Jewish man's role in Civil War explored
For years, Eli Evans has written about history: Civil War history, his own history as a Jew growing up in the South. And his efforts are driven by an undying fascination with cultural inheritance and identity.
Evans was born in Durham, N.C. His family owned and operated United Department Stores, and for 12 years, 1951-63, his father, Emanuel Evans, served as the city's mayor.
"Jews in the North talked about playing stickball and fighting their way through fierce anti-Semitism," he said in a telephone interview last week. "I was picking blackberries and playing basketball and doing all the things young Southern people do."
In 1973, he finished his first book, "The Provincials," a portrait of Jews in the South.
Then he turned his attention to one of the Confederacy's most fascinating characters, Judah P. Benjamin, publishing a biography in 1989.
"I really came to feel over the course of all this that there was a unique Southern Jewish consciousness," Evans said.
Benjamin was born a British subject in St. Croix and spent part of his youth in Charleston. His father was one of the founders of the first Reform synagogue in the United States, Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim.
In 1832, Benjamin moved to New Orleans, where he practiced law, owned slaves and served as a Louisiana state legislator and U.S. senator. He was nearly nominated for a seat on the U.S. Supreme Court, but declined. Instead, he became Jefferson Davis' attorney general, then secretary of war, then secretary of state. He was widely credited with being one of the masterminds of the Confederacy.
Benjamin, Evans said, had been grossly misunderstood by historians, who had relied on second-hand accounts of his life because he had burned most of his papers after the Civil War.
"There's a great mystery about him," Evans said. "He was consciously Jewish but decided not to show it. He was haunted by anti-Semitism the whole period he was a public figure, but never denied his Jewishness."
Evans is in Charleston today to talk about Benjamin. Hosted by the College of Charleston's Jewish Studies Program, Evans is one of several guests lecturing on Civil War issues this semester. His talk is scheduled for 10:15 a.m. in the Stern Center Ballroom at George and Glebe streets.
"He had this smile that he always wore, and it was kind of a pleasant smile," Evans said of Benjamin. "He never was rattled in public."
He was a great orator, always presenting a reasoned states'-rights argument. Though, as a Jew, he certainly would have struggled more in other Southern cities, he was accepted in New Orleans because of the town's tolerance, diversity and plethora of opportunity, Evans said.
Soon, he would become "Jefferson Davis' Jew."
Because he was on the wrong side of history, though, his story is not as widely known as it deserves to be, Evans said.
About a year ago, Evans was summoned to the American Jewish Historical Society because 120 letters written by Benjamin and to Benjamin had been discovered in Rhode Island.
The pre-Civil War correspondence shed new light on this complicated figure, Evans said.
Among the letters' revelations is Benjamin's idea for building a canal across Mexico, connecting the settled part of the U.S. to the West and Orient and boosting commerce in his beloved New Orleans.
"He was a visionary actually," Evans said. "He could think on a grand scale."
Benjamin had gotten far with the project, securing bank investment and foreign support, but the U.S. government wouldn't let the plans proceed, Evans said. This was a time of growing tensions between the North and South, and the federal government had a bigger fish to fry: keeping the Union together.
On the subject of slavery, Benjamin was "complicated, brilliant," Evans said.
He wanted to get England on the side of the South. It would be in England's interest, he argued. The South had cotton, and a divided U.S. would mean a stronger U.K.
The problem was slavery. Britain had outlawed the trans-Atlantic slave trade in 1807, and its abolitionist movement was strong and influential.
Benjamin's answer? Free every slave who serves in the Confederate cause.
But that idea was rejected by a majority of Southerners who would have rather died themselves than see the institution of slavery go to its grave.