General Ulysses S. Grant has been blamed for many actions of his during the American Civil War. At times he was criticized for excessive drinking, lack of generalship and spending the lives of his soldiers thoughtlessly. He was known at one time or another as a drunk and blunderer. After the Overland campaign many Northerners were appalled by the lengthy casualty lists from the Wilderness, Spotsylvania and Cold Harbor.
Yet, nothing was to stir an outcry as much as Grant’s notorious General Order No. 11 issued by Grant on December 17, 1862. It ordered the expulsion of all Jews in his military district, comprising areas of Tennessee, Mississippi, and Kentucky. The order was issued as part of a Union campaign against a black market in Southern cotton, which Grant thought was being run “mostly by Jews and other unprincipled traders.”
The United States allowed some trade in cotton in areas that were occupied by the Union army. The army licensed traders and therein was the problem. By licensing only some traders, the army unknowingly encouraged a black market for those who were excluded. Northern textile mills in New York and New England were dependent on Southern cotton, while Southern plantation owners depended on the trade with the North for their economic survival.
Corruption flourished as unlicensed traders bribed Army officers to look the other way when they bought Southern cotton openly. Among the black market traders were Jewish traders. Some Jewish merchants had been active in the cotton business for generations in the South; others were more recent immigrants to the North.
As part of his command, Major General Ulysses S. Grant was responsible for issuing trade licenses in the Department of Tennessee, an administrative district of the Union Army that comprised the portions of Kentucky and Tennessee west of the Tennessee River, and Union-controlled areas of northern Mississippi.
Grant was in the midst of his initial attempts to capture the fortress city of Vicksburg, Mississippi and was upset that the cotton issue was intruding on his time. He perceived that the abuses and bribery taking place was as if “every colonel, captain or quartermaster … [was] in a secret partnership with some operator in cotton.” He had previously issued several directives to curb the corruption.
On November 9, 1862, Grant sent an order to Major-General Stephen A. Hurlbut: “Refuse all permits to come south of Jackson for the present. The Israelites especially should be kept out.” The following day he instructed General Joseph Dana Webster: “Give orders to all the conductors on the [rail]road that no Jews are to be permitted to travel on the railroad southward from any point. They may go north and be encouraged in it; but they are such an intolerable nuisance that the department must be purged of them.” In a letter to General William Tecumseh Sherman, Grant wrote that his policy was occasioned “in consequence of the total disregard and evasion of orders by Jews.”
Grant tightened restrictions to try to reduce the illegal trade. On December 8, 1862, he issued General Order No. 2, mandating that “cotton-speculators, Jews and other Vagrants having not honest means of support, except trading upon the miseries of their Country … will leave in twenty-four hours or they will be sent to duty in the trenches.” Nine days later, on December 17, 1862, he issued General Order No. 11 to strengthen his earlier prohibition.
General Order No. 11 decreed as follows:
- 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 [of the Tennessee] within twenty-four hours from the receipt of this order.
- Post commanders will see to it that all of this class of people be furnished passes and required to leave, and any one returning after such notification will be arrested and held in confinement until an opportunity occurs of sending them out as prisoners, unless furnished with permit from headquarters.
- No passes will be given these people to visit headquarters for the purpose of making personal application of trade permits.
In a letter of the same date sent to Christopher Wolcott, the assistant United States Secretary of War, Grant explained his reasoning:
I have long since believed that in spite of all the vigilance that can be infused into Post Commanders, that the Specie regulations of the Treasury Dept. have been violated, and that mostly by Jews and other unprincipled traders. So well satisfied of this have I been at this that I instructed the Commdg Officer at Columbus [Kentucky] to refuse all permits to Jews to come south, and frequently have had them expelled from the Dept. [of the Tennessee]. But they come in with their Carpet sacks in spite of all that can be done to prevent it. The Jews seem to be a privileged class that can travel any where. They will land at any wood yard or landing on the river and make their way through the country. If not permitted to buy Cotton themselves they will act as agents for someone else who will be at a Military post, with a Treasury permit to receive Cotton and pay for it in Treasury notes which the Jew will buy up at an agreed rate, paying gold.
There is but one way that I know of to reach this case. That is for Government to buy all the Cotton at a fixed rate and send it to Cairo, St Louis, or some other point to be sold. Then all traders, they are a curse to the Army, might be expelled.
Reaction to Grant’s order was immediate and elicited a response from President Lincoln after he received a telegram from a group of Jewish merchants from Paducah, Kentucky in which they condemned the order as “the grossest violation of the Constitution and our rights as good citizens under it”. The telegram noted it would “place us . . . as outlaws before the world. We respectfully ask your immediate attention to this enormous outrage on all law and humanity ….” Throughout the Union, Jewish groups protested and sent telegrams to the government in Washington, D.C.
Congress was the next body to respond to Grant’s order.The Democrats condemned the order as part of what they saw as the U.S. Government’s systematic violation of civil liberties. They introduced a motion of censure against Grant in the Senate, attracting thirty votes in favor against seven opposed.
After Lincoln met with the Paducah delegation on January 3, 1863 and read the order as it had delivered to them, he ordered General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck to instruct Grant to revoke the order. Halleck sent a terse telegram to Grant: A paper purporting to be General Orders, No. 11, issued by you December 17, has been presented here. By its terms, it expells [sic] all Jews from your department. If such an order has been issued, it will be immediately revoked.
After the war Grant repudiated the controversial order, asserting it had been drafted by a subordinate and that he had signed it without reading, in the press of warfare. He wrote in reply to a correspondent:
I do not pretend to sustain the order. At the time of its publication, I was incensed by a reprimand received from Washington for permitting acts which Jews within my lines were engaged in … The order was issued and sent without any reflection and without thinking of the Jews as a set or race to themselves, but simply as persons who had successfully … violated an order.
General Order No. 11 seems not to have hurt Grant in his run for the Presidency. He ran in 1868 and won the election with a majority of the Jewish vote.
If you would like to learn more on this subject, here is an excellent book by Jonathan Sarna: