Jonathan D. Sarna
N.Y. Jewish Week
he recent celebration of Purim
offers an appropriate moment to
recall a man known for a time as
"America's Haman." That Gen. Ulysses S.
Grant's story ended very differently than
the story of Haman in the Book of Esther
reminds us how America itself is different,
and how often it has surprised Jews for the
On Dec. 17, 1862, as the Civil War
entered its second winter, Gen. Ulysses
S. Grant issued the most Haman-like
order in American history: "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
24 hours from the receipt of this ordet"
Known as General Orders No. 11, the
document blamed "Jews, as a class" for the
widespread smuggling and cotton specu-
lation that affected the area under Grant's
command. It required them to leave a
vast war zone stretching from northern
Mississippi to Cairo, Ill., and from the
Mississippi River to the Tennessee River.
Less than 72 hours after the order was
issued, Grant's forces at Holly Springs,
Miss., were raided, knocking out rail and
telegraph lines and disrupting lines of
communication for weeks. As a result,
news of General Orders No. 11 spread
slowly and did not reach company com-
manders and army headquarters in
Washington in a timely fashion. Many
Jews who might otherwise have been ban-
ished were spared.
A copy of General Orders No. 11 finally
reached Paducah, Ky. — a city occupied by
Grant's forces — 11 days after it was issued.
Cesar Kaskel, a staunch Union supporter,
as well as all the other known Jews in the
city, were handed papers ordering them
"to leave the city of Paducah, Ky., within
24 hours:" As they prepared to abandon
their homes, Kaskel and several other
Jews dashed off a telegram to President
Abraham Lincoln describing their plight.
Lincoln, in all likelihood, never saw that
telegram. He was busy preparing to issue
the Emancipation Proclamation. The irony
of his freeing the slaves — an event often
recalled during the upcoming seders of
the Jewish holiday of Passover — while
Grant was expelling the Jews was not lost
on contemporaries. Some Jewish leaders
feared that Jews would replace blacks as
the nation's stigmatized minority.
Kaskel decided to appeal to Abraham
Lincoln in person. Paul Revere-like, he
sped down to Washington, spreading news
of General Orders No. 11 wherever he
went. With help from a friendly congress-
man, he obtained an immediate interview
with the president, who turned out to have
no knowledge whatsoever of the order, for
it had not reached Washington. According
to an oft-quoted report, he resorted to bib-
lical imagery in his interview with Kaskel,
a reminder of how many 19th-century
Americans linked Jews to Ancient Israel
and America to the Promised Land:
"And so," Lincoln is said
happy land of
that is why we
have come unto
"And this pro-
declared "they shall
have at once."
General-in-Chief of the Army Henry
Halleck, ordered by Lincoln to counter-
mand General Orders No. 11, chose his
words carefully. "If such an order has
been issued:' his telegram read, "it will be
In a follow-up meeting with Jewish
leaders, Lincoln reaffirmed that he knew
"of no distinction between Jew and
Gentile. To condemn a class:' he emphati-
cally declared, "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 the aftermath, Grant found himself
compared in Jewish newspapers to histor-
Gen. Ulysses S.
Grant's uncivil war
against the Jews.
is enemies of the Jewish people, Haman in
particular. The Hebrew journal Hamagid,
published in the Prussian town of Lyck, in
recounting the Grant episode for Hebrew-
speaking Jews across Europe, used the
very language of the Book of Esther to
underscore parallels between the biblical
story and the contemporary one. It also
anticipated that Jews would one day have
their revenge on the general: "The day
will come it predicted, "when he will pay
in judgment for all of the damage that he
wrought upon the Children of Israel by his
ignorant and wicked order, and his deeds
will recoil upon his own head:'
We now know that Grant's expulsion
order was linked to a visit he received
from his 68-year-old father, Jesse R. Grant,
who was accompanied by members of
the prominent Mack family of
Cincinnati, significant Jewish
clothing manufacturers. The
Macks, as part of an ingenious
scheme, had formed a secret
partnership with the elder
Grant. In return for 25 percent
of their profits, he agreed to
accompany them to his son's
and act as their agent to
"procure a permit for them
to purchase cotton."
According to an eyewit-
ness, Gen. Grant waxed
indignant at his father's
crass attempt to profit
from his son's military
status and raged at the
Jewish traders who
"entrapped his old father
into such an unworthy undertaking." In a
classic act of displacement, he "expelled
the Jews rather than his father."
Subsequently, Ulysses S. Grant never
defended General Orders No. 11. In his
Personal Memoirs, he ignored it. His wife,
Julia, proved far less circumspect. She
characterized General Orders No. 11 as
nothing less than "obnoxious."
General Orders No. 11 came back to
haunt Grant when he ran for president in
1868. Many Jews could not bring them-
selves to vote for "Haman." Following his
victory, though, Grant released an unprec-
edented letter that told Jews just what
they wanted to hear: "I have no prejudice
against sect or race, but want each indi-
Cesar Kaskel appealed to President
Lincoln on behalf of the Jews.
vidual to be judged by his own merit.
Orders No. 11 does not sustain this state-
ment, I admit, but then I do not sustain
During the remainder of his life, Grant
demonstrated that his apology was genu-
ine. He appointed more Jews to public
office than all previous presidents com-
bined and spoke out for Jewish rights on
multiple occasions. As a result, when he
died of cancer in 1885, Jews mourned him
deeply. Kaddish was recited in his memory
in many synagogues.
Subsequently, of course, Grant's reputa-
tion sank like a stone. Historians critical
of his benevolent policy toward African
Americans ranked him close to the bot-
tom among all American presidents. At one
point, only Warren G. Harding ranked lower.
A re-examination of Grant's career
makes clear that he deserved better.
His transformation from "Haman" to
"Mordecai," from a general who expelled
"Jews as a class" to a president who
embraced Jews as "individuals:' serves as
an apt reminder that even great figures
in history can learn from their mistakes.
Hatred can be overcome.
Jonathan D. Sarna is the Joseph H. & Belle R.
Braun Professor of American Jewish History
at Brandeis University and chief historian of
the National Museum of American Jewish
History. His book "When General Grant
Expelled the Jews" has just been published by
Schocken/Nextbook. This article was originally
published in the New York Jewish Week.