The long history of Western anti-Semitism features several expulsions of entire Jewish populations from European nations—most infamously, from Spain in 1492. But from Civil War-era America—specifically the Department of the Tennessee, a huge slice of land under military rule—and by order of Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, future U.S. president? The little-known General Orders No. 11 of Dec. 17, 1862, expelling Jews “as a class” from the department “within 24 hours,” remains the most overtly anti-Jewish act by a government official in U.S. history. In this engrossing account by a Brandeis University historian, the order is also shown to be a key moment in the life of Grant. In his two terms in the White House, the sincerely repentant war leader appointed more Jews to public office than any president before him and made the U.S. a forceful advocate for human rights on the world stage.
Grant’s reasons for the expulsion went from the general to the particular. Smugglers were busy exchanging the Confederacy’s sole export—cotton—for goods Grant thought were prolonging the war, namely gold and quinine, and Grant viewed them all as traitors. And Jewish merchants, though hardly alone in the profitable business, were prominent offenders. Grant had been growing steadily more frustrated when, in mid-December, his 68-year-old father came to visit, accompanied by new business partners, Jewish clothing manufacturers from Cincinnati, who had promised him 25 per cent of the profits if he could wheedle his son into giving them exclusive trading permits.
Presumably, the Cincinnati clothiers were unaware of the fraught relationship between the ever-shady elder Grant and the alcoholic general. The younger Grant exploded in disgust and issued his expulsion order. Grant seems to have regretted it almost immediately, offering no justification when an appalled president Lincoln countermanded him as soon as the news reached Washington. Six years later, president himself, Grant started making amends, successfully enough as to be able to record his satisfaction, as his life ended, that Jewish well-wishers were among those who had visited him during his final illness.