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When General Grant Expelled the Jews (Jewish Encounters Series) Hardcover – March 13, 2012
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“An excellent study [from the] gifted and resourceful historian Jonathan D. Sarna . . . His account shines brightest around the edges of the story, offering valuable new insights into ethnic politics, press power, and the onetime ability of leaders to flip-flop with grace . . . A compelling page-turner.”
—Harold Holzer, The Washington Post
“This provocative new book 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 Sarna’s account of this startling American story. . . . His book is part of the prestigious [Jewish Encounters] series, matching prominent Jewish writers with intriguingly fine-tuned topics.”
—Janet Maslin, The New York Times
“Richly researched [and] filled with lively, little-known personalities . . . it also contains reams of juicy quotes and delicious bits of doggerel.”
—Jenna Weissman Joselit, The New Republic
“Engaging and splendidly researched . . . A compelling, even inspiring tale of redemption. Sarna’s fine work is a heartening reminder that even politicians are sometimes touched by the better angels of their nature, and it is a welcome revision to the 18th president’s place in American and Jewish history.”
“A thorough and thoughtful analysis.”
—San Francisco Chronicle
“Sarna’s remarkably illuminating little gem of a book also reminds us that being Jewish in America has always been a complex psychological negotiation. His new book examines this phenomenon while closely studying a little-known slice of early American Jewish history that will both amaze and distress readers.”
—Jerusalem Post Magazine
“Powerful . . . Sarna’s brilliantly nuanced exploration of the worst official anti-Semitic incident in American history offers us a clear reminder in these ideologically fraught days of why keeping up a firm wall between church and state remains a core defense for all of our freedoms. This wide-ranging and judiciously balanced book is the latest entry in the luminous Schocken/Nextbook Jewish Encounters series of books [that] thoughtfully pair a great writer and an important facet of Jewish life.”
—Marc Wortman, The Daily Beast
“An interesting history about a little-discussed event during the Civil War.”
—St. Louis Post-Dispatch
“Sarna’s book is going to make a significant splash amidst a wave of new books reevaluating the career of one of our most famous army general/presidents . . . Most compelling.”
—John Marszalek, Moment magazine
“Ulysses S. Grant’s order expelling Jews from his war zone has long helped insure his eternal disgrace. Supposedly, the drunken, bloodthirsty crook was also an anti-Semite! Jonathan Sarna’s excellent, painstaking reevaluation of what really happened helps rescue Grant’s reputation; it is long overdue. It also affirms Sarna’s unsurpassed standing as a historian of American Jewry.”
—Sean Wilentz, author of The Rise of American Democracy: Jefferson to Lincoln
“Thoroughly researched and crisply written, this is a very fine work that will interest students of both American and modern Jewish history.”
“Sarna expertly navigates the repercussions of Grant’s shocking order, which galvanized the American Jewish community into action, reminding many who were refugees from European expulsions how insecure they were even in America. . . . Sarna weighs the short-lived order against important Jewish appointments in Grant’s administration, his humanitarian support for oppressed Jews around the world, and lasting friendships with Jews. A well-argued exoneration of a president and a sturdy scholarly study.”
“In this compelling and focused study, Jonathan D. Sarna explores the causes—and assesses the little-known impact—of one of the most troubling incidents in the life of the Union's greatest commander.”
—Geoffrey C. Ward, coauthor of The Civil War
“An absorbing account of a lamentable act by the North’s greatest general, a dishonorable act committed by an honorable man. This fair and balanced treatment of the event places the commander and the Jews in the context of great conflict. Fortunately, redemption and rapprochement would follow.”
—Frank J. Williams, president, Ulysses S. Grant Association
About the Author
Jonathan D. Sarna is the Joseph H. and Belle R. Braun Professor of American Jewish History at Brandeis University and chief historian of the National Museum of American Jewish History. He has written, edited, or co-edited more than twenty books and is best known for the acclaimed American Judaism: A History, which received the Jewish Book Council’s Everett Family Foundation Jewish Book of the Year Award in 2004. He lives in Massachusetts.
