Plantation honors Jewish Confederate

April 21, 1996|By SCOTT MCCAFFREY | SCOTT MCCAFFREY,KNIGHT-RIDDER NEWS SERVICE

ELLENTON, Fla. -- Being foreign-born and married to a French Catholic wife woman could be enough to get a Southerner ostracized from polite society in the years before the Civil War. Being a Jew seemingly would be a kiss of death in politics or business.

Yet Judah Benjamin survived and thrived, arguably becoming an the second most important political figure of the Confederacy. during the waning days of the war.

After the Union victory, while others like Jefferson Davis were captured and jailed, Benjamin escaped to the Caribbean and then to England, where he made carved out a second illustrious career for himself.

The state of Florida honors Benjamin's career at the Gamble Plantation State Historic Site, south of Tampa on the Manatee River. The mansion Florida's sole remaining antebellum plantation house -- served as a safe house for Benjamin for a vital three days during his daring flight to freedom in 1865.

It is the only official Confederate memorial in Florida, and the only major Confederate memorial dedicated to someone of Jewish ancestry.

Studied at Yale

Born a British citizen subject on St. Thomas in 1811, Judah Benjamin's family emigrated to Charleston, S.C., seven years later. At the age of 14, Benjamin headed north to Yale and studied law. A year after admittance to the bar in 1832, Benjamin married Natalie St. Martin, a Creole.

Railroads were the future in the early 1800s, and Benjamin helped to form the Central Railroad System. Life revolved around his sugar plantation, Belle Chase, near New Orleans.

Natalie soon tired of the plantation and left, first to New Orleans, then to Paris. As a Catholic in the 19th century, Mrs. Benjamin did not have the option of divorce was not an option for Mrs. Benjamin. The pair would not formally reunite until their final years.

Benjamin's political career in tolerant Louisiana was an early success. In 1852, he entered the U.S. Senate as a Whig; six years later, he was would be re-elected as a Democrat. President Franklin Pierce wanted to nominate the lawyer to the Supreme Court in 1854, but Benjamin declined.

When Louisiana voted to secede, Benjamin -- like every Southern senator except Andrew Johnson resigned.

In the newly formed Confederate government of Jefferson Davis, Benjamin was appointed first attorney general and later secretary of war. In early 1862, he became secretary of state, a position he would hold until the end of the conflict.

When the war turned sour for the South, Benjamin received a lion's share of the criticism. But was criticized, but old friend Jefferson Davis refused to abandon him.

Benjamin departed fled Richmond with the rest of Davis' Cabinet on April 2, 1865. By May 3, he and Davis parted ways. Benjamin, posing as going under the pseudonym "M. Bonfal," and posing as a French journalist, made his way south to Gamble Plantation.

With a bounty of $40,000 on his head, the secretary of state left the reconquered Confederacy for good. He traveled first to Bimini, then headed to Nassau, to Cuba and St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands. On Aug. 30, he arrived in London.

Though British law forced him to take the bar exam, Benjamin quickly found acceptance as a superb appellate lawyer. At the height of his British career, Benjamin's his income topped the equivalent of $1 million today.

In 1883, he retired from private practice and moved to Paris to repair relations with his long-estranged wife. Though married 49 years, the couple hadn't lived together for decades.

Judah Benjamin died a year later in Paris, having never returned to the United States.

The two-story, 4,000-square- foot Greek Revival vernacular mansion where Benjamin found refuge was built in the 1840s by Maj. Robert Gamble, the fourth white man to venture into central Florida after the bloody Seminole Wars. Gamble chose the site because it was close to the river and at the highest point of land in the area (10.5 feet above sea level).

At its height, The plantation once consisted of 9 square miles of sugar fields. Although slaves were armed to ward off still-possible Indian attacks, there are no accounts of slave rebellion.

In the 1850s, Gamble sold the house and surrounding acreage for $190,000 to a group of Louisiana investors. A bachelor during his years at the plantation, Gamble moved back to north Florida and eventually married.

Owned by blockade runner

During the conflict, the mansion and grounds were owned by Confederate blockade runner Archibald McNeill. In 1864, Union raiders destroyed the massive sugar mill. , which had been a half-mile north of the main house.

After the war, with the Southern economy ravaged, the plantation and grounds drew just $3,000 in a forced sale. By the turn of the century, the main house was uninhabitable and was turned into a fertilizer storehouse.

In 1923, the Judah P. Benjamin chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy bought the site. , which is just to the east of present-day city of Palmetto.When hurricanes and financial difficulties prevented the group from completing renovations, the house was deeded to the state and government funds were used to complete the restoration. Today, the plantation is under the care of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.

Pub Date: 4/23/96

If you go

The Gamble Plantation State Historic Site is a mile west of Interstate 75 on U.S. 301 in Ellenton, Fla., just east of Palmetto and about 35 miles south of Tampa.

Guided tours of the mansion are offered daily. Tickets are $3 for adults, $1.50 for children.

For information, call (941) 723-4536.

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