Judah P. Benjamin

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Judah Benjamin
Gamble Plantation Judah.P.Benjamin Photo.JPG
Confederate States Secretary of State
In office
March 18, 1862 – May 10, 1865
President Jefferson Davis
Preceded by William Browne (Acting)
Succeeded by Position abolished
Confederate States Secretary of War
In office
September 17, 1861 – March 24, 1862
President Jefferson Davis
Preceded by LeRoy Walker
Succeeded by George Randolph
Confederate States Attorney General
In office
February 25, 1861 – September 17, 1861
President Jefferson Davis
Preceded by Position established
Succeeded by Wade Keyes (Acting)
United States Senator
from Louisiana
In office
March 4, 1853 – February 4, 1861
Preceded by Solomon Downs
Succeeded by John Harris
Personal details
Born Judah Philip Benjamin
(1811-08-06)August 6, 1811
Christiansted, Danish West Indies (now Virgin Islands, U.S.)
Died May 6, 1884(1884-05-06) (aged 72)
Paris, France
Political party Whig (Before 1855)
Democratic (1855–1884)
Spouse(s) Natalie Bauché de St. Martin (m. 1833; 1 child)
Alma mater Yale University
Religion Judaism

Judah Philip Benjamin, QC (August 6, 1811 – May 6, 1884) was an American politician, lawyer, and slaveholder who served in cabinet level positions in the Confederate States of America, including Secretary of War, Attorney General and Secretary of State. Born a British subject in the West Indies in what is now an unincorporated territory of the United States, he moved to the United States with his parents and became a citizen. He later became a citizen of the Confederate States of America. After the collapse of the Confederacy, Benjamin moved to England, where he established a second legal career. In 1883 he retired and moved permanently to Paris, where his wife and daughter had lived for years. He died the following year.

During his career in U.S. politics, Benjamin was a member of the Louisiana House of Representatives; in 1852, he was elected by the state legislature to the US Senate from Louisiana, the second Jewish senator in U.S. history (after his second cousin, Senator David Levy Yulee of Florida). Following the formation of the Confederate States of America in 1861, he was appointed by President Jefferson Davis to three different Cabinet posts in his administration. Benjamin was the first Jewish appointee to a Cabinet position in a North American government,[1] and the first Jewish American to be seriously considered for nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court (he twice declined offers of nomination). Following his relocation to the United Kingdom, he became a distinguished barrister and in 1872 was appointed a Queen's Counsel.

Family and early life[edit]

Judah Philip Benjamin was born a British subject in 1811 in Saint Croix, to Phillip Benjamin, a Sephardi Jew, and his wife, Rebecca de Mendes, a Sephardi Jew whose family was from Spain.[2][3] This was during the period of British occupation of the Danish West Indies (now U.S. Virgin Islands). His father was a first cousin and business partner of Moses Elias Levy, father of future Florida senator David Levy Yulee.[4]

He emigrated with his parents to the U.S. in 1813, where the family first lived in Wilmington, North Carolina. In 1822 they moved to Charleston, South Carolina, where his father was among the founders, with Isaac Harby, of the first Reform congregation in the United States, the "Reformed Society of Israelites for Promoting True Principles of Judaism According to Its Purity and Spirit". The formation of the congregation was of such interest that it was covered by the North American Review, a national journal of the time.[5]

As a youth Benjamin attended Fayetteville Academy in North Carolina. At the age of fourteen, he entered Yale College. He left without completing the degree and read the law. According to one account, Benjamin was expelled from Yale, although the reason was not officially disclosed.[6] In 1828 he moved to New Orleans, Louisiana, where he started clerking with a law firm as an alternative route to certification as an attorney.[7] He studied law and learned French to qualify to practice in Louisiana. He was admitted to the bar in 1833 at the age of 21, and entered private practice as a commercial lawyer.

