From 1948 until just recently, residents and visitors to uptown Charlotte, North Carolina, could have strolled past a Confederate monument and not even known. On a busy, commercial street, in front of a FedEx store, the tombstone-like memorial honored Judah P. Benjamin, a Jewish southerner and the Secretary of State to the Confederacy. Though Benjamin had no connection to Charlotte—his only tie was a week he spent hiding there after the end of the Civil War—the United Daughters of the Confederacy presented the granite monument to the city, choosing the spot of his supposed few days in hiding.
As the monument itself explains, two local synagogues, whose names were inscribed on it, provided the funding. But almost immediately after its erection, the Jews of Charlotte regretted their decision after anti-Semitic comments led them to reconsider with whom they were associating themselves.
More recently, the synagogues have lobbied city leaders, writing letters urging that the monument be removed, but the officials had insisted their hands were tied, citing a state law prohibiting the removal of Confederate monuments unless transferred to a site of equal prominence. Meanwhile, steps away from the monument, a new Black Lives Matter street mural, commissioned by the city, burst into colorful view this summer. Around the same time, city workers finally extracted the Benjamin stone after a protestor spray-painted it with “BLM” and took a sharp implement to it, though a spokesman says the city is “evaluating how best to preserve” it.
During the High Holiday season, when Jews traditionally celebrate the Jewish new year and atone for their sins, is a particularly poignant time to ask: Why did the Jews of Charlotte agree to fund this memorial? How could Benjamin reconcile his support for slavery with his faith and background? How did that square with Passover, when Jews give thanks for freedom and remember they were once enslaved in Egypt?
These questions aren’t simple to answer as Benjamin, powerful enough in the Confederacy to merit being placed on their $2 bill, burned all his personal papers. This absence makes it even more difficult for historians to confirm details of his life and easier for others to ascribe a variety of motivations to Benjamin, sometimes reflecting their own politics and needs.
Benjamin grew up in slaveholding societies. Born on St. Croix in 1811 during Britain’s occupation of the Danish West Indies, he spent his formative years with his Sephardic Jewish parents and siblings in Charleston, South Carolina. His auspicious rise might suggest a life of wealth and ease from the start, but his family had to scrape together an income. His father, Philip, “was unsuccessful at everything he tried in business,” writes Eli Evans in Judah P. Benjamin: The Jewish Confederate, while his mother, Rebecca, “held the family together financially by running a small fruit shop on King Street near the docks.” At age 14, he departed for Yale but was kicked out two years later for reasons that aren’t clear.
After moving to New Orleans, Benjamin married a girl he’d tutored in English, apprenticed in the law, where he thrived, and joined the Louisiana legislature in 1842. He also purchased a sugar plantation named Belle Chasse in 1844 with another investor, along with 140 enslaved laborers to work it. Benjamin was one of the relatively few Jewish slaveowners, in part because most Jews couldn’t afford to own slaves.
He pursued plantation life partly because he saw himself as a gentleman. Southern notions of gentility were intertwined with slaveholding, says Adam Mendelsohn, director of the Kaplan Centre for Jewish Studies at the University of Cape Town in South Africa. “The logic was that southern gentlemen were more cultivated and refined because slavery allowed them more time for personal development,” he says. Being a “gentleman” influenced Benjamin’s rhetoric, his attachment to a particular code of honor, and even the dapper way he dressed.
After selling his share of Belle Chasse in 1852 following a flood and crop failure, Benjamin was named to the U.S. Senate and even declined an offer from President Millard Fillmore to nominate him to the U.S. Supreme Court. These achievements came without Benjamin embracing Judaism or participating in any form of Jewish communal life, but not denying that he was a Jew, either.
Like many other groups, some Jews in the South supported slavery, some opposed it, and some were neutral, argues Shari Rabin, a professor of Jewish studies and religion at Oberlin College. Many Jews struggled during wartime as peddlers or merchants and relative newcomers from German-speaking lands. They were “living in a predominantly Christian but also white supremacist society and trying to navigate as best they could,” Rabin says.
Those who favored slavery may have been complicit as part of an unspoken bargain, adds Jonathan Sarna, professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University and co-author of Lincoln and the Jews. Some Jews at that time “are tremendously eager to prove their loyalty to the South, maybe because it's questioned. So they out ‘southern' the Southerners in a sense to prove their patriotism and loyalty,” he says. “There is a kind of deal, unstated, that as long as you support and don't seek to overturn the racial status, well, we'll accept you as good white people.”
That didn’t stop Benjamin’s faith from becoming a cleft between him and his fellow Christian senators. During one debate in 1858, Senator Benjamin Wade of Ohio spat that Benjamin was nothing more than an “Israelite with Egyptian principles.” Benjamin’s speeches, among the rare sources scholars can use to understand his biography, show why he would become a leader of the Confederacy and a figure prominent enough to be memorialized in Charlotte.
He blamed those who would undermine the South’s right to enslave for tearing the Union apart. “The South have said over and over again, that all they ask, all they ever asked...was to be let alone. All they desire...was that legislation in the northern States should leave southern rights and southern property free from further aggression,” Benjamin contended in one address. Blaming abolitionists wasn’t entirely uncommon. “Abolitionists are seen as radicals and crazy troublemakers by many Americans before the war,” says Mendelsohn.
