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April 16, 2014 / 16 Nisan, 5774
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Posts Tagged ‘Harold Holzer’

Title: When General Grant Expelled the Jews

Thursday, March 29th, 2012

Title: When General Grant Expelled the Jews Author: Jonathan Sarna Publisher: Schocken

Not all Civil War-era Jews were speculators, peddlers or smugglers, and not all Civil War-era speculators, peddlers and smugglers were Jews. But Americans living through the rebellion – and many crises before and since – often cast blame on the tiny minority that 19th-century Northerners and Southerners often referred to as “the Israelites.” Shocking as it seems, one of the most notorious offenders was the greatest Union hero of the war: Ulysses S. Grant.

That Grant harbored anti-Semitic inclinations should come as no surprise. He was educated at West Point and spent years in the Army, both bastions of period intolerance. In 1862, he assumed a particularly chaotic military command, including border states technically loyal to the Union but filled with slave-owners and Confederate sympathizers. Into this combustible mix swarmed speculators eager to turn chaos into cash – among them, certainly, Jewish ones. Grant and his chief lieutenant, William T. Sherman, groused about the Jews’ presence repeatedly but initially kept their concerns to themselves.

What apparently sent Grant over the edge was the arrival of another camp follower – his greedy father, accompanied by three Jewish business partners, all eager to use the general to secure profitable cotton-trading permits. Grant blamed the Jews.

Still, no historian has been able to fully understand – much less justify – why, on Dec. 17, 1862, Grant issued his notorious General Orders No. 11 deporting Jewish citizens. “The Jews, as a class violating every regulation of trade,” went the chilling text, “…are hereby expelled from [his command in the West] within twenty-four hours.” Those returning would be “held in confinement until an opportunity occurs of sending them out as prisoners.” Just two weeks before, while Abraham Lincoln was scheduled to extend freedom to one minority group with the Emancipation Proclamation, his most promising general thus initiated a virtual pogrom against another.

In the end, as the gifted and resourceful historian Jonathan D. Sarna points out in this compelling page-turner, General Orders No. 11 uprooted fewer than 100 Jews. But for a few weeks, he suggests, it terrorized and infuriated the Union’s entire Jewish population. It also inspired one of the community’s first effective lobbying campaigns. Jewish newspapers compared Grant to Haman, of the Purim story. A delegation of Jewish leaders traveled to the White House to protest directly to the president, who quickly but quietly had the order revoked, eager to right a wrong but reluctant to humiliate a valuable military commander. As Lincoln carefully put it, “I do not like to hear a class or nationality condemned on account of a few sinners.” He never mentioned the episode publicly.

Grant tried not to as well, understandably omitting it from his otherwise exhaustive memoirs. In 1868, however, he did issue a letter confessing: “I do not pretend to sustain the Order…. [It] was issued and sent without any reflection and without thinking of the Jews as a sect or race…. I have no prejudice against sect or race.” But Sarna notes that this weak and “self-serving” statement – neither an admission nor an apology – “did not actually bear close scrutiny.” Besides, it was motivated as much by politics as regret. At the time, Grant was running for president, and Jews were threatening to block-vote against the Republican. Although no statistical evidence survives, most Jews probably did vote Democratic in 1868. The general won anyway. And to his credit, he continued to evolve.

The Jewish tradition encourages atonement and makes forgiveness mandatory. Grant made amends; the Jews forgave. As president, Grant appointed Jews to official posts, welcomed Jewish delegations, supported Jewish relief efforts in Europe and once attended a worship service at a Washington synagogue, the first president to do so. When he died, Jews mourned him as a hero.

Sarna’s 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. In a particularly stunning, if disturbing, argument, he suggests that many Northern Jews brought suspicion on themselves by questioning emancipation, fearful that freed blacks, abetted by anti-Semitic abolitionists, would compete with immigrant Jews for economic opportunity. Sarna shows how ineffective communications within Grant’s command further ignited unfounded calumnies against Jews. And he posits that the general’s military subordinates might have urged their overworked chief to ban Jewish speculators in order to leave the field open for their own graft.

Some quibbles: The illustration of “Grant, about 1860” is a photo of a beef contractor mistaken for the general; and Sarna’s occasional embrace of au courant phrases (“He was a one-man Anti-Defamation League,” “speak truth to power”) proves jarring.

What is still the best analysis ever offered about Grant’s greatest mistake came from his widow. In her own unsparing memoirs, Julia Dent Grant called General Orders No. 11 “obnoxious,” admitting that her husband “had no right to make an order against any special sect.” Sarna’s excellent study offers no excuses either and comes closer than ever to an explanation.

Title: Lincoln President-Elect: Abraham Lincoln and the Great Succession Winter 1860-1861

Wednesday, February 11th, 2009

Title: Lincoln President-Elect:

Abraham Lincoln and the

Great Succession Winter 1860-1861

By Harold Holzer

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

 

 

   I’ve always been amazed at how historians pore over some old documents and books in some dusty basement storehouses, and yet are able to come up with a volume that’s readable and enlightening – and even entertaining. Unfortunately, most of them aren’t, but this is surely an exception.

 

   Although he may have already written more history books about our 16th president and about the Civil War era than any other living historian, history is not the profession of Harold Holzer, but his avocation. His “day-job” is vice president for public affairs of one of the nation’s premier art history museums – the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York – but studying and writing about Lincoln is Holzer’s apparent obsession.

 

   Holzer has woven together a realistic portrayal of Lincoln. Holzer’s gathering of disparate memoirs and reports and his putting their contents in a flowing and appropriate order and context gives the reader of this book the impression that the author was like a fly on the wall.

 

   This was no dry reading of history, such as we were forced into in our school days, but an exciting realistic drama, in which even John Wilkes Booth is first introduced during Lincoln’s pre-inaugural train ride from Springfield to Washington. It is now apparent that the final scene staged at the Ford Theatre was already being written some four years earlier.

 

   An epilogue chapter includes the entire text of Lincoln’s first inaugural address, clearly showing all of the deletions, additions and emendations. There is also a “What Became of” section, listing the names of all the “principal players” of Lincoln’s presidential era together with their eventual histories.

 

   This is a magisterial volume of nearly 500 pages and extensive footnotes. “Lincoln President-Elect” also includes one of the most extensive sets of photographs and illustrations I have ever seen published in a history book, each in a most appropriate position among the text they relate to, rather than merely gathered together in a separately printed signature.

 

   This is an exciting, very readable book for both Lincoln and history buffs alike.

Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/sections/books//2009/02/11/

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