a friend, “The army itself is diverted from fighting the rebels to speculating in cotton.” ii In the midst of this commercial chaos, General Grant, based in Holly Springs, Mississippi, issued General Order 11 on December 17, 1862. It read:
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 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 a permit from headquarters. No passes will be given these people to visit headquarters for the purpose of making personal application for trade permits.
Were there Jewish speculators involved in the illegal cotton trade? Of course there were. Were most of the speculators Jews? Absolutely not. Jews were less than 1% of the American population. While they may have exceeding that number among illegal traders, Jews were by no means the majority. Given the prevailing American mindset in 1862, it was easy for most Americans to believe that Jews, “that pernicious and avaricious class of people,” were to blame for the most egregious violations.
The order was carried out in Paducah, Kentucky, Holly Springs and Oxford, Mississippi. The Jews of these towns engaged in an Exodus not unlike that of our forebears. Three leading Jews of Paducah realized that they had no recourse except to appeal directly to President Lincoln. D. Wolff, Cesar Kaskel, and his brother, J.W. Kaskel, journeyed to Cincinnati for discussions with Rabbi Isaac Meyer Wise and Congressman Gurley of Ohio, a friend of Rabbi Wise. Afterwards, they hurried to Washington, D.C. where they were able to secure an audience with President Lincoln. Their meeting began with the following heart warming and semi-humorous exchange. President Lincoln said to the small delegation, “And so the children of Israel were driven from the happy land of Canaan?” Kaskel replied, “Yes, and that is why we have come unto Father Abraham’s bosom, asking protection.” President Lincoln replied, “And this protection they shall have at once.” iii General in Chief Halleck countermanded Grant’s order on January 4, 1863. In the ensuing weeks, General Order 11 became a political storm. The Democrats used it as another issue with which to lambast the Republicans. This was the first issue in American life to affect Jews as a totality. Many Jews sided with the Democrats, but the Jewish press was quite circumspect. “Even Rabbi Isaac Meyer Wise, who despised the Republican Party and identified it with war mongering, anti-alienism, and “black” abolitionism, did not raise the standard for a Jewish exodus to the Democratic Party. He, like the others, tried to take a supra-political attitude, and appealed to all Americans to blot out this mark of shame.” iv
Over the next almost three years of war, the issue faded from the collective memory. It was revived, however, during the Presidential campaign of 1868, when General Grant ran against the Democrat Horatio Seymour. The popular vote was close, but Grant buried Seymour in the Electoral College. Many Jews railed against Grant, bringing up the infamous order as an example of Grant’s anti-Semitism. The Jewish community, however, did not take a position for or against Grant. Most Jews rejected taking “a Jewish position or engaging in a Jewish vote.” As Dr. Bertram Korn has written, “Jews campaigned and voted as individuals, not as members of the Jewish group. Whatever the factors which lead men to vote for a particular candidate in a particular election- economic class interest, social pressure, habit, personal relationships, honest thought- these same factors operated upon the minds of the Jews. What happened was this: the very nature of American life and growth militated against the development of an organically unified American Jewry. America offered its rewards for individual effort and initiative; challenged a man to test his strength in the race for position, wealth, and achievement; caught him up in an overwhelmingly optimistic, expansive, rapid paced tempo. America was irresistible…the character of American Jewish life for a whole century has been dominated by one fact: The American Jew has been captured by the mood and modes of American life. The election of 1868 was an effective demonstration of that.” v
Prof. Jonathan Sarna wrote that Grant apologized in 1868 and thereafter was quite sensitive toward Jewish concerns. As president, Grant made more Jewish appointments than any previous president, attended a synagogue dedication, spoke up on behalf of persecuted Jews in Russia and Romania and was the first president to visit the Holy Land. Sarna says much can be learned from this chapter of American and Jewish history. “The story of Grant and the Jews shows how a person can change from being, in Jewish eyes, one of their worst enemies (responsible for the most anti-Semitic public act in U.S. history) to one of their best friends. America has long been a country where religious hatred is possible, but where redemption is likewise possible. Grant’s General Order 11, expelling Jews from his war zone, tested America. Ultimately, America passed the test.”
Americans, including American Jews, are known for having a very short political memory. This memory will be tested in the Presidential election of 2012. We shall see if Jews will vote in a Jewish bloc or as Jewish individuals. The comparison with 1868 will be fascinating.
Amen and Shabbat shalom
Korn, Bertram, American Jewry & the Civil War, page 121.
Ibid, page 122.
Ibid, page 125.
Ibid, page 130.
Ibid. page 138.