This Chanukah will mark the 154th anniversary of a little known incident in which Jews were expelled from their communities and homes. That may not sound like a dramatic event given the course of Jewish history. But this event happened in December 1862, in the United States.
This incident is known as General Grant’s General Order #11 that expelled the Jews as a class, from territory occupied by the Federal Army in the American Civil War, specifically, the Department of Tennessee which included Tennessee, Kentucky and Mississippi. I was both surprised and happy to hear that here in Israel, Eran Sabag discussed the incident on his Galei Tsahal radio show and posted the story on his Facebook page. His main message was the shock that something like this could ever of happened in the United States and be perpetrated by no less a figure than General Ulysses S. Grant, who later led the Federal Army to victory and became the 18th President of the United States.
So as we get ready to celebrate the Festival of Lights which is the anniversary of this nasty event and at a time when anti-Semitic incidents are on the rise in the United States, I thought it appropriate to shed some light on this lesser known but important piece of American Jewish history.
Though the American Civil War raged, Northern textile mills were dependent on Southern cotton in order to make many of the uniforms and tents for the Federal army and the South needed trade with the North for the economic survival of its planters. Recognizing this reality, a limited trade was permitted by the Federal government, but the system was abused and corruption was rampant. An illicit trade flourished.
This trade reached a peak at the time when Ulysses S. Grant was engaged in a campaign to conquer the fortified Mississippi River town of Vicksburg. He was not pleased that he had to divert so much of his time from the war effort to clamp down on the illegal trade. And not unlike many people of his time, latent anti-Semitism rose to the surface in times of frustration and he blamed the Jews for being mostly responsible for the trade.
Whatever the cause for Grant’s specific fury against the Jews (some say it had to do with his father’s role in the illegal trade and the fact that he had several Jewish partners), his ire came out in the form of the infamous General Order 11, issued on December 17, 1862, at his headquarters in Holly Springs, Mississippi.
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 this class of people be furnished passes as 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 for trade permits.
By order of Maj. Gen. U. S. Grant.
Jno A. Rawlins, Assistant Adjutant General
(Its OK to read this twice in case you can’t believe what you just read.)
Expulsions were indeed carried out: in Holly Springs, Mississippi, Jews who were the in town were physically removed from the area and in Paducah, Kentucky, thirty Jewish families were forced to leave on boats to Cincinnati. Eventually, it was the leaders of the Paducah Jewish community who appealed to President Abraham Lincoln in an urgent telegram, to rescind the order. And Lincoln did instruct the General in Chief of the Army, Henry Halleck, to cancel it. Much like many of you reading about this incident today probably are feeling, it is said that Halleck had to hear the whole story repeated as he found it hard to believe. On January 4, 1863, Halleck sent the following telegram to Grant:
A paper purporting to be General Order 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 had been issued, it will be immediately revoked.
Three days after Hallek’s telegram was received, Grant complied and the order was indeed revoked. Grant later claimed that the order was prepared by a subordinate and that he had signed it without reading its content. (In Israel, we call that “Tofa’at Ha Shin Gimel” or loosely translated as “blame the sentry or subordinate”.)
Grant would go on to be a hero and lead the Federal forces to victory in a war that ultimately cost the lives of 620,000 Americans. He also became the 18th President of the United States. Jonathan Sarna, one of the preeminent experts of American Jewish history, published a book several years ago called “When General Grant Expelled the Jews” in which he showed how Grant ultimately made amends and became a good friend of the Jewish community during his presidency. He made Tshuva (repentance)..
The sad story of General Order #11 is mostly lost in the long annals of the very positive experience of Jews in America, but it should not be forgotten.
For those interested in reading more on the subject, I recommend reading Sarna’s book and Bertram Korn’s, “American Jewry and the Civil War”.
Barry Spielman is the author of “Family Secrets: A Novel of the American Civil War the Transcontinental Railroad and One Man’s Journey to Discover his Roots”, whose underlying theme is Grant’s General Order #11 and “From Gettysburg to Golan: How two great battles were won – and the lessons they share”.