Jon L. Wakelyn
As attorney general, Secretary of War, and Secretary of State at various times in the Confederate government, Judah P. Benjamin may have been the most versatile administrator in Civil War governance. Yet those who have studied his wartime career have been at odds over how to analyze his contribution to the Confederate government. Few have questioned his talents, but many have doubted his loyalties. That he ran off to England and deserted the South after the war’s end has not helped his reputation. To make judgment more difficult, Benjamin destroyed his papers, and for all his famous love of publicity, his refusal to enter the “battle” of the memoirists has meant that much of his life story has been cobbled together from disparate sources. But his many duties and role in the Confederate government cannot be ignored. His life, with all its accomplishments and flaws, requires reconstruction and analysis.
The story of this self-made, ambitious leader begins with his birth on August 6, 1811, in what was then the British West Indies. That a European Jewish family somehow came to that place and then journeyed to the southern United States remains somewhat of a mystery, as does much of young Benjamin’s early life. It is known that his father, the England-born Philip Benjamin, came from an intellectually inclined Sephardic Jewish family and spent his peripatetic life dependent on relatives and practicing the trade of a small-time shopkeeper. Judah’s mother, Rebecca de Mendes, appears to have been the ambitious one in the family, and at least she steeled her son to struggle against adversity. When Judah was quite young, Philip moved his family to the port town of Wilmington, North Carolina, and later to Fayetteville, where a cousin paid for Judah’s studies at the Fayetteville Academy.
In 1822, the family once again moved, this time to Charleston, South Carolina, which had a sizable Sephardic community. It was in that cosmopolitan city that young Benjamin thrived, perhaps in the company of such leading Jewish figures as Jacob Cardozo, newspaperman and distinguished economist. Probably