When General Grant Expelled The Jews, by Jonathan D. Sarna
If you are familiar with the writings of this author at all, you have some idea that this is a book about Jewish history in America. My only knowledge of the author’s writings is the intersection between Jewish history and Civil War history, and that is the case here as well. This book claims to be the first book-length treatment of one of the more embarrassing events of the eventful and generally successful military career of Ulysses S. Grant , when he made an ill-advised order in anger at some of the shady business dealings of his own father that expelled Jews as a class from the military district he was in charge of, an order that was quickly countermanded by Lincoln but that would dog Grant for the rest of his life. There was a lot I could identify with here, from the eternal vigilance of the Jews in this book regarding oppression and marginalization to the awkward silence of Grant when trying to deal with apologizing about this most embarrassing incident that just never seemed to go away no matter how much he tried to bury it under kind words and good deeds.
The book is organized in a chronological fashion, and ends up being a short 150 or so pages including a chronology of Grant’s own life and his relationship with the Jewish people. After a short introduction, the author discusses General Orders No. 11 and their context in terms of speculation as well as the business activities of Grant’s father. After that the author discusses the lightning-fast response among Jews and Lincoln’s equally rapid rescinding of the offending order and the way that the order became the subject of short-term partisan arguing in the press. After that the author shifts to the use of the situation in the Election of 1868 as Democrats attempted to use the order in order to convince Jews en masse to vote against Grant, shows Grant’s marked favor given to Jews and Jewish interests during his tenure as President, and then closes with Grant’s postwar trip to Jerusalem and the continuing problems the order brought him during the course of his life. The author closes with a markedly favorable appreciation of Grant as a president and demonstrates that a lot of how his reputation suffered was vengeful spite from Southern historians upset at his success as a Civil War general and looking to knock him down a few pegs in their estimation of him as a president.
Overall, this book is a remarkably candid one and full of awkward but endearing human touches. The author talks about his own talk as a graduate student regarding Order No. 11 that involved a tense moment when a descendant of one of the Grant’s father’s shady business association admitted the truth of what the author was saying. He talks about Grant’s policy of stony silence when dealing with any embarrassing aspects of his life, not only the order but also his occasional lapses from sobriety, something I can definitely understand in my own dealings with others. Likewise, the author talks a great deal about a man who overcame his prejudices and understood the dark truth that once one has made a massive blunder one cannot unmake it, and while some people may forgive, those of less forgiving and merciful bent will speak about such matters without ceasing. This book gave me a great deal of compassion on the suffering of Grant after his order and also on the hypervigilance of the Jewish people as a result of their own suffering under oppressive regimes. The author is also honest about the way that some Jews feared that blacks would be raised above them in the aftermath of abolition, but found instead that outsider groups tended to rise or fall together in the eyes of the population at large.
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