Ulysses S. Grant (Photo CBS)
by David Robb
Two weeks before President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation and freed the slaves, his top field general, Ulysses S. Grant, committed the worst official act of anti-Semitism in American history. It was a war crime that went unpunished, and today it is all but forgotten.
It happened two years into the Civil War when Gen. Grant ordered every Jewish man, woman and child out of a vast military district under his control.
It was all about the price of cotton – and the anti-Semitism that was then rampant among the officer corps of the Union Army. On August 11, 1862, General William Tecumseh Sherman, the second-ranking general in the Union Army, wrote a letter to the army’s adjutant general warning that “the country will swarm with dishonest Jews” if the cotton trade is allowed to continue. Six years earlier, in a letter to Lorenzo Thomas, the adjutant general of the Union Army, Sherman had described Jews as “without pity, soul, heart or bowels of compassion.”
Though enemies on the battlefield, the North and South remained trading partners throughout the war. They each had something the other needed: The South had cotton, which the Union army needed for tents and uniforms, and the North had hard currency, which the South desperately needed to fund its war effort.
Lincoln’s top advisors urged him to halt the trading in cotton, but even during wartime, cotton remained king – it was essential to the war effort. So Lincoln allowed limited trading of Southern cotton under strict regulation by the Treasury Department and the Army.
The price of cotton began to soar by the end of 1862, and Grant blamed this on unlicensed Jewish traders. In fact, Jews made up only a tiny fraction of the war profiteers, but they were the easiest targets.
In November, Grant issued General Order No. 9 and General Order No. 10, which banned Jews from all trains traveling south into the areas under his command – the so-called Department of the Tennessee, which included the states of Tennessee, Mississippi and Kentucky.
“The Israelites especially should be kept out,” he ordered. “No Jews are to be permitted to travel on the railroad southward from any point.They may go north and be encouraged in it; but they are such an intolerable nuisance, that the Department must be purged of them.”
So having thus barred all Jews from entering these three states, Grant next ordered all those remaining out.
On December 17, 1862, from his headquarters in Oxford, Mississippi, Grant issued General Order No. 11, which 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 (24) hours from the receipt of this order by Post Commander.
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.
“A number of Jewish families that had been quiet, orderly and loyal citizens of the town of Paducah (Kentucky) for years, hurriedly packed up their goods and left their homes under this cruel order,” the New York Times reported at the time. “They had nothing whatever to do with Grant or his army, but they belonged to the Jews ‘as a class,’ and were denounced and expelled.”
Grant’s men forced 30 Jewish families in that one town alone to pack up and move out. Mass evacuations were also carried out in Mississippi and Tennessee. Across the three states, thousands of Jews headed north – some by train, some by carriage and some on foot.
“Their situation must have revived the history of their unfortunate people during the 12th, 13th and 14th centuries,” the Times reported, “when England, France and Austria successively followed each other in decrees against them of banishment and persecution.”
On January 1, 1863, President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, freeing the slaves.
Three days later, he instructed Henry Halleck, General-in-Chief of the Army, to send Gen. Grant a telegram. The message stated: “A paper purporting to be General Orders, No. 11, issued by you December 17, has been presented here. By its terms, it expels all Jews from your Department. If such an order has been issued, it will be immediately revoked.”
Three days after that, Grant rescinded Order No. 11. The first – and last – American Diaspora was over.
Six years later, Grant became the 18th president of the United States.