Jeff Jacoby

IN DECEMBER 1862, from his military headquarters in Mississippi, Major General Ulysses S. Grant issued a directive expelling "Jews as a class" from the immense war zone known as the Department of the Tennessee. General Orders No. 11 was the most notorious anti-Jewish edict ever issued by an official of the US government, and it was overruled by the commander-in-chief -- President Abraham Lincoln -- as soon as he learned of it in Washington.

Notwithstanding its sweeping terms, the order turned out to have little immediate impact on the thousands of Jews living in the area under Grant's command. Only about 100 Jews were uprooted, primarily in northern Mississippi and in Paducah, Kentucky. Grant's expulsion order had no discernible effect on the war or on his own military career, either. Lincoln later promoted him to lieutenant general -- a rank previously held only by George Washington -- and named him commander of all Union armies. Grant became a national hero, and was twice elected president.

And yet General Orders No. 11 proved to be far more than merely an interesting footnote to the Civil War. As Jonathan D. Sarna recounts in When General Grant Expelled the Jews, his engaging and splendidly researched new book, the ugly episode reverberated for decades. The expulsion order galvanized American Jewish politics and played a prominent role when Grant ran for the White House in 1868. "The issue thrust Jews, for the first time in American history, into the center of the political maelstrom," writes Sarna, Brandeis University's distinguished historian of Jewish life in America.

More striking by far was the order's long-term effect on Grant himself. He came to deeply regret what he had done, and went to great lengths to make amends -- so much so that the eight years of the Grant administration would prove to be the first golden age for American Jewry. As president, Grant appointed more Jews to public office than any of his predecessors and displayed remarkable sensitivity to the plight of persecuted Jews abroad. At his death in 1885, Grant was fervently mourned in the nation's synagogues. "Seldom before," one Jewish newspaper remarked at the time, "has the Kaddish been repeated so universally for a non-Jew as in this case."


Jeff Jacoby

Jeff Jacoby is an Op-Ed writer for the Boston Globe, a radio political commentator, and a contributing columnist for Townhall.com.