A figure of prime importance in Civil War history, one who stood at the very center of the Confederate war effort, Judah P. Benjamin has remained, for all the five books previously written about him, a shadowy and enigmatic character draped in impenetrable mystery. There are many reasons for this, but part of the responsibility was his own. Not long before his death in 1884 he wrote a would-be biographer,
I would much prefer that no “Life,” not even a magazine article should ever be written about me…. I have never kept a diary, or retained a copy of a letter written by me…. I have read so many American biographies which reflected only the passions and prejudices of their writers that I do not want to leave behind me letters and documents to be used in such a work about myself.
The latest biographer to defy Benjamin’s wish and the frustrating measures he took to fulfill it, Eli N. Evans brings to the task a new determination and a new point of view. “Part of my fascination with Judah P. Benjamin,” he writes, “comes from my own life as a Jewish Southerner…growing up Jewish in the Bible Belt and passing for white in that mysterious underland of America.” Another source of fascination was “the ways in which Jews and Southerners were alike—stepchildren of an anguished history—and yet how different.” Historians who have dismissed Benjamin’s Jewishness because he was a nonbeliever, a Confederate leader, and a one-time owner of 140 slaves, have been responsible for “the shroud of mystery that surrounds him.” Actually he was steeped in Jewish culture, though he remained “a Jew of the head, not the heart.” Born in the British West Indies in 1811, reared in Charleston and growing to manhood in New Orleans, two of the largest Jewish communities in the country at that time, he was never permitted to forget his Jewishness. And this in an era when anti-Semitism was mounting toward a climax during the Civil War.
Yet in spite of that, Judah P. Benjamin, in his biographer’s opinion, “achieved greater political power than any other Jew in the nineteenth century—perhaps even in all American history.” Before the war came he was twice elected senator from Louisiana and became, some thought, the most powerful speaker for the Southern cause in that body, as well as its first Jewish member. President Millard Fillmore offered him appointment as ambassador to Spain (which had expelled his Sephardic ancestors) and later a seat on the US Supreme Court, both of which honors he declined. In the Confederate government he served throughout its existence successively as attorney general, secretary of war, and secretary of state, and in those offices sat at the very nerve center of events shaping American destiny. He must therefore, says Eli Evans, “stand as a symbol of American democracy and its openness to religious minorities” as well as “the main beneficiary of that [nineteenth-century Jewish] emancipation and its most visible symbol in America.” Historians would call him “the counterpart on the North American continent” of Disraeli, his British contemporary. At the same time he was the most convenient target for anti-Semitism.
Next in importance to placing Benjamin as a Jew is the biography’s exploration of the complex relationship between Judah Benjamin and Jefferson Davis, who was just three years his senior. In its main portions, those treating the war years and before, the book is as much about Davis as about Benjamin. For Evans “they are twin pieces of a puzzle, together less of a mystery than apart.” Or from another angle, “Benjamin becomes as it were a lens through which one can better focus on and understand Jefferson Davis.” Between them lay sharp contrasts and subtle similarities. Davis was the rural, physical, outdoors, military man, a mixture of Baptist and Catholic, with family ties to the American Revolution and the War of 1812. Benjamin was urban, intellectual, an indoorsman, the Jewish son of immigrant parents who did not arrive in the United States (from the British West Indies) until 1813. Of the parallels between the two, some proved divergent, some convergent. Both men were “raised as outsiders and bred to suspicion,” Benjamin as the son of Charleston fruit vendors, Davis as the son of small farmers who, for a while, worked in the fields. In her memoirs, Mrs. Davis wrote that the two men “had the same tireless mental energy, the same quick perception, the same nervously excitable tempers.” Both had suffered painful personal tragedies, and there were parallels in their relations to parents, to women, and to children. Both were in love with the ghosts of early marriages. Mrs. Davis thought that they “were too much alike, in many respects, to be at first very good friends.”
Varina Davis knew both men better than anyone else did and was indispensable in making their intimate collaboration possible. The two volumes of her memoirs1 record many of her insights. “The story then,” writes Evans, “is three-cornered, a triangle with Varina Davis as the bridge between an ailing President and his Jewish jack-of-all-trades. This book is the first to treat the three of them together.” They were, indeed, much together, with the Davis White House “a second home” for Benjamin, who was closeted with the President ten to fourteen hours a day. Before the war, while fellow members of the US Senate, they were both ambitious, “both quick at repartee,” and at times in disagreement. During the war Varina watched, sometimes with bated breath, while “hot words in glacial, polite phrases passed between them.” She recalled a dangerous clash between the two men that had occurred on the floor of the Senate in 1858.
