In the middle of the Civil War, then-general Ulysses S. Grant was trying to control the illegal cotton trade stemming from the Confederate South. This smuggling project was operated, Grant wrote, “mostly by Jews and other unprincipled traders.” Therefore, Grant issued his infamous Order No. 11, expelling all Jews from the states of Kentucky, Tennessee, and Mississippi.
The order was rescinded swiftly, but Grant still gained an infamous reputation for perpetrating what became known as the most blatant act of anti-Semitism in the history of the United States.
However, noted historian Jonathan D. Sarna recently delved into the event, and he discovered some surprising things about that expulsion. In his book When General Grant Expelled the Jews, Sarna suggests that perhaps Grant’s intention wasn’t bigotry, but expedience–after all, Grant said of the incident a few years later, “I have no prejudice against sect or race, but want each individual to be judged by his own merit.” It’s also possible that Grant recanted his racist views and tried to repent. When Grant became president he appointed more Jews to public office than did every previous president combined. Grant was also the first American president to visit the land of Israel. When he died, the Jewish community mourned a hero.
You can read more about Grant’s life, and his relationship with the Jews, in Jonathan Sarna’s blog posts about his book