Popular Articles

The Power of Acting “As If”

Athletes, actors and other celebrities have sometimes credited the law of attraction for getting to where they are today. Life coach Judy Siblin-Librach tells us how she is using the power of “as if,” and urges everyone to give it a try.

Read More »

Largely overlooked is the legacy — or lack thereof — of Judah Philip Benjamin

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin
Share on email
Share on print

Click an icon above to share, email, or save this article

This 1948 monument to Judah Benjamin, considered the most prominent Jewish figure in the Confederate government was removed following vandalism and the current mass movement to remove statues and other monuments honouring Confederate figures | Photo: thejewniverse.com

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin
Share on email
Share on print

Click an icon above to share, email, or save this article

On June 23, city officials in Charlotte, N.C. reportedly removed parts of a monument to the most prominent Jewish leader in the Confederacy, Judah Benjamin, in case a decision is made to permanently remove the memorial, a granite slab downtown erected in 1948 by the United Daughters of the Confederacy in conjunction with two local synagogues.

In recent weeks, demonstrators against racial injustice have removed dozens of Confederate statues including generals Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson, as the Black Lives Matter movement continues to draw attention to the United States’ history of slavery and racism.

Arguing that Germany has no Camp Himmler or Fort Goering, protesters also have demanded that ten US military bases south of the Mason-Dixon Line honouring 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 in March 1862. He held that position until the rebel forces surrendered in Appomattox Court House, Virginia, in April 1865.

Since no statues were erected to memorialize Benjamin’s key role in the Lost Cause in the decades after the Civil War, today there are none to topple. But that only raises the question of why Benjamin became a persona non grata while other historic figures of the Confederate States of America were embraced by white supremacists.

In summer 2017, shortly after Charlottesville, Virginia, decided to remove a statue of Lee, the controversy around which led to Unite The Right’s white supremacist rally that ended in one woman’s death, Ari Feldman published an article in the Forward titled “Why Are There No Statues Of Jewish Confederate Judah Benjamin To Tear Down?”

Feldman wrote:

“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 of them 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.”

And as Eli Evans wrote in his 1988 biography Judah Benjamin, The Jewish Confederate, it is unlikely any new information will ever surface about him since Benjamin burned his papers before he died 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.

Get thej.ca a Pro Israel Voice by Email. Never miss a top story that effects you, your family & your community

In summer 2017, shortly after Charlottesville, Virginia, decided to remove a statue of Lee, the controversy around which led to Unite The Right’s white supremacist rally that ended in one woman’s death, Ari Feldman published an article in the Forward titled “Why Are There No Statues Of Jewish Confederate Judah Benjamin To Tear Down?”

Feldman wrote:

“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 of them 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.”

And as Eli Evans wrote in his 1988 biography Judah Benjamin, The Jewish Confederate, it is unlikely any new information will ever surface about him since Benjamin burned his papers before he died 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.

US Senator Judah P. Benjamin, circa 1856 | Photo: Creative Commons photo

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 in an editorial that the city’s planned memorial to Davis on Canal Street downtown include a statue of Benjamin. “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 labour of love to inaugurate and carry to success a subscription movement to make the monument possible,” the editorial added.

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.

Today, 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.

The honour proved dubious; the value of that paper currency plummeted in the hyperinflation of the war. “Benjamin the Jew” became the scapegoat for the mounting privation, profiteering and military disasters that befell the Confederacy.

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.

The Confederate Cabinet, L-R: Judah P. Benjamin, Stephen Mallory, Christopher Memminger, Alexander Stephens, LeRoy Pope Walker, Jefferson Davis, John H. Reagan and Robert Toombs | Photo: Image in the public domain.

Also of note is the 5-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.”

For one, Benjamin burned all 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 only joined her and their daughter Ninette in Paris following his retirement in 1882, two years before his death.

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 today 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 — used to call the slave field hands, and forged by a New York foundry — was moved to the library.

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.

The Judah P. Benjamin Confederate Memorial at Gamble Plantation Historic State Park, also known as the Gamble Mansion or Gamble Plantation, in Ellenton, Florida| Photo: Public Domain

The historic site, located on Highway 301 just west off of Interstate 75 in Manatee County, 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 to the secession of his state on January 26, 1861, Benjamin was the first professing Jew elected to the upper house. A year after his arrival in Washington, D.C., 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.

