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Anti-Semitic Civil War order had powerful influence, says historian
March 1st, 2013
When was the first time that the American Jewish community was treated as a bloc of voters in a presidential election? No, it was not during the Depression and the election campaigns of Franklin Roosevelt.
Jonathan D. Sarna
According to Jonathan D. Sarna, the renowned historian of American Jewry, this took place during the election of 1868.
Moreover, it was the result of an event that is considered a footnote to the history of the Civil War, but that is a very significant event in the history of the American Jewish community.
Sarna made this event the topic of his most recent book, “When General Grant Expelled the Jews,” which was a finalist in the 2012 National Jewish Book Awards presented by the Jewish Book Council.
It was also the topic of Sarna’s keynote address at the 14th annual Day of Discovery that took place on Feb. 17 at the Harry & Rose Samson Family Jewish Community Center.
Some 300 people attended this day of Jewish learning coordinated by the Coalition for Jewish Learning, the education program of the Milwaukee Jewish Federation, and the JCC; and co-sponsored by 24 local synagogues and Jewish organizations.
Sarna is the Joseph H. & Belle R. Braun Professor of American Jewish History and chair of the Hornstein Jewish Professional Leadership Program at Brandeis University.
His remarks shed light on the subject of American Jews’ position relative to the larger society, and how it has developed and changed with time.
Sarna said the U.S. had about 150,000 Jews during the Civil War era, mostly of German origin and perhaps speaking with German accents.
They didn’t all settle in New York, but went wherever they could find growing economic opportunities or significant German populations, as in Milwaukee. Cincinnati, Ohio, had one of the largest Jewish communities by the beginning of the Civil War in 1861, and Jews could be found in such places as Kentucky, Tennessee, Texas, and Mississippi.
Tempted to smuggle
Some Jews supported the South during the war. Furthermore, Sarna said that one lucrative business some could not resist during the Civil War was smuggling contraband goods between the warring states.
Sarna began his remarks with a funny story about a speech he gave in Cincinnati years ago about the incident, at which an audience member who was a descendent of Jewish smugglers dramatically admitted that stories about them were all true.
Unfortunately, although most of the smugglers were not Jews, some non-Jews blamed the Jewish community as a whole for the smuggling; and one of those non-Jews turned out to be Major General Ulysses S. Grant.
So when Grant’s father Jesse showed up in the general’s camp with clothing merchants from the Jewish Mack family of Cincinnati, seeking permission to buy and transport cotton, the general became furiously angry, Sarna said.
On Dec. 17, 1862, Grant — who then commanded U.S. military operations in Kentucky, Tennessee, and Mississippi — issued General Order No. 11, expelling, within 24 hours, all Jews from the area then under his command.
The order was not fully executed, in part because Confederate troops, under General Nathan Bedford Forrest had attacked all railroad and telegraph lines in the area and thus destroyed the communications infrastructure, so most people never found out about it.
One Jewish leader who did was Cesar Kaskel, a Paducah, Kentucky, merchant. With assistance from John Addison Gurley, Republican Congressman from Cincinnati, Kaskel embarked on an emergency visit to Washington, handing out press releases along the way.
Arriving on Jan. 3, 1863, only two days after the release of the Emancipation Proclamation, Kaskel went to the White House and met with President Lincoln.
Sarna pointed out that Lincoln was likely the most Bible-literate of all U.S. Presidents, and recounted that part of the dialog between him and Kaskel went like this:
Lincoln: “And so the children of Israel were driven from the happy land of Canaan?”
Kaskel: “Yes, and that is why we have come unto Father Abraham’s bosom, asking protection.”
Lincoln: “And this protection they shall have at once.”
Previously unaware of the expulsion order, Lincoln gave his own orders to Grant the next day. Grant soon after rescinded General Order No. 11.
The incident might have been forgotten. But then Grant ran for President in 1868 as a Republican. The Democrats, pitching their campaign to Jews as a voting bloc, tried without success to use General Order No. 11 against him.
But Sarna said that Grant atoned for his sin against the Jews by apologizing, by issuing protests to both the Russian and Romanian governments for their treatment of Jews there, by becoming the first U.S. President to visit a synagogue and the first to visit “the Holy Land,” and by appointing more Jews to federal offices than the first 17 U.S. Presidents combined.
Sarna also led a workshop on a different topic: President George Washington’s famous 1790 letter to the Jewish (largely Sephardic) congregation of Newport, R.I.
When the Bill of Rights was not yet in the U.S. Constitution, the synagogue’s “warden” Moses Seixas had written to Washington expressing concerns about whether Jews would be accepted as citizens and be free to practice Judaism.
Washington responded using some language from the Seixas letter and some from the Bible, to reassure the Jews. The letter is famous for the statement that the U.S. government “gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance,” words that Sarna pointed out came from Seixas’s original letter.
But Sarna contended that the more important language in Washington’s letter was his assertion — inserted perhaps, Sarna said, on the advice of Thomas Jefferson — that religious freedom should be considered an “inherent natural right” rather than “the indulgence of one class of people” toward another.
This constituted a more radical statement that Jews had exactly the same rights as everyone else, and were not granted them by sufferance of the majority, Sarna said.
Milwaukeean Susan Ellman, MLIS, has taught history and English composition at the high school level and is a freelance writer at work on a historical novel.