The Forgotten Confederate Jew
How history lost Judah P. Benjamin, the most prominent American Jew of the 19th century
Benjamin’s professional life was as successful as his personal life was troubled. By 1852, “the Little Jew from New Orleans” had made enough of a name for himself as a state legislator to be sent to the U.S. Senate, chosen, as was then customary, not by popular election but by statehouse pols. On the Senate floor, Benjamin flourished as an orator of the Southern cause, a master of the secessionist rhetoric that cast slaveholders as victims. After Abraham Lincoln’s election in 1860, with the war looming, Benjamin intoned in a speech to his Northern Senate colleagues, “You may carry desolation into our peaceful land, and with torch and fire you may set our cities in flames … but you never can subjugate us; you never can convert the free sons of the soil into vassals, paying tribute to your power; and you never, never can degrade them to the level of an inferior and servile race. Never! Never!” When an abolitionist senator, citing the Book of Exodus, called Benjamin out for the signal hypocrisy of a Jew shilling for slavery—he tarred him as “an Israelite with Egyptian principles”—Benjamin cried anti-Semitism and refused to answer the charge on the merits.
With Louisiana’s secession from the Union in 1861, Benjamin, having turned down the chance to be the first Jew nominated to the U.S. Supreme Court, was tapped by Confederate President Jefferson Davis as his right-hand man. During the war, Benjamin rotated through a series of Cabinet positions, first attorney general, then secretary of war, and finally secretary of state. Because of Benjamin’s Jewishness, Davis presumably figured he could never challenge him for the presidency should the South succeed in its bid for independence. (Unlike the United States Constitution, the Confederate Constitution permitted immigrants to become president provided they were Confederate citizens at the time of its ratification.) Secretary of State Benjamin was given the daunting diplomatic task of trying to obtain international recognition for the South as an independent country—a hopeless endeavor he pursued with such zeal he was later dubbed the “Confederate Kissinger.”
When the war ended, Benjamin fled Richmond posing as a French farmer who spoke only broken English. The short, fat attorney eluded a U.S. Army manhunt through the swamps of Florida before setting sail for London, where he began his legal practice anew from scratch. Soon counted among Britain’s most successful barristers, he built his wife a trophy home on the Rue d’Iéna in Paris and threw a lavish wedding for his daughter. In 1884, Benjamin died a wealthy man. Against his wishes, his wife had him buried in a Catholic cemetery, the famed Père Lachaise, where he rests today in obscurity, ignored by tourists tramping from Marcel Proust’s grave to Jim Morrison’s.
Why did Benjamin disappear? It is certainly not for lack of scholarly efforts to remember the “Jewish Confederate.” In every age, a heroic sage struggles to rescue Benjamin from obscurity—and invariably fails. The complete catalog of Benjamin biographies reads like a very long joke, a string of titles that includes Martin Rywell’s 1948 tome, Judah Benjamin: Unsung Rebel Prince and then, 15 years later, Nieman’s Judah Benjamin: Mystery Man of the Confederacy. That 1963 work opens by mourning that Benjamin remains “a half-forgotten name,” eerily echoing Rollin Osterweis’ 1933 biography Judah P. Benjamin: Statesman of the Lost Cause, whose preface notes, “Every American thrills at the brave tales of the Day of the Confederacy. And when he recalls the spirit of Calhoun, borne onward by the Sword of Robert E. Lee, let him not forget the indomitable Benjamin, gallant statesman of the Lost Cause.”
Anti-Semitism is undoubtedly a factor in the postbellum’s South exclusion of Benjamin from its Confederate pantheon. The portly, pint-sized Jew commanding the valiant gentile generals was a convenient scapegoat for the military disasters that unfolded on his watch as secretary of war. But it is more the events and memorializations of the postbellum era that sealed Benjamin’s sorry fate. While Jefferson Davis became a martyr to the Lost Cause, spending two years in a U.S. Army brig and being stripped of his American citizenship, Benjamin fled the country to become a rich British lawyer. As a resentful, defeated South transformed Southern-ness into a veritable ethnicity—when Jefferson Davis’ daughter, Winnie, was betrothed to a New Yorker, the proposed “mixed marriage” so scandalized the South that the engagement was called off—the Caribbean-born Jew with the francophone Catholic wife did not fit the hero’s casting call.
Even New Orleans’ Confederate Memorial Hall—a monument to the Lost Cause, opened in 1891 and built to look like a church, with its vaulted ceiling and stained-glass—contains virtually nothing relating to the highest-ranking Confederate official the city produced. I was told the institution held a bed rumored to have belonged to Benjamin, but it is kept in storage, disassembled.
For the guardians of Confederate memory after Reconstruction, Benjamin became a kind of pet Jew, generally ignored, but then trotted out at opportune moments to defend the segregated South against charges of bigotry. In 1943, the United Daughters of the Confederacy, an organization whose idea of a fundraiser in the early 20th century was selling primers on the glories of the Ku Klux Klan to schoolchildren, erected a pink granite monument to Benjamin on the Sarasota, Fla., plantation where he set sail to escape his U.S. Army pursuers. As the segregated units of America’s Jim Crow army marched into battle against Hitler’s Jew-hunting Wehrmacht, a UDC official intoned, “While Hitlerites spew lies that tend to arouse anti-Jewish passions … Florida, through the United Daughters of the Confederacy, does well to build this monument … for it will stand as a guidepost and reminder that this nation is still the pillar of freedom and tolerance. It is the south’s personal challenge to Nazism and hate.”
On June 2, 1968, as local headlines detailed a synagogue bombing in neighboring Mississippi by white supremacist night riders, a memorial bell dedicated to Benjamin was unveiled at the site of his plantation home in Plaquemines Parish. Benjamin’s home itself had been leveled eight years before the ceremony to make way for an airfield, despite the Works Progress Administration having pleaded in the 1930s that “No home in Louisiana has more claim to historical interest than this … immense gloomy, old white house, seemingly dead amid a wilderness of verdure.” (The caption beneath the photograph of the just-unveiled memorial in the Times-Picayune makes the suspicious error of identifying Benjamin as “the Confederacy’s treasurer.”)
Southern conservatives were not alone in their discomfort with Judah P. Benjamin. Today’s liberal American Jewish community also appears to be squeamish about preserving the memory of its illustrious ancestor. Reform Rabbi Daniel Polish surely spoke for many when he recounted in the Los Angeles Times in 1988 that learning of Benjamin “represent[ed] a significant dilemma [in] my years growing up as a Jew both proud of his people and with an intense commitment to the ideals of liberalism and human solidarity that I found embodied in the civil rights movement.” In her 2009 Jewish Civil War spy novel, All Other Nights, novelist Dara Horn casts Benjamin unsurprisingly as an arch-villain. Horn introduces him to readers at a painfully ironic New Orleans Passover Seder prepared and served by slaves.
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