When Major General Ulysses S. Grant issued his Order Number 11 expelling all Jews from the area controlled by his army on December 17, 1862, many Jews wondered what had prompted the respected military leader’s action. While scholars today sometimes claim that the order reflected antagonisms he had with his father, whose unsavory wartime cotton speculations with Jewish partners scandalized Grant, rather than personal bigotry, elements in his biography may indicate otherwise.1
The general had a history of mistrusting the foreign. For example, Grant wrote in his memoir that as a young man, he was an admirer of the Whig Party, but when he cast his first presidential vote that party had collapsed. Living in St. Louis he followed many other Whigs into the Know Nothing’s party. Grant said that his Whig friends “had become Know Nothings,” joining the anti-immigrant American Party. Grant wrote that “There was a lodge near my new home, and I was invited to join it. I accepted the invitation; was initiated; attended a meeting just one week later, and never went to another afterwards.”2
In his memoir, Grant says he stopped attending the party’s meetings because it was a “secret, oath-bound” party in which he would be forced to both follow the party’s orders and keep silent about its activities. He also said he disagreed with the party’s “opposition…to the right to worship God ‘according to the dictate’s of one’s own conscience.” However, Grant said he did not disagree with all of the principles of the Know Nothings. He wrote long after the party had been discredited that “I have no apologies to make for having been one week a member of the American party; for I still think native-born citizens of the United States should have as much protection, as many privileges in their own country [as immigrants].” In so saying, Grant latched on to one of the oldest nativist canards; that immigrants have secret “privileges” somehow denied to the native-born. He would make the same claim about Jews.3
In 1862 Grant would reproduce this belief that a foreign element had special powers and privileges not possessed by others. He would direct his anger at widespread war profiteering, which was even being participated in by his father, at one group of people who were perceived as “foreign,” the Jews. On July 26, 1862, five months before his infamous order, Grant sent a telegram to a subordinate urging him to target Jews for special investigation as smugglers.4
In a December 17, 1862 letter to Assistant Secretary of War Christopher Wolcott, Grant said that anti-smuggling regulations were being violated “mostly by Jews.” He confided that “So well satisfied of this have I been that I instructed [a subordinate] to refuse all permits to Jews to come south, and frequently have them expelled…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.” Grant offers no evidence for his charge, nor does he indicate the source of this supposed Jewish privilege.5
Grant’s biographer, Brooks Simpson, writes that while Grant would later claim not to have been prejudiced against Jews, in fact “some of his statements were clearly anti-Semitic.” America’s Jewish community would not let this expression of ancient prejudice stand. In the weeks after the “infamous order” was issued, they would mobilize a national campaign against it.6
Video: By the beginning of 1863 General Ulysses S. Grant was a national hero. This video from the National Portrait Gallery helps explain why.
The Papers of Ulysses S. Grant are now available online. Note: The site is slow to load. Be Patient.
1. When General Grant Expelled the Jews by Jonathan D. Sarna published by Schocken (2012); Jews and the Civil War: A Reader by Jonathan D. Sarna NYU Press (2011); American Jewry and the Civil War by Bertram Korn published by Atheneum (1951); Anti-Semitism in America by Leonard Dinnerstein published by Oxford University Press (1994); American Judaism by Jonathan D. Sarna published by Yale University Press (2004).
2. Grant: Personal Memoirs of U.S.Grant Selected Letters 1839-1865 by Ulysses S. Grant ed. by Mary & William McFeely (1990) p. 142-143.
3. Grant: Personal Memoirs of U.S.Grant Selected Letters 1839-1865 by Ulysses S. Grant ed. by Mary & William McFeely (1990) p. 142-143.
4. The Papers of Ulysses S. Grant, Volume 05: April 1-August 31, 1862 p. 238.
5. The Papers of Ulysses S. Grant, Volume 07: December 9, 1862-March 31, 1863 p. 56.
6. Ulysses S. Grant: Triumph Over Adversity by Brooks Simpson published by Houghton Mifflin (2000) p. 164; When General Grant Expelled the Jews by Jonathan D. Sarna published by Schocken (2012).
The Immigrants’ Civil War is a series that examines the role of immigrants in our bloodiest war. Articles will appear twice monthly between 2011 and 2017. Here are the articles we have published so far:
1. Immigrant America on the Eve of the Civil War – Take a swing around the United States and see where immigrants were coming from and where they were living in 1861.
2. 1848: The Year that Created Immigrant America – Revolutions in Europe, famine and oppression in Ireland, and the end of the Mexican War made 1848 a key year in American immigration history.
3. Carl Schurz: From German Radical to American Abolitionist– A teenaged revolutionary of 1848, Carl Schurz brought his passion for equality with him to America.
5. …And the War Came to Immigrant America -The impact of the firing on Fort Sumter on America’s immigrants
10. Immigrant Day Laborers Help Build the First Fort to Protect Washington-The Fighting 69th use their construction skills.
12. Immigrants Rush to Join the Union Army-Why?– The reasons immigrants gave for enlisting early in the war.
17. Immigrant Regiments on Opposite Banks of Bull Run -The Fighting 69th and the Louisiana Tigers
39. A German Regiment Fights for “Freedom and Justice” at Shiloh-The 32nd Indiana under Col. August Willich.
40. The Know Nothing Colonel and the Irish Soldier Confronting slavery and bigotry.
43. Union Leader Ben Butler Seeks Support in New Orleans-When General Ben Butler took command in New Orleans in 1862, it was a Union outpost surrounded by Confederates. Butler drew on his experience as a pro-immigrant politician to win over the city’s Irish and Germans.
49. The Irish Brigade Moves Towards Richmond-The Irish brigade in the Peninsula Campaign from March 17 to June 2, 1862.
50. Peninsula Emancipation: Irish Soldiers Take Steps on the Road to Freedom-The Irish Brigade and Irish soldiers from Boston free slaves along the march to Richmond.
54. Making Immigrant Soldiers into Citizens-Congress changed the immigration laws to meet the needs of a nation at war.
60. Emancipation 150: “All men are created equal, black and white”– A German immigrant reacts to the Emancipation Proclamation
Immigration Vacation -Civil War Sites