Judah P. Benjamin
Judah P. Benjamin

In office
March 18, 1862 – May 10, 1865
President Jefferson Davis
Preceded by Robert M.T. Hunter
Succeeded by Office abolished

In office
September 17, 1861 – March 24, 1862
President Jefferson Davis
Preceded by Leroy Pope Walker
Succeeded by George W. Randolph

In office
February 25, 1861 – September 17, 1861
President Jefferson Davis
Preceded by Office instituted
Succeeded by Thomas Bragg

Born August 6, 1811(1811-08-06)
Christiansted, Saint Croix, West Indies
Died May 6, 1884 (aged 72)
Paris, France
Political party Democratic
Spouse(s) Natalie St. Martin
Children Ninette Benjamin
Alma mater Yale College
Profession Politician, Lawyer
Religion Jewish

Judah Philip Benjamin (August 6, 1811 – May 6, 1884) was an American politician and lawyer. He was born a British subject in the West Indies, became a citizen of the United States and then the Confederate States of America. After the collapse of the Confederacy, he settled in England and died in France.

During his career in U.S. politics, Benjamin was a member of the Louisiana House of Representatives and a U.S. Senator from Louisiana; he was second Jewish senator in U.S. history. Following the formation of the Confederate States of America, he held three different Cabinet posts in the government of Jefferson Davis. He was the first Jewish Cabinet-member in a North American government, and the first Jew seriously considered for nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court (he declined an offer of nomination twice). Following his relocation to Europe, he was a distinguished barrister and Queen's Counsel in the United Kingdom.

Family and early life[edit | edit source]

Judah Philip Benjamin was born a British subject in Saint Croix, during the British occupation of the Danish West Indies (now U.S. Virgin Islands), to Phillip Benjamin, an English Jew, and his wife, Rebecca Mendes, a Portuguese Jew.[1] He emigrated with his parents to the U.S. several years later and grew up in North and South Carolina. In 1824, his father was one of the founders 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" in Charleston. He attended Fayetteville Academy in North Carolina, and at the age of fourteen he entered Yale College, though he left without a degree. In 1832 he moved to New Orleans, Louisiana, where he continued his study of law, was admitted into the bar that same year, and entered private practice as a commercial lawyer.

In 1833 Benjamin made a strategic marriage to Natalie St. Martin, of a prominent New Orleans Creole family. He became a slave owner and established a sugar plantation in Belle Chasse, Louisiana. Plantation and legal practice both prospered. In 1842, his only child, Ninette, was born and in 1847 Natalie took the girl and moved to Paris, where she remained for most of the rest of her life. Benjamin did, however, make a trip each summer to France to see his wife and child.[2]

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

File:Judah Benjamin.jpg

Judah Philip Benjamin

Senator[edit | edit source]

By 1852, Benjamin's reputation as an eloquent speaker and subtle legal mind was sufficient to win him selection by the state legislature to the U.S. Senate. The outgoing President, Millard Fillmore of the Whig Party, offered to nominate him to fill a Supreme Court vacancy after the Senate Democrats had defeated Fillmore's other nominees for that post, and the New York Times reported (on February 15, 1853) that "if the President nominates Benjamin, the Democrats are determined to confirm him." He was the first Jewish-American to be formally offered a Supreme Court appointment. However, Benjamin declined to be nominated. He took office as a Senator on March 4, 1853. During his first year as a Senator, he challenged another young Senator, Jefferson Davis of Mississippi, to a duel over a perceived insult on the Senate floor; Davis apologized, and the two began a close friendship.

He quickly gained a reputation as a great orator. In 1854 Franklin Pierce offered him nomination to a seat on the Supreme Court, which he again declined. He was a noted advocate of the interests of the South, and his most famous exchange on the Senate floor was related to his religion and the issue of slavery: abolitionist and future Radical Republican Benjamin Wade of Ohio referred to him as "a Hebrew with Egyptian Principles."[3] The future Confederate replied that, "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."[4] He was again selected to serve as Senator for the term beginning in 1859, but this time as a Democrat. During the 34th through 36th Congresses he was chairman of the Committee on Private Land Claims. Benjamin resigned his seat on February 4, 1861, after the secession of Louisiana from the Union.

Confederate statesman[edit | edit source]

The original Confederate Cabinet. L-R: Judah P. Benjamin, Stephen Mallory, Christopher Memminger, Alexander Stephens, LeRoy Pope Walker, Jefferson Davis, John H. Reagan and Robert Toombs.