Marriage and family[edit]

On February 16, 1833, the 22-year-old Benjamin married Natalie Bauché de St. Martin, the 16-year-old daughter of a prominent and wealthy New Orleans French Creole family. They were married in a Roman Catholic ceremony at the St. Louis Cathedral.[7] He became a slaveholder and soon established a sugar cane plantation in Belle Chasse, Louisiana. His plantation and legal practice both prospered.[8]

In 1842, the couple's only child, Ninette, was born. She was baptised and raised as a Catholic. In 1847, Natalie Benjamin took the girl and moved to Paris, where she remained for most of the rest of her life. Benjamin traveled each summer to France to see his wife and daughter.[8]

Political career[edit]

In 1842 Benjamin was elected to the lower house of the Louisiana State Legislature as a Whig. In 1845, he served as a member of the state Constitutional Convention. He sold his plantation and its 150 slaves in 1850.

Judah Philip Benjamin, c. 1856

By 1852, Benjamin's reputation as an eloquent speaker with a subtle legal mind was sufficient to win him selection by the state legislature to the U.S. Senate. He was the second Jewish senator, after David Levy Yulee[9] of Florida, who was elected by his state legislature in 1845.

The outgoing President, Millard Fillmore of the Whig Party, offered to nominate Benjamin, a Southerner, to fill a Supreme Court vacancy after the Senate Democrats had defeated Fillmore's other nominees for the post. The New York Times reported (on February 15, 1853) that "if the President nominates Benjamin, the Democrats are determined to confirm him."[10] He was the first Jewish-American to be formally offered a Supreme Court appointment. Benjamin declined. He took office as senator on March 4, 1853. While in the Senate, he challenged another young senator, Jefferson Davis of Mississippi, to a duel over a perceived insult on the Senate floor;[11] Davis apologized, and the two began a close friendship.

Benjamin quickly gained a reputation as a great orator. In 1854, President Franklin Pierce offered him nomination to a seat on the Supreme Court, which he declined for a second time. Had he accepted in either instance he would have been the first Jewish justice of the Supreme Court of the United States. As it was, it would not be for another 62 years until 1916 when Louis Brandeis became the first Jewish justice of the Supreme Court following his nomination by President Woodrow Wilson.

He was a noted advocate of the interests of the South. According to the author Carl Sandburg, the abolitionist Benjamin Wade of Ohio said the Southern senator was "a Hebrew with Egyptian principles", as he represented slaveholders.[12]

By the next election, amid increasing regional tensions and divisions among Whigs over the issue of slavery, Benjamin had joined the Democratic Party; in the South the party was dominated by the planter slaveholding elite. He was elected by the state legislature in 1858 to serve as U.S. senator. During the 34th through 36th Congresses, he was chairman of the Senate Committee on Private Land Claims. Benjamin resigned his seat on February 4, 1861, after Louisiana seceded from the Union.

Confederate statesman[edit]

Davis appointed Benjamin to be the first Attorney General of the Confederacy on February 25, 1861, remarking later that he chose him because he "had a very high reputation as a lawyer, and my acquaintance with him in the Senate had impressed me with the lucidity of his intellect, his systematic habits, and capacity for labor". Benjamin has been referred to as "the brains of the Confederacy".[13]

In September 1861, he became the acting Secretary of War, and was confirmed in the post in November. He became a lightning rod for popular discontent with the Confederacy's military situation, and quarreled with the Confederate Generals P.G.T. Beauregard and Stonewall Jackson. He had strong disagreements with Davis about how to conduct the war.

Worried about Confederate defenses in the West, Benjamin had urged foreign consuls in New Orleans to defend the city when attacked. He had no power to order them into Confederate military service. He ordered the seizure of fourteen privately owned steamers at New Orleans. The impressed vessels were strengthened with iron casings at the bow to be used as rams. The ships kept civilian crews. Each vessel had a single heavy gun to be used in the event it was attacked by the Union. The Confederacy allocated $300,000 to outfit these vessels.[14]

The military issues were highlighted by the Confederate's loss of Roanoke Island to the Union "without a fight" in February 1862. Roanoke's commander, Brig. Gen. Henry A. Wise, was in desperate need of reinforcements when he was informed of the imminent Federal attack. He begged for some of the 13,000 men he knew were idle under the control of Maj. Gen. Benjamin Huger in nearby Norfolk, Virginia, but his pleas to Huger and Benjamin went unheeded.[15] The heavily outnumbered Confederate force of some 2,500 surrendered and were taken prisoner after losing nearly a hundred of their number in the Battle of Roanoke Island. Benjamin was held responsible for the loss (although he was carrying out Davis' priorities), and the public was outraged. Rather than reveal the pressing shortage of military manpower that had led to the decision to concede Roanoke, Benjamin accepted Congressional censure for the action without protest and resigned.

