Judah P. Benjamin

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Judah Philip Benjamin
Judah P. Benjamin

1st Confederate States Attorney General
In office
February 25, 1861 – September 17, 1861
Preceded by (none)
Succeeded by Thomas Bragg

2nd Confederate States Secretary of War
In office
September 17, 1861 – March 24, 1862
Preceded by Leroy Pope Walker
Succeeded by George W. Randolph

3rd Confederate States Secretary of State
In office
March 18, 1862 – May 10, 1865
Preceded by Robert M.T. Hunter
Succeeded by (none)

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

Judah Philip Benjamin (August 6, 1811 – May 6, 1884) was an American politician and lawyer. He was born British, and died a resident in England. He held elected positions as a representative in the Louisiana House of Representatives, U.S. Senator for Louisiana, and three successive Cabinet posts in the government of the Confederate States of America. He was the first Jewish Cabinet-member in a North American government, and the first Jewish nominee to the U.S. Supreme Court (although he declined the position). He was the second Jewish United States Senator (after David Levy Yulee of Florida). Accused of masterminding the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, he fled to England where he pursued, under a false name, a successful legal career, becoming a Q.C. (Queens Counsel). In retirement, he moved to Paris, where he died. His legacy made it easier for Jews and members of other minorities to seek high office, and helped to combat prejudice.

Family and early life

Benjamin was born a British subject in Christiansted, Saint Croix, in the Danish West Indies (now U.S. Virgin Islands), to Portuguese Sephardic Jewish parents, Phillip Benjamin and Rebecca de Mendes. 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 Law School, 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; the marriage seems to have been unhappy. (Natalie spent the majority of her half a decade long marriage apart from her husband.[1]) Judah was admitted to the bar in Louisiana and made enough money through the venture that he was able to enter the elite southern planter caste. 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; Natalie took the girl and moved to Paris, where she remained for most of the rest of her life. The same year, 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; he never again owned any slaves.


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." 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.[1]

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: Benjamin Wade of Ohio accused him of being an "Israelite in Egyptian clothing," and he 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."

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.

Proud Confederate

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." He often gave out his views on military matters and was arguably Davis's chief advisor.[2]

In September of the same year, he became the acting Secretary of War, and in November he was confirmed in the post. Davis perhaps chose a man lacking in military knowledge to ensure his own control over martial affairs. Davis enjoyed Benjamin's cheerful demeanor and was pleased with his organizational skills and dedication to work.[2] Others offered him far less praise. He became a lightning-rod for popular discontent with the Confederacy's military situation, and quarreled with prominent Confederate Generals P.G.T. Beauregard and Stonewall Jackson. Newspapers and military men attacked his character, also bringing attention to his Jewish heritage to bolster public prejudice against him.[2] 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 Federalist attack. He begged for the 13,000 idle men under the control of Maj. Gen. Benjamin Huger in nearby Norfolk, Virginia, 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).

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. As a reward for his loyalty, Davis appointed him Secretary of State in March 1862.

Benjamin's foremost goal as Secretary of State was to draw the United Kingdom and France 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 the late winter of 1864, by which time it was too late to salvage the Southern cause.[3]

He is pictured on the CSA $2.00 bill.


In the immediate aftermath of the end of the war, Benjamin was rumored 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.

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. He visited his wife and child in Paris at times, as well.[4] In 1872 he became Queen's Counsel. He died in Paris on May 6, 1884, and was interred at Père Lachaise cemetery under the name of Philippe Benjamin.

Benjamin figures prominently in novelist Dara Horn's short story "Passover in New Orleans," a fictitious account of an attempt to assassinate a New Orleans Jewish Confederate official before he can assassinate Lincoln. The story appears in Granta, vol. 97, Spring 2007.


Benjamin was the most prominent Jewish American in the nineteenth century. His election to high office showed that Jews could assimilate, and succeed. His loyalty to the Confederacy followed from his geo-political context. Alongside many other politicians and military men, he sided with the Confederacy because his state did. However, while in the Senate, he often supported slavery, so he did have some ideological sympathy with the Southern states. The issue, though, from the Southern point of view was the rights of states as opposed to those of the Federal Goverment. In siding with his State, Benjamin identified with this ideology. It is said that his management of the war as Secretary of War may have contributed to the confederacy losing but loss on the field of battle is a complex issue, rarely caused by any single individual. Somehow, rightly or wrongly, implicated in the assassination of Lincoln, Benjamin fled to England because he did not think he would receive a fair trial in the United States, given his role in the Civil War. This is indicative of the continued post-war animosity between North and South, and of Southern distrust of the North. His subsequent career as a successful barrister in England shows his ability to adapt, and to survive. Although he received Davis when he visited London several times, he remained silent about his role in the war. In his self-imposed exile, he appears to have chosen to shun his own past. This may have been instinctive. In the American South, as a Jew, he had learnt to "blend into the culture" as a matter of survival.[5] The instinct to survive was probably deep in his psychology. While in later life he did not dwell on his earlier achievements, the fact that he did occupy high office made it easier for other Jews to follow his example. He did contribute to the breaking down of prejudice, so that "After him, it was more acceptable for Jews to be elected to office and to aspire to service in the councils of national power."[5]


  1. 1.0 1.1 Robert Saunders, Jr., "Judah Philip Benjamin," in Encyclopedia of the American Civil War: A Political, Social, and Military History, (eds.), David S. Heidler and Jeanne T. Heidler (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2000), 209.
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 Saunders, 210.
  3. Paul D. Escott, Military Necessity: Civil-Military Relations in the Confederacy (Westport: Praeger, 2006), 130-135.
  4. Saunders, 11.
  5. 5.0 5.1 "Judah P. Benjamin," Civil War Home (MacMillan Information Now Encyclopedia "The Confederacy" Article by Eli N. Evans), Judah P. Benjamin.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Escott, Paul D. Military Necessity: Civil-Military Relations in the Confederacy. Westport: Praeger, 2006. ISBN 0-275-98313-7
  • McPherson, James M. Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States). New York: Oxford University Press, 1988. ISBN 0-19-503863-0
  • Saunders, Robert, Jr. "Judah Philip Benjamin." In Encyclopedia of the American Civil War: A Political, Social, and Military History, edited by David S. Heidler and Jeanne T. Heidler, 209-211. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2000. ISBN 0-393-04758-X

External links

All links retrieved October 4, 2022.

Preceded by:
Solomon W. Downs
United States Senator (Class 2) from Louisiana
March 4, 1853 – February 4, 1861
Succeeded by: John S. Harris(1)
Preceded by:
Confederate States Attorney General
February 25, 1861 – September 17, 1861
Succeeded by:
Thomas Bragg
Preceded by:
Leroy Pope Walker
Confederate States Secretary of War
September 17, 1861 – March 24, 1862
Succeeded by:
George W. Randolph
Preceded by:
Robert M.T. Hunter
Confederate States Secretary of State
March 18, 1862 – May 10, 1865
Succeeded by:
Notes and references
1. Because of Louisiana's secession, the Senate seat was vacant for seven years before Harris succeeded Benjamin.


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