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 often referred to as "the Brains of the Confederacy."[5]

In September 1861, he became the acting Secretary of War, and in November he was confirmed in the post. He became a lightning-rod for popular discontent with the Confederacy's military situation, and quarrelled with the Confederate Generals P.G.T. Beauregard and Stonewall Jackson. This came to a head over the 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 the 13,000 idle men under the control of Maj. Gen. Benjamin Huger in nearby Norfolk, Va, but his pleas to Huger and secretary of war Benjamin went unheeded. The heavily outnumbered Confederate force of some 2,500 surrendered and were taken prisoner after losing nearly a hundred of their number — which was incorrectly presented in the South as their having "surrendered without a shot being fired" (See Battle of Roanoke Island).

File:JPBenjamin.jpg

Judah Philip Benjamin

Cries of indignation and anger were heard throughout the South. Rather than publicly reveal the pressing shortage of military manpower that had led to the decision not to defend Roanoke, Benjamin accepted Congressional censure for the action without protest and resigned.

Benjamin urged foreign consuls in New Orleans to defend the city when attacked, but the diplomats were not otherwise ordered 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.[6]

As a reward for his loyalty, Davis appointed him Secretary of State in March 1862. His foremost goal as Secretary of State was to draw the United Kingdom into the war on the side of the Confederacy. In 1864, as the South's military position became increasingly desperate, he came to publicly advocate a plan whereby any slave willing to bear arms for the Confederacy would be emancipated and inducted into the military; this would have the dual effect of removing the greatest obstacle in British public opinion to an alliance with the Confederacy, and would also ease 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." Robert E. Lee came to be a proponent of the scheme as well, but it faced stiff opposition from traditionalists, and was not passed until March, 1865, by which time it was too late to salvage the Southern cause.

He is pictured on the CSA $2.00 bill.

Flight[edit | edit source]

After Robert E. Lee's surrender, 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 the last meeting of the Confederate Cabinet was held.[7] He is reported to have stayed in Ocala, Florida, with Solomon Benjamin, a relative,[8] before continuing on south to Gamble Mansion in Ellenton, Florida. From there, assisted by William Whitaker and others, he was able to escape by boat to the Bahamas and then to England.[9] His escape from Florida to England, though, 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 black crewmen had to be rescued by a British warship. His ship from the Bahamas to England caught fire on the way but managed to make it to port.[10]

Exile[edit | edit source]

In the immediate aftermath of the end of the war, Benjamin was rumoured to have masterminded the assassination of Abraham Lincoln through his intelligence apparatus (based out of Montreal, Canada: John Wilkes Booth was purportedly seen several times meeting with Confederate representatives and receiving funds from them). Fearing that he could never receive a fair trial in the atmosphere of the time, he burnt his papers, took refuge at Gamble Plantation in Florida and then fled to England under a false name. Some historians believe that he may have briefly considered joining his brother, Joseph, and Colin J. McRae, the former Confederate Financial Agent in Europe, at New Richmond, British Honduras, in the Confederate settlements in British Honduras.[11]

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Benjamin's grave at Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris

In late 1865 Benjamin provided considerable financial assistance to several friends in the former Confederacy. Varina Howell Davis biographer Joan Cashin stated that the Davis family received a gift of $12,000 from Benjamin, a windfall that supported not only their extended families but many of their relatives and friends during the early years of Reconstruction.

In June 1866, he was called to the bar in England, the beginning of a successful and lucrative second career as a barrister. 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. In 1872 he became Queen's Counsel. He died in Paris on May 6, 1884, and was interred at Père Lachaise Cemetery.

Appearance in fiction[edit | edit source]

- In that Benjamin's diplomacy could have allowed for a CSA victory, he sometimes appears in alternate history stories though not always in a flattering light.


- Judah P. Benjamin is a major character in the novel Gray Victory by Robert Skimin, taking place in an alternate 1866 where the Confederacy won its independence. In the book, a half caste woman who is a member of a secret abolitionist underground has an affair with Benjamin.

- Benjamin, along with other historical figures, is also a character in Harry Turtledove's 1992 alternate history novel The Guns of the South. He also appears in Timeline-191 a series that chronicles a world in which the South won the Civil War. Here it won due to France and Britain's siding with the South as the real Benjamin hoped it would. Ironically, from "our" perspective at least, the Confederacy Judah P. Benjamin created becomes an analog for Nazi Germany by the 1940s that unleashes a "Black holocaust" complete with gas chambers.

- The Nazi Party analog, the Freedom Party, has as its Hitler's right hand man an anti-Black Jew named Saul Goldman, an analog for Joseph Goebbels.


