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About Judah Philip Benjamin
Born to a Sephardic family in the West Indies, Judah P. Benjamin was the most highly placed Jew in the Confederacy. Benjamin spent his adolescence in Charleston and briefly attended Yale University. He studied law privately and was admitted to the bar in New Orleans. He would have been the first Jewish supreme court justice, but turned down the appointment when it was offered to him by President Franklin Pierce in 1856. Benjamin served as attorney general and secretary of war of the Confederacy, and then as secretary of state.
Benjamin did not practice his religion or advocate Jewish causes, yet he was a lightning rod for anti-Semitic outbursts. As secretary of war, he quarreled with the generals by questioning their strategies. As secretary of state he outraged planters—he had been a successful sugar planter himself—by proposing to emancipate slaves who fought for the South, in the hope of winning French recognition of the Confederacy. Tennessee Senator Henry Foote referred to him as Judas Iscariot Benjamin. But in the final days of the war, Benjamin had President Jefferson Davis’s ear.
--------------------------------------------------- From the NY Times 4/19/2012 Opinionator - A Gathering of Opinion From Around the Web April 18, 2012, 12:43 pm The Jewish Rebel By TERRY L. JONES
Disunion follows the Civil War as it unfolded. Tags:
judah p. benjamin, Judaism, The Civil War
The Battle of Roanoke Island, in which Union forces captured a strip of North Carolina coast in February 1862, was a major loss for the Confederacy. Fingers quickly pointed blame, and much of it ended up centered on the War Department, and in particular its secretary, Judah P. Benjamin.
Gen. Henry A. Wise, a former Virginia governor and the defending commander in the battle, led the charges, claiming he had appealed to Benjamin for more gunpowder and reinforcements, only to be rebuffed. Wise’s son was killed when the Yankees captured the island, prompting Wise to declare that Benjamin “had more brains and less heart than any other civil leader in the South.” Facing Congressional censure, Benjamin resigned.
It was an astounding turn of events for a man who was arguably the most powerful — and controversial — man in the Confederate cabinet. Some of that controversy, though not all of it, came from the fact that Benjamin was also the only Jew to hold a high position in either the Union or Confederate government. Some have referred to him as the “Brains of the Confederacy,” and the biographer Eli Evans wrote that Benjamin “achieved greater political power than any other Jew in the nineteenth century — perhaps even in all American history.” It was that power, and those brains, that he now needed more than ever to pull through the crisis.
Born in St. Croix, the Virgin Islands in 1811, Benjamin moved to the United States with his British parents and grew up in Charleston, S.C. He entered Yale at age 14 but dropped out of college; he moved to New Orleans in 1832 and became a law partner with an influential Louisiana politician, John Slidell. Judah P. BenjaminLibrary of CongressJudah P. Benjamin
While in the Crescent City, Benjamin married Natalie St. Martin, a member of a prominent Creole Catholic family. After giving birth to a daughter, Natalie moved to Paris. She remained there for nearly all of their 50-plus years of marriage, with Benjamin making annual visits. It seemed an odd arrangement, but it apparently worked for them.
Benjamin became a wealthy sugar planter, built Belle Chasse Plantation in Plaquemines Parish, served in the State Legislature and in 1852 became the second Jew (after Florida’s David Levy Yulee) elected to the United States Senate. The following year, President Millard Fillmore offered him an appointment to the Supreme Court, the first time a Jew had been offered a seat. Benjamin, however, declined.
Meanwhile, Benjamin was building stronger ties with Southern leaders. Jefferson Davis was among Benjamin’s Senate colleagues, and Benjamin once challenged him to a duel when he believed Davis had made insulting remarks about his character. The duel was called off after Davis apologized, and the two men eventually formed a close friendship. When Davis became president of the Confederacy, he appointed Benjamin attorney general and, unofficially, a close personal adviser.
In turn, Benjamin was completely devoted to the Confederacy and gave Davis his unwavering loyalty. Within a year of secession, the president made Benjamin secretary of war, even though he had no military experience. It was a wise choice: Davis viewed the War Department as his exclusive domain, and he needed a loyal supporter to handle the day-to-day administrative details while he formulated policy and ran the military — an arrangement that worked well until the Roanoke disaster.
Benjamin proved an able administrator, but many people disliked him because of his Jewish heritage, as well as a perpetual smile that made him seem flippant and unconcerned. He also clashed with professional soldiers like Stonewall Jackson and P.G.T. Beauregard, who resented taking orders from someone with no military experience.
Even when the attacks became personal and tinged with anti-Semitism, Benjamin never complained, and once stated that it was “wrong and useless to disturb oneself and thus weaken one’s energy to bear what was foreordained.” An acquaintance wrote, “[H]e bore the universal attack with admirable good nature and sang froid . . . To all appearances, equally secure in his own views and indifferent to public odium, he passed from reverse to reverse with perfectly bland manner and unwearying courtesy.”
Nor was Benjamin the cold, hapless strategist the post-Roanoke attacks made him out to be. Long after the war, Col. Charles Marshall, Gen. Robert E. Lee’s secretary, revealed that during the congressional investigation into the battle, Benjamin had explained to the committee that the reason he did not reinforce Roanoke was because there were no troops available to send. Rather than reveal to the public just how weak the Confederacy was, Benjamin suggested that the committee censor him for failing to respond to the request for help. He resigned his position shortly afterward. Related Disunion Highlights
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Fortunately for Benjamin, all was far from lost. The Confederate secretary of state, Robert M.T. Hunter, happened to resign at the same time Benjamin stepped down from the War Department. Davis, unhappy with Benjamin’s resignation, was all too happy to appoint his friend to fill Hunter’s vacancy. Others, fuming over Roanoke, were less enthusiastic, and some began referring to Benjamin as Davis’s “pet Jew.”
But if Benjamin was glad to find a new home in the Confederate inner circle, he soon found himself frustrated with his new responsibilities. Perhaps given his British background, he was perplexed over Great Britain’s refusal to extend diplomatic recognition to the Confederacy. “When successful fortune smiles on our arms,” he wrote, “the British cabinet is averse to recognition because ‘it would be unfair to the South by the action of Great Britain to exasperate the North to renewed efforts.’ When reverses occur . . . ‘it would be unfair to the North in a moment of success to deprive it of a reasonable opportunity of accomplishing a reunion of the States.’”
As the war progressed, Benjamin came to accept that slavery was an impediment to gaining foreign recognition, and by late 1864 he supported emancipation and enlisting slaves into the army as a way of demonstrating that the war was about Southern independence and not slavery. With Davis’s reluctant permission, Benjamin sent an envoy to Europe in January 1865 to seek recognition in return for freeing slaves, but it was too late in the war to do any good.
After the Confederacy surrendered, Benjamin feared federal authorities might arrest him because he had sent John Surratt, one of the Lincoln assassination conspirators, on a covert mission to Canada. Benjamin fled to Britain, where he became a wealthy barrister, never to return to the United States. Near the end of his life he moved to Paris, reunited, at long last, with his wife. Unfortunately for historians, he burned his personal papers shortly before his death in 1884.
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Sources: Eli N. Evans, “Judah P. Benjamin: The Jewish Confederate”; J.B. Jones, “A Rebel War Clerk’s Diary”; Terry L. Jones, “The American Civil War”; and Robert Douthat Meade, “Judah P. Benjamin: Confederate Statesman.”