The Battle of Roanoke Island, in which Union forces captured a strip of North Carolina coast in February 1862, was a major loss for the Confederacy. Fingers quickly pointed blame, and much of it ended up centered on the War Department, and in particular its secretary, Judah P. Benjamin.
Gen. Henry A. Wise, a former Virginia governor and the defending commander in the battle, led the charges, claiming he had appealed to Benjamin for more gunpowder and reinforcements, only to be rebuffed. Wise’s son was killed when the Yankees captured the island, prompting Wise to declare that Benjamin “had more brains and less heart than any other civil leader in the South.” Facing Congressional censure, Benjamin resigned.
It was an astounding turn of events for a man who was arguably the most powerful — and controversial — man in the Confederate cabinet. Some of that controversy, though not all of it, came from the fact that Benjamin was also the only Jew to hold a high position in either the Union or Confederate government. Some have referred to him as the “Brains of the Confederacy,” and the biographer Eli Evans wrote that Benjamin “achieved greater political power than any other Jew in the nineteenth century — perhaps even in all American history.” It was that power, and those brains, that he now needed more than ever to pull through the crisis.
Born in St. Croix, the Virgin Islands in 1811, Benjamin moved to the United States with his British parents and grew up in Charleston, S.C. He entered Yale at age 14 but dropped out of college; he moved to New Orleans in 1832 and became a law partner with an influential Louisiana politician, John Slidell.
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