In a heated exchange, Davis angrily charged that Benjamin’s arguments were those of a “paid attorney” serving private interests. Benjamin promptly challenged him to a duel. Fellow senators were aghast. Besides the likelihood that such an encounter would have been fatal to Benjamin, the behavior of both men had been so utterly uncharacteristic. For whether “before juries or generals or kings, Judah P. Benjamin appeared serene and unflappable, his smile reflecting to observers almost a nonchalance,” and Jefferson Davis was ever “a contained and controlled military man,” who conducted exchanges “on far greater matters without a flicker of anger.” While it was unlike Davis to back down, he fortunately realized he was in error and apologized immediately: “I have been wholly wrong,” he said. Benjamin knew his man. “No nobler gentleman,” he once declared, “ever drew breath.”
Very early in Judah Benjamin’s life a pattern of humiliation took shape that was to be repeated over and over to the end of his days. At fourteen the bright youngster was packed off to remote Yale by his shopkeeping parents in Charleston. Poor, small, underage, and provincial, the boy quickly took the highest rank in his class and received a prize, a book inscribed by the president, for excellence in scholarship. Then, after only two years, he suddenly left Yale under circumstances that remain a mystery. Nothing in Yale records indicates why he left or even that he was asked to leave—there is only a letter from him to the president written “with shame and diffidence,” to ask forgiveness and readmission, but no reply to the letter. A former tutor much later mentioned “many college pranks” to which he closed his eyes out of fondness for his pupil.
Back at Charleston, a failure at sixteen, a disappointment to parents, siblings, and to himself, he eventually set forth in 1828 with five dollars in his pocket to seek his fortune in New Orleans. That was to come in the practice of law, but only after he mastered the French language and the Napoleonic Code and published a law book that brought him more than local fame and fortune. Before the fortune was made, and in the midst of his struggle, he married Natalie St. Martin, a pretty daughter of the French Creole Catholic aristocracy of New Orleans. He intensified his struggle to rise, but as his practice grew his marriage declined.
A poor Jew marrying into the well-to-do Catholic world, he was courting humiliation. That took the form of Natalie’s shameless infidelities and the gossip that accompanied them. He sought to reclaim her by outdoing the planter aristocrats with extravagance and the rewards of respectability and public office. Crowning these was Bellechasse, a super-plantation with slaves and a mansion of twenty rooms surrounded by double balconies and a veranda supported by twenty-eight columns, and replete with crystal chandeliers, silver-plated door-knobs, Florentine statuary, a mahogany staircase spiraling up the middle, and a view of the Mississippi River. Natalie nevertheless packed up their only child and sailed for Europe to settle in Paris and continue her adventures on the international scene.
The deserted husband sold the plantation after a ruinous flood and returned to the city to pursue an intensified law business and political career, both of which prospered phenomenally. The New Orleans Delta, which had ridiculed Benjamin’s candidacy for the Senate before he was elected in 1852, soon changed its tune:
Though not yet forty, he has reached the topmost round of the ladder of distinction as an advocate and counselor in this state…. He has a fine imagination, an exquisite taste, great power of discrimination, a keen, subtle logic, excellent memory, admirable talent of analysis.
The editor concluded his encomium by saying that the senator visited Paris every year “to fulfill all the duties of an active partisan, of a public-spirited citizen, of a liberal gentleman, with a taste for elegance, the social pleasures and refinements of life.” Natalie and their daughter, Ninette, the real object of these annual trips, were not mentioned.
After a triumphant first term in the Senate, he was reelected in 1858 and now seemed assured of a secure and brilliant future. With the promise of White House balls and diplomatic receptions on the crest of the Washington social whirl, Benjamin lured Natalie back from Paris. In preparation for her coming he sank a fortune in decorating a house with elegant furniture, paintings, crystal, silver, and china and hiring a retinue of servants for the social entertaining he planned. But the homecoming quickly turned into a nightmare. The Congressional ladies paid one formal call, took a look, and cut Natalie cold. No invitations came in, and the gossip mills worked overtime. Natalie and Ninette returned to Paris, never to come back. Judah left town, while the Washington elite picked over the ruins of his dreams at a public auction of the mansion’s treasures that climaxed the most pathetic of his humiliations. As Eli Evans writes, “Leaving his Washington mansion was another form of starting over again after a traumatic experience. It was Yale, Charleston, New Orleans, Bellechasse, and Washington all over again.”
