Ulysses Grant has never been obvious material for a biography because he behaved too well. Writing about his virtues can quickly turn into homilies about what a gentleman he was. Some care to concentrate their energies into proving he was a butcher, a drunkard or a racist. Let's examine the third charge, specifically that U.S. Grant was an anti-Semite.

Those who claim he was anti-Jewish have ready ammunition, which Grant provided with his own hands. It is his infamous "General Orders Number 11," written in Oxford, Mississippi, on December 17, 1862. This document essentially excluded Jews from his department and its racist content has earned him censure ever since. The offensive portion of the order was in the initial paragraph: "The Jews, as a class, violating every regulation of trade established by the Treasury Department, and also Department orders, are hereby expelled from the Department." The actual order was signed by the General's chief of staff, John Rawlins, and zealous supporters of Grant sometimes use this to absolve their man from blame. Unfortunately, this doesn't wash. Whether Grant's signature was on the order or not, he was responsible for both the prevailing sentiment and the order itself.

Authors favorable to Grant have bent over backwards in placing the blame on someone else's shoulders. Even Lloyd Lewis, one of the most capable of Grant's biographers, fell into this trap. He mused, "The order wasn't like him; (it was) utterly foreign to everything I'd found out about him." Lewis quoted Grant's father, Jesse, as saying the order was originally received by Grant from Washington and he merely passed it along as an official order under his own name. Jesse Grant figures prominently in the entire quagmire. He maintained at the time that his son's orders "were issued on express instructions from Washington," though these supposed orders have never been unearthed, despite punctilious record keeping by both Grant's staff and officials in the capitol. John Rawlins echoed Jesse Grant's sentiments, though he also was vague in his protests and offered no concrete proof that Washington was behind the racist edict.

The order is utterly unlike Grant, and he was obviously a man at the end of his tether when he wrote it. Some of this is due to his forced inactivity in the Western theatre for 6 months, some is due to his power struggle with the insubordinate McClernand, but most of it was due to his father. Grant's relationship with Jesse Grant is a fascinating psychological contradiction, and there is little doubt the elder Grant drove his son to fits of despair. Grant desperately wanted his father's approval, but the cantankerous old man was so different from his son that intimacy was impossible. Jesse disliked the General's wife, openly played favorites among the four Grant children and was an indiscreet braggart. Grant, normally an even tempered and gentle soul, was uncharacteristically harsh to his father in his correspondence. He frequently rebuked him, though the scoldings did no good. His father's behavior exasperated and embarrassed him, but it did not change.

Jesse Grant was an exceptional businessman, something else that separated father and son, since the younger Grant was inept in money matters. In late 1862, Jesse formed a partnership with a firm called Mack and Brothers, and it just so happened the Macks were Jewish. Jesse was keen on going south, gobbling up loads of cheap cotton and selling it for big profits in the north. This was not an uncommon practice and was a lucrative undertaking. In late 1862, Grant's military control extended into West Tennessee and northern Mississippi and he was in a position to assist his father's business schemes. The problem was, Grant wanted no part of profiting through cotton so long as the war raged, and regarded money making during wartime as odious. His only concern, as he frequently stated, was "to put down the Rebellion." When Jesse and the Macks arrived in Mississippi in late 1862, they wanted permits to buy cotton and ship huge cratefuls north. Physically and emotionally drained, Grant lashed out at his father (and the Macks,) by issuing an unenforceable decree. He got rid of his father and his business partners, but at great personal cost to himself.

Even before General Orders 11, Grant had occasionally expressed anti-Semitic sentiments in his correspondence. In November, he had written to General Hurlbut in Jackson, "The Israelites especially should be kept out." The next day he wrote General Webster a dispatch which stated, "Give orders to all the conductors on the road that no Jews are to be permitted to travel on the railroad south from any point... they are such an intolerable nuisance that the department must be purged of them." This communication is equally, if not more offensive than General Orders No. 11.

Grant's decree earned him official censure in Washington and in two weeks, he received orders demanding that he revoke it. General Halleck, who was jealous of Grant's rising fame, wrote: "The President has no objection to your expelling traitors and Jew peddlers, which, I suppose, was the object of your order; but, as it is in terms proscribed an entire religious class, some of whom are fighting in our ranks, the President deemed it necessary to revoke it." Grant rescinded the decree the following day. Curiously, newspapers made scant comment at the time, and the issue gained notoriety only after Grant's death. The General himself remained strangely mute about this embarrassing and negative event, except to say, "The order was made and sent out without any reflection."

In later years, Grant loyalists scurried to make excuses for the unseemly event. Simon Wolf, in a 1918 book of reminiscences, claimed Grant had told him he had "nothing whatever to do" with General Orders 11, that it was issued by one of his staff officers (presumably Rawlins), and that he had never vindicated himself because it wasn't his style. If the incident is true, the fact that Wolf waited 55 years to tell it cast doubts on its veracity. During the Presidential campaign in 1868, Wolf had a two hour meeting with Grant and specifically asked him about the charges of anti-Semitism. "I know General Grant and his motives," he wrote at the time, "and assert unhesitatingly that he never intended to insult any honorable Jew, that he never thought of their religion... the order never harmed anyone, not even in thought... He is fully aware of the noble deeds performed by thousands of Jewish privates, and hundreds of Jewish officers during the late war."

Jewish politicians made a minor issue of Grant's anti-Semitism during the '68 campaign, but all those who met and conversed with him were unanimous that he was not anti-Semitic and they were mystified by this single lapse of judgment. It did not reflect the inner man. Never again did Grant make the slightest anti-Semitic remark and in fact, invited Jews to the White House and entertained them socially. General Orders No. 11, while certainly obnoxious, does not prove anti-Semitism, but poor judgment.

  Sources used: The Papers of Ulysses S. Grant, Volume 7, pages 50-56, (1979, edited by John Y. Simon), American Jewry and the Civil War ( 1951, Bertram Korn), The Papers of U.S. Grant , Volume 19, pages 18-22, (1995, edited by John Y. Simon).