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This Month in Jewish History

25 Kislev, 1862: Union General Expels Jews from Parts of Kentucky, Tennessee and Mississippi

As Jewish families in Paducah, Kentucky lit candles on the first night of Chanukah in 1862, they received unsettling news—they had only twenty-four hours to leave their homes. They had one short day to gather their belongings and traverse miles through a war-torn America. 

The Jews of Paducah found themselves in this position because of Union General Ulysses S. Grant, three Jewish merchants, and the American wartime economic situation.

Before the civil war, the American North and South relied on each other for economic success. Northern industry offered southern farms a market for their goods, and the South provided northern textile mills the raw materials that they needed to operate. This interdependence continued despite the increasing moral rift between the regions.

With the start of the civil war, the Union government wanted to purchase just enough cotton for the continued success of its textile mills without aiding the Confederate war effort. As such, president Lincoln issued a trade blockade against the South to stifle its economy. The War Department added a caveat that allowed traders to buy cotton from southern planters with a permit.

Cotton speculators exploited the circumstance, hoping to profit by buying southern crops at low prices and illegally feeding them into other markets. General Grant of the Union Army, who issued trade licenses in the Department of Tennessee, loathed this flourishing illegal trade with southern planters and the speculators who fueled it.

Meanwhile, Grant’s father, Jesse, got involved in the cotton black market himself. He made a deal with the Mack brothers, a well-known trio of Jewish businessmen, and helped them get a coveted cotton purchasing permit in exchange for a share of their profits. His father’s deal infuriated General Grant, who ridiculed the agreement and declined the permit.

Grant’s wrath would extend far beyond the fate of the Mack brothers, though. In the aftermath of the incident, Grant issued General Orders No. 11 on December 17, 1862. The order expelled Jews from “the Department,” a Union administrative district in Kentucky, Tennessee, and Mississippi. Some Jews walked 40 miles to leave the district, and 30 of Paducah’s Jewish families left their homes on short notice.

 “In the midst of the Civil War, American Jewry was now fighting a battle of its own.”

In the midst of the civil war, American Jewry was now fighting a battle of its own. Jews across the country rallied and sent telegrams to the White House in response to the order. In one telegram, Paducah’s Jewish merchants called the order an “enormous outrage on all laws and humanity [and] the grossest violation of the Constitution and our rights as good citizens under it.”

Lincoln heard the Jewish community’s pleas and ordered Grant to revoke General Orders No. 11, just seventeen days after its issuance. The President was ashamed of the order that harmed Americans based on their religion, saying, “To condemn a class is, to say the least, to wrong the good with the bad.” Grant rescinded his order on January 17, 1863. Those Jewish families who had left Paducah then returned to their homes.

Following the order’s retraction, Grant worked to distance himself from antisemitism. The general denied alleged antisemitic motives behind the order, saying that he issued it “without thinking of the Jews as a sect or race to themselves, but simply as persons who had successfully . . . violated an order.” Still, to punish an entire religious group for the crimes of a few speculators calls Grant’s claim into question, especially because most illegal traders of the period were not Jewish. Nevertheless, Grant largely overcame his anti semitic reputation, winning the majority of Jewish votes in the 1868 election and placing many Jews into high government positions.

Some Jews still live in Paducah today. Grant’s order lasted for only a month, and after the civil war, Paducah’s Jewish community grew, with around 200 Jews living in the city by 1878 and 31 Jewish-owned businesses operating there in 1894. Post-Prohibition in 1920, however, the Jewish involvement in the city’s liquor industry declined, and along with it, the Jewish population. Despite a drop in membership, the local Temple Israel synagogue remains a center for Jewish heritage in the 21st century.

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