During the American Civil War, the extensive cotton trade continued between the North and South.
Northern textile mills in New York and New England were dependent on Southern cotton, while Southern plantation owners depended on the trade with the North for their economic survival.
The U.S. Union Government permitted limited trade, licensed by the Treasury and the U.S. Army, however corruption flourished as unlicensed traders bribed Army officers to allow them to buy Southern cotton without a permit.
As part of his command, Major General Ulysses S. Grant was responsible for issuing trade licenses in the Department of Tennessee, an administrative district of the Union Army that comprised the portions of Kentucky and Tennessee west of the Tennessee River, and Union-controlled areas of northern Mississippi.
Grant was deeply engaged in prosecuting the campaign to capture the heavily defended Confederate-held city of Vicksburg, Mississippi and was committed to succeed.
Grant resented having to deal with the distraction of the cotton trade. He perceived it as having endemic corruption, as the lucrative trade resulted in a system where “every colonel, captain or quartermaster … [was] in a secret partnership with some operator in cotton.”
He issued a number of directives aimed at black marketeers.
Grant also thought that many of the active black market cotton traders were “Jews and other unprincipled traders.”
Thus on November 9, 1862, Grant sent an order to Major-General Stephen A. Hurlbut:
“Refuse all permits to come south of Jackson for the present. The Israelites especially should be kept out.”
The following day, Grant instructed General Joseph Dana Webster:
“Give orders to all the conductors on the [rail]road that 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.”
Then in a letter to General William Tecumseh Sherman, Grant wrote that his policy was occasioned “in consequence of the total disregard and evasion of orders by Jews.”
Grant, in essence was tightening restrictions to try to reduce the illegal trade.
On December 8, 1862, Grant issued General Order No. 2, mandating that “cotton-speculators, Jews and other Vagrants having not honest means of support, except trading upon the miseries of their Country … will leave in twenty-four hours or they will be sent to duty in the trenches.”
Then, nine days later, on December 17, 1862, Grant issued General Order Number 11 to strengthen his earlier prohibition.
General Order No. 11 decreed as follows:
- 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 [of the Tennessee] within twenty-four hours from the receipt of this order.
- 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.
In a letter also dated December 17, 1862, Grant explained his reasoning to Christopher Wolcott, the assistant United States Secretary of War:
Sir, I have long since believed that in spite of all the vigilance that can be infused into Post Commanders, that the Specie regulations of the Treasury Dept. have been violated, and that mostly by Jews and other unprincipled traders. So well satisfied of this have I been at this that I instructed the Commdg Officer at Columbus [Kentucky] to refuse all permits to Jews to come south, and frequently have had them expelled from the Dept. [of the Tennessee]. But they come in with their Carpet sacks in spite of all that can be done to prevent it. The Jews seem to be a privileged class that can travel any where. They will land at any wood yard or landing on the river and make their way through the country. If not permitted to buy Cotton themselves they will act as agents for someone else who will be at a Military post, with a Treasury permit to receive Cotton and pay for it in Treasury notes which the Jew will buy up at an agreed rate, paying gold. There is but one way that I know of to reach this case. That is for Government to buy all the Cotton at a fixed rate and send it to Cairo, St Louis, or some other point to be sold. Then all traders, they are a curse to the Army, might be expelled.
Army officers immediately began carrying out the order, expelling Jewish traders and families from their homes.
Ironically, Grant may not have intended such results.
His headquarters expressed no objection to the continued presence of Jewish families, as opposed to Jewish cotton traders.
But, the wording of the order addressed all Jews, regardless of occupation, and it was implemented accordingly.
Throughout the Union, Jewish groups began protesting and sending telegrams to the government in Washington, D.C.
One Jewish merchant from Paducah, Kentucky, Cesar J. Kaskel, sent a telegram to President Abraham Lincoln in which he condemned the order as “the grossest violation of the Constitution and our rights as good citizens under it”.
The telegram noted it would “place us . . . as outlaws before the world. We respectfully ask your immediate attention to this enormous outrage on all law and humanity ….”
Grant’s General Order Number 11 soon attracted significant attention in Congress and from the press. The Democrats condemned the order as part of what they saw as the US Government’s systematic violation of civil liberties; they introduced a motion of censure against Grant in the Senate, attracting thirty votes in favor against seven opposed.