Goaded once on the Senate floor for his hypocrisy as a Jew in supporting slavery, despite the Biblical account of the exodus of the children of Israel from bondage in Egypt, Benjamin is said to have responded: “It is true that I am a Jew, and when my ancestors were receiving their Ten Commandments from the immediate hand of Deity, amidst the thunderings and lightnings of Mount Sinai, the ancestors of my opponent were herding swine in the forests of Great Britain.”

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 Dec. 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.”

Benjamin had 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.

Ellenton, Florida, 30 minutes south of St. Petersburg.

The Judah P. Benjamin, UDC Memorial plaque at the Gamble Plantation, in Ellenton, Florida | Photo: Public Domain

Benjamin fled south to Sarasota, where he caught a 16-foot open yawl. Stopped by a federal picket, he avoided capture by disguising himself as a galley cook. Changing boats in Knight’s Key at the southern tip of Florida (and avoiding the Union naval base at Key West), 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 honour 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 have 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, including The Times.

In 1925, the local Judah P. Benjamin chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy purchased the derelict Gamble Mansion and deeded it to the state of Florida as a historic site. The plantation had been purchased by Maj. George Patten at a forced sale for $3,000 in 1872, but the Patten family eventually chose to abandon the plantation house rather than incur the tremendous expense of keeping it in repair. In 1938, the Paris chapter of the UDC added a plaque to Benjamin’s grave.

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 U.S. historical figures. As of now, the few monuments to his legacy still stand.

Gil Zohar is a tour guide and journalist living in Jerusalem and originally from Toronto. gilzohar.ca

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin
Share on email
Share on print

Click an icon above to share, email, or save this article

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin
Share on email
Share on print

Click an icon above to share, email, or save this article

Read More

Thank you for choosing TheJ.Ca as your source for Canadian Jewish News.

We do news differently!

Our positioning as a Zionist News Media platform sets us apart from the rest. While other Canadian Jewish media are advocating increasingly biased progressive political and social agendas, TheJ.Ca is providing more and more readers with a welcome alternative and an ideological home.

We revealed the incursion of anti-Israel progressive elements such as IfNotNow into our communities. We have exposed the distorted hateful agenda of the “progressive” left political radicals who brought Linda Sarsour to our cities, and we were first to report on many disturbing incidents of Nazi-based hate towards Jews across Canada.

But we can’t do it alone. We need your HELP!

Our ability to thrive and grow in 2020 and beyond depends on the generosity of committed readers and supporters like you.

Monthly support is a great way to help us sustain our operations. We greatly appreciate any contributions you can make to support Jewish Journalism.

We thank you for your ongoing support.

Happy reading!

Thank you for choosing TheJ.Ca as your source for Canadian Jewish News.

We do news differently!

Our positioning as a Zionist News Media platform sets us apart from the rest. While other Canadian Jewish media are advocating increasingly biased progressive political and social agendas, TheJ.Ca is providing more and more readers with a welcome alternative and an ideological home.

We revealed the incursion of anti-Israel progressive elements such as IfNotNow into our communities. We have exposed the distorted hateful agenda of the “progressive” left political radicals who brought Linda Sarsour to our cities, and we were first to report on many disturbing incidents of Nazi-based hate towards Jews across Canada.

But we can’t do it alone. We need your HELP!

Our ability to thrive and grow in 2020 and beyond depends on the generosity of committed readers and supporters like you.

Monthly support is a great way to help us sustain our operations. We greatly appreciate any contributions you can make to support Jewish Journalism.

We thank you for your ongoing support.

Happy reading!

cOMING SOON…….

Breaking News

Recent

Features

News

Current Events

Opinions

Politics

Religion

Culture

Memoriam and Obituaries

PodcastS

Terms and Conditions

Privacy Policy

About Us

Advertise with us

contact 

Subscribe Now

Receive the latest in community & international Jewish news direct to your inbox

© 2020 THEJ.CA, All Rights Reserved

Terms and Conditions

Privacy Policy

About Us

Advertise with us

contact 

Subscribe Now

Receive the latest in community & international Jewish news direct to your inbox

© 2020 THEJ.CA, All Rights Reserved

Subscribe Now

Receive the latest in community & international Jewish news direct to your inbox

Terms and Conditions

Privacy Policy

About Us

Advertise with us

contact 

© 2020 THEJ.CA, All Rights Reserved