Ulysses S. Grant and the Jews: An Unsolved Mystery

By Dr. John Y. Simon

A president of the United States still remembered for a disgraceful public act of anti-Semitism attended the dedication of Adas Israel Congregation’s building in 1876. After separating from the Washington Hebrew Congregation in 1869 in search of a more traditional mode of worship, the founders of Adas Israel occupied temporary quarters until 1876, when they launched a campaign to complete a synagogue before July 4, the centennial of American independence. On June 9, President Ulysses S. Grant, his son Ulysses, Jr., a recent Harvard graduate who had become his father’s secretary, and Senator Thomas W. Ferry of Michigan, president pro tempore of the Senate and consequently first in line to succeed President Grant since the death of Vice-President Henry Wilson, took seats in the synagogue. Methodist Episcopal Bishop John P. Newman accompanied the party, perhaps to chaperone the Methodist president. Grant reportedly made a cash contribution at the conclusion of the dedicatory ceremonies.

Fourteen years earlier, Major General Grant had been guilty of a shocking display of antisemitism. On December 17, 1862, he issued General Orders Number Eleven:

  1. The Jews, as a class, violating every regulation of trade established by the Treasury Department, and also Department orders, are hereby expel[led] from the Department.
  2. Within twenty-four hours from the receipt of this order by Post Commanders, they will see that all of this class of people are furnished with passes and required to leave, and any one returning after such notifications, will be arrested and held in confinement until an opportunity occurs of sending them out as prisoners unless furnished with permits from these Head Quarters.
  3. No permits will be given these people to visit Head Quarters for the purpose of making personal application for trade permits.

Why did Grant issue such an order? This mystery has only a partial solution.

By December 17, Grant had advanced along the line of the Mississippi Central Railroad as far as Oxford. From there, he instructed General William T. Sherman to lead an expedition down the Mississippi River to Vicksburg, the ultimate objective of Grant’s campaign. Grant knew that his army had advanced deep into Mississippi with a tenuous supply line, while enemy forces remained intact and mobile, and that his divided armies risked fighting superior Confederate forces. Given such strategic anxieties, he could hardly be expected to devote thought to matters of trade. But such concerns constantly intruded.

The outbreak of war had so increased the value of cotton in the North and in Europe that planters continued to grow it despite a Confederate embargo. By the end of 1862, Grant’s advance carried him toward the richest plantations, some storing harvests from two growing seasons.

A confused and ambivalent U.S. Government trade policy provided generous loopholes for the enterprising and unscrupulous. When war began, Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase moved immediately to halt the shipping of “munitions of war” to the Confederacy, but not until four months later did President Abraham Lincoln give the Treasury authority to regulate trade with insurrectionary regions. Chase believed that trade should follow the flag, so as armies moved southward, Treasury agents gave permits to loyal citizens to resume normal commerce. Such a policy would reconcile citizens to the federal government and benefit the Northern economy through the flow of needed Southern products.

What looked sound and sensible from Washington looked disgraceful from army headquarters in Mississippi, where everyone knew how often goods traded by “loyal” persons behind the lines seeped southward to the Confederacy in exchange for cotton. The war had cut off the supply of cotton to New England mills and the world market, raising customary prices. The government expected the army to seize captured and abandoned cotton for sale to benefit the Treasury, thus defraying the staggering cost of war and ending the cotton famine. But as the army advanced, patriotic Confederates burned their cotton rather than lose their hoards. Some rebels, aware of the imminent arrival of the enemy and reluctant to torch their only capital asset, pursued an alternative. Traders or their agents who slipped through the lines offered gold, weapons, or medicine in return for these doomed bales. Such illegal and unpatriotic practices were lucrative enough to warrant the risk. Speculators who bought cotton could profit enough to enable them to bribe officers and officials to look away or even to assist as they smuggled cotton through the lines.

Wartime cotton trade in the Mississippi Valley outraged patriotic Northerners, soldiers and civilians alike. Unscrupulous traders enabled Confederates to fight more effectively by supplying gold and scarce goods, deprived the U.S. Treasury of revenue, and corrupted the military. Officers and journalists frequently blamed this trade on Jews.

When war began, some 150,000 Jews lived in the United States. About two-thirds were born abroad and had crossed the Atlantic for much the same reasons as other recent immigrants. Like them, Jews more often settled in the North than in the South, and disproportionately in cities. Whether they were disproportionate participants in the wartime cotton trade cannot be determined, but contemporaries wrote as if they were. An 1863 investigation of cotton-buying in the Mississippi Valley involved hundreds of soldiers and civilians, only four of them Jewish. Some ugly remarks about “Jew traders” may have been intended as insults to non-Jewish traders. Unfortunately, these actions strengthened the impression that Jews dominated the cotton business.

Like their fellow citizens, Jews enlisted in local regiments when the war began. Ultimately, approximately 8,000 to 10,000 Jewish soldiers served North and South. When Grant issued General Orders Number Eleven, the highest-ranking Jewish officer in his command, Lieutenant Colonel Marcus M. Spiegal, 120th Ohio, son of a German rabbi, was with his regiment on Sherman’s expedition to Vicksburg.