Judah Philip Benjamin, c. (1860–1865)

As a reward for Benjamin's loyalty, Davis appointed him as Secretary of State in March 1862. Benjamin arranged the Erlanger loan from a Paris bank to the Confederacy in 1863, which was the only significant European loan of the war.[16] In a round of "secondary diplomacy", he sent commercial agents to the Caribbean to negotiate opening ports in Bermuda, the West Indies, and Cuba to Confederate blockade runners to maintain supplies, which the Union was trying to prevent. After mid-1863, the system was expanded and "brought rich rewards to investors, shipowners, and the Confederate Army".[17]

Benjamin wanted to draw the United Kingdom into the war on the side of the Confederacy, but it had abolished slavery years before and public opinion was strongly divided on the war. In 1864, as the South's military position became increasingly desperate, he publicly advocated a plan to emancipate and induct into the military any slave willing to bear arms for the Confederacy. Such a policy would have the dual results of removing slavery as the greatest obstacle in British public opinion to an alliance with the Confederacy, and easing the shortage of soldiers that was crippling the South's military efforts. With Davis' approval, Benjamin proclaimed, "Let us say to every Negro who wishes to go into the ranks, 'Go and fight—you are free."[18] Robert E. Lee supported the scheme as well, but it faced stiff opposition from conservatives. The Confederate Congress did not pass the measure until March 1865, by which time it was too late to salvage the Southern cause.

Benjamin is pictured on the CSA $2.00 bill.[19]

Surrender of Confederacy[edit]

After Robert E. Lee's surrender at Appomattox Court House in April 1865, Judah P. Benjamin fled south with Jefferson Davis and the rest of his cabinet, but he left the group shortly before they reached Washington, Georgia, where they held their last meeting.[20]

In the immediate aftermath of the end of the war, Benjamin and Davis were rumored to have masterminded the assassination of Abraham Lincoln through the Confederate intelligence apparatus. According to Benjamin's biographer, Eli Evans, no evidence for this assertion has been found by historians.[21] Fearing that he would not receive a fair trial, Benjamin burned his papers and is reported to have stayed in Ocala, Florida, with Solomon Benjamin, a relative,[22] before continuing south to Gamble Mansion in Ellenton, on the southwest coast of Florida. From there, assisted by the blockade runner Captain Archibald McNeill, who owned the plantation, as well as William Whitaker, Benjamin traveled by sea to the Bahamas and then to England under a false name.[23] His escape from Florida to England was not without hardship. The small sponge-carrying vessel on which he left Bimini bound for Nassau exploded on the way, and he and the three crewmen had to be rescued by a British warship. His ship from the Bahamas to England caught fire, but managed to make it to port.[24] He was the only high-ranking Confederate politician to flee the country to avoid treason charges.[25]

The historian Donald C. Simmons thinks that Benjamin may have considered joining his brother Joseph Benjamin, Colin J. McRae, the former Confederate Financial Agent in Europe, and other Confederates at New Richmond, British Honduras, in the Confederate settlements.[26]

Exile in England[edit]

From London in late 1865, Benjamin provided considerable financial assistance to several friends in the former Confederacy. Joan Cashin, the biographer of Varina Howell Davis, said that Benjamin gave the Davis family a gift of $12,000. The gift supported not only the Davis extended family but many of their relatives and friends during the early years of the Reconstruction era.

