March '62 - Judah P. Benjamin, the Jewish Rebel

By Dr. Terry L. Jones
Special to The Journal

Judah P. Benjamin (Library of Congress)

Louisiana's adopted son Judah Philip Benjamin (1811-1884) has been described as the "Brains of the Confederacy." His biographer, Eli Evans, declared that "Benjamin achieved greater political power than any other Jew in the nineteenth century -- perhaps even in all American history."

Born in St. Croix, the Virgin Islands, Benjamin was the most prominent Confederate cabinet member and the only Jew to hold a high position in either the Union or Confederate government. After his British parents moved to the U.S., Benjamin grew up in Charleston, South Carolina, and entered Yale University at age fourteen. Dropping out of college, he moved to New Orleans in 1832 and became a law partner with influential Louisiana politician John Slidell (see the earlier article, "The Trent Affair"). While in the Crescent City, Benjamin married Natalie St. Martin, a member of a prominent Creole Catholic family, but the marriage was not a happy one. After giving birth to a daughter, Natalie moved to Paris. She remained there for nearly all of their fifty-plus years of marriage with Benjamin making annual visits.

Benjamin became a wealthy sugar planter, built Belle Chasse Plantation in Plaquemines Parish, served in the state legislature, and in 1852 became the first known Jew to be elected to the U.S. Senate. The following year, President Millard Fillmore offered him an appointment to the Supreme Court. Benjamin declined, but it was the first time a Jew had been offered a Supreme Court seat.

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 when Davis apologized, and the two men went on to become good friends. When Davis became president of the Confederacy, he appointed Benjamin attorney general and absolutely trusted his judgment in all matters. In turn, Benjamin was completely devoted to the Confederacy and gave Davis his unwavering loyalty. Within a year, the president made Benjamin secretary of war even though he had no military experience. Davis viewed the War Department as his exclusive domain and simply needed a loyal supporter to handle the day-to-day administrative details while he formulated policy and ran the military.

Despite having Davis's trust, Benjamin was unpopular in some circles. One Richmond newspaper referred to him as "a foreigner and a Jew," and former Virginia Governor Henry A. Wise claimed he "had more brains and less heart than any other civil leader in the South." Wise's opinion should be taken with a grain of salt, however, because he had reason to hate Benjamin. The former governor had commanded a brigade of troops at Roanoke Island, North Carolina, and had appealed to Benjamin for more gunpowder and reinforcements when the enemy threatened the area. Benjamin sent no help and Wise's son was killed in battle when the Yankees captured Roanoke. Benjamin resigned as secretary of war in March 1862 after many people blamed him for the defeat at Roanoke and other places. After the war, General Robert E. Lee's secretary, Colonel Charles Marshall, revealed that when the Confederate Congress investigated the Roanoke disaster Benjamin explained 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 actually was, Benjamin suggested that the committee censor him for failing to respond to the request for help. Unfortunately for his reputation, Benjamin's selfless sacrifice was not revealed until more than twenty years after the war had ended.

Secretary of State Robert M. T. Hunter resigned at the same time as Benjamin so on March 18, 1862, Davis appointed Benjamin to fill the vacancy. The decision angered many politicians, and some began referring to Benjamin as Davis's "pet Jew."

Great Britain's refusal to extend diplomatic recognition to the Confederacy frustrated Benjamin as secretary of state. He wrote, "When successful fortune smiles on our arms, 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.'" Benjamin realized that slavery was an impediment to gaining foreign recognition and supported emancipation and enlisting slaves into the army to show the world that the war was about Southern independence and not slavery. With Davis's reluctant permission, Benjamin sent an envoy to Europe to seek recognition in return for freeing the slaves but it was too late to do any good.

Benjamin was a brilliant cabinet member, but many people disliked him because of his Jewish heritage and a perpetual smile that made him seem flippant and unconcerned. He also clashed with such professional soldiers as Stonewall Jackson and P. G. T. Beauregard, who resented taking orders from someone with no military experience. But Benjamin never complained. One observer 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." Benjamin took the criticism in stride and claimed it was "wrong and useless to disturb oneself and thus weaken one's energy to bear what was foreordained."

The Lincoln assassination greatly distressed Benjamin because he had prior dealings with some of the conspirators. Fearing arrest, he escaped capture after the Confederate surrender and fled to Great Britain. There he became a wealthy barrister, never to return to the U.S. Unfortunately for historians, Benjamin burned his personal papers before his death.

Dr. Terry L. Jones is a professor of history at the University of Louisiana at Monroe and has published six books on the American Civil War.