When General Grant Expelled the Jews (Jewish Encounters Series)

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9780805242799: When General Grant Expelled the Jews (Jewish Encounters Series)
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Finalist, 2012 National Jewish Book Awards

A riveting account of General Ulysses S. Grant’s decision, in the middle of the Civil War, to order the expulsion of all Jews from the territory under his command, and the reverberations of that decision on Grant’s political career, on the nascent American Jewish community, and on the American political process.
 
On December 17, 1862, just weeks before Abraham Lincoln announced the Emancipation Proclamation, General Grant issued what remains the most notorious anti-Jewish order by a government official in American history. His attempt to eliminate black marketeers by targeting for expulsion all Jews “as a class” unleashed a firestorm of controversy that made newspaper headlines and terrified and enraged the approximately 150,000 Jews then living in the United States, who feared the importation of European antisemitism onto American soil.
 
Although the order was quickly rescinded by a horrified Abraham Lincoln, the scandal came back to haunt Grant when he ran for president in 1868. Never before had Jews become an issue in a presidential contest, and never before had they been confronted so publicly with the question of how to balance their “American” and “Jewish” interests. Award-winning historian Jonathan D. Sarna gives us the first complete account of this little-known episode—including Grant’s subsequent apology, his groundbreaking appointment of Jews to prominent positions in his administration, and his unprecedented visit to the land of Israel. Sarna sheds new light on one of our most enigmatic presidents, on the Jews of his day, and on the ongoing debate between group loyalty and national loyalty that continues to roil American political and social discourse.

JEWISH ENCOUNTERS SERIES 

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About the Author:

Jonathan D. Sarna is the Joseph H. and Belle R. Braun Professor of American Jewish History at Brandeis University and chief historian of the National Museum of American Jewish History. He has written, edited, or co-edited more than twenty books and is best known for the acclaimed American Judaism: A History, which received the Jewish Book Council’s Everett Family Foundation Jewish Book of the Year Award in 2004. He lives in Massachusetts.

The PBS documentary Jewish Soldiers in Blue & Gray, which features Jonathan Sarna, explores the hidden stories of American Jews during the Civil War. Presented by the Shapell Manuscript Foundation, it is available for purchase on DVD at www.shapell.org.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

1

General Orders No. 11
 
Cesar Kaskel’s faith in America was wavering. Born in the town of Rawitsch, then part of Prussia, he, like tens of thousands of other young Jews in the 1850s, had left home and endured a long, perilous voyage across the Atlantic in hopes of establishing himself in business in the United States. Opportunities in Prussia were circumscribed for Jews, owing to domestic unrest, a failing economy, and severe legal limitations on where they could live and what kinds of occupations they could pursue. America, Kaskel had heard, was different. Dispatches in the German-Jewish press and letters received from earlier immigrants reported that in America opportunity was unlimited and freedom guaranteed to people of all faiths—Jews included. That guarantee, Kaskel now feared, had been voided.
 
Moving to Paducah, Kentucky, in 1858, Kaskel imagined he had found just the opportunity he had been looking for. The newly incorporated city, located on the Ohio River below the mouth of the Tennessee River and fifty miles up from the Mississippi, was booming. Its population grew exponentially, reaching almost five thousand residents by the Civil War. A timely investment by city fathers in the stock of the New Orleans and Ohio Railway brought Paducah excellent rail connections and a growing volume of trade. Kaskel and his business partner, merchant Solomon Greenbaum, looked to participate in this prodigious growth. They set themselves up in business.
 
Two years later, in 1860, a Kentucky native son, Abraham Lincoln, was elected the sixteenth president of the United States. Fewer than 1 percent of Kentucky voters supported him. Fearing that the new president and his party threatened slavery and the distinctive character of life in the South, seven Southern states, led by South Carolina, seceded to form the Confederate States of America. When the Confederacy bombarded the coastal fortification of Fort Sumter at the entrance to Charleston harbor on April 12, 1861, forcing it to surrender, war broke out. Once President Lincoln called for troops to quell the rebellion, four more states, including Virginia, joined the Confederacy, while four states on the border between the North and the South, including Kentucky, did not.
 
The Civil War disrupted economic life in Paducah and changed Kaskel’s life for the worse. The North began restricting Southern trade with Paducah as early as June 12, 1861, seeking to place economic pressure on the Confederacy. On September 6, Ulysses S. Grant and his troops captured and occupied the city, further restricting its trade with the South. The state of Kentucky declared itself neutral in the war, but Grant believed that the majority of Paducah’s citizens “would have much preferred the presence of the other army.” Be that as it may, at least some of the city’s thirty-odd Jews publicly supported the Union’s cause. Cesar Kaskel was one of them; he served as vice president of the Paducah Union League Club. His younger brother, Julius, operated as a recruiter for the Union army.
 
