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The “Israelite with Egyptian Principles”

November 21, 2017

Judah P. Benjamin was confirmed as Secretary of War of the Confederacy on this date in 1861. Benjamin was a plantation owner, slaveholder and attorney who had served as U.S. senator from Louisiana (the second Jewish senator in history after David Levy Yulee of Florida) and had twice declined appointment to the Supreme Court. Republican Senator Benjamin Wade (Ohio) referred to him as an “Israelite with Egyptian principles” because of Benjamin’s frequent defenses of slavery on the Senate floor. Benjamin withdrew from the Senate after Louisiana declared secession, and in February 1861 was appointed the Confederacy’s Attorney-General by President Jefferson Davis. As Secretary of War, Benjamin withheld reinforcements during the Battle of Roanoke Island, resulting in a large Confederate surrender. Benjamin was scapegoated by the Southern press and Confederate Congress, but accepted the criticism without protest rather than reveal the reason: the Confederacy’s insufficient reserve of arms. Stepping down as Secretary of War, he was made Secretary of State for the duration of the fighting and sought to win Great Britain’s support for the Confederate cause. After Robert E. Lee’s surrender in 1865, Benjamin fled with Jefferson Davis and the rest of the cabinet and made his way to England, where he became a prominent barrister. He was widely suspected of helping to mastermind the assassination of Abraham Lincoln (on Good Friday of 1865, with Benjamin cast as Judas), but historical investigations have not substantiated the charge. He died in Paris in 1884.

“Mr. Benjamin had impressed me with the lucidity of his intellect, his systematic habits, and his capacity for labor. But to these qualities must be added indomitable faith in the future and a courage which no reverses could dampen.” —Jefferson Davis