Benjamin's grave at Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris

In June 1866, Benjamin was called to the bar in England, the beginning of his successful and eventually lucrative second career as a barrister, working in corporate law. In 1868, he published his Treatise on the Law of Sale of Personal Property, which came to be regarded as one of the classics of its field. The work's current edition remains authoritative under the name Benjamin's Sale of Goods. He was influential in commercial law that supported the rise of Great Britain as an imperial power. In 1872, he was selected as Queen's Counsel.[2]

Benjamin appeared on several appeals from Canadian courts to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council, the final court of appeal for the Empire.

Benjamin retired in 1883 on his doctor's advice. He had earned $720,000 during his nearly two decades at the bar in London.[13] He moved to Paris, where his daughter Ninette and three grandchildren lived. He died there on May 6, 1884, and was interred at Père Lachaise Cemetery.[2]

Representation in fiction[edit]

  • Robert D. Abrahams', Mr. Benjamin's Sword (1948) is juvenile historical fiction which covers the period of Benjamin's escape from Union forces after the loss of Richmond.
  • Benjamin is featured as a politician and amateur detective in John Dickson Carr's Papa La-Bas (1968), a mystery set in New Orleans in 1858.
  • Benjamin is a major character in the alternate history novel Gray Victory (1988) by Robert Skimin, taking place in 1866, in which the Confederacy has won independence. A mixed-race woman, who is a member of a secret abolitionist underground, has an affair with Benjamin.
  • Benjamin, along with other historical figures, is a character in Harry Turtledove's alternate history novel The Guns of the South (1992).
  • He is featured in Southern Victory Series, which chronicles an alternate history world after the South wins the Civil War. The Confederacy which Benjamin helped create is portrayed as an analog of Nazi Germany in the 1930s–1940s.
  • In the 2004 mockumentary film C.S.A.: The Confederate States of America, Benjamin convinces France and Britain to side with the Confederacy, which wins the war.
  • Benjamin figures prominently in the award-winning writer Dara Horn's short story "Passover in New Orleans" and her mystery novel, All Other Nights (2009). The story is a fictional account of an attempt to assassinate a New Orleans Jewish Confederate official before he can assassinate Lincoln.
  • Benjamin appears in the alternate history novel By Force of Arms by Billy Bennett, where he reprises his role as the Confederate Secretary of State, this time under President Robert E. Lee. Benjamin is instrumental in getting Great Britain to sell the Confederacy vital weapons for its new war with the Union.
  • Benjamin is a character in a fictional mystery trilogy by the author and intelligence analyst W. Patrick Lang, a former US Army officer. The first two books of the trilogy are The Butcher's Cleaver (2007), and Death Piled Hard (2009). In them, the role of Benjamin as the effective head of civilian Confederate covert operations and intelligence is a central feature of the plot. This interpretation of Benjamin's place in history is based on the historical study, "Come Retribution", a study of the Abraham Lincoln assassination.
  • Benjamin is the main character in Beloved, a novel in which author Viña del Mar depicts a stormy relationship between Benjamin and his wife Natalie, who is portrayed as incorrigibly unfaithful. Beloved was published in hardback by Harcourt, Brace in 1956 (ASIN B0007DUFL4) and in paperback by Dell in 1965 (ASIN B00005X85P).

