JUDAH P. BENJAMIN The Jewish Confederate

By Eli N. Evans Free Press. 469 pp. $24.95

IN THE WAKE of Richmond's fall, officials of the Confederate government, along with some highly placed hangers-on, traveled by train to Danville. Behind them the capital was in flames; they were a goverment on wheels; and their nation was no more. In such a circumstance, the Confederate secretary of state, a Jew, occupied his time with a Presbyterian minister in an animated discussion about the place of Alfred Lord Tennyson in literary history.

Judah P. Benjamin was an extraordinary man, as well as a passionate admirer of Tennyson. In Judah P. Benjamin: The Jewish Confederate, Eli N. Evans has written a fascinating biography. A British subject born of Jewish parents on Saint Croix, Benjamin came of age in Charleston, earned fortune then fame in New Orleans, served governments in Washington and Richmond, fled the dead Confederacy to England where he built another career, and retired to Paris where he died.

Benjamin's parents broke with the Orthodox Jewish community in Charleston and joined other Jews to form the Reformed Society of Israelites. Within three years the Reformed Society of Israelites broke with the Benjamins, expelled them for operating their shop on the Sabbath. However, Judah Benjamin was "confirmed" in the Reformed tradition, and although he did not practice his faith, he never renounced Judaism. Benjamin married a Roman Catholic, worked primarily with Protestants, and suffered assaults from all sorts of Judaeophobes. Still, he remained an intellectual Jew.

He attended the Hebrew Orphan Society School in Charleston and enrolled at Yale at age 14. After two years, he left Yale under mysterious circumstances and never resumed any formal education. Yet Benjamin at age 23 co-authored a digest of Louisiana law which became an authoritative text within the state. And at age 57 he published a treatise on English law (Benjamin on Sales) which became the classic text on the topic for decades.

By turns Benjamin was a New Orleans lawyer, a sugar planter, Louisiana legislator, United States senator, Confederate States attorney general, secretary of war, secretary of state, and finally a queen's counsel in England. He was the first acknowledged Jew to serve in the United States Senate. He refused a nomination to the Supreme Court which would have made him the first Jewish justice.

Known as the Poo Bah of the Confederate government, Benjamin had enormous influence. But as secretary of war he once provoked Stonewall Jackson to resign from the army. He was Jefferson Davis' closest adviser and made critical decisions of state without consulting the president. He was confidante to Varina Davis, a role which provoked his enemies to speak of the relationship between Benjamin and the first lady as Russians would later speak of Rasputin and Alexandra. Yet when Davis first met Benjamin, the two men very nearly took up dueling pistols to resolve their hostility.

During his career as a sugar planter, Benjamin owned 140 slaves, and in 1861 he cast his lot with the slaveholders' republic. Yet he was among the first government officials in the Confederacy to advocate emancipation and favored the use of black troops on behalf of the southern cause. To a mass meeting of 10,000 people in Richmond in February 1865, Benjamin said, "Let us say to every Negro who wishes to go into the ranks on condition of being made free -- 'Go and fight; you are free.' "

Judah Benjamin lived most of his life in public, and for several reasons his private life inspired public scrutiny. During his mature years, his mother lived with him on the Gulf Coast; his father lived on the Atlantic Coast. After 11 years of marriage, his wife moved with their daughter to Paris, and rarely were they ever again together. Benjamin lived longest with his younger brother-in law who became his surrogate son. Much of his life, however, both public and private, remains a mystery, because he wanted it so. "I would much prefer that no 'Life,' not even a magazine article, should ever be written about me," he once said. He regularly burned his papers, and when he died, he left less than six pieces of paper among his effects.

ELI N. EVANS had no opportunity to write a conventional biography. He could not often follow his subject, place him in a precise location on a specific date, and pepper the narrative with quotations from private correspondence. Lacking material by Benjamin, Evans has done monumental research in materials about Benjamin. The result is a conversational sort of biography in which the biographer offers his evidence and speculates with the reader about what that evidence means.

Evans focuses on four factors he believes important to understanding Benjamin: Benjamin's Jewishness; his relationship with Jefferson Davis; the attitudes of Benjamin and Davis toward slavery; and Benjamin's personality -- in particular his paradoxical drives for fame and privacy.

Unfortunately, Evans sometimes sees the world as Benjamin and Davis saw it and takes no larger view. Consequently, he writes about, for example, the horrors of Reconstruction, and those "suffering at the hands of carpetbaggers and scalawags" and about "a Negro named Pinchbeck . . . Republican Senator-elect from Louisiana to occupy the seat of Judah P. Benjamin," as though the only proper concerns of peace should have been the property and sensibilities of white ex-Confederates. That "Negro named Pinchbeck" was Pinckney Benton Stewart Pinchback, son of a white planter and a free black woman, who led the black Republican faction in Louisiana, served as governor for a brief time, and eventually became a disciple of Booker T. Washington.

Judah P. Benjamin: The Jewish Confederate is a good book, though. Evans has rescued Benjamin from Tennyson's "Lotos-Eaters."

Emory M. Thomas, Regents' Professor of History at the University of Georgia, is the author of "Travels to Hallowed Ground" and of a life of J.E.B. Stuart.