This year, the second day of Chanukah will coincide with the 144th anniversary of the worst official act of anti-Semitism in American history.
On December 17, 1862, in the midst of the Civil War, Union general Ulysses S. Grant issued his infamous “General Order # 11,” expelling all Jews “as a class” from his conquered territories within 24 hours. Henry Halleck, the Union general-in-chief, wired Grant in support of his action, saying that neither he nor President Lincoln were opposed “to your expelling traitors and Jew peddlers.”
A few months earlier, on August 11, General William Tecumseh Sherman had warned in a letter to the adjutant general of the Union Army that “the country will swarm with dishonest Jews” if continued trade in cotton were encouraged. And Grant also issued orders in November 1862 banning travel in general, by “the Israelites especially,” because they were “such an intolerable nuisance,” and railroad conductors were told that “no Jews are to be permitted to travel on the railroad.”
As a result of Grant’s expulsion order, Jewish families were forced out of their homes in Paducah, Kentucky, and Holly Springs and Oxford, Mississippi – and a few were sent to prison. When some Jewish victims protested to President Lincoln, Attorney General Edward Bates advised the president that he was indifferent to such objections.
Lincoln rescinded Grant’s odious order, but not before Jewish families in the area had been humiliated, terrified, and jailed, and some stripped of their possessions.
Captain Philip Trounstine of the Ohio Volunteer Cavalry, being unable in good conscience to round up and expel his fellow Jews, resigned his army commission, saying he could “no longer bear the taunts and malice of his fellow officers brought on by that order.”
The officials responsible for the United States government’s most vicious anti-Jewish actions ever were never dismissed, admonished or, apparently, even officially criticized for the religious persecution they inflicted on innocent citizens.
Northern Animus, Southern Hospitality
The exact reason for Grant’s decree remains uncertain. As author and military historian Mel Young points out in his book Where They Lie, Grant’s own family was involved in cotton speculation (as well as owning slaves), so perhaps he considered Jewish traders to be competition. And the language spoken by the many Dutch and German-speaking peddlers and merchants in the area was probably confused with Yiddish and many were mistakenly taken to be Jewish.
But most likely the underlying reason for the order was the prejudice against and hatred of Jews so widely felt among the Union forces.
Such bigotry is described in detail by Robert Rosen in his authoritative work The Jewish Confederates; by Bertram Korn in his classic American Jewry and the Civil War; and by other historians of the era. They recount how Jews in Union-occupied areas, such as New Orleans and Memphis, were singled out by Union forces for vicious abuse and vilification.
In New Orleans, the ruling general, Benjamin “Beast” Butler, harshly vilifiedJews and was quoted by a Jewish newspaper as saying he could “suck the blood of every Jew, and will detain every Jew as long as he can.” An Associated Press reporter from the North wrote that “The Jews in New Orleans and all the South ought to be exterminated. They run the blockade, and are always to be found at the bottom of every new villainy.”
Of Memphis, whose Mississippi River port was a center of illegal cotton trading, the Chicago Tribune reported in July 1862: “The Israelites have come down upon the city like locusts. Every boat brings in a load of the hooked-nose fraternity.”
Rosen writes at length about the blatant and widespread anti-Semitism throughout the North, with even The New York Times castigating the anti-war Democratic Party for having a chairman who was “the agent of foreign Jew bankers.”
New Englanders were especially hateful, and one leading abolitionist minister, Theodore Parker, called Jews “lecherous,” and said that their intellects were “sadly pinched in those narrow foreheads” and that they “did sometimes kill a Christian baby at the Passover.”
Meanwhile, in the South, Jews were playing a prominent role in the Confederate government and armed forces, and “were used to being treated as equals,” as Rosen puts it, an acceptance they had enjoyed for a century and a half.
Dale and Theodore Rosengarten, in A Portion of the People: Three Hundred Years of Southern Jewish Life, observe that in 1800 Charleston had more Jews than any city in North America, and many were respected citizens, office holders, and successful entrepreneurs. Some referred to the city as “our Jerusalem” and Myer Moses, my maternal family patriarch, in 1806 called his hometown “this land of milk and honey.” And so it seemed.
Some 3,000 or more Jews fought for the South, practically every male of military age. Many carried with them to the front the famous soldiers’ prayer written by Richmond rabbi Max Michelbacher, who after secession had issued a widely-published benediction comparing Southerners to “the Children of Israel crossing the Red Sea.”
Many Jewish Confederates distinguished themselves by showing, along with their Christian comrades, amazing courage, dedication and valor, and enduring incredible hardships against overwhelming and often hopeless odds.
The Confederacy’s secretary of war (he would later become secretary of state) was Judah P. Benjamin, and the top Confederate commander, General Robert E. Lee, was renowned for making every effort to accommodate his Jewish soldiers on their holidays.
Some find it peculiar that a people once held in slavery by the Egyptians, and who celebrate their liberation every year at Passover, would fight for a nation dedicated to maintaining that institution. But while slavery is usually emphasized, falsely, as the cause of the war, Confederate soldiers felt they were fighting for their homeland and their families, against an invading army that was trying, with great success, to kill them and their comrades, burn their homes, and destroy their cities.
Anyone with family who fought to defend the South, as over two dozen members of my extended family did, cannot help but appreciate the dire circumstances our ancestors encountered.
The Moses Family
Near the end of the War Between the States, as I grew up hearing it called, my great grandfather, Andrew Jackson Moses, participated in a dangerous mission as hopeless as it was valiant. The date was April 9, 1865, the same day Lee surrendered to Grant at Appomattox. Having run away from school at 16 to become a Confederate scout, Jack rode out as part of a hastily formed local militia to defend his hometown of Sumter, South Carolina.
