Monday, April 9, 2012


April 4, 2012
The Exodus From Paducah, 1862


By Jonathan D. Sarna

Jonathan D. Sarna’s provocative new book, “When General Grant Expelled the
Jews,” is exactly what it sounds like: an account of how Gen. Ulysses S.
Grant issued an order to expel Jews from their homes in the midst of the
Civil War. Anyone seeking to rock the Passover Seder with political debate
will find the perfect conversation piece in Mr. Sarna’s account of this
startling American story.
There are good reasons that the document known as General Orders No. 11
has remained only a footnote to Civil War history. Argument endures about
what Grant meant, how much damage his order inflicted and how significant
this act of explicit anti-Semitism really was. But the incontrovertible
part of the story is that the perception of profiteering in Paducah, Ky.,
and his tendency to use the words “profiteer” and “Jew” interchangeably,
provoked a written outburst from Grant, commander of the Territory of the
Department of the Tennessee, which included Paducah.
On Dec. 17, 1862, Grant issued the order that read: “The Jews, as a class
violating every regulation of trade established by the Treasury Department
and also department orders, are hereby expelled from this department
within 24 hours from the receipt of this order.” While this mandate
conformed to Grant’s pattern of associating Jews with illicit business
activities, the exact reasons for his action are anything but clear. What
is clear is that on Jan. 4, 1863, one week from the day (Dec. 28, 1862) on
which Paducah’s Jews were actually expelled, President Abraham Lincoln
ordered Grant to revoke the controversial edict.
What tangible damage did the expulsion do? Very little, as far as Mr.
Sarna, chief historian at the National Museum of American Jewish History
and the co-editor of “Jews and the Civil War: A Reader” can tell. He can
provide no individual accounts of families fleeing the order, no more than
four affidavits about the expulsion and no reports of physical hardship
beyond those who claimed they had been jailed briefly, treated roughly or
forbidden from changing out of wet clothes. It is not the magnitude of the
incident that makes it so enduring, ugly or willfully ignored.
The reaction of one Jewish merchant in Paducah, Cesar Kaskel, touched off
a firestorm. He took off on what Mr. Sarna calls a “Paul Revere-like ride
to Washington.” He alerted and roused the press. And he managed, through a
congressman, to gain access to Lincoln, who “turned out to have no
knowledge whatsoever of the order, for it had not reached Washington.”
Here is an excerpt from the overblown conversation Kaskel claimed to have
had with Lincoln:
Lincoln: “And so the children of Israel were driven from the happy land of
Kaskel: “Yes, and that is why we have come unto Father Abraham’s bosom,
asking protection.”
Lincoln: “And this protection they shall have at once.”
The real effects of Grant’s action took the form of similarly extreme,
sometimes hyperbolic responses from American Jews. Suddenly everything
about them, including the question of exactly what “American Jews” means
in terms of allegiance, was part of the debate. Mr. Sarna delivers a
careful, warts-and-all accounting of the ugliness surrounding all sides of
this incident, right down to quoting the fearful, competitive, even
hostile attitude some Jews held toward newly freed slaves. Lincoln’s
Emancipation Proclamation had arrived on Jan. 1, 1863, right between the
enforcement and revocation of Grant’s order.
“Historians, understandably, have played down this fear, not wishing to
besmirch the reputations of some of American Jewry’s most illustrious
leaders whose words, in retrospect, are painful to read,” Mr. Sarna
“Painful” is an understatement.
One of the most egregious came from Isaac Leeser, editor of The Occident,
a Jewish publication: “Why are tears shed for the sufferings of the
African in his bondage, by which his moral condition has been immensely
improved, in spite of all that may be alleged to the contrary, whereas for
the Hebrews every one has words of contempt or acts of violence?”
But it is the long-range repercussions of Grant’s order, and the Jews’
enduring anger about it, that prompt the most disturbing aspects of Mr.
Sarna’s story. When Grant ran for president in 1868, his treatment of Jews
became campaign fodder for Democrats seeking to defeat him. The Jewish
vote was not numerically large enough to sway the election; still, the
issue became highly inflammatory. Vengeful rhetoric against Grant sounds
even worse now than it did at the time, as in “General Grant and the
Jews,” a pamphlet that threatened that Jews would vote “as a class,” just
as Grant had described them:
“We are numerous, we are wealthy, we are influential, we are diffused over
the whole continent, we are as one family; wherever our influence reaches,
every Jew — no matter of what political party — every Jew, with the voters
he can command, will endeavor to defeat, and with God’s blessing, will
defeat you!” This argument is an anti-Semite’s dream. It may also be an
anti-Semite’s handiwork, since the pamphlet was ascribed to a pseudonymous
author and signed “A Jew.”
Grant had a legitimate some-of-my-best-friends-are-Jewish case to make. He
appointed Jews to some prominent positions in his administration. He also
inveighed on behalf of human rights when Jews in Russia and Romania were,
like those from Paducah, threatened with expulsion. And he attended the
dedication of a synagogue in Washington, surprising other attendees by
sitting through a three-hour ceremony. Grant also let it be known that his
original order “would never have been issued if it had not been
telegraphed the moment it was penned, and without reflection.”
Mr. Sarna’s book is part of a prestigious series matching prominent Jewish
writers with intriguingly fine-tuned topics. (Also published or
forthcoming: “Burnt Books,” “Judah Maccabee,” “The Dairy Restaurant” and
“Mrs. Freud.”) One of the book’s purposes is to put the Grant episode into
its proper context. To that end Mr. Sarna places undue emphasis on the
narrow question of whether Grant ultimately “earned” the support and
forgiveness of Jews. But he also asks how any voter balances self-interest
with patriotic conviction if the two are at odds — as they were when the
General Grant who expelled Jewish citizens became Candidate Grant,
courting Jewish votes for the presidency.
“No final decision ever resolved this debate,” he writes.

Lee Perlman
Massachusetts Institute of Technology

1 comment:

  1. I lived in Jackson, Mississippi, the capital of that state, which was captured by Grant's army on June 14, 1863. The Beth Israel Synagogue, which was a beautiful, round brick building, showed that Jews were an integral part of the community of a Confederate Mississippi, was burned when the Federal soldiers entered the city. The President of the congregation was a Sgt. in the 6th Mississippi Infantry, was with his Confederate army, marching toward Vicksburg, but the army would stop at Edwards Station, just east of the Big Black River, the last natural barrier between the Federals and an investiture of Vicksburg in a siege. A battle would be fought there, known to the Confederates as the Battle of Baker's Creek while the Yankees called it The Battle of Champion's Hill. I would not care to say what the actual position of the commanding general was toward the people of Jackson as a whole, or the Jewish population specifically, but his men, forbidden to burn the town, did burn the Beth Israel Synagogue. Its congregation survived the war and rebuilt and is still present, though at a new location. In the late 1960s a racist klansman bombed the front of the Beth Israel Synagogue. He also killed Medgar Evers and was free for many years before being turned over and charged with the Evers murder. He died in prison.