Ulysses S. Grant , the 18th president of the United States, is generally acknowledged one of the greatest military commanders in U.S. history. There is one huge negative on his career as a Civil War general, however. Under General Order No. 11, Grant expelled all Jews from Kentucky, Mississippi and Tennessee. And although he would spend much of his presidency promoting the rights of Jews (as well as blacks and Native Americans), General Order No. 11 remains a stain on Grant’s reputation.
The immediate cause for issuance of the order was the black market in Southern cotton during the Civil War. Northern textile mills — as well as the Union Army itself — relied on cotton from the south. Although President Lincoln allowed limited trade in Southern cotton, it was not enough to satisfy demand. Cotton prices soared on the black market, and unlicensed traders openly bribed Union officers to allow them to buy cotton without a permit.
To Grant fell the task of shutting down the black market in unlicensed cotton. While very few of the illegal traders were Jewish, Grant fell sway to the anti-Jewish prejudice of his day. He ordered that no Jews were to be permitted to travel on the Rail Road southward from any point. “[T]hey are such an intolerable nuisance,” he said, “that the Department must be purged” of them.
The illegal trade in Southern cotton persisted, however. On December 17, 1862, Grant issued his now-infamous General Order No. 11, which stated, in part:
“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.”
Fortunately for most of the Jews in the department, the order came to the attention of President Lincoln two days later. Lincoln immediately instructed the Union Army’s general-in-chief, Henry Halleck, to countermand and revoke it. Lincoln later told Jewish leaders that he knew “of no distinction between Jew and Gentile,” adding:
“To condemn a class is, to say the least, to wrong the good with the bad. I do not like to hear a class or nationality condemned on account of a few sinners.”
In later years, Grant claimed that General Order No. 11 “would never have been issued if it had not been telegraphed the moment it was penned, and without reflection.” He said “I have no prejudice against sect or race, but want each individual to be judged by his own merit. Order No. 11 does not sustain this statement, I admit, but then I do not sustain that order.”
In 1885, as he lay dying of throat cancer, Grant wrote his personal memoirs, considered by many to be among the best presidential memoirs of all time. Unfortunately, they make no mention of General Order No. 11.
But if actions truly speak louder than words, Grant did, in the end, do much to atone for his wrongs against the Jews. During his presidency, he appointed more Jews to public office than all previous presidents combined. He became the first president to attend the dedication of a synagogue, and actively intervened on behalf of persecuted Jews in Russia and Romania. When his time in office was over, he became the first president to visit what is now Israel.
Historians have long disagreed on whether Grant was one of our best or worst presidents. As to whether he was a friend of the Jews, however, the issues is perhaps best summed up by author Jonathan D. Sarna in his book, When General Grant Expelled the Jews:
“No final decision ever resolved this debate.”