It seems remarkable that a Jewish man born in the West Indies should rise to become a key figure in the government of the Confederate States of America. But Judah Benjamin was a remarkable man. Born in St. Croix, in 1811, Benjamin’s family immigrated to Charleston, South Carolina in 1822. After attending, and then being expelled from Yale (for reasons that are unclear), Benjamin moved to New Orleans. Benjamin became a very successful lawyer, then a state legislator, and in 1852 was elected to the United States Senate.
Because of his intellect and oratory, Benjamin made an immediate impression in Washington, D.C. Two presidents of the United States offered to nominate him to the Supreme Court, but he declined both offers. Had he accepted and been confirmed, Benjamin would have been the first Jewish Supreme Court justice.
Louisiana succeeded from the Union in 1861. Benjamin, who was one of the South’s fiercest defenders in the Senate, proclaimed that his loyalty was with the Confederacy.
Jefferson Davis appointed Benjamin the Attorney General of the Confederacy on February 25, 1861. To that point in time, no Jewish man had served in a cabinet-level position. After his appointment to the Confederate cabinet, Benjamin became one of Davis’s closest advisers; Davis dubbed him “the brains of the Confederacy.” Benjamin was later appointed Secretary of War, and then Secretary of State, a position he held until the end of the war.
The Confederate government fled Union troops in May 1865. Benjamin was the only cabinet member to escape, eventually making his way to England. He stayed in England for the rest of his life, never returning to the United States. His legal prowess is shown by the fact that, even though he was an American-trained lawyer, he wrote a treatise on English personal property law only a few years after he arrived in England, and formed a highly lucrative law practice.
Despite Benjamin’s role as “the brains of the Confederacy,” and his very interesting life, he has somehow faded from historical view. There are several reasons this may have happened. First, besides Jefferson Davis, officials in the Confederate government have received far less attention than Confederate military figures. How much has been written about George A. Trenholm, Secretary of the Treasury? Second, because Benjamin remained exiled in England, he could not promote or protect his legacy to the degree that other Confederates could, or attend reunion events which sprang up after the war. Finally, the fact that Benjamin was Jewish may have led some anti-Semitic historians to ignore Benjamin’s importance.
In a future post, I hope to delve a little more deeply into how Benjamin’s legacy has changed over time, both in the North and in the South.