Most of us wince at the mention of generalized bigotry and oppression of minority and ethnic groups within the borders of the United States. Unfortunately, the history of prejudicial oppression is as old as the Republic, itself. One of the most blatant, yet short-lived official anti-semetic actions took place on today’s date in 1862.
Prior to and during the American Civil War, cotton was a very important commodity to both the South and the North. Cotton was a major agricultural product, essential to the economic well-being of many southern states. It was sold and shipped to the industrial north, where it was milled and turned into textiles. The cotton textile industry was quite important to many northeastern states.
Even as the Civil War flared on, the federal US Government permitted some limited cotton trade with the South. The US Treasury and the US Army issued limited licenses for this purpose. As happens in most restricted, wartime areas, a black market and corruption spring up to fill real demand for certain goods.
When the cotton trade became restricted because of the war, a florishing black market in cotton grew up. Unlicensed cotton merchants bribed US Army officers, so they could purchase Southern grown cotton. The merchants were located in both the South and the North. One of the constituent groups of merchants just happened to be jewish.
Enter, then Major-General Ulysses S. Grant into the scenario. Grant’s area of command was known as the “Department of the Tennessee”. This territory extended from the northern portions of the state of Mississippi, up to Cairo, Illinois and from the Mississippi River to the Tennessee River. Widespread smuggling and cotton speculation was most rampant in this area.
It has been speculated that Grant harbored strong, antisemitic opinions and that they were exhibited when he addressed the cotton black market in his territory.
Grant’s main objective was to succeed in the capture of the heavily defended Confederate city of Vicksburg, Mississippi. The major-general resented the distraction of overseeing the enforcement of anti-smuggling regulations. At the same time, he recognized that the corruption of US officers by southern aligned black marketers would greatly harm military efforts in the war.
November 9, 1862, Grant issued the first of his orders restricting the black market. The initial order refused all official permits to anyone arriving from the area south of Jackson, Mississippi. He stressed, specifically that “the Israelites, especially, should be kept out. November 10th, Grant further restricted travel. His order stated that “no Jews are to be permitted to travel on the railroad southward from any point.” The Jews were grudgingly allowed to travel northward. Tellingly, Grant wrote that the Jews “are such an intolerable nuisance, that the department must be purged of them.”
On December 17, 1862 Major-General Grant issued his most infamous prohibition, General Order number 11. In it, he singled out the jewish population, regardless of any black market participation. Grant ordered that Jews be “expelled from every inch of his territory.” He further warned, “anyone returning…will be arrested and held in confinement until an opportunity occurs of sending them out as prisoners.” Just in case there was any doubt about his order, Grant wrote, “No passes will be given these people to visit headquarters for the purpose of making personal application for trade permits.”
Here is the complete text of General Order number 11:
“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 [the “Department of the Tennessee,” an administrative district of the Union Army of occupation composed of Kentucky, Tennessee and Mississippi] 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.”
Naturally, the General Order was not received well in most quarters. Objections immediately arose from loyal northern Jewish citizens. A large portion of the Union Army was ethnic Jews. Despite the objections, mass evacuations of Jewish people in two Mississippi cities and Paducah, Kentucky were soon completed.
On December 28th, one of the Paducah Jews, Cesar Kaskel met with Ohio congressman John Gurley about the evacuation order. The Congressman, who enjoyed White House connections, invited Kaskel to visit President Abraham Lincoln that same day. Following the Presidential meeting, Lincoln ordered the Army’s General-In-Chief, Henrey Halleck to countermand General Order Number 11.
After the Civil War, General Order Number 11 was brought up during Grant’s presidential campaign of 1868. The Democrats blamed Grant of anti-semitism. Grant skirted the controversy by claiming that the order had been written by a subordinate officer and that Grant signed it without reading it. He managed to patch up relations with the American Jewish voters. His presidential election victory was helped by a majority of those voters.
Even though General Order Number 11 was short-lived, the action represents one manifestation of antisemitism among the American people.