November 21

This Day in History

Civil War

Nov 21, 1861:

Judah Benjamin becomes Confederate secretary of war

On this day in 1861, Confederate President Jefferson Davis names Judah Benjamin the secretary of war.

A Jew who was born in the West Indies in 1811, Judah Benjamin was an exception to the rule in the Protestant South. After growing up largely in South Carolina, Benjamin attended Yale Law School and went on to practice law and own a slave plantation near New Orleans. He married the daughter of a wealthy Catholic couple, but the marriage was distant--Natalie Benjamin moved to Paris soon after the birth of their daughter and the couple spent little of their 50-plus-year marriage together.

Benjamin became a representative in the Louisiana state legislature in 1842, and was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1852. While there, he became a close friend of Jefferson Davis, who was then a Mississippi senator. Benjamin resigned during the secession crisis of 1860 and 1861, even before Louisiana officially left the Union. Davis selected Benjamin as the Confederacy's first attorney general, and he quickly became the president's most trusted advisor. After the Battle of First Bull Run, Virginia, in July 1861, Secretary of War Leroy Walker resigned amid criticism that the Confederate army did not pursue the defeated Yankees. Davis appointed Benjamin to the position.

Although Benjamin had no military experience, his appointment allowed Davis to dominate Confederate military affairs. Placing his trusted friend in the position of secretary of war ensured that Davis would not be challenged on important military decisions. Benjamin efficiently managed the day-to-day work of the war department, but began to quarrel with some of the top generals who resented taking orders from a non-military bureaucrat. Benjamin also drew criticism because of his religion--many openly questioned his loyalty because of his Jewish faith.

When Roanoke Island fell to the Yankees in March 1862, criticism of Benjamin peaked. Many censured him for not sending men and supplies to the island's garrison. Furthermore, the war was going badly for the Confederates in the West. Davis recognized that the storm of complaints was crippling Benjamin's ability to perform his duty, so he appointed Benjamin secretary of state when Robert M. T. Hunter resigned that position. As the outlook for the Confederacy grew bleaker in 1863 and 1864, Benjamin floated the idea that the South could obtain foreign recognition only by promising emancipation. This radical concept fell on deaf ears until the last weeks of the war.

When the Confederacy finally collapsed, Benjamin fled with the rest of the Confederate government to Danville, Virginia. When President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated, it was discovered that Benjamin had ties to the Surratt family, who were implicated in the conspiracy to kill the president. Fearing capture and prosecution, Benjamin fled the country. He settled in England and practiced law there, often visiting his wife and daughter in Paris. During the rest of his life, Benjamin rarely spoke of his service to the Confederacy. He died in Paris in 1884.

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