Judah P. Benjamin

The Jewish second-in-command of the Southern Confederacy during the Civil War was once a United States senator.

Print this page Print this page

In the Confederate Cabinet during the Civil War

In March of 1861, Benjamin was appointed Attorney General by Confederate President Jefferson Davis, with whom Benjamin had served in the Senate. Davis often referred to Benjamin as "the brains of the Confederacy." His appointment made Benjamin the first Jew to ever serve in an American cabinet. That same year, Davis requested that he accept the position of Secretary of War.

After public outcry over Confederate failings on the battlefield, in particular when reinforcements never arrived at the battle of Roanoke Island, Benjamin resigned as Secretary of War and was promptly appointed Secretary of State. Benjamin served in that position for the remainder of the war, often working at Davis' side for up to 12 hours a day.

On February 9, 1865, two months before the Confederate armies surrendered, Benjamin gave the most controversial speech of his political career, an impassioned plea for the Confederacy to arm their slaves and enlist them as Confederate soldiers. In Richmond, before an audience of 10,000, Benjamin asserted: "Let us say to every Negro who wishes to go into the ranks on condition of being made free--'Go and fight; you are free.' If we impress them, they will go against us. We know that everyone who could fight for his freedom has had no chance."

Benjamin argued that Southerners had gotten the opportunity to fight for their independence from the North, but slaves had not. If enlisted, slaves could be fighting for two freedoms, their own from slavery and for Southern independence from the North.

Benjamin's controversial plan met with disdain among defenders of slavery, but it was eventually passed by the Confederate Congress. Its passage in March 1865 came too late; no slave would ever take up arms for the Confederacy.

Life after the Civil War   

Fearing that he would be hung as a traitor, Benjamin fled the United States in the final days of the Civil War. He arrived in England, where, barely a year after the close of the war, he was admitted to the British bar in June of 1866. He would never return to the United States. For the final 18 years of his life, Benjamin practiced as a successful barrister, eventually attaining the highest rank in British legal profession--that of a Queen's Counsel.

So loathe was Benjamin to have his biography written that he burned all of his personal artifacts and papers before his death. Consequently, historians have had difficulty in reconstructing his life.

Benjamin died in Paris on May 6, 1884 at the age of 72. He was buried in a Paris cemetery with a simple headstone, reading only "Phillipe Benjamin." In 1936, the United Daughters of the Confederacy erected a monument at his gravesite.

Did you like this article?  MyJewishLearning is a not-for-profit organization.

Please consider making a donation today.

Clay Travis

Clay Travis is the author of Dixieland Delight: A Football Season on the Road in the Southeastern Conference and the forthcoming On Rocky Top, and is a senior editor at deadspin.com. Travis currently resides in Nashville, Tenn. with his wife, Lara, and son, Fox.