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Book Review: When General Grant Expelled the Jews

"When General Grant Expelled the Jews" by Jonathan Sarna

By Matt Robinson / JointMedia News Service ~

When General Gran Expelled the Jews by Jonathan D. Sarna

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.
A professor at Brandeis University, Sarna is 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.
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 told JointMedia News Service, “all Jews, even though only some Jews (and non-Jews as well) violated the order against smuggling.”
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.
“What happens basically is that when the Jews were expelled from Paducah, Ky., 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 to 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. “Nobody knew about it. 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.”

Dr. Jonathan Sarna will discuss his new book on June 3, 10 a.m., at the Jewish Community Center of Greater New Haven in Woodbridge.

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