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Learning about Our Ancestor, Part 10: Judah Philip Benjamin’s Colorful Past

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Judah Philip Benjamin was born August 6, 1811 on St. Croix in the Danish West Indies (DWI, now the US Virgin Islands) to Jewish parents. At the time of his birth, his family was in transit from England to America. However, due to the War of 1812, they were forced to settle in the DWI until the war ended. They finally arrived in America in 1814, settling in Charleston, South Carolina.

An exemplary student, young Judah, at the age of 14, entered Yale University. Two years later he was expelled for “ungentlemanly conduct” of an unspecified nature. Rumors that the tempest in New Haven involved gambling, carousing, or kleptomania that dogged him the rest of his life, particularly during the Civil War when the Northern press rehashed the scandal to tar the man they called the South’s “evil genius.” 

In 1852, he was elected United States Senator, a post he retained until the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861 when he resigned to serve the Confederacy. He was the first Confederate Attorney General who later served as Secretary of War and Secretary of State, ultimately running the Confederate Secret Service on behalf of Confederate President Jefferson Davis.

Eventually, he moved to New Orleans where he apprenticed at a law firm. He began to study for the bar, a complicated course of action because, to become a lawyer in Louisiana, the state’s use of the Napoleonic Code required fluency in both English and French. In order to fulfill this requirement, he took a job teaching English to the daughter of a prominent Creole family, Natalie St. Martin, so that he could learn French.