The Publication of Jonathan Sarna’s “When General Grant Expelled the Jews”

By Benjamin Shapell, Sara Willen | March 25, 2012

March 25, 2012
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Celebrating the publication of Jonathan Sarna’s When General Grant Expelled the JewsNew to bookstores this week is a landmark work about General Grant’s infamous 1862 order that all Jews living in Tennessee, Kentucky and Mississippi  vacate, within 24-hours,  their homes and businesses and leave, forever,  the area of his command – an act which, although the most sweeping anti-Jewish regulation in American history has, nonetheless, gone almost unnoticed  until now. That “It Could Happen Here”, and did, is the subject of Jonathan Sarna’s compelling study of the worst blemish in the life of the Union’s greatest commander. Here, writing six years later – and eagerly pursuing the presidency – Grant sought to explain his notorious “Jew Order” to the man, in fact, who inspired it: his father.

“There was a mean nasty streak in old Jesse Grant. He 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.” – James Harrison Wilson, interview with Hamlin Garland, circa 1890.

That the most blatant state-sponsored act of anti-Semitism in American history should have come about because Ulysses S. Grant was furious with his father is not so preposterous an explanation, unfortunately, as one might imagine. In December of 1862, Grant’s frustration and anger with the cotton speculators and rapacious businessmen trading illegally in the conquered areas of the South was only exacerbated by the knowledge that his father was one of them. If, as James Harrison Wilson observed, Grant was temperamentally unable to strike back directly at “the lot of relatives who were always trying to use him,” it seems likely that a powerful impulse was at work when, in a fit of obduracy and against all advice, he condemned and expelled not just those guilty of illicit trading, but the entire class of people whom he, in a spasm of reflexive prejudice, associated with the crime: Jews. Every Jewish man, woman and child, Grant ordered, was to leave, within twenty-four hours, the Department of the Tennessee. For the first time in U.S. history, in fact, government officials, at Grant’s direction, forcibly expelled citizens from their homes solely on the basis of their religion.

It may well have been easier for him to scapegoat the Jews, than confront his feared, detested and embarrassing father. But for whatever reason, Grant did issue his notorious General Orders No. 11 on December 17th, and although the immediate flow of protest from Jew and Gentile alike resulted in its swift revocation – by none other than Abraham Lincoln! –  it called down upon the great general’s head the accusation of virulent anti-Semitism. This issue was a non-starter, however, until Grant was nominated for the presidency in June 1868. That summer, it became the one matter with which Grant had to deal, the Democrats having made the issue their own, and Jewish leaders throughout the country directing anguished letters to him, seeking an explanation. In this letter to, of all people, his father Jesse Grant, Grant discusses the “Jew order” and his efforts to combat its effect: his policy, he says, is to say nothing about it.

“The Judge Levitt you speak of I presume is the Israelite who called on me at the house. If so I received his communication but not for three weeks after it was written… If this is the letter you refer to all I can say is the Judge has written out our conversation substantially correctly. He wanted me to indorse it and number corrections if any were to be made. I could not do this. It would be a departure from a rule I have established and would lead to interminable correspondence. There was in the letter an allusion to a letter received by me before the publication of my Jew order, correctly given as I recollect it, but lest it might not be strictly correct I sent it to Gen. Rawlins in Washington for verification, and with instructions to have the Judges letter returned to him with or without remarks from him…”

A month later, the furor reached a point where Grant had to do something to contain the outcry. To this end, he arranged the dissemination of a letter stating that he did not pretend to sustain the order; it was issued without thinking; he had no prejudice against anyone – and it would never have been issued had he not been in such haste and high dudgeon.

ULYSSES S. GRANT. 1822 – 1885. Having failed in the antebellum military; failed, even worse, in civilian life; his rise from Colonel to General in Chief of the Armies of the United States was, perhaps, the unlikeliest, but most deserved, in military history. His eight years as the 18th President was likewise unpredictable. Though popular, his scandal-ridden presidency is generally accorded one of the ten worst.

JESSE ROOT GRANT. 1794 – 1873. The father of President Ulysses S. Grant, he was a successful and avaricious businessman. His son, it is said, spent his life alternately repudiating his father’s bleak world view and trying to prove himself worthy of it.

Autograph Letter Signed (“Ulysses”), 4 pages, quarto, on the letterhead of the Headquarters Army of the United States, Galena, Illinois, August 14, 1868. To his father, Jesse Root Grant.