Grant’s imperial Department of the Tennessee stretched from northern Mississippi to Cairo, Illinois, and from the Mississippi River to the Tennessee River. Within this domain, he delegated administrative duties to subordinates while concentrating his attention on the armies moving southward. But he could not ignore civil problems in his department. Both Grant and Sherman vehemently, but fruitlessly, protested prevailing trade regulations that encouraged fraud and corruption. Constantly vexed by the cotton trade, Grant fell prey to the pervasive antisemitism of the day.

On July 26, 1862, Grant telegraphed an officer at Columbus, Kentucky: “Examine the baggage of all speculators coming South, and, when they [have] specie, turn them back. If medicine and other contraband articles, arrest them and confiscate the contraband articles. Jews should receive special attention.” On November 9, he telegraphed Memphis: “Refuse all permits to come south of Jackson for the present[.] The Israelites especially should be kept out[.]” The following day, Grant instructed his superintendent of military railroads to “Give orders to all the conductors…on the road that no Jews are to be permitted to travel on the Rail road 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 for them[.]” Yet when Colonel John Van Deusen Du Bois issued orders on December 8 expelling “Cotton-Speculators, Jews and other Vagrants” from Holly Springs, Grant immediately ordered them revoked as violating instructions from Washington encouraging cotton shipping from the South.

Grant’s prompt revocation of Du Bois’s order makes more puzzling his issuance of similar orders within a few days. Timing suggests that Grant’s rage was ignited by the arrival of his father in Mississippi to buy cotton for a Jewish firm in Cincinnati in return for one-quarter of the profits. Jesse R. Grant was no simpleton ensnared by crafty speculators. A shrewd businessman, he rose from poverty to affluence through aggressive business practices. A neighbor remembered him as willing “to follow a dollar to hell.”

Jesse’s relationship with his son was complex. It was the father who had arranged his son’s appointment to West Point and then forced him to attend. When Ulysses resigned from the army fifteen years later, his father-in-law, rather than his father, tried to help him establish a farm. When necessity eventually drove Grant to his father’s leather store in Galena, Illinois, he worked for a younger brother for a less-than-generous salary.

Jesse’s attempt to use his paternity as a source of cotton profits was the last straw. On the eve of his father’s arrival, Ulysses complained of “speculators whose patriotism is measured by dollars and cents. Country has no value with them compared to money.” Suddenly he realized that his father fit this condemnation. Perhaps displacing his anger, Grant lashed out at his father’s Jewish partners. Grant’s ire appeared even more clearly in a letter, written the day he issued the orders, to Assistant Secretary of War Christopher P. Wolcott:

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 that I instructed the Commdg Officer at Columbus to refuse all permits to Jews to come south, and frequently have had them expelled from the Dept. 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 anywhere.

Grant’s senseless reference in his orders to Jews as a “class” created considerable confusion in enforcement. Several officers asked whether these orders applied to Jewish sutlers, the licensed traders who accompanied regiments. At least one Jewish officer resigned. Captain Philip Trounstine, Fifth Ohio Cavalry, explained that he was “either fortunately or unfortunately born of Jewish parents,” that he owed “filial affection to my parents, Devotion to my Religion, and a deep regard for the opinion of my friends” and could “no longer, bear the taunts and malice, of those whom my religious opinions are known[.]”

Information about enforcement within the Department of the Tennessee remains hazy, but the orders were zealously enforced at Paducah, Kentucky, where Jews were expelled on 24-hours’ notice. Entire families were driven from their homes. Two women lying ill were exempted; two army veterans were not. In his inaugural address in 1869, President Grant would later state, “I know no method to secure the repeal of bad or obnoxious laws so effective as their stringent execution.” Nowhere had this become more effectively demonstrated than in Paducah, where Jewish leaders began a protest eventually heard in Washington.

Cesar F. Kaskel of Paducah, barred from telegraphing Grant, wired Lincoln. He then proceeded toward Washington, along the way visiting or writing to Jewish leaders to create pressure for revocation. Kaskel headed toward the right man. During the 1850s, Lincoln had flatly rejected any political advantage through harnessing prejudice.

After meeting Kaskel, Lincoln wrote a note to Major General Henry W. Halleck, who sent Grant a characteristically cautious telegram: “A paper purporting to be a Genl Order No. 11 issued by you Dec 17th has been presented here. By its terms it expels all Jews from your Dept. If such an order has been issued, it will be immediately revoked.” On the following day, Halleck’s aide wrote to Grant: “Permit me to inform you unofficially the objection taken to your Genl Order No 11. It excluded a whole class, instead of certain obnoxious individuals. Had the word “peddler” been inserted after Jew I do not suppose any exception would have been taken to the order. Several officers and a number of enlisted men in your Dept are Jews. A Govr of one of the Western states is a Jew.”

Kelton presumably meant Governor Edward Salomon of Wisconsin, who was a Lutheran. Halleck himself wrote to Grant on January 21 that the “President has no objection to your expelling traders and Jew pedlars, which I suppose was the object of your order, but as it in terms prescribed an entire religious class, some of whom are fighting in our ranks, the President deemed it necessary to revoke it.”