On Jefferson Davis’s way up the ladder toward a status to which he also was not born, and to Washington, where his life converged with that of his Jewish friend, he met with some similar experiences. Davis like Benjamin was raised in a home made loving by mother and sisters, and was forced out to distant parts for schooling at a tender age by an austere father. Young Jeff, a Protestant, was placed in a Catholic school in Kentucky, the College of St. Thomas Aquinas, where he was brought under stern discipline, strange values, and pressure to conform. A failed attempt to convert to Catholicism left him religiously confused and detached from both faiths. He too suffered punishment for mischief, though not as public as Judah’s. “Being a Southern Jew at Yale and a Protestant at St. Thomas created analogous situations and responses,” observes Evans. “They shared the loneliness of the outsider, the ostracism, the social humiliation, the aching heart that longs to join, to belong, to be accepted.”
Later came West Point, which, Davis said, made him “a different creature from that which nature had designed me to be.” But nature, he felt, surely intended Sarah Knox Taylor, the beautiful daughter of his commanding officer, Colonel Zachary Taylor, to be his, and he won and wedded her. His first and true love was cruelly taken from him, not by desertion but by death, three months after they married. The loss plunged Davis into eight years of crippling grief; he became a hermit on his brother’s plantation, brooding alone, seeing no one, becoming “terse, difficult, and dour, a distant figure lost in his own thoughts.” The spell was finally broken by Varina Ann Howell, whom he married in 1845. She knew the depth of the wounds both men bore and could not help noting the contrast in the way they bore them. Benjamin, she reported, “always spoke of himself as the happiest of men.” Indeed, that was the way, as an adult, he always bore adversities.
In spite of the narrowly avoided bloodshed between Davis and Benjamin, events and common convictions were drawing them together. In the approaching war crisis, neither of them was a fist-pounder or a fire-breather. Both hoped for compromise and peaceful settlement until the secession movement overwhelmed their resistance. In their farewell speeches in the Senate, Davis was legalistic and disappointing—the man so ill he could hardly walk—while Benjamin was calm, powerful, moving. Varina reported that men as well as women were in tears and that the audience was “wild with enthusiasm.” A London correspondent declared the speech to be “better than our Benjamin [meaning Disraeli] could have done,” while the Boston Transcript pronounced it “indicative of the disloyalty of all American Jews.” Southerners hailed the speaker as their most eloquent voice.
Back at home the senator took pains to make clear his conversion both to secession and to the war to defend it. “Benjamin, as a Jew,” writes Evans, “would have to be more loyal to the Cause than anyone else—more outspoken in the Cabinet, more courageous.” On the fall of Fort Sumter he wired General Beauregard, “I am a Louisianian—heart and soul.” The Confederates had drafted a reluctant Davis as president, and Davis drafted an eager Benjamin for his cabinet—first as attorney general and soon after, to replace a minister who proved incompetent, as secretary of war. A one-term US secretary of war himself, Davis soon learned to appreciate what he had in Benjamin. To overcome any doubts, “Benjamin had determined to be absolutely and intensely loyal to the President,” and Davis “began to return that loyalty with an unbreakable bond of trust.”
To Varina it was “a curious spectacle,” this “steady approximation to a thorough friendliness,…a very gradual rapprochement, but all the more solid for that reason.” It was well for both men that this happened. Jefferson Davis was a difficult man of two personalities, “one for social and domestic life and the other for official life.” In the latter he was “the personification of duty,” his rigid code of honor binding him into stiff, austere postures of aloofness and obstinacy—the “Sphinx of the Confederacy,” Senator Clement Clay called him. In the softer and warmer personality he revealed to intimates he could joke and mimic and charm women. Further complicating his life and relations with others was his chronic illness, which doctors then called neuralgia, and which resulted in migraine headaches, nausea, and failing eyesight. He masked his pain behind a severely drawn, angular face with one wrecked eye and tightly compressed lips.
One or another illness or a combination of them could keep the President bedridden and often speechless for long periods, some of them coinciding with grave crises of the war. Benjamin and Varina therefore “shared a dangerous knowledge that must never be revealed to anyone: that the President could go for days unable to function, brought down into deep depression by war news and bedridden by neuralgia.” Earlier medical history included “protracted violent disease” and severe wounds suffered during his heroic service in the Mexican War, wounds from which he was ten years recovering. All this notwithstanding, Evans concludes that “his problems were psychosomatic in origin and yet debilitating nonetheless.”