The PBS documentary Jewish Soldiers in Blue & Gray, which features Jonathan Sarna, explores the hidden stories of American Jews during the Civil War. Presented by the Shapell Manuscript Foundation, it is available for purchase on DVD at www.shapell.org.
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The Civil War did not begin well for the Union; the Confederacy had planned their opening strikes well, gathering ordnance for months before the assault on Fort Sumter, while the Northern states didn't grasp the reality of the threat of secession and were caught somewhat on their hells. However, by late 1862, the Union Army had finally made inroads into Confederate territory, and were about to flip the tide of the war. Then-General Grant, deep into Southern territory, was disturbed by reports of a wave of smuggling that flowed from the South into the North; conflating events with ancient stereotypes, he issued an order expelling all Jews from the area. A backlash to this order imediately occurred; a consortium of Jewish leaders made their way to Washington D.C., where Grant's order was rescinded by President Lincoln.
Sarna, interestingly, chooses to open the book with the Order having already been issued. This is a deliberate choice; instead of slowly building up to the events that caused the ill-considered order to be issued, and thus making the order the centerpiece to the book, he instead puts it out there on page 1, and then spends the rest of the book explaining how Grant was able to overcome its dubious legacy. In fact, Grant become the first President to ultimately embrace the Jewish community, and appoint Jewish citizens to highly desirable government appointments. The middle chapters of the book unfortunately lose focus somewhat, as Sarna describes several then-prominent Jewish figures, nearly all of whom have since been forgotten, which makes those passages a bit of a "Wait, who was THAT guy again?" slog. There's also an odd moment where Sarna traces the foundation of the Lehman Brothers financial firm to Civil War smuggling, though he wisely buries this in a footnote.
However, Sarna's ultimate goal is to make the reader aware that Grant was not, as history now remembers him, one of the worst Presidents ever. He praises Grant for his ability to overcome the infamous order, and to become an ecumenical President who helped bring Jewish identity into the political mainstream -- at a moment where some groups were attempting to amend the Constitution along strict Christian grounds. This goal does cause Sarna to do a brief handwave around Grant's scandal-plagued second term, and to blame Grant's low reputation upon revisionist Southern historians who disapproved of Grant on general principles, but I think his overall point is sound.
At any rate, the story Sarna tells is a fascinating one. Whether or not he fully succeeds in rehabilitating Grant's reputation, the book is indispensible in describing the American Jewish experience in the 19th century. Grant was the first U.S. President to attend a synagogue dedication, or to have a Jewish pallbearer at his funeral. Regardless of the dubious order that he issued in 1862, Grant had become a much more wise and welcoming man later in his life. A look at the current issues swirling around the 2016 Presidential campaign shows that we as a country still have much to learn from Ulysses S. Grant's personal journey...
Sarna makes no attempt to belittle this foolish move on Grant's part (which was overturned by President Lincoln). In fact, he reports that Jews in parts of several other states also had to leave their homes because of Grant's order. He then shows how Jews throughout the country were upset about it, and how the expulsion order became a campaign issue several years later when Grant ran for President.
What is seldom mentioned (and probably unknown to most people) is that, as President, Grant appointed Jews to many government positions. Most Jews at the time were immigrants. Anti-Semitism was widespread in the U.S., and few Jews were involved in politics. Grant, more than any previous President, brought Jews into the government as consuls, ambassadors, postmasters, and other major officials.. Grant also made efforts to support Jewish causes and defend Jews in countries where Jews were oppressed.
Although Grant's infamous Order No. 11 caused much suffering among the Jews in his district, at the end of the day, Grant was a great benefactor to the Jews of the U.S. His efforts on behalf of Jews far exceeded the hardship he caused during the Civil War.