Benjamin made his southern sympathies clear in his farewell remarks to the Senate in 1861: “[Y]ou never can subjugate us; you never can convert the free sons of the soil into vassals, paying tribute to your power; and you never, never can degrade them to the level of an inferior and servile race. Never! Never!”
Confederate President Jefferson Davis, a former U.S. Senate colleague from Mississippi, trusted Benjamin, and so did Davis’ wife, Varina. She described the men’s partnership as “two master minds which seemed to be the complement of each other.” Benjamin started as Attorney General for the Confederacy and advanced in under a year to Secretary of War. He didn’t last long there, resigning after the defeat at the Battle of Roanoke Island, but Davis promptly named him Secretary of State.
As part of that portfolio, Benjamin unsuccessfully tried to sway Britain and France to recognize the Confederacy. He also took on what Robert Rosen, author of The Jewish Confederates, describes as his most dangerous assignment, running the Confederate Secret Service. “Benjamin, like many other Confederate leaders, believed the Northern public would not support Lincoln indefinitely,” Rosen writes. “Serious efforts were made to exploit the difference between the eastern and western states, to increase public dissatisfaction in the North for the war, and to raid prisoner of war camps.”
Late in the war, Benjamin called for allowing some enslaved laborers to enlist and fight in the Confederate Army, with the promise of emancipation after the war. The proposal may have been pragmatic but, in any case, arrived when it was clear to most people that the Confederacy was going to lose. “This ship is sinking,” Mendelsohn says. “It’s probably really underwater at this point. They're arguing about deck chairs really.”
Not enthusiastic to see what punishment might await him as a pillar of the losing side, Benjamin went on the lam; his escape gave rise to entertaining accounts and legends. Robert Meade writes in Judah P. Benjamin: Confederate Statesman that Benjamin disguised himself as a Frenchman, pretending he couldn’t speak English and concealing his face and body under a hat and cloak. Later, he traded that costume for a farmer’s garb.
The fugitive definitely stopped in Charlotte and in Sarasota, Florida, where a marker to him once romantically noted where he “set sail for a foreign land.” But his troubles weren’t over yet as he headed towards England via the Bahamas, Meade writes. Benjamin’s sloop outside Nassau sank, forcing him to leap into a small skiff towed behind it. He rebuilt his life in England with a flourishing career as a barrister and published a well-regarded book, Benjamin’s Treatise On the Law of Sale of Personal Property.
In an 1899 memoir, former Confederate lieutenant John S. Wise portrayed Benjamin as having “more brains and less heart than any other civil leader in the South.” The description was originally intended as a recasting to scapegoat Benjamin for the Confederacy’s defeat. “It's meant as a slur, the classic anti-Semitic idea that the puppet master is the real brains of the operation,” Mendelsohn says.
But some Jews and others from the early to mid-1900s embraced the concept of Benjamin as the brains of the Confederacy and “lionized” him, says Mendelsohn. Jewish immigrants around the turn of the century might be shut out of certain neighborhoods and unwelcome in certain professions, but if Benjamin could be successful in this new land, there was hope for them, too. Variations on this theme continued until after World War II. In 1948, the Jewish Publication Society of America published Mr. Benjamin’s Sword, a children’s book that spun a fantasy of Benjamin’s escape from Richmond. Charlotte installed its gift from the United Daughters of the Confederacy the same year.
To celebrate its 1948 state convention in Charlotte, the North Carolina division of the UDC pitched the idea to the city’s Temple Israel and Temple Beth El of erecting the monument, and the synagogues agreed. Best-selling author and humorist Harry Golden described what happened next in his book of essays about Jewish life, civil rights and other topics, For 2c Plain.
According to Golden, a Charlotte resident, the local UDC chapter soon regretted the plan after an anti-Semitic letter writer from New York claimed that the monument would convince UDC members that “local Jews” are “good Jews,” adding “even the ‘good’ ones work hand in hand with the most objectionable of their race.” The writer went on to proclaim Benjamin was “nothing more than a communistic Jewish politician from the North.” Apparently swayed, the chapter pulled its support from the project.
At this point, many of the temples’ trustees were likewise “all for dropping the granite into the Catawba River and forgetting the whole thing” Golden writes, and at least one rabbi tried to get the project cancelled. UDC members fought among themselves over what should be done, as the state chapter voted to accept the “gift” while the local chapter argued before the Charlotte City Council that the monument’s permit should be revoked. “After a long and heated discussion,” Golden concludes, “the Council voted to let the permit stand.”
The UDC’s proposal for the monument came soon after World War II and the Holocaust, when southern Jews still felt like outsiders in their communities, says Rabbi Asher Knight of Temple Beth El. He hypothesizes the Jewish community may have felt “it was a big deal to have a Jewish person recognized, especially by a group of white southerners. I’m not sure they were thoughtful of how this was experienced by the black community in what was at the time a very segregated South.” When the local chapter revoked its support of the monument, Jewish leaders had “the terrible realization that this wasn’t inclusion at all, because the same anti-Semitic tropes, especially after the Holocaust, came out,” Knight says.
As Knight wrote to his congregation, “The monument does not belong in a place of prominence within our city, just like German cities do not memorialize or erect statues to Nazis.”
Now that it is burrowed away in storage, the monument that no one truly wanted in the first place may be soon forgotten, but the history of Judah Benjamin, his role as enslaver and advocate of white supremacy, shouldn’t be.