Judah P. Benjamin: A Jewish Confederate leader

Why the ‘brains of the Confederacy’ remained relatively un-commemorated

Confederate States of America president Jefferson Davis (third from left) and his cabinet, including Judah Benjamin (second from left). (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Confederate States of America president Jefferson Davis (third from left) and his cabinet, including Judah Benjamin (second from left).
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
In 1948 the United Daughters of the Confederacy, in conjunction with two local synagogues, erected a modest tombstone-like granite slab downtown in Charlotte, N.C. to the most prominent Jewish leader in the Confederacy – Judah Benjamin. In June 2020, city officials reportedly removed parts of the monument, in case a decision was made to remove it.
In the name of what they called racial injustice, activists from Black Lives Matter and other movements destroyed dozens of statues of Confederate leaders this year – including generals Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson. Arguing that Germany has no “Camp Himmler” or “Fort Goering,” protesters, sometimes violent, also have demanded that 10 military bases south of the Mason-Dixon Line honoring Confederate officers be renamed.
Yet largely overlooked is the legacy – or lack thereof – of Judah Philip Benjamin (1811-1884), who served as the first attorney general in president Jefferson Davis’ cabinet, and then as the Confederacy’s secretary of war before becoming secretary of state from March 1862 until the rebel forces surrendered in April 1865.
Judah P. Benjamin
Since no statues were ever erected to memorialize Benjamin’s key role in the “Lost Cause,” there are none to topple. But that raises the question of why Benjamin became a persona non grata while other historic figures of the Confederate States of America were embraced by local populations.
IN SUMMER 2017, shortly after Charlottesville, Virginia, decided to remove a statue of Lee, Ari Feldman wrote in “Why Are There No Statues Of Jewish Confederate Judah Benjamin To Tear Down?” in the Forward, “Judah Philip Benjamin, the most significant Jewish political figure in the United States during the 19th century – often called the ‘brains of the Confederacy’ – has four [monuments]. One is a house that Benjamin never owned. One’s a rusted bell. None are statues of his likeness. It’s impossible to know exactly why that is. But certain aspects of Benjamin’s biography, and the motivations for the creation of thousands of Confederate monuments, offer some clues. Though Benjamin was a brilliant legal mind, a legendary orator and Confederate president Jefferson Davis’s right-hand man, it is likely that he has no major monuments primarily because he alienated himself from both Jewish and non-Jewish Southerners.”
As Eli Evans wrote in his 1988 biography Judah Benjamin, The Jewish Confederate, it is unlikely that any new information will surface about him since Benjamin burned his papers in Paris. The mystery around the Confederate leader has to do both with his status as Jewish, gay and a traitor.
“Benjamin had a kind of ambivalence towards the Jewish community, meaning he never denied being a Jew and never changed his name, but on the other hand, his wife was not Jewish and his daughter was not Jewish,” explained Jonathan Sarna, professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University in Massachusetts and author of Lincoln and the Jews.
“Non-Jews didn’t make statues of him because he was a Jew, and Jews didn’t make statues of him because he was intermarried and not really associated with the Jewish community,” Sarna said. “He kind of lost both sides.”
“It’s hard to excise Judah Benjamin’s memory from the American Jewish consciousness, because it’s not in the American Jewish consciousness,” said Robert Rosen, who documented Benjamin’s career in his book The Jewish Confederates.
At least one attempt was made to erect a proper statue of Benjamin. In August 1910, The Daily States, a New Orleans evening newspaper, suggested including a statue of Benjamin in the city’s planned memorial to Davis on Canal Street downtown.
“We refer to Judah P. Benjamin, one of the most remarkable men of his age, and one of the most intellectual his splendid race has produced,” the editorial read. “The life of such a man ought to be an inspiration to mankind. To the members of the Jewish race, upon whom he shed such luster, it ought to be particularly a labor of love to inaugurate and carry to success a subscription movement to make the monument possible.”
But when the statue of Davis was eventually dedicated in 1911 and the street adjacent to it renamed Jefferson Davis Parkway, Benjamin’s likeness was nowhere to be seen.
Benjamin’s legacy lives on in strange ways. His face appears on the Confederacy’s $2 bill, which was issued in 1862. It now fetches about $25 on eBay.
