The Brains of the Confederacy.
Though only a war-time resident of Richmond, Judah P. Benjamin stood head and shoulders above any Jew who ever lived in this city. Holding at various times three of the five Cabinet positions within the gift of the head of the storm-cradled nation, President Davis was but voicing in a practical manner the sentiment of those who called Benjamin the brains of the Confederacy. Whenever there was doubt as to what disposition should be made of some matter, it generally resulted in it being sent to Benjamin. It was not unusual for him to remain at his desk from eight oclock one morning until four the next. The positions held by him in the Cabinet were: Attorney General, February 25 to September 17, 1861; Secretary of War, September 17, 1861, to March 18, 1862; acting Secretary of War, March 18 to 23, 1862; Secretary of State, March 18, 1862, until the end of the war.
Upon the laying of the cornerstone of the Lee Monument, October 27, 1887, the weather was very inclement, so the speaking incident thereto took place that night in the Hall of the House of Delegates in the Capitol building. The speaker of the evening was Colonel Charles Marshall, who, during the war, had been General R. E. Lees military secretary. Colonel Marshall spoke on some of the secret history of the Confederacy. He told one incident of Benjamin that showed him to be as truly patriotic as any citizen who ever lived on this or any other continent. It concerned his resignation as Secretary of War. Early in 62, General Huger, who was in command of Roanoke Island, then in possession of the Southern forces, made a requisition for powder. It was not sent. A second and third call were likewise ignored, and on February 8th Roanoke Island fell.* Huger complained and in compliance with his request a committee of Congress investigated the failure to send powder. When the investigating body met, Benjamin in a very few words told them why it was not sent there was not any to send, a temporary shortage of that munitions existing. The committee being about to rise, Benjamin asked if it would not have a very harmful effect on the people if the true state of affairs were disclosed. The committee thought it would. The Cabinet official suggested that the report of the committee censure him for not sending the powder. This was done, and to keep up appearances, Benjamin sent in his resignation as Secretary of War. That same day, to the intense disgust of many, the President appointed him Secretary of State, he continuing for five days to act as Assistant Secretary of War. Except to Davis and a few other high officials, the truth of the matter remained secret until 1887. It was his resignation under a cloud that probably caused such a violent dislike in some quarters to Benjamin, a dislike that was only heightened by the promptness with which he was appointed to another portfolio. Colonel Marshall told the writer that he had the incident in a letter from Mr. Benjamin.
Immediately overhead, not fifty feet away, a different tribute had been paid the Jew twenty-four years previous. Shortly before Gettysburg, in the early summer of 63, when the ultimate success of the Confederacy seemed probable, the lower House of Congress was discussing a resolution to remove the Capital to Nashville, Tenn. Henry S. Foote, of that State, in the course of the discussion, remarked that so soon as the independence of the Confederate States was achieved, he proposed to offer an amendment to the Constitution that no Jew be allowed within twelve miles of the Capital. (This of itself amounted to nothing, for Foote was admittedly a crank, and for a time seemed to be even worse, he having left Richmond clandestinely and gone North. Finally, however, he returned.) When the Congressman from Tennessee made this remark a wave of applause swept the house.
Benjamin left Richmond on that fateful April 2, 1865, going to Danville with President Davis and other officials. He did not at first stop at Major Sutherlins house with the rest of the party. The late Dr. M. D. Hoge, an admirer of the Secretary, to illustrate the latters aptness, used to tell this story: On the morning of Sunday, April 9, 1863, the party was at breakfast at Major Sutherlins. The lady of the house asked Benjamin what church he proposed attending that day. In reply, he inquired of her where she expected to attend services. Mrs. Sutherlin said that the party was going to hear Dr. Hoge, who was a Presbyterian. The reverend gentleman would smile at this point, saying he recognized the Secretarys predicament, Cabinet etiquette demanding that he accompany his chief, Davis, who always attended the Episcopal church. Benjamin did not hesitate a second. Quick as a flash he requested: May I not have the pleasure of escorting you? which he did.
