Abraham Lincoln and the Jews

In a remarkable episode from the Civil War that is not as widely known as it might be, General Ulysses S. Grant issued Order No. 11 on December 17, 1862 expelling all Jews from those portions of Kentucky, Tennessee, and Mississippi where his forces had taken the field.

Equally remarkable, President Lincoln did not say he would “stand by” his generals or that “we must give the military the tools it needs” to accomplish its mission. Instead, he rescinded the Order.

A century-old account of General Grant’s short-lived ban on Jews has recently been published online.

During the Civil War, President Lincoln repeatedly suspended habeas corpus and authorized other serious infringements on civil liberties. But there are some things that are not done in America, it appears, even when the survival of the nation is at stake. This was one of them.

General Grant’s action was not entirely irrational and prejudice-driven. An estimated 25,000 of the nation’s 150,000 Jews lived in the South and were loyal to the Confederacy, according to a 2005 Library of Congress exhibition. And some Jewish merchants would “roam through the country contrary to government regulations,” Grant complained.

“The President has no objection to your expelling traitors and Jew peddlers which I suppose was the object of your order,” wrote Gen. Henry Halleck to Gen. Grant, somewhat inelegantly. “But as it in terms proscribed an entire religious class, some of whom are fighting in our ranks, the President deems it necessary to revoke it.”

The story received only cursory, two-sentence treatment in the preeminent Lincoln biography (“Lincoln”) by David Herbert Donald, which mistakenly attributed Halleck’s “Jew peddler” phrase to Grant (p. 409).

And Grant himself did not mention Order No. 11 in his Memoirs. He deliberately omitted it, his son explained in a 1907 letter, because “that was a matter long past and best not referred to.”

To the contrary, however, this principled exercise of restraint by the President in time of war seems well worth remembering and pondering today, when basic civil liberties are again in dispute. (At his confirmation hearing today, Attorney General-nominee Michael Mukasey was unable or unwilling to categorically reject the possibility of indefinite detention of an American citizen without trial.)

The most detailed account of the origins and aftermath of General Grant’s Order No. 11 expelling the Jews from the areas under his control seems to be a 1909 book entitled “Abraham Lincoln and the Jews,” self-published by author Isaac Markens (pp. 10-17). That book, long out of print, was recently digitized and published by Google Books and is now freely available.

In 1876, President Ulysses S. Grant was an honored guest at the dedication of Adas Israel, which is now the largest Conservative synagogue in Washington, DC.