Approaching rapidly were the 2,700 men of Potter’s Raiders, a unit attached to Sherman’s army that had just burned Columbia and most everything else in its path, and Sumter expected similar treatment.
Along wih a few other teenagers, old men, invalids, and wounded from the local hospital, Sumter’s 158 ragtag defenders were able to hold off Potter’s battle-seasoned veterans for over an hour and a half at the cost of a dozen lives.
Jack got away with a price on his head, and Sumter was not burned after all. But some buildings were, and there are documented instances of murder, rape, and arson by the Yankees, including the torching of our family’s 196 bales of cotton.
Meanwhile, on that same day, Jack’s eldest brother, Lt. Joshua Lazarus Moses, who’d been wounded in the war’s first real battle, First Manassas (Bull Run), was defending Mobile in the last infantry battle of the war. With his forces outnumbered 12 to one, Josh was commanding an artillery battalion that, before being overrun, fired the last shots in defense of Mobile.
Refusing to lay down his arms, he was killed in a battle at Fort Blakely a few hours after Lee, unbeknownst to them, had surrendered. In that battle, one of Josh’s brothers, Perry, was wounded, and another brother, Horace, was captured while laying land mines.
The fifth brother, Isaac Harby Moses, having served with distinction in combat in the legendary Wade Hampton’s cavalry, rode home from North Carolina after the Battle of Bentonville, the last major battle of the war, where he had commanded his company after all the officers had been killed or wounded. His mother proudly observed in her memoirs that he never surrendered to the enemy forces.
He was among those who fired the first shots of the war when his company of Citadel cadets opened up on the Union ship, Star of the West, which was attempting to resupply the besieged Fort Sumter in January 1861, three months before the war officially began.
Last Order Of The Lost Cause
The Moses brothers’ uncle, Major Raphael J. Moses, from Columbus, Georgia, is credited with being the father of Georgia’s peach industry. He was General James Longstreet’s chief commissary officer and was responsible for supplying and feeding up to 50,000 men (including porters and other non-combatants).
Their commander, Robert E. Lee, had forbidden Moses from entering private homes in search of supplies during raids into Union territory, even when food and other provisions were in painfully short supply. And he always paid for what he took from farms and businesses, albeit in Confederate tender – often enduring, in good humor, harsh verbal abuse from the local women.
Interestingly, Moses ended up attending the last meeting and carrying out the last order of the Confederate government, which was to deliver the remnant of the Confederate treasury ($40,000 in gold and silver bullion) to help feed, supply and provide medical help to the defeated Confederate soldiers in hospitals and straggling home after the war – weary, hungry, often sick or wounded, shoeless, and in tattered uniforms. With the help of a small group of determined armed guards, he successfully carried out the order from President Jefferson Davis, despite repeated attempts by mobs to forcibly take the bullion.
Major Moses’s three sons also served the Confederacy. One of them, Albert Moses Luria, was killed in 1862 at age 19 after courageously throwing a live Union artillery shell out of his fortification before it exploded, thereby saving the lives of many of his compatriots. He was the first Jewish Confederate killed in the war; his cousin Josh, killed at Mobile, the last.
Moses had always been intensely proud of his Jewish heritage, having named one son Luria after an ancestor who was court physician to Spain’s Queen Isabella. Another son he named Nunez, after Dr. Samuel Nunez, the court physician in Lisbon who fled religious persecution in Portugal and arrived from England in July 1733 with some 41 other Jews on a tiny, storm-tossed ship. As one of the first Jews in Georgia, Nunez is credited with having saved the colony in Savannah from perishing from malaria or some ther kind of tropical fever.
After the war, Raphael Moses was elected to the Georgia House of Representatives and named chairman of the Judiciary Committee. One of his best known writings, reproduced countless times in books and articles, is a lengthy, open letter he wrote in 1878 to a political opponent who’d attacked him for being “a Jew.”
This was a rare deviation from the general acceptance the South showed toward its Jews, and Moses hit back hard.
“Had your overburdened heart sought relief in some exhibition of unmeasured gratitude, had you a wealth of gifts and selected from your abundance your richest offering to lay at my feet,” he wrote, “you could not have honored me more highly, nor distinguished me more gratefully than by proclaiming me a Jew.”
One cannot help but respect the dignity and gentlemanly policies of Lee and Moses, and the courage of the greatly outnumbered, out-supplied but rarely outfought Confederate soldiers.
In stark contrast and in violation of the then-prevailing rules of warfare, the troops of Union generals Grant, Sherman, and Sheridan burned and looted homes, farms, courthouses, libraries, businesses, and entire cities full of defenseless civilians (including my hometown of Atlanta) as part of official Union policy not simply to defeat but to utterly destroy the South.
And before, during, and after the war, this Union army (led by many of the same generals, including Grant, Sherman, Sheridan, and Custer) used the same and even worse tactics to massacre Native Americans in what we euphemistically call the Indian Wars. It would be more accurate to call it mass murder – a virtual genocide – of Native Americans, including helpless old men, women, and children in their villages.
Why We Revere Our Ancestors
The valor of the Jewish Confederates and the other Southern soldiers and the blatant anti-Semitism so prevalent in the North form a nearly forgotten chapter of American history. It is, seemingly, an embarrassment to many Jewish historians – and hardly politically correct – in this day of constantly reiterated demonization of the Confederacy and worshipful reverence for Lincoln and his brutal generals.
But the anniversary of Grant’s little-remembered Nazi-like decree and his other atrocities should serve to remind us what the Southern soldiers and civilians were up against. Perhaps it will help people understand why native Southerners, including many Jewish families, revere their ancestors’ courage and, despite the controversy it causes in certain “enlightened” circles, still take much pride in this heritage.
Lewis Regenstein, a native Atlantan, is a writer and author. He can be reached at[email protected].