In the last thirty-five years some of the most fascinating historical studies have been so-called “micro-histories”: in-depth studies of apparently small events or otherwise little-known individuals that nonetheless speak to wider cultural and political developments. Jonathan D. Sarna’s When General Grant Expelled the Jews may not technically be a micro-history—neither U.S. Grant nor the Civil War can really be considered “small” features of the historical landscape—but it adopts the same basic structure. Sarna uses the sharp but brief furor over Grant’s 1862 order to expel the Jews “as a class” from his theater of military operations as a launching pad from which to examine both the relationship of Jews to American society in the second half of the nineteenth century and the personal journey Grant himself underwent for the rest of his career as he sought to atone for an action he later felt was a moment when he “had failed to live up to his own high standard of what it meant to be an American.”
Sarna’s book is a great example of how to write this kind of history. Combining a fascinating and misunderstood incident with a lively narrative, Sarna makes a convincing argument for both of his key theses—that despite the evident anti-Jewish feeling which lay behind Grant’s orders and which existed within American society as a whole, the decision galvanized and ultimately strengthened the position of Jews in American life; and that Grant’s reputation as an anti-Semite is ill-deserved in light of the many ways in which he reached out to American Jews during his post-Civil War career. Above all, Sarna demonstrates the vital interplay between these two strands of his tale: thanks to the power Grant wielded as president and as a public figure generally, his efforts to redeem himself with the Jewish community was critical to enabling American Jews to feel more secure in their social and cultural status. It was an ironic outcome in many ways, but no less powerful for it.
Sarna begins the narrative with the initial reaction to Grant’s orders. By late 1862, with Union armies preparing for a campaign to dislodge the Confederacy from vital strongholds on the Mississippi River, traders and merchants were eagerly selling rationed or contraband goods to the soldiers. Apparently exasperated with the impact this brisk trade was having on his troops, Grant, reflecting a long-established stereotype associating Jews with unscrupulous trading and smuggling, issued his controversial orders removing “Jews as a class” from all areas under his jurisdiction. Legally, all Jewish residents of the central border states could be evicted from their homes.
Far from all of them were. The orders were inconsistently followed—sometimes applied with enthusiasm, sometimes ignored—but many Jews, understandably alarmed, protested the edict. None did so more dramatically than Cesar Kaskel of Kentucky, who travelled to the White House hoping to meet with Lincoln personally and seek revocation of Grant’s order. In the end, the order was countermanded before Kaskel even reached the capital, and at Lincoln’s personal insistence, on the stated grounds that while Grant’s displeasure with certain Jewish traders was understandable, persecuting Jews “as a class” was going too far, not least because of the many Jewish soldiers fighting in the Union Army.
Sarna next considers the genesis of the orders, locating them within the prevailing anti-Jewish feelings that existed during the increasingly race-conscious nineteenth century and seeking to explain Grant’s personal motivations. Dismissing theories that Grant was ordered by his superiors to take this action or that he was protecting his own soldiers’ smuggling interests, Sarna concludes it was brought on by a frustrating evening Grant spent with his own father. Just prior to the decision, Grant Sr. had been to visit his son’s headquarters. He was accompanied by two Jewish merchants for whom he was seeking special trading permits. Enraged at his father’s chronic scheming, and feeling that he was being manipulated by the merchants, Grant resorted to a classic act of displacement: the general “expelled the Jews rather than his father.” For Sarna, simple familial rage is what pushed Grant to sanction religious prejudice.
The remainder of the book chronicles the consequences of this fit of pique. Sarna paints a compelling picture of a man sincerely and determinedly seeking to overcome an action he came to feel deeply ashamed of. Among Grant’s efforts to right this wrong, he took unprecedented action as president to reach out to American Jews. He appointed the first Jewish territorial governor, a Jewish commissioner of Indian Affairs, and—perhaps most boldly of all—a Jewish consul to Romania at the height of international concerns over pogroms in that nation. Grant also expressed his opposition to the Russian government over pogroms against Russian Jews, opposed efforts underway at the time to designate the U.S. an officially “Christian Nation,” became the first president to attend the dedication of a synagogue, and travelled to Palestine after leaving the White House. These actions, Sarna argues, contributed greatly to a “growing acceptance within American political life” toward Jews.
Sarna conveys all these points without any hint of hagiography, rightly dismissing some of Grant’s eulogizers (including those within the Jewish community) who have tried to rationalize or excuse General Orders No. 11. Nonetheless, the book is a very sympathetic portrayal of Grant as a principled man who was nonetheless “all too human” in his flaws. As Sarna points out, this story serves to remind readers “that even great figures in history can learn from their mistakes.”
Overall, Sarna has produced a work of history that is balanced, engaging, fascinating, and valuable. It justly emphasizes the significance of these events without falling into the all-too-common trap of overselling them as a moment that changed the world. He addresses moral complexity head on, as in his profile of U.S. Senator Lazarus Powell, who was both a defender of slavery and a public critic of anti-Semitism. Sarna also does an excellent job of describing the nature of nineteenth-century anti-Semitism and explaining how otherwise decent people (including Grant) were drawn to it, but he does so without ever suggesting that contemporary readers must therefore excuse their actions. Our understanding of nineteenth-century America, Jewish history, and General Grant have all been greatly enriched by his study.
Jonathan D. Sarna will discuss When General Grant Expelled the Jews at the Jewish Community Center in Memphis on March 25 at 2 p.m. Click here for details.