By Zev Roth *
When Cesar Kaskel first saw the notice, he likely rubbed his eyes. In a daze, he probably ran home to his family. One look at him and his wife would have realized that there was something dreadfully wrong.
“Why, what is it? What happened?” she surely asked.
And then he told her about the order for every Jew to leave his home within twenty-four hours.
“Leave? Why? What have we done?” she may have asked, bewildered.
And he may have answered: “Do they ever say why when they throw Jews out of their homes? I just never thought it would happen in America.”
Whatever the precise words of their conversation, Kaskel informed his spouse about General Ulysses S. Grant’s General Order 11, signed on December 17, 1862. As Military Governor of newly conquered Civil War territory, he had issued the order in Holly Springs, Mississippi, mandating the total expulsion of “the Jews, as a class” from an area corresponding to what is today Northern Mississippi, Kentucky and Western Tennessee within “twenty-four hours,” without trial or hearing.
In Paducah, Kentucky, many families were expelled. They could not believe they were being forced from their homes in so abrupt a manner.
A certain Mr. Silverman from Chicago, visiting the town, unfortunately came to share the fate of his local brethren, who on December 17, denied even rail transportation for their exodus, were forced to go all the way to Memphis by foot. For his efforts to use some contacts to get a desperate telegram through to General Grant, Mr. Silverman was promptly thrown into a Holly Springs prison.
For his part, Cesar Kaskel tried to contact the President of the United States, Abraham Lincoln. He wrote an urgent telegram to the White House, protesting “this inhuman order, the carrying out of which would be the grossest violation of the Constitution and our rights as citizens under it which ,will place us . . . as outlaws before the whole world.”
As it happened, his letter was the second to find its way to Lincoln’s desk concerning the Jewish people. A few days earlier, a missive had arrived from one B. Behrend, the father of a religious Jewish soldier in the Union army. Behrend wrote to request Lincoln’s assistance in allowing his son to observe the Jewish Sabbath. He asked Lincoln, “as your namesake Abraham,” for his help in this matter. “This will be exactly lawful, as the Constitution of the United States ordains it, and at the same time be exactly according of the teachings of the Bible, as recorded in Leviticus 19, 18: “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.”
Kaskel realized, due to the desperation of the situation, that he had to make a trip to Washington. With the help of Congressman Gurley of Ohio, he secured an appointment to see President Lincoln. Together, they were quickly admitted to Lincoln’s office on the second floor of the White House.
It quickly became apparent that Lincoln knew little or nothing about the Jewish expulsion. Kaskel, however, had brought documentation along and provided a first-person account of Jews being evicted from their homes. After carefully listening, Lincoln asked, “And so the children of Israel were driven from the happy land of Canaan?”
Kaskel said, “Yes, and that is why we have come unto Father Abraham’s bosom, asking for protection.”
Lincoln replied “And this protection they shall have at once.” He then ordered that General Order 11 immediately be revoked.
Historians debate whether Ulysses S. Grant was the one responsible for the expulsion, or whether he had merely carried out the wishes of an antisemitic higher government official. What is clear, however, is that Lincoln was very sympathetic to the plight of the Jewish Americans affected by the order.
Perhaps, in part, because of a letter from a Sabbath- observant soldier’s father.
* Zev Roth, writer and researcher of stories of Jewish’s life on the world; lives currently in Israel. His most recent book is “10:10 and other timely tales beyond the imagination“ – Targum Press, 2008