Judah Benjamin – Indispensable Adviser to Confederacy President Jefferson Davis

Judah Benjamin (Source: Biography.com)

Judah Benjamin (Source: Biography.com)

Edwin Stanton, President Lincoln’s second Secretary of War was the North’s most brilliant legal mind of the Civil War era. The South’s most brilliant legal mind of the era was Judah Benjamin, former United States Senator from Louisiana. Benjamin served Davis, first as Attorney General, then as Secretary of War, and finally as Secretary of State. He easily was the most prominent Jewish politician of his day (and, yes, I repeat, from Louisiana).

Benjamin was the second Jewish United States Senator, the first being David Levy Yulee of Florida. Both men were born outside the United States, Benjamin in St. Croix and Yulee in St. Thomas.

David Levy Yulee, the first U.S. Jewish Senator

David Levy Yulee, the first U.S. Jewish Senator (Source: bioguide.congress.gov)

Benjamin served as Davis’s most trusted adviser throughout the war. Like his Northern counterpart Stanton, Benjamin succeeded an administrator who was not up to the task. As Secretary of War, he butted heads with many of the South’s strong-minded generals, including Joe Johnston and Stonewall Jackson. Jackson submitted his letter of resignation after one such incident, only to have the letter returned to him.  [Shelby Foote, The Civil War: Fort Sumter to Perryville, p. 224 (1958) (1986 First Vintage Books Edition)]

As Secretary of State, Benjamin joined a unanimous cabinet recommending that Davis dismiss General Joe Johnston during the Atlanta campaign. Of Johnston, Benjamin said, “[he] is determined not to fight, it is of no use to re-enforce him, he is not going to fight.” [Catton, Never Call Retreat, p. 330 (1965) (2009 Fall River Press edition)] Davis’s decision to replace Johnston with John Bell Hood proved disastrous. Hood “was determined to fight,” but suffered twenty thousand casualties in the process, troops the South could ill afford to lose, leaving Georgia and the Carolinas largely defenseless against Sherman’s army. [Id., p. 383]

More in line with his duties as Secretary of State, Benjamin attempted through his ministers to obtain Great Britain’s and France’s official recognition of the Confederacy as a nation independent of the United States. Twin defeats at Gettysburg and Vicksburg in July, 1863, doomed any such aspirations. Afterwards, Benjamin expressed his belief that the South never had much hope of securing such recognition from Great Britain:

When successful fortune smiles on our arms, the British cabinet is averse to recognition because “it would be unfair to the South by the action of Great Britain to exasperate the North to renewed efforts.” When reverses occur “it would be unfair to the North in a moment of success to deprive it of a reasonable opportunity of accomplishing a reunion of the States.”

[Shelby Foote, The Civil War: Fredericksburg to Meridian, p. 655 (1963) (1986 First Vintage Books Edition)]

Benjamin remained loyal to Davis to the end, traveling with him and his “cabinet on wheels” from Richmond, to Danville, to Greensboro, to Charlotte, and finally into South Carolina. Finally concluding that the cause was lost, Benjamin conferred with Davis and then traveled “south to the Florida coast, then Bimini, and he set out disguised variously as a farmer and a Frenchman, with a ramshackle cart, a spavined horse, and a mismatched suit of homespun clothes.” Remarkably, Benjamin ultimately landed in Great Britain where he enjoyed a long and successful career as a British barrister. [Shelby Foote, The Civil War: Red River to Appomattox, pp. 1007 and 1049 (1974) (1986 First Vintage Books Edition)]

Truly, Judah Benjamin was a remarkable man in a remarkable time.

For more information about Judah Benjamin, see Jonathan Tilove, “Judah P. Benjamin, ‘the Confederate Kissinger,’ Featured in Louisiana State Archives Exhibit,” The Times Picayune (April 20, 2010), www.nola.com/politics/index.ssf/2010/04/judah_p_benjamin.

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Filed under 1900s, American history, Civil War, history, Lincoln, Presidents

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