One of the most misunderstood figures in American Jewish history is Judah P. Benjamin, whom some historians have called “the brains of the Confederacy,” even as others tried to blame him for the South’s defeat. Born in the West Indies in 1811 to observant Jewish parents, Benjamin was raised in Charleston, South Carolina. A brilliant child, at age 14 he attended Yale Law School, but was expelled soon afterwards for improper conduct. After Yale expelled him, he moved to New Orleans where he studied law and eventually passed the bar exam. A founder of the Illinois Central Railroad, a state legislator, a planter who owned 140 slaves until he sold his plantation in 1850, Judah Benjamin was elected to the United States Senate from Louisiana in 1852. When the slave states seceded in 1861, Confederate President Jefferson Davis appointed Benjamin as Attorney-General, making him the first Jew to hold a Cabinet-level office in an American government and the only Confederate Cabinet member who did not own slaves. Benjamin later served as the Confederacy’s Secretary of War, and then Secretary of State.
For an individual of such prominence, Benjamin’s kept his personal life and views somewhat hidden. In her autobiography, Jefferson Davis’s wife, Varina, informs us that Benjamin spent twelve hours each day at her husband’s side, tirelessly shaping every important Confederate strategy and tactic. Yet, Benjamin never spoke publicly or wrote about his role and burned his personal papers before his death, allowing both his contemporaries and later historians to interpret Benjamin as they wished, usually unsympathetically.
During the Civil War itself, many Southerners blamed Benjamin for their nation’s misfortunes. The Confederacy lacked the men and materials to match the Union armies and, when President Davis decided in 1862 to let Roanoke Island fall into Union hands without mounting a defense rather than letting the Union know the true weakness of Southern forces, Benjamin, as Davis’s loyal Secretary of War, took the blame and resigned. Anti-Semitism was a fact of life – North and South – during the Civil War years and Benjamin was falsely defamed as having weakened the Confederacy by transferring its funds to personal bank accounts in Europe.
After Benjamin resigned as Confederate Secretary of War, Davis appointed him Secretary of State. Eli Evans, Benjamin’s most perceptive biographer, observed that “Benjamin served Davis as his Sephardic ancestors had served the kings of Europe for hundreds of years, as a kind of court Jew to the Confederacy. An insecure President [Davis] was able to trust him completely because, among other things, no Jew could ever challenge him for leadership of the Confederacy.” Near the end of the war, Benjamin privately persuaded Robert E. Lee and other Confederate military leaders that the South’s best chance was to emancipate any slave who volunteered to fight for the Confederacy. When Benjamin repeated this proposal to an audience of 10,000 persons in Richmond in 1864, his remarks lit a firestorm. Georgian Howell Cobb observed, “If slaves will make good soldiers, our whole theory of slavery is wrong.” Benjamin’s idea, however valuable, was rejected as politically impossible. As Evans observes, “The South chose [instead] to go down in defeat with the institution of slavery intact.”
When John Wilkes Booth assassinated Lincoln in 1865, Davis and Benjamin were suspected of having plotted the event and, as the martyred Lincoln was compared to Christ in the Northern press, Benjamin was pilloried as Judas. When the South was defeated, Benjamin -fearing that he could never receive a fair trial if charged with Lincoln’s murder, fled to England, where he lived out his life as a barrister, publishing a classic legal text on the sale of personal property. Evans speculates that, had Benjamin been captured by Union troops, the United States might have had its own Dreyfus Trial.
A solitary man, estranged from his wife, Benjamin died alone in England, and his daughter arranged to have him buried in Pere Lachaise Cemetery in Paris. Until 1938, when the Paris chapter of the Daughters of the Confederacy provided an inscription with his American name, his simple tombstone was engraved with the name “Philippe Benjamin.”
While Judah Benjamin preferred such obscurity, his prominence as a Jew assured that he would come under harsh scrutiny, both during and after his life. For example, on the floor of the Senate Ben Wade of Ohio charged Benjamin with being an “Israelite in Egyptian clothing.” With characteristic eloquence, Benjamin replied, “It is true that I am a Jew, and when my ancestors were receiving their Ten Commandments from the immediate Deity, amidst the thundering and lightnings of Mt. Sinai, the ancestors of my opponent were herding swine in the forests of Great Britain.”
Perhaps the best-known posthumous caricature of Benjamin appears in the epic poem John Brown’s Body, by Stephen Vincent Benet. Describing him as a “dark prince,” Benet depicts Judah Benjamin as “other” in Confederate inner circles:
Judah P. Benjamin, the dapper Jew,
Seal-sleek, black-eyed, lawyer and epicure,
Able, well-hated, face alive with life,
Looked round the council-chamber with the slight
Perpetual smile he held before himself
continually like a silk-ribbed fan.
. . . [His] quick, shrewd fluid mind
Weighed Gentiles in an old balance . . .
The eyes stared, searching.
“I am a Jew. What am I doing here?”