- In the 2004 mockumentary film C.S.A.: The Confederate States of America, Benjamin is able to convince France and Britain to side with the Confederacy, which allows the South to win the Civil War. Decades later, the CSA seeks to officially make itself a Christian country, and fictitious politician John Fauntroy boasts of getting rid of the Jews. In the present, fictional historian Sherman Hoyle grows serious and recalls in a low, serious voice that, on hearing Fauntroy's words, the dying Jefferson Davis grabbed him by the collar and said that if it weren't for a Jew, there would be no CSA. In the movie's present day, Jews still live and are seen with gratitude by at least some Confederates, as it was Benjamin who ensured the existence of a CSA throughout which slavery is still legal. (The CSA also takes a stance of neutrality in World War II.) Film director Kevin Willmott has commented that while it is true that blacks and Jews worked together in the civil rights movement, that should not make it seem as if Jews were always friends to blacks.


- In a less serious vein, Benjamin is the amateur detective in John Dickson Carr's Papa La-Bas, a 1968 mystery novel set in New Orleans in 1858.


- Benjamin is a major character in the novels The Butcher's Cleaver (2007), and Death Piled Hard (2009) by W. Patrick Lang. 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 figures prominently in novelist Dara Horn's short story "Passover in New Orleans" and her novel expanding on it, "All Other Nights" (copyright 2009). The story is a fictitious account of an attempt to assassinate a New Orleans Jewish Confederate official before he can assassinate Lincoln [10].

Bibliography[edit | edit source]

  • Evans, Eli N., Judah Benjamin: The Jewish Confederate, New York: The Free Press, 1988.
  • Simmons, Donald C., Confederate Settlements in British Honduras, McFarland and Company Publishers, 2001.

References[edit | edit source]

  1. "Florida Atlantic University Judaica Collection biography". Fau.edu. 2006-10-18. http://www.fau.edu/library/brody26.htm. Retrieved 2010-01-31. 
  2. Lebeson, Anita Libman, Pilgrim People: A History of the Jews in America from 1492 to 1974, New York: Minerva Press, 1975, p. 27
  3. Carl Sandburg, Abraham Lincoln The Prairie Years and the War Years, NY, Harcourt Brace and Co., 1956, p. 239
  4. Judah Benjamin, The Jewish Confederate, The American Jewish Historical Society - accessed July 23, 2008 (a superior source is required, as the quote is often attributed to UK Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli).
  5. Jews in the Civil War, Jewish-American History Documentation Foundation, Inc. . Retrieved November 21, 2008.
  6. John D. Winters, The Civil War in Louisiana, Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1963, ISBN: 0-8071-0834-0, pp. 72, 78
  7. "Wilkes County, Georgia - The Story of Washington-Wilkes part V". Giddeon.com. http://www.giddeon.com/wilkes/history/soww5.shtml. Retrieved 2010-01-31. 
  8. Ott, Eloise Robinson, and Chazal, Louis Hickman, Ocali Country, Ocala: Marion Publishers, 1966, p.87
  9. "Florida State Parks - Judah P. Benjamin Confederate Memorial at (Gamble Plantation) State Historic Site". Abfla.com. http://www.abfla.com/parks/GamblePlantation/gambleplantation.html. Retrieved 2010-01-31. 
  10. Lebeson, Anita Libman, Pilgrim People: A History of the Jews in America from 1492 to 1974, New York: Minerva Press, 1975, p. 275
  11. Simmons, Donald C. Condederate Settlements in British Honduras. McFarland and Company Publishers, 2001.

External links[edit | edit source]

Template:Start box |- ! colspan="3" style="background: #cccccc" | United States Senate Template:U.S. Senator box |- ! colspan="3" style="background: #DDCEF2;" | Legal offices

|- style="text-align: center;" |- style="text-align:center;" |width="30%" align="center" rowspan="1"|Preceded by
(none) |width="40%" style="text-align: center;" rowspan="1"|Confederate States Attorney General
February 25, 1861 – September 17, 1861 |width="30%" align="center" rowspan="1"| Succeeded by
Thomas Bragg |- Template:S-off |- style="text-align: center;" |- style="text-align:center;" |width="30%" align="center" rowspan="1"|Preceded by
Leroy Pope Walker |width="40%" style="text-align: center;" rowspan="1"|Confederate States Secretary of War
September 17, 1861 – March 24, 1862 |width="30%" align="center" rowspan="1"| Succeeded by
George W. Randolph |- |- style="text-align: center;" |- style="text-align:center;" |width="30%" align="center" rowspan="1"|Preceded by
Robert M.T. Hunter |width="40%" style="text-align: center;" rowspan="1"|Confederate States Secretary of State
March 18, 1862 – May 10, 1865 |width="30%" align="center" rowspan="1"| Succeeded by
(none) |- |- | colspan="3" style="background:#bebebe; color:#000000;" | Notes and references |- | colspan="3" style="text-align:left;"| 1. Because of Louisiana's secession, the Senate seat was vacant for seven years before Harris succeeded Benjamin. |} Template:USSenLA

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