By: Daniel Nardini
It is one of the most unusual events in U.S. history. During the U.S. Civil War (1861-1865), Union General Ulysses S. Grant was concerned about how smugglers were running contraband supplies and especially weaponry to the Confederate armed forces. According to historian Jonathan D. Sarna in his book, When General Grant Expelled the Jews, General Grant came to the conclusion that most of the smugglers were Jewish. There is no question that many of the smugglers were indeed Jewish. However, most were not and so the conclusion by Grant that most if not all of the smugglers were Jewish was more based on prejudice than established fact. Nevertheless, General Grant issued on December 17, 1862, an order that all Jews within territory occupied by the Union Army be expelled from the war zone. This was a very large area covering from as far north as Cairo, Illinois, to as far south as the State of Mississippi. General Grant gave only 24 hours for all the Jews in this area and their families to leave their homes and possessions or face immediate arrest and court-martial.
Thoroughly distressed by this order, a Jewish merchant named Cesar Kaskell along with other representatives from the Jewish community went to Washington, D.C., where they met with then U.S. President Abraham Lincoln. They told him about Grant’s order to expel the Jews, and Lincoln—feeling horrified by this order—countermanded General Grant’s order and thus none of the Jews are expelled from their homes and businesses. Before I say anything more, I should explain that the Civil War saw as much Jewish families divided by the conflict as so many other immigrant and racial groups. Jews in the Confederacy were fighting Jews (even close relatives) in the Union Army. But even with this, Jewish families tried to maintain contact with their relatives on whichever side they were on. This also meant trade in materials that were considered contraband by either the Union or Confederate governments. But in a number of cases there were Jewish families who were just simply trying to send basic necessities to their relatives on the other side so that they could survive.
Long after the war, Grant truly felt sorry for issuing the order to expel the Jews in his zone of occupation. When he was elected president in 1868, U.S. President Grant issued an official apology to the Jews in the United States for his actions during the Civil War, and to try and make amends he included many Jews in his cabinet. In fact, during his two terms as president, President Grant had more Jewish personnel in his presidency than all other past U.S. presidents combined. Additionally, Grant defended and took in Jews who had survived the bloody pogroms (mass murder campaigns) being waged in Russia and Romania at the time. For all my readers, I highly recommend When General Grant Expelled the Jews.