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February 7, 2012 1:16 pm

Ulysses S. Grant, Smugglers, and the Fate of American Jews

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Official White House portrait of Ulysses S. Grant. Photo: wiki commons.

Appointed Chief Historian for the 350th commemoration of the American Jewish community, Dr. Jonathan D. Sarna is recognized as one of the leading commentators on the history of his people in the U.S.

That history, however, includes episodes when those people seem “chosen” for the wrong reasons. This is illustrated in Sarna’s latest tome, When General Grant Expelled the Jews (Schocken/Nextbook), to be released March 13.

The Joseph H. & Belle R. Braun Professor of American Jewish History at Brandeis University, Sarna is—not surprisingly—a preeminent scholar on the history of the Jews on both sides of the Mason-Dixon line. He was previously involved in the creation of the wide-ranging volume Jews and the Civil War: A Reader.

In When General Grant Expelled the Jews, Sarna examines the little-known history of Ulysses S. Grant’s “General Orders No. 11,” a notorious proclamation in 1862 that changed the face of American Jewry and might have changed the face of the nation itself, had it not been for two things: President Abraham Lincoln and faulty telecommunications.

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Sarna summarizes Grant’s proclamation as saying that “Jews as a class have violated the orders…not to transport materials across the lines.” In effect, Grant was enforcing an anti-smuggling rule in an unbalanced way.

“He banned Jews,” Sarna tells JointMedia News Service, “all Jews, even though only some Jews (and non-Jews as well) violated the order against smuggling.”

When asked what first sparked his interest in Grant’s orders, Sarna recalls the story that makes up the book’s introduction. As a young professor, he was asked to deliver a talk at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati. As the talk coincided with the 120th anniversary of General Orders No. 11, Sarna thought it was fitting to speak on the man who later became the 18th U.S. president.

While delivering the lecture, Sarna made what he thought was a grave factual error—that is, until a member of the audience who was a descendant of the very man about whom Sarna was speaking rose to his feet and confirmed Sarna’s suggestion.

“It was deeply memorable,” Sarna recalls, “having a descendent of this family essentially confirm that their ancestor had been involved in a kind of secret deal with Grant’s father Jesse. Certainly that was memorable and stuck in my mind as a subject that deserved further research.”

As the 150th anniversary of the Civil War itself loomed in his mind, Sarna figured it was the right time to return to this memorable topic. But while the story may be old, the research was very contemporary. “Grant’s papers are all online,” Sarna notes. It used to be that “you went through the 140 volumes” to research the war, but now “there are no dusty archives,” he says.

Nevertheless, the amount of specific scholarship on Grant’s orders is relatively limited. “This era in American Jewish history is practically unstudied,” he says, “so I was glad to be able to show that the period of 1868 to Grant’s death in ’85 was really interesting, and it is very much an era when Jews come out on the national stage.”

According to Sarna, Grant knew Jews. In fact, as the quip goes, some of his friends were Jews. Even so, his loyalty was to the Union first, and as smuggling was blamed for the prolonging of the war, Grant did what he thought was right at the time to stem the tide.

“Because many Jews were visible,” Sarna suggests, noting how many Jewish immigrants dressed differently from their gentile neighbors, “they blamed a visible group for a widespread problem that involved non-Jews as well as Jews and many soldiers as well.”

Despite the fact that Jews and gentiles alike were profiting from running Grant’s blockades, Sarna says, “Grant placed all the responsibility on the Jews.”

Had Grant’s order named only “Jewish smugglers,” Sarna suggests, it would not have made those who were in violation of the rule any happier, but it at least would have been a bit more equitable.

“But it did not say even that,” Sarna explains. “It said all Jews, so many innocent people, had to vacate their homes just because they happened to be Jewish.” Since Grant was in charge of such a large swath of land—stretching from its titular Tennessee territories to Mississippi, Ohio, and Kentucky—many Jews were potentially affected.

The key word is “potentially.” As the telegraph system was down at the time, word of the orders did not reach as far as it might otherwise have. As a result, this unilateral punishment of the Jews might have been slower than even the one planned by Haman. And just like in the era Purim, there was a brave Jew who went to the ruler of the land for help.

“What happens basically is that when the Jews were expelled from Paducah, Kentucky, one of the Jews who is expelled—Cesar Kaskel—rushes down to Washington…on a Saturday, and goes directly to a congressman from Ohio who was a Republican who had ties the White House,” Sarna says. Kaskel was eventually granted an audience before President Lincoln himself.

“He got in to see Lincoln and shows this order,” Sarna explains, noting that Kaskel had the seichel (common sense or wisdom) to bring a copy with him. “As I reveal in the book, nobody knew about it [because] the telegraph line was down.”

As a result, there were doubts about the authenticity of the document. Even so, “Lincoln wrote to Grant and said that if such an order is issued, it is hereby revoked,” Sarna says.

“Upon receipt of the letter,” he continues, “Grant immediately reversed the order with the result that not very many Jews were affected by it.”

When asked to stipulate what might have happened had the orders been upheld (and had the telegraph been working), Sarna suggests that a copy of the orders would have reached Washington even faster, and that Lincoln would have been able to react to it even sooner. Though a better communications system might have helped spread the word, it also would have helped stop the deed in an equally efficient manner.

“I can’t write the history of ‘if’,” Sarna says, “but that telegraph being down both delayed the knowledge of the order, but also the carrying out of the order.”

Sarna says the idea for his book on Grant really took shape while working with Adam Mendelsohn, his co-editor for Jews and the Civil War.

“By the time I did that book, I knew I was going to do the Grant book,” he recalls. “It seemed to me the books were complementary. One is a single-author book on a specific era, and the other is a kind of omnibus volume that deals with major themes concerning Jews in the Civil War.”

Will Sarna’s Civil War studies prompt yet another book? He says he has no particular plans at this time, but is not ruling anything out.

“I am thinking about it,” he says. “It is a whole story that nobody really knew and looked at, and I am hoping that my book will encourage further scholarship on this period.”

At very least, Sarna concludes, “I expect to keep talking about it.”

To see if Sarna’s upcoming book tour is coming to your city, check out the following link:

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