Book Review | The Anti-Semite Who Wasn’t

By | Mar 05, 2012

By John Marszalek

Jonathan Sarna’s book When General Grant Expelled the Jews is going to make a significant splash amidst a wave of new books reevaluating the career of one of the most famous Army General/Presidents. On December 16, 1862, General Ulysses S. Grant issued his infamous General Orders No. 11. During his effort to wrest control of the western theater of the Civil War from Confederate forces, Grant struggled to control commercial activity. The drive for profits of some traders within his lines exasperated him and, reflecting the then-common public stereotyping of Jews as financially crafty, he arbitrarily lashed out at Jewish traders and declared that “the Jews as a class” had to be expelled. The pronouncement ordered the eviction of all Jews and not just Jewish traders.

Grant seemed to replicate earlier East European pogroms from which Jews had suffered for centuries—minus the Cossacks. President Abraham Lincoln was appalled at the open anti-Semitism and quickly revoked Grant’s order. But the damage had been done and, for the long future, to Grant’s reputation. No revision of Grant’s historical standing could ever justify such shocking prejudice—or so scholars seemed to believe.

Other books on Jews in the Civil War have been written, but this is the first book-length study that concentrates on General Orders No. 11. Brandeis professor Jonathan Sarna examines the order and the long-standing criticism of Grant; the result is the most compelling contextualization available on the issue. A leading historian of the Jewish experience in America, he agrees with critics (and Grant himself) that ordering the evacuation was a gigantic blunder. Although wartime profiteering by merchants may well have angered Grant, Sarna does not offer specifics as to why Grant issued the order except to indicate that it expressed a common public prejudice against Jews.

While Sarna does not probe further, he points out that Grant spent the rest of his life trying to come to terms with the order. As president, for example, despite American foreign policy that claimed to reject interference in the domestic affairs of other nations, Grant strongly criticized Russia and Romania for persecuting Jews. He was the first American chief executive to appoint Jews to the foreign service and made public statements from the White House condemning anti-Jewish prejudice. He opposed an amendment to the Constitution calling for the United States to be recognized as “a Christian nation.” He was the first president to attend the dedication of a synagogue in the nation’s capital. Domestically, he appointed a Jewish leader to be governor of the territory of Washington (before it became a state) and he appointed a Jewish superintendent of Indian Affairs despite protests from Christian groups. Although he does not provide any numbers, Sarna indicates that more Jews held federal jobs in Grant’s administration than under any previous president. No doubt Grant made a huge mistake in 1862, but Sarna demonstrates clearly that Grant regretted it and worked to make amends.

When Grant died in 1885, Jews were genuinely saddened because they believed that they had lost a friend. A prominent New York City rabbi, E.M.B. Browne, walked in the funeral cortege, and on the 35th anniversary of the president’s death proclaimed, “Grant, we are here again.” But like other Americans, Jews soon forgot the good things Grant had done and accepted the mythology about him: that he was a drunk, a butcher, a corrupt president and an anti-Semite.

The publication of 31 volumes of Grant’s papers by the Ulysses S. Grant Association has made available to historians information that allows them to put aside such notions. Sarna’s contribution to this effort sets the charge of Grant’s anti-Semitism to rest. As Sarna says at the end of this book: “[T]he transformation of Ulysses S. Grant from enemy to friend, from Haman to Mordecai, from a general who expelled ‘Jews as a class’ to a president who embraced Jews as individuals—reminds us that even great figures in history can learn from their mistakes.”

John F. Marszalek is Giles Distinguished Professor Emeritus of History at Mississippi State University, author of many books and articles on the Civil War military and executive director of the Ulysses S. Grant Association.

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