Commanders in Major General Ulysses S. Grant’s Federal Department of the Tennessee regularly complained that northern merchants were violating Treasury rules by taking part in illicit cotton trading and speculation in the occupation zones along the Mississippi River in Tennessee and Mississippi. This was in addition to the usual complement of unethical peddlers and sutlers that normally followed an army in search of easy money.
Many of these commanders, including Grant, noted that these 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.
Colonel John V. Dubois, commanding the Federal supply base at Holly Springs, Mississippi, issued an order that “all cotton speculators, Jews and other vagrants having no honest means of support except trading on the miseries of their country” must leave town or else be drafted into the army. Grant rescinded this order and reassigned Dubois to other duty, but he was sympathetic with his commanders’ troubles with peddlers.
Lumping all Jews into the peddler category, Grant had previous declared that the Jews “are such an intolerable nuisance that the department must be purged of them.” As such, he had issued a directive to “refuse all permits” to “Israelites.” When that proved ineffective, Grant went a step further with General Order Number 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 within twenty-four hours from the receipt of this order.
“II. Within twenty-four hours from the receipt of this order by Post Commanders, they will see that all of this class of people be furnished 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 permit from headquarters. No passes will be given these people to visit headquarters for the purpose of making personal application for trade permits.”
Grant explained why he had issued this order to Assistant Secretary of War C.P. Wolcott:
“I have long since believed that in spite of all the vigilance that can be infused into post commanders, the specie regulation of the Treasury Department have been violated, and that mostly by Jews and other unprincipled traders… The Jews seem to be a privileged class that can travel anywhere… If not permitted to buy cotton themselves they will act as agents for someone else, who will be at a military post with a Treasury agent to receive cotton and pay for it in Treasury notes which the Jew will buy up at an agreed rate, paying gold. There is but one way that I know of to reach this case; that is, for Government to buy all the cotton at a fixed rate and send it to Cairo, St. Louis or some other point to be sold. Then all traders (they are a curse to the army) might be expelled.”
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 all Jews without evidence of wrongdoing other than their religion. It also applied to all Jews in the department, not just cotton traders, and regardless of their loyalty. Consequently, many Jewish families had to leave their homes and belongings within the 24-hour deadline.
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 to downplay 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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