December 17, 1862 – Major General Ulysses S. Grant issued a highly controversial order from his headquarters at Holly Springs, Mississippi.
Commanders in Grant’s Department of the Tennessee had regularly complained that northern merchants were violating Treasury rules through illicit cotton trading and speculation in the occupation zones along the Mississippi River in Tennessee and Mississippi. This was in addition to the usual unethical peddlers and sutlers that followed an army in search of easy money.
Many of these commanders, including Grant, noted that the merchants were predominantly Jewish. As such, they were singled out as “speculators whose love of gain is greater than their love of country.” Some accused the Jews of selling military secrets to the Confederates. Two Jewish merchants had even pledged to give some of their profits to Grant’s father if he could exert influence over his son for licensing.
Grant had previously declared that the Jews “are such an intolerable nuisance that the department must be purged of them.” He had issued a directive to “refuse all permits” to “Israelites,” and then he suggested to the War Department that the government “buy all the cotton at a fixed rate and send it to Cairo, St. Louis, or some other point to be sold.” With cotton no longer on hand, this would necessarily drive all cotton traders out of his department.
Grant admitted his futility in handling malfeasance “by Jews and other unprincipled traders.” He explained that he had previously ordered his commanders to “refuse all permits to Jews to come South.” He “frequently had them expelled from the department, but they come in with their carpet-sacks in spite of all that can be done to prevent it.”
Grant went on: “The Jews seem to be a privileged class that can travel everywhere. They will land at any wood-yard on the river and make their way through the country.” The common practice was to either personally buy cotton from plantation owners (which the Federal government had prohibited) or bribe a Federal officer to buy the cotton with greenbacks and then “the Jew will buy up at an agreed rate, paying gold.”
Without waiting for the War Department to respond, Grant went a step further with General Order No. 11 on this, the first day of Chanukah. It consisted of two parts:
“I. 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.
“II. Within twenty-four hours from the receipt of this order by Post Commanders, they will see that all this class of people are furnished with 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 permits from these Head Quarters.”
Grant became the first commander to put what many had been unofficially saying into an official order. The order did not allow for arresting rulebreakers and putting them on trial, it simply banished them without evidence of wrongdoing other than their religion. It also applied to all Jews in the department, not just cotton traders. Consequently, many Jewish families had to leave their homes and belongings within the 24-hour deadline.
The order also applied to all Jews regardless of their loyalty. In Paducah, Kentucky, 30 Unionist Jews were told they had to leave their homes. They wrote to President Abraham Lincoln in protest:
“The undersigned, good and loyal citizens of the United States and residents of this town for many years, engaged in legitimate business as merchants, feel greatly insulted and outraged by this inhuman order, the carrying out of which would be the grossest violation of the Constitution and our rights as good citizens under it, and would place us, besides a large number of other Jewish families of this town, as outlaws before the whole world. We respectfully ask your immediate attention to this enormous outrage on all humanity and pray for your effectual and immediate interposition.”
Confederate disruptions of the telegraph wires delayed the distribution of this order, first throughout the department and then to Washington and the North. But when news reached Memphis, the price of cotton immediately dropped 15 cents a pound. When the news reached the North, it outraged the Jewish community. Rabbis condemned the order, and Jewish organizations called on politicians to rescind it. Grant’s defenders tried downplaying the order by saying that he actually meant all merchants, not just Jews.
As the year ended, many Jewish leaders were on their way to Washington to demand that Lincoln retract this “enormous outrage.” Democrats in the House of Representatives introduced a resolution opposing the order, but the Republican majority prevented it from coming to a vote.
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