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Judah Benjamin". Jewish Virtual Library. Retrieved May 27, 2013. 
  2. ^ a b c "Judah Philip Benjamin", West's Encyclopedia of American Law, retrieved July 21, 2011
  3. ^ "Judah P. Benjamin". National Park Service. Retrieved May 11, 2013. 
  4. ^ Mosaic: Jewish Life in Florida (Coral Gables, FL: MOSAIC, Inc., 1991): 9
  5. ^ "Review: 'Harby's Discourse on the Jewish Synagogue, and the Constitution of the Reform Congregation'". The North American Review 23 (52): 67–79. July 1826. JSTOR 25102552. 
  6. ^ Foreman, Amanda. A World on Fire: Britain's Crucial Role in the American Civil War. (2010). p. 83
  7. ^ a b de Ville, Winston (Winter 1996). "The Marriage Contract of Judah P. Benjamin and Natalie St. Martin". Louisiana History 37 (1): 81–84. JSTOR 4233263. 
  8. ^ a b Lebeson, Anita Libman (1975). Pilgrim People: A History of the Jews in America from 1492 to 1974. New York: Minerva Press. p. 27. ISBN 0-308-10156-1. 
  9. ^ It is not clear if Yulee converted before his marriage to Nancy Christian Wickliffe or on his deathbed. Nor is the documentary evidence clear if he was seated in the U.S. before or after his reported conversion to Christianity. The more accurate description of Yulee would be to note that he was the first U.S. Senator of Jewish heritage. Judah P. Benjamin was the first openly professing Jew to be seated in the U.S. Senate.
  10. ^ Evens, Eli (1988). Judah P. Benjamin, the Jewish Confederate. United States: Simon and Schuster. p. 83. ISBN 9780029099117. Retrieved May 27, 2013. 
  11. ^ "Still Another Duel". The New York Times. June 10, 1858. Retrieved July 11, 2012. 
  12. ^ Carl Sandburg, Abraham Lincoln The Prairie Years and the War Years, New York: Harcourt Brace and Co., 1956, p. 239
  13. ^ a b "The Brains of the Confederacy", excerpted from Herbert T. Ezekiel and Gaston Lichtenstein, The History of the Jews of Richmond from 1769 to 1917, Richmond: H. T. Ezekiel, Printer and Publisher, 1917, p. 166; at Jews in the Civil War, Jewish-American History Foundation, Retrieved November 21, 2008
  14. ^ John D. Winters, The Civil War in Louisiana, Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1963, ISBN 0-8071-0834-0, pp. 72, 78
  15. ^ United States War Dept. (1883). The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union And Confederate Armies (Series 1, Volume 9 ed.). Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Library. pp. 190–191. 
  16. ^ "Judah P. Benjamin", Oxford Dictionary of the US Military, Answers.com, Retrieved July 24, 2011.
  17. ^ "Judah P. Benjamin", Gale Encyclopedia of Biography. Answers.com, Retrieved July 24, 2011.
  18. ^ "Confederate States". The American Annual Cyclopædia and Register of Important Events of the Year 1865 5. New York: D. Appleton & Co. 1870. p. 192. Retrieved September 13, 2012. 
  19. ^ "A Pledge of a Nation: Charting the Economic Aspirations, Political Motivations and Consequences of Confederate Currency Creation"
  20. ^ "Wilkes County, Georgia - The Story of Washington-Wilkes part V". Giddeon.com. Retrieved 2010-01-31. 
  21. ^ "Judah P. Benjamin", excerpted from Eli N. Evans, "The Confederacy", MacMillan Information Now Encyclopedia, at Home of the American Civil War website, Retrieved July 24, 2011. (Note: Evans is a contemporary biographer of Benjamin. A superior source is required, as similar quotes are often attributed to UK Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli).
  22. ^ Ott, Eloise Robinson, and Chazal, Louis Hickman, Ocali Country, Ocala: Marion Publishers, 1966, p. 87
  23. ^ "Florida State Parks - Judah P. Benjamin Confederate Memorial at (Gamble Plantation) State Historic Site". Abfla.com. Retrieved 2010-01-31. 
  24. ^ Lebeson, Pilgrim People, 1975, p. 275
  25. ^ American History, Volume 40, Issues 1-6. Cowles History Group, a division of Cowles Magazines, 2005. p. 63
  26. ^ Simmons, Donald C. (2001). Confederate Settlements in British Honduras. Jefferson, NC: McFarland. ISBN 0-7864-1016-7. 

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]

United States Senate
Preceded by
Solomon Downs
United States Senator (Class 2) from Louisiana
Served alongside: Pierre Soulé, John Slidell
Succeeded by
John Harris(1)
Legal offices
New office Confederate States Attorney General
Succeeded by
Wade Keyes
Political offices
Preceded by
LeRoy Walker
Confederate States Secretary of War
Succeeded by
George Randolph
Preceded by
William Browne
Confederate States Secretary of State
Position abolished
Notes and references
1. Because of Louisiana's secession, the Senate seat was vacant for seven years before Harris succeeded Benjamin.