Ever smiling, always pleasant and unhurried, at least on the surface, Judah Benjamin was the very opposite. “In health, outlook, and availability, he became the strong rock for Davis to lean on.” In effect he was the “acting president” for extended periods, Davis’s “alter ego,” for “the presidency operated as a collaboration, not in the person of a single man.” Benjamin was “part of the disguise” of competence Davis wore. A constant stream of dispatches, orders, and speeches flowed from his pen in the President’s name. With superb mastery of detail and great skill, Benjamin worked astonishing hours for his ailing superior. “But the key to his response to power in the Confederacy,” writes Evans, “was in his Jewishness”:
His were the actions of a man surrounded by Christian distrust, who knew he was always a possible target of opprobrium, who lived in a storm of racism and smoldering violence. His solution was to be as unobjectionable as possible, to work hard, to do a thorough and competent job, and, above all, to serve Jefferson Davis.
The Confederate Army had more than ten thousand Jewish officers and men, and the “first families” of Richmond’s Jewish community had historic ties in Virginia. The most flagrant anti-Semitism of the war came from the North, in orders and pronouncements written by U.S. Grant, W.T. Sherman, and Ben Butler, but Southerners were never free of it, and Benjamin bore the brunt of it. “They loved the Jews, they hated the Jews, and neither emotion was ever far from the surface. They blessed the Jews, they blamed the Jews, and the choice was unpredictable.” Mary Chesnut, the brilliant South Carolinian diarist, was close to Jewish friends in Richmond. “Elsewhere they may be tolerated,” she wrote. “Here they are haute volée. Everybody everywhere has their own Jew exceptions.” She was an intimate friend of the Davises and greatly admired Benjamin. “Everything Mr. Benjamin said we listened to, bore in mind, gave heed to it diligently. He is a Delphic oracle. He is of the innermost shrine.”2
More typically, however, Benjamin served as scapegoat for frustrated Confederate generals and President Davis’s numerous and ever increasing political enemies, “who found it easier to blame the Jews for their troubles than to face the somber realities of the war.” Evans speculates on why white Southerners hated him so and seemed to project on him the dark qualities of stealth and cunning:
Was it their own sense of guilt? That they…had defiled this Eden by bringing a primitive evil to these shores? Slavery…. The whites were steeped in the Bible, and it told them that the Jews were once slaves. And the white Southerner would never trust an ex-slave, for deep down the whites knew that a man who had known slavery and tasted freedom could not be trusted,…even a member of the Cabinet guiding this war in their behalf.
As the war wound down and the enemy pressed closer Secretary of War Benjamin became Secretary of State Benjamin and pushed his desperate schemes in all departments at home and abroad to save the failing cause—always calmly and with his perpetual smile. He established spy rings and terror squads in Canada, spread disinformation in the North, brought famous Jewish bankers from Europe to the aid of the Confederacy, and negotiated with Napoleon III and the British prime minister for intervention in the war. Often he acted “with authority possessed by no other person in the government,” apart from the President, who was sometimes not even notified of actions taken.
With Sherman closing in after burning Atlanta and Grant threatening Richmond, and with troops in gray near starving, Benjamin made his final gamble at saving the South. This was his long-nurtured scheme to persuade Davis to issue a Southern Emancipation Proclamation freeing the slaves in exchange for intervention in the war by the British and French. The offer evoked no encouragement whatever from the British and was dropped. He then turned to a fall-back plan, supported by General Robert E. Lee, to offer the slaves freedom in exchange for military service. Varina Davis was a silent auditor in a room adjoining the one in which the Cabinet met and she heard Benjamin insist on a public meeting “to feel the pulse of the people.” More than ten thousand turned out for the meeting—nearly all white in a black church—to hear the Confederate case for emancipation. The pain-racked, emaciated President spoke first, and was cheered, but it was Judah Benjamin, speaking publicly for the first time since his farewell to the US Senate, his famous voice unmuzzled at last after four years, who swept away opposition and carried the day.
A few black volunteers were put in gray uniform, but it was too late. Two months after Benjamin’s oratorical triumph in Richmond, the city was evacuated and burned and the government hastily took flight and began its long retreat. Benjamin was the only Cabinet member to support the President’s deluded plan to continue the fight after Lee’s surrender. Then came word of Lincoln’s assassination and an indictment, in the form of a presidential proclamation, against Davis and seven Canadian spies for conspiring to kill Lincoln. Benjamin had no reason to believe that the Canadian spies were involved, but he did know that it was he who had appointed them and that he could expect “savage cruelty” if captured. As he later wrote his sister, “I preferred death in attempting to escape, to such captivity as awaited me, if I became their prisoner.” With vague promises of meeting again in Texas after Benjamin mustered support abroad for continued resistance, the two old friends, according to Varina, “parted with mutual respect and affectionate esteem.”
