Judah P. Benjamin

Once a month here on the Molten Sulfur Blog, I run content taken from our book Archive: Historical People, Places, and Events for RPGs. This post is one of eighty entries in Archive, each more gameable than the last!

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Judah P. Benjamin
The Confederacy’s Vizier

Some historians have called Judah P. Benjamin “the brains of the Confederacy”, some blame him for the South’s defeat, and most non-historians don’t even know he existed. He was born in the West Indies to Jewish parents, and raised in Charleston, South Carolina. He was a brilliant child. At 14, he attended Yale Law School and afterwards began practicing law in New Orleans. He was a founder of the Illinois Central Railroad, a state legislator, and a planter who owned 140 slaves until he sold his plantation in 1850. In 1852, he became the first professing Jew to be elected to the U.S. Senate and is considered to have been the most prominent Jewish American of the 19th century.

After secession in 1861, Confederate President Jefferson Davis appointed Benjamin Attorney-General. He was the first Jewish Cabinet-level secretary in an American government and the only Confederate Cabinet member who didn’t own slaves at the time. He later served as the Confederacy’s Secretary of War. Benjamin never spoke publicly or wrote about his role and is said to have burned his papers before death, keeping his personal life and views somewhat hidden from modern historians. In her autobiography, Jefferson Davis’s wife notes that Benjamin spent twelve hours each day at her husband’s side, tirelessly shaping important Confederate strategies and tactics.

When the war went badly on the battlefield, the military turned on Benjamin as a scapegoat. Frustrated generals who couldn’t attack the president went after Benjamin instead. His religion was a frequent target. Not being a military man, Benjamin’s orders were resented in the field as interference and amateurism. Generals P.G.T. Beauregard and Stonewall Jackson were Benjamin’s most outspoken opponents. The anger against the Secretary of War came to a head after the fall of Roanoke Island in 1862 when Benjamin decided against sending more men and arms to the fight. He accepted the subsequent public condemnation and resigned, though as a reward for loyalty, Jefferson Davis named him Secretary of State.

Even as Secretary of State, Benjamin managed to light fires against himself. Late in the war, he enraged Southern slave-owners by proposing that slaves be recruited into the army and emancipated after their term of service. The North also did not favor Benjamin, as when Lincoln was assassinated, Davis and Benjamin were suspected of having plotted the attack. When the South was defeated, he escaped to England and built a second career as a successful international lawyer. He was called to the bar after only five months’ residence and achieved great financial success. He became Queen’s Counsel in 1872 and wrote a book that became the principle textbook on its subject for many years in both England and the United States. Late in life, he retired and moved to Paris to be with his family, where he died in 1884.

Despite heated opinions about Benjamin, he was elusive in both life and death. Was he the brains of the Confederacy? The cause of the South’s downfall? Somewhere in between? It’s hard to say. The “dark prince of the Confederacy” resists clear classification.

Judah P. Benjamin in Play

In a campaign, Judah P. Benjamin could be the brains behind a government operation. An NPC based on him might control a puppet king or queen. Some NPCs hate him for his origins, some respect him for his abilities, and some mistrust him for his arguably undeserved influence. Once things turn sour, he might vanish into thin air. An NPC inspired by Benjamin might be a quest giver to your PCs, trying to maintain order in the country by hiring out the party like a mercenary group. Maybe there’s an uprising and he vanishes before the PCs are rewarded, so they have to hunt him down. A quarry as smart as Benjamin would likely lead your PCs on a wild goose chase around the world. When he lets them confront him, it will be on his terms.

Image credit: Denise Duplinksi

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