The disruption of free trade in Paducah created bountiful opportunities for speculators and smugglers, who always find ways to profit from wartime shortages and imbalances between supply and demand. While merchants like Kaskel burnished their pro-Union credentials in hopes of obtaining precious trade permits, officials entrusted with governing trade in and out of the city found backhanded ways to line their own pockets; so did many soldiers. In short order, public corruption rose, mutual trust declined, and recriminations abounded. As is so often the case in such circumstances, suspicion fell particularly upon the Jews, long stereotyped in Christian culture as being financially unscrupulous. Jews became the focus for much of the hatred and mistrust that the war unleashed within the city. Even though few in number in Paducah, they played an outsized role in business and trade, and as immigrants they were easily marked by their European accents and foreign ways. Unionists and Confederates alike doubted their loyalties—partly because they doubted the loyalty of all Jews and partly because Jews nationwide were known to be on both sides of the struggle. Many therefore assumed, even in the absence of supporting evidence, that “secessionists and Jews” were engaged in “rascally conduct” in Paducah and that widespread smuggling was carried out “as usual chiefly by Jews.”
 
Tense as conditions were in Paducah, nothing had prepared Cesar Kaskel for the events of December 28, 1862, and his agitated response to them was understandable. Pursuing his business, in his words, as a “peaceable, law abiding citizen,” he was suddenly summoned, on a Sunday, to report “immediately” to Paducah’s provost marshal, Captain L. J. Waddell. There he was handed the following order banishing him from the city:
 
OFFICE OF PROVOST MARSHAL
Paducah, Ky., December 28, 1862
 
C. J. Kaskel—Sir: In pursuance of General Order No 11, issued from General Grant’s headquarters, you are hereby ordered to leave the city of Paducah, Kentucky, within twenty-four hours after receiving this order.
 
By order,
L. J. WADDELL,
Captain and Provost Marshal
 
Kaskel was not the only person ordered to leave. As he heatedly informed the newspapers, anyone “born of Jewish parents” was likewise expelled: “nearly thirty other gentlemen, mostly married, all respectable men, and old residents of Paducah, two of whom have served their country . . . and all loyal to the Government.” Women and children were expelled too, and in the confusion—so it was recalled years later—one baby was almost forgotten, and two dying women had to be left behind in the care of neighbors. Historian John E. L. Robertson preserves a (dubious) local tradition that citizens of Paducah hid some Jews to prevent their being sent away. “One soldier,” he reports, “is said to have knocked on the door of a Jew and demanded, ‘What are you?’ The resident of the house answered truthfully, ‘Tailor.’ To which the none-too-bright soldier replied, ‘Sorry to bother you, Mr. Taylor, but I’m looking for Jews.’ ”
 
Cesar Kaskel quickly came to understand that Captain Waddell, in expelling him from his home, was simply following orders. The decision to evict Jews from the vast war zone under the command of General Ulysses S. Grant—known as the “Department of the Tennessee,” but actually stretching from northern Mississippi to Cairo, Illinois, and from the Mississippi River to the Tennessee River—appeared in a document entitled “General Orders No. 11” issued under Grant’s own signature eleven days earlier, on December 17. Waddell handed Kaskel a copy of Grant’s scarcely-to-be-believed order, and he wisely preserved it. Subsequently described as “the most sweeping anti-Jewish regulation in all American history,” it read as follows:
 
GENERAL ORDERS No. 11, Hdqrs. 13th A.C. Dept. of the Tenn.,
Holly Springs, December 17, 1862.
 
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 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.
 
Kaskel instantly decided to fight the order expelling him from his home. His faith in America, after all, hung in the balance. There was, however, nobody of authority in Paducah with whom to fight. Nor, even had he tried, could he have appealed to General Grant. Less than seventy-two hours after issuing General Orders No. 11, Grant’s forces at Holly Springs had been surprised by thirty-five hundred Confederate raiders led by Major General Earl Van Dorn. Since Grant himself was far from the scene, and the commanding officer, Robert C. Murphy, was “out at some entertainment” that made him, in the delicate words of a contemporary journalist, “a trifle over bold,” the results proved devastating: “Holly Springs was surrounded by rebel cavalry and surrendered without resistance; over a million rations burned, several hundred bales of cotton destroyed . . . and 2,000 troops [captured].” Simultaneous raids to the north by troops of the dreaded Confederate cavalryman General Nathan Bedford Forrest inflicted significant damage and tore up fifty miles of railroad and telegraph lines.
 
Communications between Grant’s headquarters and the military command were disrupted for weeks by these surprise attacks. As a result, news of Grant’s order expelling the Jews spread slowly and did not reach army headquarters in a timely fashion—sparing many Jews who might otherwise have been banished. Nor did remonstrations against the order reach Grant. To overturn General Orders No. 11, Kaskel would have to appeal to superiors in Washington.
 