Thus began the most hair-raising escape story in Confederate annals. Traveling under false documents as a Frenchman who spoke no English, disguised in rags, beard, and goggles, Benjamin made his way painfully through Georgia mud, passing posters calling for the arrest of the conspirators and Union troops seeking the Jewish scapegoat. “He was experiencing all over again,” writes Evans, “the disgrace of Yale and the humiliation of Charleston,” followed by the humiliations of New Orleans and Washington, and again “the urge to flee somewhere new, to start over and seek out another enormous challenge.” In a letter to his sister that omitted some of the most perilous storms he survived, Benjamin summarized his escape:
After weeks spent in solitary travel on horseback through the forests and marshes of Florida in constant peril of capture: after passing twenty-three days in an open boat at sea, and crossing the Gulf Stream in a yawl: after being forced to put back to St. Thomas in the Steamer on which I had taken passage for England in consequence of the ship’s taking fire at night at sea: after every imaginable contretemps and danger, I reached London on the night of [August] the 30th instant nearly four months after I parted from the President.
After a week winding up the affairs of the Confederate consulate in London, he hurried to Paris to see Natalie and their daughter for the first time in five years. Then, at the age of fifty-seven, he went back to the skimpy life of a student. With youngsters just out of Oxford he read law in the Inns of Court to qualify for the bar. That normally required a three-year apprenticeship, but was cut to six months in response to his petition. Facing a practice without clients, he resorted to the idea that had elevated him to the top of his profession thirty years before in New Orleans; he wrote a book. This one filled a gap in legal literature and went by the short title Benjamin on Sales. An instant success in Britain and abroad, the book was followed by more prodigious work and he was soon propelled again to fame and fortune, and by 1872 to the pinnacle of the English bar as Queen’s Counsel in full bottomed wig, knee breeches, and silk stockings, an unprecedented honor for a lawyer trained in America.
He was now in great demand, not only in his profession but among high English social circles. As always, he bore prosperity like adversity, with the same smiling serenity, never seeming in a hurry. But Natalie remained in Paris, and there he built another large mansion in the grand style, on a fashionable avenue, its three stories joined by an impressive marble staircase. Here, he concluded, “we shall be housed like princes, but the cost will be greater than I supposed.” Natalie and Ninette moved in, and Judah returned to a “dull lodging” in London to earn what it took by work he called “the most laborious in my life.” As Evans observes, “He was repeating the pattern of his New Orleans years.”
Lingering suspicions of his complicity in the Lincoln assassination, rumors that he had something to do with missing Confederate treasure, and jealousy among impoverished Southerners of his prosperity continued to follow him to the end, but he never returned to face accusers and remained out of the press as much as possible. He was comforted by visits from the Davises in London, where, Varina wrote, “We saw Mr. Benjamin quite often, and always with increasing pleasure…. He appeared happier than I had hitherto seen him,…sincerely cordial and always entertaining and cheerful.” To her he seemed “one of the greatest minds of this century,” and she added, “I loved him dearly.”
A severe heart attack late in 1882 forced his retirement, and that prompted a flood of public tributes, farewell dinners, and honors “such as no member of the bar has ever received,” he believed. He moved to Paris the next winter, the last of his life, and died in the grand mansion. Natalie called in a priest to administer the last rites when he was beyond resisting. She had him buried in an exclusive Catholic cemetery where the records identify him not as Judah but as “Philippe Benjamin,” the name only Natalie called him. It was the ultimate humiliation.
But this is an outrageously romantic and improbable tale that few properly scientific and up-to-date historians would likely deem worthy of serious attention. It is very largely concerned with doings of the elite and advances no good cause being currently promoted. Moreover, it is a story told by means of old-fashioned traditional narrative, tests no hypotheses, and employs no approved analytical techniques. Granting all this, I am persuaded that what is told us actually happened and that it happened pretty much, so far as I can see, as the author tells it. If so, surely some means can be found, despite its romantic, improbable, and spell-weaving distractions, of accommodating it in the canon of reputable history.
Some of the best history is written by historians with roots deeply planted in the past of which they write. This often means emotional involvement, and that can also produce some of the worst history. But if the emotions are harnessed not to partisanship or defensiveness but to a passion for understanding and an uncompromising concern for the truth, those dangers can be avoided. Eli Evans has avoided the dangers and gained much from his involvement and emotion. The main part of the past he relates here lies at an anguished juncture in the history of Jews and Southerners. But the past he taps to illuminate that scene, and especially the Jewish role in it, is much older and deeper. It is a past and a theme rarely available to the understanding of non-Jewish historians. For that reason we are all the more indebted to him for this very fine and moving book.
April 14, 1988