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Judah P. Benjamin. Sketch of the life of this remarkable man. His career as a Confederate.

An anecdote of him told by Dr. Hoge—his capacity for hard work. His flight from Richmond at the close of the war. (H. T. Ezekiel in the Jewish South, December, 1897.)

One of if not the most unique personage connected with the government of the Southern Confederacy was Judah P. Benjamin, a Jew, as signified by his name.

Although this gentleman was one of the foremost lawyers of his day, a prominent United States Senator, at various times Attorney-General, Secretary of War, and Secretary of State of the Confederacy, and more latterly a Queen's Counsel in England, no history of his life has as yet been written. Such a work is now in course of preparation in England, and it was a request for data in connection therewith that led in part to the writing of this sketch.

Judah Phillips Benjamin was the son of English parents, and was born in 1811. His mother and father were on their way from England to New Orleans. Arriving off the mouth of the Mississippi river, it was found to be blockaded by British men-of-war, so their vessel [298] turned back and put in at St. Croix. Here it was, on English soil, that young Benjamin first saw the light of day.

In 1815 the Benjamins moved to Wilmington, N. C., and ten years later, when only a lad of fourteen, Judah was sent to Yale. He remained there only three years, and left before taking his degree. Upon attaining his majority he was admitted to practice at the bar in New Orleans, and soon forged his way to the front. In 1847 he was engaged as counsel in the famous Spanish land cases, which involved the ownership of immense properties in California. For his legal services in this controversy he received the largest fee on record at that time, $25,000.

Mr. Benjamin in 1852 was sent to the United States Senate from Louisiana, and five years later he was re-elected. His colleague was Mr. Slidell; who afterward figured so prominently in the Trent affair. It was during this time that he was tendered a position on the bench of the Supreme Court of the United States, by President Franklin Pierce, an offer which was declined, he preferring to devote his time to private practice—for be it understood that ‘Mr. Benjamin, of Louisiana,’ stood second to no lawyer in the land.

In the Senate he was among the foremost, and Charles Sumner, whom he often opposed in debate, declared that Mr. Benjamin was the most eloquent speaker to whom he ever listened. The stormy days of ‘61 came on, and he, with the other Southern Senators, withdrew from that body. His farewell address occupied two days in its delivery, and was admitted by all to be the most eloquent and forcible effort on either side. It was in the main a demonstration of the legality of States' rights.

A genius.

When the provisional government was formed at Montgomery, President Davis selected Mr. Benjamin as his Attorney-General. Upon the consummation of the Confederacy he was made Secretary of War, and later on, Secretary of State. An idea of the versatility and erudition of this genius, may be formed from the fact that he filled these three Cabinet positions to the satisfaction of the President and with credit to himself. Mr. Benjamin was commonly referred to as ‘the brains of the Confederacy,’ and it was a universal custom of President Davis's to turn over to him every matter that belonged to no particular department. So numerous were his duties; and so great his capacity for work, that it was not unusual for him to remain steadily at his desk from 8 A. M. one day, until 1 or 2 o'clock the [299] next morning. In August, 1862, owing to overwork and some friction with others, he resigned, but not long afterwards President Davis insisted on his returning to the Cabinet. As much of the business of the Confederate Congress was transacted in secret, no great deal is known of its workings, but it is claimed by those acquainted with its inner affairs, that the greater portion of its important legislation was framed by Mr. Benjamin.


An act performed in 1862 shows the true patriotism of the man. General Huger was in command of Roanoke Island and Mr. Benjamin was filling the post of Secretary of War. A requisition for powder was made and was not filled. This was twice repeated without avail, and Roanoke Island fell. An investigation was ordered by Congress, and it took but a few seconds for the Secretary to inform the committee that the powder had not been forthcoming for the best of reasons—there was none to send. The question then arose as to what might be the probable effect upon Congress and the people in general of this disclosure of the Confederacy's limited resources. It was decided that this would never do, and the committee was in a quandary. At Mr. Benjamin's own suggestion the committee recommended that he be censured by Congress for neglect of duty. History contains no parallel of such patriotism.

In Danville.

Mr. Benjamin evidently did not accompany the presidential party from Richmond to Danville on the fateful April 2, 1865, for on the following day he was met in the streets of the latter city by Rev. Dr. Hoge, of Richmond, who, after questioning him closely, learned that he, unlike the remainder of President Davis' Cabinet, was not the guest of Major Sutherlin. Being hard pressed by the reverend gentleman, Mr. Benjamin reluctantly admitted that he had, owing to the crowded condition of the city, been unable to secure board. (Dr. Hoge, in answer to a query, assures me that this was simply an accident and was in nowise attributable to race prejudice.) The clergyman, who was a great friend of Mr. Benjamin's, insisted that the latter should accompany him to his abode and share his apartments with him. This the Secretary refused to do, saying that Dr. Hoge's hostess was a stranger to him, and that it would be an unwarranted impertinence for him to intrude upon the family uninvited. Dr. Hoge allayed his fears after some argument, assuring Mr. Benjamin [300] that any friend of his would be more than welcome to the household.

