But why did Grant issue it in the first place? Unless he was a religious and cultural bigot, which he wasn't, there must have been forces beyond his control that pushed him into action. While it's hard to discern what goes on in a person's mind, Sarna investigates several possible motives, including the involvement of Grant's father, Jesse, in a speculative and possibly illegal scheme to trade in valuable contraband cotton. Grant's relationship with his father was always complicated and the fact that his father's partners were Jewish probably exacerbated the general's frustration.
But it was what the order implied rather than what it did that really caused alarm throughout the Jewish community. "Fault for many of the other evils inevitably associated with war --" Sarna explains, "smuggling, speculating, price gouging, swindling, and producing 'shoddy merchandise for the military – was similarly laid upon the doorstep of 'the Jews.'" Singling out Jews "as a class" rekindled memories of centuries of persecution and Jewish organizations throughout the North were galvanized into action as never before.
The story now shifts to 1868 when Grant became the Republican nominee for president. As an overwhelmingly favorite to win, his opponents looked for anything that could damage him. General Order 11 was resurrected and again became a hot button issue. Grant weathered this storm, too. In fact, Sarna asserts, that "Having apologized for his anti-Jewish order in 1868, he became highly sensitive, even hypersensitive, to Jewish concerns." Sarna points out that Grant "appointed more Jews to public office than any of his predecessors. He sought to bring Jews (as well as Blacks) into the mainstream of American political life. He acted to promote human rights for Jews around the world."
For a man who did so much to atone for one hasty, ill conceived, order issued under the stress of significant military and administrative responsibilities, it is probably best that he never knew that the tomb in which he and his wife rest, on Riverside Drive in New York City, was modeled after the mausoleum of the Roman emperor Hadrian, the same emperor who brutally put down the Jewish revolt against Rome and killed Jews by the thousands. Even great men can do little to escape the ironies of history.
Gordon Berg is a past President and member of the Civil War Round Table of the District of Columbia (cwrtdc.org). His reviews and articles appear in the Civil War Times and America's Civil War, among other publications.