north carolina highway historical marker program
North Carolina Highway Historical Marker Program



Marker Text:

     Long before he became a U.S. Senator or a member of Jefferson Davis’s Confederate Cabinet where he held the positions of Attorney General, Secretary of War, and Secretary of State, Judah P. Benjamin called Wilmington home. Judah Philip Benjamin was born on August 6, 1811, in the West Indies. His parents, Philip Benjamin and Rebecca de Mendes, both Jewish, decide to move to Wilmington in 1813 in response to a letter written by Rebecca’s uncle, Jacob Levy, who lived there and spoke of the opportunities for Jewish people there. The Port City was the Benjamin’s home until 1817 when the family followed Levy to Fayetteville. While in Fayetteville, Benjamin attended Fayetteville Academy. In 1825, at the age of 14, he enrolled in Yale College but left in 1827 without a degree. He moved to New Orleans where he worked as an English tutor before being admitted to the Louisiana bar in 1832. He earned a national reputation as a distinguished lawyer. In 1833, he married his pupil Natalie St. Martin.

     After serving in the Louisiana state legislature and as a presidential elector in the 1840s, in 1852 he became the first Jew to be elected to the U.S. Senate. One of the earliest supporters of secession, Benjamin left the floor of the Senate three weeks after Louisiana Confederacy. On February 21, 1861, Jefferson Davis appointed Benjamin attorney general of the Confederate States of America and soon after moved him into the position of Secretary of War. Benjamin received heavy criticism for his failure to properly equip Confederate troops which resulted in the loss of Roanoke Island, Fort Henry, and Fort Donnelson. Benjamin had no military experience, meaning that all of his decisions about the war had been passed down from Davis. Not wanting to criticize the president, the generals used Benjamin as their scapegoat. Jefferson Davis, however, stood behind Benjamin and awarded him the Secretary of State cabinet seat when he resigned from the War Department. In the position, he became a strong advocate of emancipating slaves who fought for the Confederacy as a way to solve the issue of the shrinking number of troops. General Robert E. Lee and President Davis came to support this proposal; however, it never received political or public approval and further criticism of Benjamin mounted.

     After the surrender of the Confederacy, Benjamin fled to the British West Indies. From there, he went to England and enjoyed a career as a successful barrister. He was considered to be without superior in appeals cases and was appointed Queen’s Counsel in 1872. Benjamin retired in 1883 to be near his daughter and her family in Paris where he died on May 6, 1884.

Biographical Directory of the United States Congress online:
Allen Johnson, ed., Dictionary of American Biography (1946)
Robert Douthat Meade, Judah P. Benjamin: Confederate Statesman (1943)
Eli Evans, Judah P. Benjamin: The Jewish Confederate (1989)
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north carolina highway historical marker program

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