Following time-tested traditions of Jewish politics, Kaskel began by appealing to the highest governmental power available. Long experience with persecution had persuaded Jews “that their ultimate safety and welfare could be entrusted neither to the erratic benevolence of their gentile neighbors nor to the caprice of local authorities.” Kaskel appealed instead to the president of the United States. Within just a few hours of being served with the order of expulsion, and without any known assistance from leading Jews of the time, Kaskel, his brother Julius, merchant Daniel Wolff, and Wolff’s two brothers, Marcus and Alexander, dispatched a joint telegram to Abraham Lincoln at the White House. In it, they briefly set forth the terms of General Orders No. 11, described themselves as “good and loyal citizens of the United States,” and pronounced themselves—as Americans—“greatly insulted and outraged by this inhuman order, the carrying out of which would be the grossest violation of the Constitution, and our rights as good citizens under it.” They pointed to the larger implications of Grant’s order, which, if allowed to stand, would stigmatize Jews “as outlaws before the whole world.” They appealed to Lincoln for his “immediate attention to this enormous outrage on all law and humanity” and asked for his “effectual and immediate interposition.” With their own imminent deportation uppermost in their minds, they requested, in the final sentence of their costly telegram, that “immediate instructions . . . be sent to the commander of this post.” Three times in three sentences they repeated the word “immediate.” They were desperate.
 
Lincoln, in all likelihood, never saw this telegram. He was busy preparing to issue the Emancipation Proclamation (January 1, 1863), freeing Confederate-held slaves as “an act of justice, warranted by the Constitution.” The irony of his freeing the slaves while Grant was expelling the Jews was not lost on some contemporaries. The Memphis Daily Bulletin published the two documents, one above the other. The juxtaposition of these events, as we shall see, also shaped the responses of several Jewish leaders to Grant’s order. They feared that Jews would replace Blacks as the nation’s stigmatized minority. But on December 31, when the telegram was read by General-in-Chief Henry Halleck, all of this was far from anybody’s mind. Not being familiar with Kaskel, and having no knowledge of the events that the telegram described, Halleck, with characteristic caution, sought to obtain more information. “Respectfully referred to Gen[era]l Grant for report,” he noted in his endorsement. By the time Grant reported, two weeks later, the order had been discussed in the halls of Congress.
 
Kaskel, in the meanwhile, did not wait patiently. His telegram to Lincoln unanswered, he climbed aboard the steamship Charley Bowen, which would carry him and other Jews out of Grant’s department, and hastily penned a strongly worded account of their banishment for distribution to the press. The Associated Press picked up the story, and it appeared, dated December 30, 1862, in a number of newspapers, headlined, in one case, “Expulsion of Jews from General Grant’s Department—The Circumstances Stated and Documents Quoted.” As a merchant, Kaskel intuitively understood the power of public opinion. He concluded his account, effectively, with a plea for help: “On my way to Washington, in order to get this most outrageous and inhuman order of Major General Grant countermanded, I ask you, gentlemen, to lend the powerful aid of the press to the suffering cause of outraged humanity; to blot out as quick as possible this stain on our national honor, and to show the world that the American people, as a nation, brand the author of that infamous order as unworthy of their respect and confidence.”
 
Kaskel passed through Cairo, Illinois, and probably Cincinnati on his Paul Revere–like ride to Washington. He spread the word of Grant’s order wherever he went. Armed with letters from Rabbi Max Lilienthal of Cincinnati and the prominent Cincinnati merchant Daniel Wolf, he hurried on. He was determined to do whatever it took to have Grant’s order reversed and his faith in America restored.
 
While Kaskel made his way as quickly as he could to Washington, other Jewish leaders, alerted to the order, swung into action. The most important by far was Isaac Mayer Wise, Cincinnati’s most prominent rabbi, the editor of the Israelite, the region’s most widely read Jewish newspaper, and one of the country’s leading proponents of Jewish religious reform. At forty-three, the hyperactive, somewhat contentious, and voluble rabbi was in the prime of his life. He had been in America for sixteen years, achieved mastery of the English language, and won friends in high places. Pragmatic, flexible, and politically savvy, he generally advocated compromise for the sake of unity both within the Jewish community and in the nation as a whole. Consequently, the “live and let live” policy of Democrats like Stephen A. Douglas strongly appealed to him, the policies of Abraham Lincoln and the Republican Party largely repelled him, and the “fanatical” abolitionists, some of whom displayed deep religious prejudice against Jews, frightened and alienated him. Residing opposite a border state, with “dear friends and near relations . . . in either section of the country,” Wise favored peace and sectional self-determination to uphold the union, even if that meant acquiescing to slavery. When it came to the rights of Jews, though, he was uncompromising. He was a one-man Anti-Defamation League, chronicling antisemitic slurs and actions and doing all in his power to combat them.
 
News of Grant’s order first reached Wise independently of Kaskel. Jews expelled from Holly Springs, some of whom were compelled to trudge forty mile...

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