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The Forgotten Confederate Jew

How history lost Judah P. Benjamin, the most prominent American Jew of the 19th century

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(Collage Margarita Korol; original images Yale University Library)
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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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PhillipNagle says:

Most of the history generated about early American Jews come from Jews, many who have an agenda as to what a Jew is supposed to be like. As proof of this I turn to another obscure Jew, Uriah Levy. In the first half of the nineteenth century the highest rank attainable in the US Navy was commodore and Uriah Levy, a Jew was a commodore. But Jewish historians tend to ignore this man who doesn’t fit their mold.

41953 says:

Benjamin is not forgotten and neither is Levy. You can read about both in any Jewish encyclopedia or in the Dictionary of Jewish Biography.

41953 says:

PS Benjamin was not much of a Jew either. He was the victim of anti-Semitic atttacks during his years in the Confederate government, but in his personal life, there was nothing Jewish about him.

I wouldn’t call Benjamin the archvillain of “All Other Nights” _ far from it. At that Passov er seder, he tries to talk the lead character’s uncle out of the plan to assassinate Lincoln, which the lead character is under orders to foil by poisoning him.

p.s. And I’ve heard Dara Horn say that the story of Benjamin’s escape to Britain is too amazing for fiction.

rw970 says:

The United States Constitution does in fact permit people born abroad to be elected President, so long as they were citizens at “the time of the adoption of this Constitution.” See Article II, Section I, Cl. 5. Alexander Hamilton was a delegate to the Convention, and born in St. Kitts and Nevis.

Jonathan foreman says:

Judah P Benjamin is hardly forgotten or unknown. For a fascinating account of his life and clever diplomacy check out Amanda Foreman’s recent bestseller “A World on Fire: Britain’s crucial role in the American Civil War”

Judah P. Benjamin is also remembered in national awards given by both the Sons of Confederate Veterans and the United Daughters of the Confederacy. He is the namesake of a Chapter of the UDC and Camp of the SCV.
Mr. Brook is certainly less than gracious in his treatment of J.P.Benjamin, the UDC and SCV.

Daniel Brook says:

The crux of
my argument is not that Judah P. Benjamin has been entirely forgotten, just
that his remembrance today is incommensurate with his historical importance. As
for UDC’s history on racial issues, I think the record is clear. I’m sure many
members thought their early-twentieth-century efforts to educate school
children about the history of the Klan and to erect “mammy memorials”
in every state in the Union were admirable. In hindsight, I think I stand
squarely in the center of American public opinion in finding such efforts
disturbing.

Avinoam Sharon says:

Forgotten? Lawyers and the publisher of his still-in-print book would disagree:

“The 8th edition [2010] of Benjamin’s Sale of Goods
offers a one stop source to all the elements, principles, legislation
and case law surrounding sale of goods not just in the UK but
internationally, Benjamin’s Sale of Goods has firmly established itself
as the only title you need on sale of goods.
Frequently cited in court, its depth and coverage makes Benjamin an essential reference tool in any commercial law library.”

Hardly a description of obscurity.

Avinoam Sharon says:

Forgotten? Lawyers and the publisher of his still-in-print book would disagree:

“The 8th edition [2010] of Benjamin’s Sale of Goods
offers a one stop source to all the elements, principles, legislation
and case law surrounding sale of goods not just in the UK but
internationally, Benjamin’s Sale of Goods has firmly established itself
as the only title you need on sale of goods.
Frequently cited in court, its depth and coverage makes Benjamin an essential reference tool in any commercial law library.”

Hardly a description of obscurity.

Ben Russell says:

I expected to see some negativity in the comments (due only to the subject being related to the Confederacy), but I did not expect so many people denying his relative obscurity when compared to other figures of the time. I understand having a generally contrary nature (I have one myself), but one cannot deny the fact that more is spoken of concerning other less influential figures of the time. Rather than critiquing, can we not instead recognize the value of an article that introduces many to an enigmatic Jewish man of history?

Aside from that, I have to say, I have heard and read of Benjamin in passing, but I’ve never read anything that seemed to treat him with as much care and intrigue as you have presented here. I have already shared this article with others.

Hannah says:

It isn’t just the non-Jewish community that has forgotten him. At my children’s Jewish religious school there is a whole chapter and much discussion about General Grant and his order to discriminate against Jews. But my children heard nothing about Benjamin, nothing about Jewish slaveholders and nothing about the arguments back and forth among our American rabbis of the Civil War era about whether slavery was immoral or not. Why do we cherish the stories where we are the victims and forget the stories where we were the perpetrators? When we don’t tell both sides, our children come to conclude we are brainwashing them, not educating them.

Interesting article, Jews in the south at the time of the civil war threw in with the south, their friends and neighbors. Nothing wrong with that. And when it comes to Jews I’d take Lee over Grant any day. BTW The spoiled little brats who heckled Netanyahu were part of the JVP. The most anti-Jewish organization this side of hamas and the einzatzgruppen.

