In A Nutshell
In 1862, Ulysses S. Grant issued what might well be the most anti-Semitic order in American history. The Union general demanded that all Jews living in the lower Midwest pack their bags and hit the road. Fortunately, a Confederate cavalry leader, a Jewish Kentuckian, and a president from Illinois saved the day.
The Whole Bushel
The year 1862 was a tumultuous and bloody one in American history. The Civil War was entering its second year, and already thousands of Americans had died at Shiloh, Antietam, and Fredericksburg. However, something strange occurred that year you won’t find in most history books. On December 17, Union general Ulysses S. Grant delivered General Order No. 11, one of the most anti-Semitic documents in American history.
Grant wasn’t yet the head of the Union Army (that wouldn’t happen until 1864). He wasn’t even a household name (that wouldn’t happen until 1862). However, he was in charge of the Department of the Tennessee, an area of land that encompassed everything between the Mississippi River and the Tennessee River and contained the states between northern Mississippi and southern Illinois. In other words, the Department of the Tennessee included a lot more than Tennessee. It was also full of smugglers and cotton speculators, and Grant was getting tired of both of them. Determined to rid his department of thieves and scallywags, Grant issued General Order No. 11, declaring all Jews had to get out and get out now.
According to Grant’s thinking, all those smugglers and speculators had to be Jewish, and they had to be “expelled from the department within twenty-four hours from the receipt of this order.” And if any of them tried to come back, Grant would make sure they’d spend time behind bars. However, the order didn’t spark the massive exodus the general had hoped for. In an ironic twist, Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest destroyed all the telegraph lines surrounding Grant’s headquarters in Mississippi, preventing the missive from spreading too fast. In other words, Forrest—future grand wizard of the KKK—had unknowingly saved a huge number of Jews from leaving their Southern homes.
However, a few towns were eventually cleared out. On December 28, the Jews of Paducah, Kentucky were kicked out of town, and that ticked off Paducah resident Cesar Kaskel. When the order came that he had to leave, Kaskel left all right: He headed straight to Washington, D.C. With the help of a Republican Congressman, Kaskel was taken to the White House where he met with Abraham Lincoln himself. The President had no idea Grant had issued such a racist order. When Kaskel told him what was going on in Kentucky, Lincoln supposedly said, “And so the children of Israel were driven from the happy land of Canaan?” Kaskel solemnly replied, “Yes, and that is why we have come unto Father Abraham’s bosom, asking protection.”
Honest Abe didn’t discriminate, and he rescinded Grant’s order on January 4, 1863. However, the story wasn’t quite over yet. General Order No. 11 would haunt Grant until his death, and he would spend the rest of his life trying to atone for what he’d done. After Democrats charged him with racism, the 18th president began putting Jews in important federal positions. In fact, Grant appointed more Jews to government offices than any previous American president. Not only that, he actually attended the dedication of a D.C. synagogue, and when Russian and Romanian pogroms drove Jews from their homes, Grant did everything he could to help the displaced. He even publicly apologized for his deeds, claiming if he had actually stopped and thought about what he was doing, he would have canceled the order. While some Jews never forgave Grant, many came to terms with what he’d done. They voted for him in 1868, and many were present when he was laid to rest in his tomb. While General Order No. 11 was a horrible abuse of human rights, it went on to put many Jews in positions of power and inspired the United States to help Jewish people abroad. Perhaps it’s like the Torah says: “Indeed, you intended evil against me, [but] God designed it for good.”
Show Me The Proof
Slate: When Gen. Grant Expelled the Jews
NY Times: The Exodus From Paducah, 1862
History: Lincoln signs Ulysses S. Grant’s commission to command the U.S. Army
PBS: Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest and the KKK