The Civil War, Korea, and Jews

The American Civil War. Canada in Korea. And Jews. What could these three themes possibly have in common?

Something to ponder this Easter/Passover weekend, as Christians and Jews each celebrate a major event in their faiths.

First, the Civil War: In December, 1862 Ulysses S. Grant issued “General Orders No. 11,” which called for the expulsion of  “Jews as a class” from his area of operations. It was designed to crack down on smuggling. Smugglers were in fact a real problem for Grant in his fight against the Confederacy, and some smugglers were in fact Jews. But Grant’s order seemed to single them out, implicating all Jews.

The order came only two weeks before the Emancipation Proclamation and the Southern press howled with delight at the hypocrisy of  the North: freeing Blacks but expelling Jews; while in the South, a Jew – Judah Benjamin – had risen to become one of the Confederacy’s most powerful leaders as  Secretary of State and later Secretary of  War.

In the North, Jews appealed directly to Lincoln. Lincoln had a word with Grant – to put it mildly — pointing out that the General had slurred an entire religious group, many of whom were in  his own army dying for their country. Within days the order was rescinded, and Grant meekly later tried to explain that it had been given “without due reflection” and in a letter to the B’nai Brith he declared he “had no prejudice against any sect or race, but want each individual to be judged by his own merit.”

And that seems to have been the “real” Grant. A modest, liberal, compassionate man. Still,  after a century and a half of study, Order No 11 remains deeply baffling. There had been not a hint of anti-Semitism in Grant before or after. So where does this  spring from? No one knows. To add to the bizarreness of it all,  Grant as president appointed more Jews to public office than any president before him (one of them was the American consul in British Columbia). He made human rights part of America’s foreign policy, and was the first President to attend a synagogue dedication.

This story has now been re-examined in “When General Grant Expelled the Jews,” a wonderful new book by Professor Jonathan Sarna, an historian at Brandeis University.

It can be found at:


In Korea, not quite a century later,Canada had its Grant-like moment. And it’s just as enigmatic.

At Kapyong, in Canada’s first major battle in the war, about 700 soldiers in the 2nd Battalion Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry narrowly escaped annihilation in a ferocious fight against thousands of Chinese,  61 years ago this month.

There were many heros. One of them was a young lieutenant, Mike Levy, who called in artillery fire on his own positions when they were about to be swamped. Five men were (quite rightly) decorated for bravery. Levy was not among them. His omission baffled all who were there that night. Levy was an admired and effective combat leader. And by any standards, heroic.

Mike Levy / right foreground (photo by Hub Gray)

A half century later, Hub Gray, a Kapyong hero himself and author of  a book on the battle, solved the mystery. He tracked down a soldier from the Intelligence Section that night, who’d overheard the commander, Colonel Jim Stone say that Levy would get no medal because “I will not award a medal to a Jew.”

Gray fought for years to get recognition for Levy and in 2003 the then Governor General, Adrienne Clarkson, granted Levy a coat of arms for his valour at Kapyong. (Clarkson was a 12-year-old school girl at the time of the battle and today is  PPCLI’s  colonel-in-chief.)

Remarkably, Levy bore not the slightest grudge against Stone (who died in 2005). Stone was a superb commander, much decorated and a brilliant tactician. Levy said in later years he would have followed the man anywhere. After Kapyong, Stone appointed Levy to be his intelligence officer, a post of great trust, which may have been Stone’s way of saying “I’m sorry.”

Levy died in 2007. Sixty years after Kapyong the whole incident still remains an unsolvable mystery, even to Levy’s family.

As Christians and Jews this weekend celebrate Easter and Passover, it’s a moment to ponder  the often baffling nature of prejudice. These two particular and apparently momentary, “outbreaks” in otherwise great and compassionate men remain as inexplicable today as when they occurred.


About Dan Bjarnason

Dan Bjarnason is the author of "Triumph at Kapyong, Canada's Pivotal Battle in the Korean War." Bjarnason was a television news and documentary reporter for The National at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation for over 35 years, He specialized in military history and has worked on documentaries from the Little Bighorn to the Falklands. He now lives in Toronto and can be reached at:
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