After Grant revoked the orders, Congress tabled censure resolutions introduced into the House and Senate. General Orders Number Eleven might then have been forgotten had its author not entered politics.

The Orders received more newspaper coverage in 1868 than when first issued. After Grant’s presidential nomination, Democratic newspapers revived the issue, urging Jewish voters, then customarily Republican, to switch allegiance. Democratic attacks inspired Republican excuses. Had Grant acted on orders from Washington? This theory was first advanced in 1863 by Jesse Grant and in newspapers. Accounts of Grant’s instructions contradicted one another. However, no documentary evidence existed that would absolve Grant of responsibility.

Had Assistant Secretary of War Wolcott or someone else in Washington expressed the antisemitism reflected in General Orders Number Eleven, giving Grant encouragement when he lashed out at cotton traders? Although not writing as one obeying orders, Grant explained his actions to Wolcott in his December 17th letter. Wolcott was a man to whom Grant had never addressed any communication previously.

Grant partisans tried other postwar political explanations for the embarrassing order, shifting blame to a staff officer or some other subordinate. Since Grant’s other communications concerning Jews remained unpublicized, this seemed plausible. But as election passions heated, this excuse failed. Grant could not disclaim personal responsibility. Instead, he wrote to an old friend who had forwarded a letter from a concerned Jewish voter:

I do not pretend to sustain the order. At the time of its publication I was insensed [sic.] by a reprimand received from Washington for permitting acts which the Jews, within my lines, were engaged in. There were many others within my lines equally bad with the worst of them, but the difference was that the Jews could pass with impunity, from one Army to the other. Gold, in violation of orders, was being smuggled through the lines by them. At least so it was reported. The order was made and sent out, without any reflection, and without thinking of the Jews as a sect or race to themselves, but simply as the persons who had successfully (I say successfully instead of persistently because I know there were a plenty within my lines who envied them their success) violated an order, which violation inured greatly to the help of the rebels...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. It never would have been issued if it had not been telegraphed the moment penned, without one moments reflection.

Grant’s rambling letter, however, did not explain his earlier instructions concerning Jews. His defensive tone indicates Grant had not yet grasped the enormity of his offense.

Campaign pressure forced Grant to write something for publication on a topic he did not want to discuss, and through the remainder of his life he maintained public silence about his expulsion of the Jews. Grant’s wife, however, remembered his speaking of “that obnoxious order” and of the Congressional resolutions that he said were deserved “as he had no right to make an order against any special sect.”

Grant had occupied the White House for less than six weeks when he received a visit from Rabbi H.Z. Sneersohn of Jerusalem, a proto-Zionist who traveled around the globe promoting settlement in Palestine. In January 1870, Sneersohn wrote to “the chosen Chieftain of the United States of America, warrior, hero and prince of peace, Ulysses S. Grant,” thanking him for his assistance to the Jews of Jerusalem and calling his attention to the persecution of Jews in Rumania. He asked that a consul be sent to Rumania sympathetic to the Jews, preferably someone Jewish, and asked pardon, “mighty ruler, beneficent chieftain, beloved of God and of men – pardon a stranger of a strange land – …if his cries disturb thee in thy labors and rob thee of the precious time which belongs to the government of thy good people…” Grant received confirmation of the Romanian persecutions from others, including Abraham Hart, president of the Board of Delegates of American Israelites.

Grant appointed Benjamin F. Peixotto, formerly an editor of the Cleveland Plain Dealer and grand master of B’nai B’rith, later a lawyer in San Francisco, as a consul to Bucharest. Peixotto carried with him a letter from Grant explaining that

Mr[.] Peixotto has undertaken the duties of his present office more as a missionary work for the benefit of the people who are laboring under severe oppression than for any benefits to accrue to himself, a work which all good citizens will wish him the greatest success in. The United States knowing no distinction of her own citizens on account of religion or nativity naturally believe in a civilization the world over which will secure the same universal liberal views.

Grant had already received a petition from Simon Wolf and others regarding persecution of Jews in Russia and had responded that “in this age of enlightenment it is too late in the day to persecute any one on account of condition, birth, creed, or color.” Without adequately apologizing for his wartime orders, Grant had shown sufficient concern for the plight of Jews abroad to appease critics at home. Under those circumstances, Adas Israel welcomed Grant to its dedication. The deeper significance of the occasion lay in what remained unspoken between the president and those he had previously so deeply offended, but his presence alone reaffirmed his well-known maxim: “Let us have peace.” 

Simon’s article originally appeared in The Record, 21 (Washington: Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington, 1995), 24-33, and is reprinted with permission from his family.

Dr. John Y. Simon was an award-winning historian who spent more than four decades teaching at Southern Illinois University. Leader of the Ulysses S. Grant Association, Simon edited the acclaimed 31-volume Papers of Ulysses S. Grant. Simon, also an authority on the Civil War and Abraham Lincoln, won the Lincoln Prize for outstanding scholarship about the late president, a lifetime achievement award from The Lincoln Forum, and an Award of Merit from the Illinois State Historical Society, among other accolades. He died in 2008.