Benjamin did not return from church with the party, but went to the telegraph office for dispatches. Dr. Hoge says he was sitting in the parlor when the Secretary entered the house, and as he passed the door he nodded to the Doctor to come up to their room. He did so, and was told by the Cabinet official that Lee had surrendered. Dr. Hoge said he did then what he had not done since grownhe laid his head on the pillow on the bed and cried.
That day the entire party left for the South, first by rail, and later by horseback. Midshipman Louis P. Levy, of the Confederate Navy, a mere youth, and a Richmond boy, was of the party. During their ride through the South, Benjamin, rather a short man, rode an extremely tall horse, and notwithstanding the general sadness which hung over the entire country, excited the risibility of all beholders. He made his way to the coast of Florida and, taking passage in an open boat, succeeded in reaching the West Indies, finally making his way to England. Here he set up the plea that, having been born on English territory, and never having renounced his citizenship, he remained an Englishman. His parents were on their way to New Orleans during the War of 1812 when the ship on which they were was chased by an English vessel. They put in at the Island of St. Croix, and here, on English soil, Judah P. Benjamin was born. His claim of English citizenship being allowed, after a brief probation (to allow him to become familiar with the statute law of Britain) he entered the bar. Shortly afterwards he became a Queens chancellor, the only person not born in England who ever held that position. This allows the holder to plead before the House of Lords, which is practically the court of last resort.
On one occasion, Benjamin arguing a case before the Lords, had just begun his brief when some one, supposedly Lord Cairns, who always entertained an extreme dislike for him, ejaculated the single word, Nonsense! The Chancellor folded up the brief he had been reading, placed it in his bag and walked out. The Lords did what they had never done before or since. They sent him an apology and asked him to return and finish reading his brief. As he had a right to do, Benjamin had his clerk finish the reading and, incidentally, won his case.
When in compliance with the mandate of his physician, he relinquished the practice of law, he had to return to his various clients over $100,000 of retainers. In his sixteen years of practice at the English bar he earned over $720,000. The entire bar of England tendered him a banquet upon his retirement. He died in Paris on May 6, 1884.
The record of Benjamin in this country was truly wonderful. When United States Senator from Louisiana he declined a seat on the bench of the Supreme court of the United States tendered him by President Pierce. He was counsel for the Government in the Lower California land case, for which he received the largest fee paid for legal services in this country up to that time.
Several years ago* the Jewish citizens of Richmond, at the request of Lee Camp, Confederate Veterans, placed a picture of Benjamin in the gallery of that organization. Philip Whitlock made the presentation, and Rev. Dr. Edward N. Calisch delivered the address on the part of the donors. In the remarks of the latter occurred one sentence that should be reproduced here. If this man had proven false to his trust the ignominy would have been ours; but as he was a statesman, a patriot and a gentleman, we claim the right to shine in his reflected glory.
There be those who seem to delight in claiming that Benjamin was not a Jew, because he took no prominent part in communal affairs. It must be remembered that he was a very busy man, working often, as has been before remarked, twenty hours a day. No less an authority than the late Dr. Isaac M. Wise told the writer that Benjamin delivered an address in the synagogue in San Francisco on Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement), 1860.* It will also be noted that in the letter of Joseph Goldsmith, that in the fall of 64 when Rev. Michelbacher requested the furloughing of the Jewish soldiers for the holidays, the suggestion was made that the petition be taken first to Benjamin. He being Secretary of State at that time, and the petition referring to a matter solely within the province of the War Department, shows that those in charge of the matter considered Benjamin one of them. Again it has been positively stated by the late Ellis Bottigheimer that he had seen Benjamin called up to the reading of the Law at Beth Ahabah Synagogue. Laying all this aside, there yet remains the racial aspect that, being the child of Jewish parents, Judah P. Benjamin was, emphatically, a Jew. All his life he had been known as such, though his wife, a devout Catholic, used every effort to have him affiliate with that church. She apparently succeeded, for on his death-bed he received the rites of her religion. This, it is claimed, had no significance whatever, as he was unconscious at the time. As a young man at Yale he possessed a Hebrew Psalter.