Purim serves as 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 better.
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 twenty-four hours from the receipt of this order.” Known as General Orders No. 11, the document blamed “Jews, as a class” for the widespread smuggling and cotton speculation 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 commanders and army headquarters in Washington in a timely fashion. Many Jews who might otherwise have been banished 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, Kentucky, within twenty-four 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 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 congressman, 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 biblical 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 to have drawled, “the children of Israel were driven from the happy land of Canaan?”
“Yes,” Kaskel responded, “and that is why we have come unto Father Abraham’s bosom, asking protection.”
“And this protection,” Lincoln declared “they shall have at once.”
General-in-Chief of the Army Henry Halleck, ordered by Lincoln to countermand General Orders No. 11, chose his words carefully. “If such an order has been issued,” his telegram read, “it will be immediately revoked.”
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 emphatically 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 historic 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 Mississippi headquarters, and act as their agent to “procure a permit for them to purchase cotton.” According to an eyewitness, General 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 themselves to vote for “Haman.” Following his victory, though, Grant released an unprecedented letter that told Jews just what they wanted to hear: “I have no prejudice against sect or race, but want each individual to be judged by his own merit. Order No. 11 does not sustain this statement, I admit, but then I do not sustain that order.”
During the remainder of his life, Grant demonstrated that his apology was genuine. He appointed more Jews to public office than all previous presidents combined, 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 reputation sank like a stone. Historians critical of his benevolent policy toward African Americans ranked him close to the bottom 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 Purim-time 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.