Book Review: Judah Benjamin: Mystery Man Of The Confederacy

Judah Benjamin:  Mystery Man Of The Confederacy, by S.I. Neiman

Judah Benjamin is an admittedly obscure person if one looks at the history of the Civil War.  Little is known or thought about him, and few books are written about him, and in books on the Civil War little is said about him.  Yet Benjamin had been an elite Southern lawyer and politician in the antebellum period, being among the first Jews to reach the Senate (along with David Yulee of Florida), and he held a position of high regard in Davis’ cabinet, first as attorney general, then as a controversial Secretary of War, and then as a competent Secretary of State.  Benjamin’s importance as one of the few loyal members of Davis’ official family is notable, but alas Benjamin did not ever keep a diary and was a reticent person about his life whom few people were able to fully understand, and by spending the entire postwar period in England, where he made his third fortune as a barrister in and around London, he missed out on the chance to receive the sort of postwar lost cause glamour that many other people managed by sticking around and helping the South recover from its self-inflicted disaster.

This book is about 200 pages or so and is divided into chapters that discuss Judah Benjamin’s life insofar as it can be known in a chronological fashion.  So we see Judah struggling with poverty as a child given his father’s lack of business savvy, and his own experiences studying in Yale where he found himself expelled, quite possibly for some sort of theft.  Then we see Judah Benjamin leave the Carolinas for Louisiana where he ingratiates himself with the local plantation owning class, works as a politico and a skilled civil lawyer and eventually becomes a plantation owner himself dealing with sugar.  He marries badly but but makes the best of things while keeping his wife comfortably in Parisian exile even as he rises through the ranks of American politics, serves a leading role in the Confederacy where his aptitude for work earns him the support of Jefferson Davis, and then skips town when the Confederacy collapses to rebuild his fortune once again in foreign lands.

Admittedly, Judah Benjamin is a man of mystery.  And that is not necessarily a bad thing.  Born overseas, disastrously married to an unfaithful wife with a plain and frail daughter who grew up in exile in France, mistrusted in part due to his native reticence and in part due to his Jewish background, he sought to prove himself through his capacity for work.  And yet while he was able to rub shoulders with the elite of the South during the antebellum and Civil War periods, he appears not to have fit in to the extent that he was willing to suffer in the aftermath of war.  Perhaps he thought that he would be put to some torturous mistreatment at the hand of the victorious northerners, but he was able to plan an escape that involved a rigorous trip from Florida to the Bahamas and then the Virgin Islands and then to England itself.  And that is not even getting into the various mysterious behaviors of Benjamin as a Secretary of State seeking to manipulate the European empires to support the interests of the South while facing the more able diplomats of the North.  But if Benjamin was not a successful Secretary of State, it was not for lack of effort, but rather for having a poor position and a lack of able diplomats to help him out to the extent that the North was well-served by its diplomatic corps.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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