General Grant and the Jews

The Civil War hero expelled Jews from three states until Lincoln made him rescind the order.

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Reprinted with permission of the American Jewish Historical Society from “Chapters in American History.” 

In 1862, in the heat of the Civil War, General Ulysses S. Grant initiated the most blatant official episode of anti-Semitism in 19th-century American history. In December of that year, Grant issued his infamous General Order No. 11, which expelled all Jews from Kentucky, Tennessee, and Mississippi.

Background

General Ulysses Grant expels Jews

The immediate cause of the expulsion was the raging black market in Southern cotton. Although enemies in war, the North and South remained dependent on each other economically. Northern textile mills needed Southern cotton. The Union Army itself used Southern cotton in its tents and uniforms. Although the Union military command preferred an outright ban on trade, President Lincoln decided to allow limited trade in Southern cotton.

To control that trade, Lincoln insisted the Treasury Department and the Army license it. As commander of the Department of the Tennessee, Grant was charged with issuing trade licenses in his area. As cotton prices soared in the North, unlicensed traders bribed Union officers to allow them to buy Southern cotton without a permit. As one exasperated correspondent told the Secretary of War, “Every colonel, captain or quartermaster is in a secret partnership with some operator in cotton; every soldier dreams of adding a bale of cotton to his monthly pay.”

In the fall of 1862, Grant was pressured by his superiors to capture heavily defended Vicksburg, which would allow the Union to control the entire Mississippi River and cut the Confederacy in half. Grant resented having to divert his personal attention from capturing Vicksburg to controlling the cotton trade–and especially the corruption it was causing. Merchants seeking trade permits besieged his headquarters.

When Grant’s own father appeared one day seeking trade licenses for a group of Cincinnati merchants, some of whom were Jews, Grant’s frustration boiled over.

The Jewish Connection

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Michael Feldberg, Ph.D. is executive director of the George Washington Institute for Religious Freedom. From 1991 to 2004, he served as executive director of the American Jewish Historical Society, the nation's oldest ethnic historical organization, and from 2004 to 2008 was its director of research.

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