You recall that I’ve been corresponding with the Gamble House State Park director about the Park’s Judah P. Benjamin Memorial. I’ve been blogging about it. Here are the earlier posts:
In my last correspondence, I offered to meet with Mr. Kiser, but he didn’t suggest a time. Therefore, I have written a couple of essays for him. I intend for these to form a brochure or signs to be distributed or displayed at the park. The first essay is here: “Who Was Judah P. Benjamin?”. This post has “Why Do the People and Government of Florida Honor Judah P. Benjamin at the Gamble House Park?”.
I haven’t sent these yet because I would like your advice, suggestions you or readers might have about the content or writing.
Why do the people and the government of Florida honor Judah P. Benjamin in the Gamble Plantation State Park?
Judah P. Benjamin was a Louisiana lawyer, sugar cane plantation and slave owner, a state politician, and a two term United States Senator. In the Senate, he used his acknowledged skill at oratory and rhetoric to defend Southern enslavement of black people and to support the spread of slavery into western territories and to the independent former Spanish colonies in the Caribbean. He was the Confederacy’s Attorney General, Secretary of War, and Secretary of State. He served sequentially in those posts from the beginning to the end of white Southerners’ armed uprising against the government of the United States. The distinguished historian of slavery, Eugene Genovese called Benjamin “… the ablest man in the Confederate government.” When the Confederate government collapsed in April, 1865, he fled Union forces, passing through Florida on his way Britain, where he practiced law as a barrister.
History records nothing in his life or career that connected him to Florida or that benefitted its residents. Nor does it record that he was ever in Florida beyond a week or two in May, 1865, as he fled justice. Why does Florida honor him with a Memorial at the Gamble Plantation State Park in Ellenton, Florida?
Today many who honor the Southern white people who formed the Confederate armed forces and government assert that they do not honor the cause for which they struggled: the preservation and spread of slavery. Nor, do they have any interest in racism or dishonoring black people or the soldiers who fought in the Union Army and Navy to preserve the United States and to end slavery. They only wish to show their respect for their ancestors’ bravery, courage, and loyalty to the rebel cause. Indeed, this is the official position of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, whose local Judah P. Benjamin chapter established the Gamble Plantation House as a memorial to Judah P. Benjamin during the 1920s and transferred the restored property to the State of Florida. This transfer was on the condition that if the State ever removed the Memorial, the property would return to the United Daughters.
What were the motives of those Southern white women of nearly one hundred years ago? None of them, or any other resident of Florida or the United States, were descendants of Judah Benjamin, whose wife and daughter lived in Paris, France, before and after the Civil War. Benjamin was not a military man and never demonstrated his valor in battle. