Thursday, April 4, 2013

Judah P. Benjamin - The Jewish Confederate by Eli N. Evans

This fascinating study of the 'brains of the Confederacy' puts Benjamin in a Jewish context.  A man who served as Secretary of War, Secretary of State and Attorney General of the Confederacy, Mr. Evans writes an excellent study about a person clearly uncomfortable about being Jewish; at one point he complains about his name: 'you might as well have written JEW across my forehead!'  Nonetheless, Benjamin is unable to shake the label or the pejoratives that are heaped upon him in an Anti-Jewish environment, yet remained loyal and trusted to Confederate President Jefferson Davis.  One is introduced to a driven, industrious individual who perseveres against adversity and overcomes missteps and reversals. He is the epitome of discretion in absorbing the abuse that should have be lodged against Jefferson Davis.

Benjamin born in the West Indies when it was an English Colony moved to Charleston  SC as a child with his family.  There in Charleston, his family was clearly not Shabbos observant keeping their store open on Saturday to the chagrin of an observant Jewish community.  His father was an advocate for Reform in the Jewish community.  At 14 yrs, he attended two years at Yale but mysteriously dropped out under a cloud of moral turpitude, never disclosed.  Separating from his father, his family moved to New Orleans where he apprenticed with a lawyer and came to know the influential political apparatus of the city.  He married into a influential Creole Catholic family to a wife who notoriously lacked fidelity.  His acquaintance with the lead of the political machine enabled him to be elected Senator of Louisiana, the first acknowledged Jewish Senator of Congress (David Yulee technically may be considered the first Senator (from Florida) however, he never acknowledged his Judaism converting to Catholicism and denying his past.)

With a perpetual smile on his face he showed great competence at Law and was a standout public speaker. The issue of Slavery, he held as a necessary economic vehicle and not an immoral principal, however, with the understanding that the institution would eventually be abolished.  Benjamin resented the Federal Government's interfering with the States' rights.

During the Civil War, Benjamin served where he was asked: first as Secretary of War until the Generals resented his lack of military background, then Secretary of State and then Attorney General because despite the vitriol heaped on him, Jefferson Davis relied on him!  The Confederate Generals hated him and spewed antisemitic epitaphs conveniently not fully understanding that Benjamin was only the extension of the policies of the President!

He fled to England at the Civil War's end knowing that he would be tried for treason and put to death.  He successfully claimed British citizenship through his birthplace and successfully passed the bar and became a highly successful barrister making the grade of "Queen's Counsel".  In England, he never mentioned his role in the Civil War with the understanding that whatever he would say would be misinterpreted and that he would be maltreated in any event.

There is evidence that he read Jewish periodicals and maintained Jewish friends in Richmond, VA , however, he personally seemed to lack any affinity toward the Jewish tradition except that he conspicuously did not become an apostate like Yulee.  He was buried in a Catholic cemetery outside of Paris by his daughter.

This book is thoughtfully well written, an excellent introduction to the Civil War and the Jews of the South.

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