Statue of Sen. David Levy Yulee outside the historic train depot in Fernandina, Florida.
WHILE ANTISEMITISM was a constant factor in Benjamin’s life, that doesn’t fully explain the absence of any statues to him. Similarly, while American Jews felt profound shame for their co-religionist who served as a spokesman for slavery, arguing that slave-owning citizens had a right to their property as guaranteed by the Constitution, it doesn’t fully explain their failure to erect any statutes to Benjamin. In 1948, Charlotte, North Carolina’s two Jewish congregations, Temple Israel and Temple Bethel, erected a marker on South Tryon Street at the site of the demolished house of merchant Abraham Weil, where Benjamin and Davis found refuge for nine days in April 1865 as they fled south.
Also of note is the five-foot-high plinth of pink Georgia marble crowned with a sundial in Sarasota, Florida, marking where Benjamin slipped out of the United States. The monument, unveiled in 1942, bears the inscription: “Near this spot on June 23, 1865, Judah P. Benjamin, Secretary of State of the United Confederacy, set sail for a foreign shore.”
A third stone marker at 9 West Main Street in Richmond, Virginia, denotes the site of Benjamin’s residence during the Civil War. Another stone marker in Fayetteville, North Carolina, reads Benjamin “attended Fayetteville Academy on this site.” A North Carolina Highway Historical Marker Program plaque marks Benjamin’s boyhood home.
After leaving Fayetteville, Benjamin enrolled at Yale College. He left New Haven in 1827 without completing his law studies, perhaps after being exposed as a gay man. The answer to why no statues of him were raised may lie in his murky sexuality. This hypothesis, Sarna said, “explains a lot of things,” such as why he burned his personal documents on his deathbed in Paris.
“Folks who were gay – well into the 20th century – were enormously self-conscious about being discovered, and few of their papers remain,” Sarna said.
Benjamin and wife, Natalie St. Martin, lived apart for almost their entire marriage. Benjamin joined her and their daughter Ninette in Paris only following his retirement in 1882, two years before his death.
The house that Benjamin built: 327 Bourbon St. in New Orleans's French Quarter. (US Library of Congress)
EVEN WITHOUT any bronze statues to tear down, Benjamin’s legacy is under threat. The Florida Public Archaeology Network’s page about Benjamin has been removed. TripAdvisor has similarly deleted all reference to Benjamin from its listing for the plantation where he hid in Florida before he escaped to the Bahamas and then spent his exile in Britain.
Peninsula Temple Sholom, a Reform congregation in the San Francisco suburb of Burlingame, California, announced on June 21 that the synagogue would remove its stained glass panel depicting Benjamin from its gallery of 175 famous Jews.
And the four-story Greek Revival townhouse at 327 Bourbon Street in New Orleans’ French Quarter, which Benjamin built in 1835 for his 16-year-old bride, the daughter of one of New Orleans’ leading Catholic and Creole families, is today a striptease joint called Temptations.
The Preservation Resource Center of New Orleans documents the history of Bellechasse, the ostentatious Louisiana bayou mansion and plantation that the ambitious lawyer-turned-sugar cane planter bought in 1844, where he lived with his wife and their 140 slaves. There is no plaque at the site.
The great plantation’s bronze and silver bell with Benjamin’s name cast on it survives as a memorial. Bearing the date October 1858, the bell is on display in front of the Belle Chasse Public Library. The landmark mansion fell into decay and was abandoned in the 1930s. It was demolished in 1960, when the bell – forged by a New York foundry and used to call the slave field hands – was moved to the library.
The bell outside the library in Belle Chasse, Louisiana, is all that remains of Benjamin's sugar cane plantation and antebellum mansion.
With Bellechasse destroyed, the most evocative historic site that draws attention to Benjamin’s legacy is the Judah P. Benjamin Confederate Memorial at Gamble Plantation — hidden away in the town of Ellenton, Florida, 30 minutes south of St. Petersburg. Located on Highway 301 just west off of Interstate 75 in Manatee County, the site is maintained as a state park by the Florida Department of Natural Resources and the Judah P. Benjamin Chapter No. 1545 of the United Daughters of the Confederacy. The only surviving antebellum plantation in central and south Florida, the museum includes the former mansion and gardens, a sugar cane field and a visitors center. The exhibit includes a Confederate $2 bill with Benjamin’s portrait, his sword and scabbard, and period furnishings.
