Jews in 1860s America made up less than 1% of the total population. Roughly half of them were immigrants. Many Americans only knew the Jews through their Bibles and ancient stereotypes.
While America was becoming a haven for the persecuted Jews of Europe, some citizens were uncomfortable with an influx of people whose loyalties they suspected. General Grant’s December 1862 order expelling the Jews from his military district was supported by many of these Americans. For example, soon after the order was issued, an Associated Press reporter wrote in an article that “The Jews in New Orleans and all the South ought to be exterminated [because they] are always found to be at the bottom of every new villainy.”1
Jews worried that Grant’s order reflected the anti-Semitic attitudes expressed by some abolitionist adherents of evangelical Christianity. One of the most radical abolitionists, William Lloyd Garrison had described a Jewish opponent as “a lineal descendant of the monsters who nailed Jesus to the cross…” The fierce Protestantism of anti-slavery crusaders sometimes made them antagonists of Catholics and Jews. In turn, the abolitionists were often equated with Know Nothings by immigrants. In common with some Irish immigrants, a few Jewish leaders feared that the recent emancipation of African American slaves might foreshadow the displacement of unpopular immigrants by newly freed blacks.2
Beyond Grant’s motives, rabbis and other leaders worried that the entire American Jewish community was stigmatized by his order. Jews in Kentucky appealed Grant’s expulsion in a telegram to Abraham Lincoln. They alleged that if the order was to stand, Jews would be viewed by other Americans as an outlaw class. This, they argued would only serve to increase prejudice against the Jews everywhere in the United States. Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise was Cincinnati’s leading rabbi and the publisher of a Jewish newspaper. He was the Jewish community leader closest to Grant’s command. As Jews in several towns began to be ordered out by local military commanders, he tried to rally his people to protest the expulsion. He wrote:
Israelites, citizens of the United States, you have been outraged, your rights as men and citizens trampled into the dust, your honor disgraced, as a class you have been officially degraded! It is your duty, the duty of self-defense, your duty first to bring this matter clearly before the president of the United States and demand redress, the satisfaction to the citizen who has been mortified and offended.3
Jews tried to rally support beyond their communities by implying that if they could be expelled now, other unpopular minorities, like Irish Catholics, could be the next target. They also warned military leaders that the issuance of Grant’s order could ignite protests that would distract from the war effort. But their main focus accorded with Rabbi Wise’s call. Delegations from Kentucky, Ohio, and elsewhere were soon on their way to Washington to try to meet with Lincoln to lay out their case for revocation of the expulsion order before the president.4
Video: Jewish Soldiers React to Grant’s Order
1. When General Grant Expelled the Jews by Jonathan D. Sarna published by Schocken (2012) Kindle Location 622; 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); Ulysses S. Grant: Triumph Over Adversity by Brooks Simpson published by Houghton Mifflin (2000).
2. When General Grant Expelled the Jews by Jonathan D. Sarna published by Schocken (2012) Kindle Location 631-644.
3.When General Grant Expelled the Jews by Jonathan D. Sarna published by Schocken (2012) Kindle Location 303.
4.When General Grant Expelled the Jews by Jonathan D. Sarna published by Schocken (2012) Kindle Location 314.
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