Interesting article, Jews in the south at the time of the civil war threw in with the south, their friends and neighbors. Nothing wrong with that. And when it comes to Jews I’d take Lee over Grant any day. BTW The spoiled little brats who heckled Netanyahu were part of the JVP. The most anti-Jewish organization this side of hamas and the einzatzgruppen.

Interesting article, Jews in the south at the time of the civil war threw in with the south, their friends and neighbors. Nothing wrong with that. And when it comes to Jews I’d take Lee over Grant any day. BTW The spoiled little brats who heckled Netanyahu were part of the JVP. The most anti-Jewish organization this side of hamas and the einzatzgruppen.

In the list of books on Judah P. Benjamin, unless I missed it, you have left out
“Judah P. Benjamin: The Jewish Confederate” by Eli N. Evans who also wrote “The Provincials: A Personal History of Jews in the South” and “The Lonely Days Were Sundays: Reflections of a Jewish Southerner” among others.

Benjamin could not have accused the Abolitionist senator of antisemitism since the word ws not invented until 1879.

Gobsmacked right now by your reference to Lockhart the dancer at Temptations, R.I.P. Jaren : http://youtu.be/YdruoPhYFEY

I have a small correction to a nicely done article. William R. King and James Buchanan did indeed share a household, but King died in 1853, four years before Buchanan became president, so King was never “first gentleman.” It seems, though, that Andrew Jackson liked to refer to King as Miss Nancy or Aunt Fancy. That just about settles it as far as I am concerned.

Runst says:

A propos of nothing in particular, the mystery writer John Dickson Carr, who is probably best remembered for his books about the colourful British master sleuths Dr. Gideon Fell and Sir H. M. Merrivale, also wrote an entertaining murder mystery set in pre-war New Orleans called “Papa La-Bas”. In this book, he recruits Judah P. Benjamin for the role as the brilliant detective who solves the case. Clearly, Carr was impressed by Benjamin’s mental powers (Dr. Fell and Merrivale were inspied by G. K. Chesterton and Winston Churchill, so Benjamin is in august company).

“Anti-Semitism is undoubtedly a factor in the postbellum’s South exclusion of Benjamin from its Confederate pantheon.”

Of Confederate cabinet members Benjamin is the only one that gets regular attention in part because he was Jewish, but also because he occupied important cabinet posts throughout the very short history of the Confederacy. He also advocated free slaves, well after it might have affected the outcome of the war. His Wikipedia page views come in around 150/day which puts him in league with Gen Jubal Early and about half of the 300/day Gen Pickett of Pickett’s charge gets. It is true a biggy like Stonewall Jackson gets about 10 times Benjamin’s attention. The ‘Pantheon’ only contains a hand full of the more successful generals, and does not include Jeff Davis who is mistakenly given the blame of the Confederacy’s many shortcomings.

As to being Gay, it is unlikely that he lived a gay lifestyle. He may have paid for boys now and again, but that is sex not a lifestyle. It is however true that homosexuality is not a modern phenomenon.

The South was actually much more tolerant of both Jews (which was easy at the time) but also Catholics aka Papists (who were a Northern fixation much like Muslims in the US today).

James Frederiksen says:

Judah’s brother, Joseph, was my great-great-grandfather. The absurdity of the assumption that Judah was gay, is beyond contemptuous. He also sold his plantation well before the war, because of constant flooding that ruined his crops. He, as a result, freed his 140 slaves. He also offered to his dear friend, Jefferson Davis, a 7 year plan to end slavery and end the war with the Union. It was rejected out of hand by the confederate cabinet. These are the accounts from my grandmother, and her brothers who are long dead, having died in their late 80′s and early 90′s. They still believed in the confederacy to their dying day. I do not, but they were not known for being untruthful, nor given to flights of fancy. Joseph disappeared in Honduras during an uprising of former slaves, sometime after 1884, after borrowing a large sum of money from Judah.

Silk says:

JEWS WERE THE REAL RACISTS! 10,000 JEWS FOUGHT FOR THE CONFEDERACY BECAUSE THEY WANTED TO KEEP THE AFRICAN-AMERICANS AS SLAVES!!! YET THE GENTILES GET BLAMED FOR IT!!! YOU JEWS ARE THE REAL RACISTS!!!

kljdgfjgkflj;' lmj;jkjhjkh says:

“JEWS WERE THE REAL RACISTS! 10,000 JEWS FOUGHT FOR THE CONFEDERACY BECAUSE THEY WANTED TO KEEP THE AFRICAN-AMERICANS AS SLAVES!!! YET THE GENTILES GET BLAMED FOR IT!!! YOU JEWS ARE THE REAL RACISTS!!!”

What about the millions of WHITE,CHRISTIANS, that fought for the Confederacy?
10,000 Jews are the ones to blame, but you ignore the huge number of white,Christians, that made up the bulk of the confederacy.
I got it blacks are bigots and hate Jews LOL!

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The Forgotten Confederate Jew

How history lost Judah P. Benjamin, the most prominent American Jew of the 19th century