It was in this colonnaded two-storied plantation house, originally constructed between 1844 and 1850, that Benjamin sought refuge 155 years ago for approximately a week during his flight toward exile in Britain.
HAVING REPRESENTED Louisiana in the Senate from 1852 until the state’s secession on January 26, 1861, Benjamin was the first professing Jew elected to the upper house. A year after his arrival in Washington DC, he was offered a seat on the Supreme Court, a position he declined, preferring instead the challenge of the political arena. During his eight years in the capital, Benjamin developed a reputation as a brilliant orator and spokesman for the South.
Benjamin and the other members of the Confederate cabinet fled Richmond on April 2, 1865, a week before the rebel capital fell. The erstwhile secretary of state parted ways with the ex-president in Washington, Georgia, on May 3. Disguised as Monsieur Bonfals, a play on the Cajun French meaning “a good falsification,” Benjamin headed to Florida. The Union had posted a $40,000 reward for the capture of the hated Confederate leader, whose administrative acumen alone was responsible in large measure for the South’s success in withstanding the North’s forces for four years.
The war had engendered an atmosphere of extreme Judeophobia. Earlier in the war, Gen. Ulysses S. Grant had issued his infamous General Order No. 11, dated December 17, 1862, expelling all Jews from the war zone in Tennessee, Kentucky and Mississippi. Union Gen. Benjamin Butler, whose forces had conquered New Orleans, allegedly said: “The most effective supporters (of the Confederacy) have been... mostly Jews... who all deserve at the hands of the government what is due the Jew Benjamin.”
Marker in Charlotte, North Carolina, commemorating the site of the home of Abram Weil, who sheltered Benjamin.
Benjamin feared – with good reason – that he would be hanged on trumped-up charges implicating him with the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. The president had died on Easter Friday, and a deicide-transfixed nation needed a Jewish scapegoat to complete the American crucifixion myth. Northern newspapers were demanding Benjamin’s execution as a traitor and a Christ-killer.
Benjamin fled south to Sarasota, where he caught a 16-foot open yawl, avoiding capture by disguising himself as a galley cook. He continued his hazardous voyage to Bimini in the Bahamas. From there he sailed to Nassau, where he boarded a schooner bound for Havana, Cuba, and finally a steamer for Southampton, England.
The British government rejected Washington’s extradition demand, ruling Benjamin was a British subject since Britain had occupied Denmark’s colonies in the West Indies when Benjamin was born in St. Croix. Moreover, Britain claimed Benjamin’s American naturalization papers had been voided by the charges of treason he faced were he to be deported.
BENJAMIN SETTLED in London, never to again cross the Atlantic. After qualifying for the Bar, he embarked on a distinguished second career as a barrister. In 1872, he was appointed Queen’s Counsel, an unprecedented honor for an American-trained lawyer, which qualified him to practice before the House of Lords. A portrait of Benjamin in his silk legal gown and full-bottomed wig hangs in his former chambers at the Gamble Plantation in Ellenton.
Four years earlier, he wrote his “Treatise on the Sale of Personal Property with Reference to the American Decisions, to the French Code and Civil Law.” Known by its shorthand title, “Benjamin on Sales,” this reference text became a legal classic still in use today.
The website “American Civil War Roundtable UK” documents Benjamin’s decades of exile in London. None of the buildings where he lived or practiced law survived Luftwaffe bombings and urban renewal.
Benjamin died a wealthy man in Paris and was buried in the Père Lachaise cemetery, one of the few Jews to lie there. His obituary was published on the front page of many London newspapers.
Davis called Benjamin “my most trusted confidant and right-hand man,” and it was Benjamin’s strategy to avoid pyrrhic victories in a war that saw bloodshed on a scale previously unprecedented in the annals of armed conflict. Approximately 620,000 soldiers lost their lives in combat or from accident, starvation and disease during the four-year-long Civil War.
In today’s political climate, it remains to be seen whether protesters will draw attention to Benjamin’s role as a Confederate leader or whether he will rest in relative obscurity among US historical figures.