This Week in History: Jews expelled from 3 US states

During Civil War, Grant blamed Jews for black market cotton trade; order was only in effect for a few weeks but a blemish in Jewish US history.

“The Jews, as a class violating every regulation of trade… are hereby expelled from the department within twenty-four hours from the receipt of this order.”

This was not an order given in 1930s Germany, but rather in the midst of the US Civil War. On December 17, 1862, just over two weeks before Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation freeing slaves in the US, Maj.-Gen. (and future president) Ulysses S. Grant signed General Order No. 11, expelling all Jews from Tennessee, Mississippi and Kentucky. Although only remaining in effect for several weeks, it was the first and possibly most overt official act of anti-Semitism in the United States to date.

The order was issued on the backdrop of cotton trading between the US North and secessionist South during the war. The North was reliant on cotton from the South, and handed regulatory control over the trade to the army. As a general, Grant was given the authority to regulate that trade and hand out licenses to cotton merchants inside his military theater of operations. It was his anti-Semitic belief that Jews controlled trade, specifically the black market trade of cotton, which led to General Order No. 11.

In late 1862, as Grant was preparing to capture Vicksburg, Mississippi, his command was flooded by requests by middlemen and merchants for licenses to trade cotton. The general was vexed by the volume of requests and carried an old world prejudice that led him to believe the “Israelites,” whom he described as an “intolerable nuisance,” were responsible for black market cotton. In November of that year, Grant banned Jews from traveling on the railroad and forbid granting them cotton-trading permits.

However, as Jews were not actually responsible for most unlicensed trading, the black market continued to thrive. Following an incident where Grant’s own father requested licenses for a group of merchants from the northern city of Cincinnati, some of whom were in fact Jews, the Union army general issued General Order No. 11 and gave the Jews in his administrative district 24 hours to leave the three-state area.

General Order No. 11 had devastating consequences for the Jewish population in a way that was uncharacteristic of the United States. In one Jewish community in a Mississippi town called Holly Springs, thirty families who were not at all involved in the cotton trade were forced to abandon their belongings and walk 40 miles (64 kilometers) out of the state. Adding insult to injury, some of the town’s Jewish residents were Union army veterans.

Jewish communities all over the country were shocked and enraged. The still-young country had witnessed very little institutionalized anti-Semitism in the United States up until that point. Congregations in Cincinnati, Louisville and St. Louis staged protests against the order. Community leaders in New York, Philadelphia and Chicago sent urgent telegrams to US president Lincoln.

The order still in effect, one Jewish delegation arrived in Washington D.C. on January 3, 1863, two days after Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. Armed with documentation disproving a connection between Jews and the black market for cotton, the support of several congressmen and the moral high ground, the delegation easily convinced Lincoln to rescind the order.

The same day, acting on orders from the president, Union army commanding General Henry Halleck sent a message to Grant instructing him to rescind the anti-Semitic order. Halleck, who had previously described cotton merchants as “traitors and Jew peddlers,” wrote to Grant: “A paper purporting to be General Orders, No. 11, issued by you December 17, has been presented here. By its terms, it expels all Jews from your department. If such an order has been issued, it will be immediately revoked.” Several days later, the future president and Civil War hero cancelled the order.

Quickly attempting to make amends to American Jews, Lincoln wrote, “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.” The president said he had been surprised by the order and would not permit religious discrimination.

Although the episode followed Grant in his later run for president, it did not have any long-term or serious political consequences. In a repudiation of his own order, he later argued that he was not condemning the “Jews as a set race,” but merely referring to certain Jews who had violated cotton-trading laws. Ultimately, Grant was supported by a majority of American Jews in his presidential campaign and as president, appointed Jews to high-ranking government positions.

General Order No. 11 is a dark blemish in Jewish American history. It represents one of the few instances wherein an official government policy targeted American Jewry. However, its quick revocation and the president’s repudiation of the anti-Semitism it codified are more reflective of the overall American Jewish experience than the order itself.