On November 21, 1861, Judah P. Benjamin was confirmed as secretary of war of the Confederate States of America, one of several key cabinet positions that this remarkable Jewish American held in the South during the U.S. Civil War.
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Born in 1811 in St. Croix, in what was then the Danish West Indies, Benjamin was the son of an English Sephardi father and a Sephardi mother of Spanish-Portuguese descent. The family moved to the United States in 1813 and Judah grew up first in North Carolina, and later in Charleston, South Carolina, where his father was one of the founders of America’s first Reform congregation, the “Reformed Society of Israelites for Promoting True Principles of Judaism According to Its Purity and Spirit."
Benjamin was educated as a lawyer and was admitted to the Louisiana bar in 1833 after taking up residence in New Orleans. That same year, he married Natalie Bauche de St. Martin, the 16-year-old Roman Catholic daughter of a prominent French Creole family from the city. He had a thriving legal practice and also purchased a sugar-cane plantation, where he became a slaveholder. After the couple’s lone child was born, Natalie moved with her to Paris, where she remained for the rest of her life. Judah visited each summer.
Benjamin’s legal and personal acumen led him to elective politics, first in the Louisiana State Legislature, and then to the U.S., Senate in 1852, where he became the second Jew to serve in that body. The following year, he received an offer from U.S. President Millard Fillmore to join the U.S. Supreme Court. Benjamin declined both that nomination and a second one the following year from Fillmore’s successor, Franklin Pierce, choosing to remain in the Senate instead.
Once, on the floor of the Senate, abolitionist Ohio Republican Senator Benjamin Wade accused Benjamin, with his support for slavery, of being “a Hebrew with Egyptian principles.” Benjamin responded by acknowledging his Israelite origins, but noting that, “when my ancestors were receiving their Ten Commandments from the immediate Deity the ancestors of my opponent were herding swine in the forests of Great Britain."
In the meantime, Benjamin had become close politically and socially with Jefferson Davis, a U.S. senator from Mississippi, following an altercation in the Senate that almost led to a duel between them. On February 4, 1861, after Louisiana seceded from the Union, Benjamin resigned from the Senate and three weeks later was appointed by Davis, who had become president of the Confederate States, to the post of attorney general. In September, he became acting secretary of war, a position to which he was confirmed officially on November 21.
Benjamin was not a man with a military background, and the difficulties encountered by the Rebel forces under his direction made him the object of significant criticism. After the disastrous Battle of Roanoke Island, in February 1862, Benjamin took responsibility for the loss and resigned as war secretary. As a reward for his loyalty, President Davis (upon whose orders Benjamin had been acting when he refused to send reinforcements to Roanoke Island) named him secretary of state, a position he used to try and attract European financial and military support for the Confederate cause in the Civil War.
With the South’s surrender and the end of the war, in April 1865, Benjamin and other Confederate officials became wanted men (in his case, there was suspicion that he was involved in the plot that led to the assassination of Abraham Lincoln that month). He headed south to Florida, and then fled the continent, sailing first to the Bahamas and eventually to England. There he began a new career as an influential and prosperous barrister. When he retired in 1883, Benjamin moved to Paris, where his daughter Ninette and her children lived. He died on May 6, 1884, and was buried in Pere Lachaise cemetery.