The following Sunday Mr. Benjamin gave an exhibition of his admirable tact, which can best be described in the words of Dr. Hoge:

At the breakfast table the conversation turned to the subject of church services, and Mr. Benjamin inquired casually of our hostess where she was going to worship that day. Now, I happened to know that as a member of Mr. Davis' Cabinet, official etiquette demanded that he should accompany his chief to his (the Episcopal) church, and when our hostess replied, in a tone that almost implied an invitation, “We are going to the Presbyterian Church to hear Dr. Hoge preach,” I wondered what Mr. Benjamin would do. He never hesitated a moment, but in his most affable manner asked: ‘May I have the pleasure of accompaning you?’

Lee's surrender.

After church the party was sitting in the parlor chatting when Mr. Benjamin, who had been called away, entered the room, and, after conversing nonchalantly for a short time, beckoned Dr. Hoge to follow him to their chamber. When they were there Mr. Benjamin said: ‘Dr. Hoge, I didn't have the heart to tell you before these ladies, something I want to communicate to you.’ He then went on to say that General Lee had surrendered. Mr. Benjamin's face never revealed what he suffered, ‘but,’ said Dr. Hoge in relating the incident, ‘I could not refrain from sitting down on the bed and weeping, a habit to which I am not addicted.’

When Mr. Benjamin set out on his trip southward from Danville shortly after this, he was asked by Dr. Hoge if he was not afraid of being captured. With a significant smile, he replied: ‘I shall never be taken alive.’ Mr. Benjamin remained with the presidential cavalcade until it reached Georgia, when he separated from his companions. Up to that time he had passed as a French military officer, having a passport in that language, which he spoke like a native. He rode a very tall horse, purchased in South Carolina, and said to be one of the finest in that State. When he left President Davis' party he purchased a cart and horse, and, disguised as a pedler, wearing immense green goggles, he worked his way toward the coast. On one occasion he stopped over night with a gentleman who was acquainted with and who recognized him despite his disguise. Being the soul of politeness, the host made no sign to show that he had penetrated the incognito of his guest, and that it was [301] not until the morning, when in bidding him farewell, he unwittingly remarked, ‘Good-by, Mr. Benjamin,’ that the true state of affairs was exposed.

Escape to the West Indies.

Eventually he made his way to the Florida coast, embarked in an open boat for the West Indies, and after a series of adventures, which would, in themselves, make a readable book, he landed in England. In a short time he applied for admission to the bar, and on his setting up the claim that he was an Englishman, having been born fifty-five years before on British soil, the three years study required of aliens by law was dispensed with, and he was at once admitted to practice.

Before long his attainments won recognition on every side, and he was made a queen's counsellor. It was while serving in this capacity that Mr. Benjamin did what no other man ever did before, and, probably never will do again-he rebuked the House of Lords. He was arguing a case before that august body, when a member—supposed to be Lord Cairns—ejaculated the single word, ‘Nonsense!’ Mr. Benjamin never moved a muscle, but ceased reading, folded up his brief, and left the hall. The Lords at once sent him an apology, upon which he allowed his junior assistant to return and complete the reading of the argument.

While practicing in the English courts, Mr. Benjamin gave further proof of his manliness and independence. He had occasion to appear before a judge who was notorious for the discourteous manner in which he treated those lawyers who were so unfortunate as to have dealings with him, and who really stood in dread of him. Mr. Benjamin had only begun his argument, when the judge informed him quite abruptly that it was useless for him to proceed, as his mind was already made up. ‘Your Honor,’ hotly replied the ex-Confederate, ‘you, of course, can refuse to hear me argue this case, but I wish to tell you this—that never again will I condescend to appear in your court.’ The judge was so surprised that any barrister was bold enough to defy him, that he was at first unable to reply; but, in a moment, he realized that Mr. Benjamin was right, came down from the bench, took him by the hand, apologized, and begged him to proceed, which he did, winning the case. The next week, Mr. Benjamin was tendered a banquet for his temerity, by the leading members of the English bar.


His English practice.

It was estimated that Mr. Benjamin enjoyed an income of $75,000 a year from his English practice, and at his death he left a fortune of $300,000 to two relatives in New Orleans. He died in Paris in 1884.

In person Mr. Benjamin was rather short, heavy set, with square shoulders, and was inclined toward corpulency. His face was typically Jewish, the short black beard he wore helping to intensify it. His ability to sway an audience by his eloquence was nothing short of marvellous. When in Richmond he resided on Main street, between Fourth and Fifth. He invariably wore the most immaculate of linen, was always cheerful and affable, and never traveled without a copy of Tennyson, and, strange to say, was also an ardent admirer of Horace.

Mr. Benjamin was the author of a number of works, mostly of a legal character, and his ‘Benjamin on Sales’ is to-day a leading standard authority.

Judah P. Benjamin was a man among men.

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