Some newspapers supported Grant’s action; the Washington Chronicle criticized Jews as “scavengers … of commerce”. Most, however, were strongly opposed, with the New York Times denouncing the order as “humiliating” and a “revival of the spirit of the medieval ages.” Its editorial column called for the “utter reprobation” of Grant’s order.
Cesar Kaskel then led a delegation to Washington, D.C., arriving on January 3, 1863. In Washington, he conferred with Jewish Republican Adolphus Solomons and a Cincinnati congressman, John A. Gurley. After meeting with Gurley, he went directly to the White House. Lincoln received the delegation and studied Kaskel’s specific copy of General Order No. 11 and the resulting order expelling Kaskel from Paducah.
President Lincoln then instructed General-in-Chief Henry Wager Halleck to have Grant revoke General Order No. 11, which Halleck did in the following message:
A paper purporting to be General Orders, No. 11, issued by you December 17, has been presented here. By its terms, it expells [sic] all Jews from your department. If such an order has been issued, it will be immediately revoked.
Reportedly, one of Halleck’s staff officers later explained to Grant privately that the problem lay with the excessive scope of the order: “Had the word ‘pedlar’ been inserted after Jew I do not suppose any exception would have been taken to the order.” And that according to Halleck, President Lincoln had “no objection to [his] expelling traitors and Jew peddlers, which I suppose, was the object of your order; but as in terms proscribing an entire religious class, some of whom are fighting in our ranks, the President deemed it necessary to revoke it.”
The Republican politician Elihu B. Washburne defended Grant in similar terms. However, Grant’s subordinates expressed concern about the order.
One Jewish officer resigned in protest and Captain John C. Kelton, the assistant Adjutant-General of the Department of Missouri, wrote to Grant to note his order included all Jews, rather than focusing on “certain obnoxious individuals,” and noted that many Jews served in the Union Army.
On January 6, 1863, Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise of Cincinnati, leader of the Reform movement, led a delegation that met with Lincoln to express gratitude for his support. Lincoln said he was surprised that Grant had issued such a command and said, “to condemn a class is, to say the least, to wrong the good with the bad.” Lincoln said he drew no distinction between Jew and Gentile and would allow no American to be wronged because of his religious affiliation.
Grant then formally revoked his order on January 17, 1863. Later, General James H. Wilson suggested that the order was related to Grant’s difficulties with his own father, Jesse Grant. He recounted,
“He [Jesse Grant] was close and greedy. He came down into Tennessee with a Jew trader that he wanted his son to help, and with whom he was going to share the profits. Grant refused to issue a permit and sent the Jew flying, prohibiting Jews from entering the line.”
Wilson felt that Grant could not deal with the “lot of relatives who were always trying to use him” and perhaps attacked those he saw as their counterpart — opportunistic traders who were Jewish.
After the Civil War, General Order No. 11 became an issue in the presidential election of 1868 in which Grant stood as the Republican candidate.
The Democrats raised the order as an issue, with the prominent Democrat and rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise urging fellow Jews to vote against Grant because of his alleged anti-semitism.
Grant sought to distance himself from the order, saying “I have no prejudice against sect or race, but want each individual to be judged by his own merit.”
Grant even repudiated the controversial order, asserting it had been drafted by a subordinate and that he had signed it without reading, in the press of warfare.
Grant also wrote in reply to a correspondent:
I do not pretend to sustain the order. At the time of its publication, I was incensed by a reprimand received from Washington for permitting acts which Jews within my lines were engaged in … The order was issued and sent without any reflection and without thinking of the Jews as a set or race to themselves, but simply as persons who had successfully … violated an order.
The episode however, did not cause much long-term damage to Grant’s relationship with the American Jewish community.
He won the presidential election, claiming the majority of the Jewish vote.
Then in 1874, President Grant and all the members in his Cabinet attended a dedication of the Adas Israel Congregation in Washington D.C.
This was the first time an American President attended a synagogue service. Many historians have taken his action as part of his continuing effort to reconcile with the Jewish community.
In his 1951, historian Bertram Korn suggested that Order Number 11 was part of a pattern by Grant. “This was not the first discriminatory order [Grant] had signed […] he was firmly convinced of the Jews’ guilt and was eager to use any means of ridding himself of them.”
Now WE know em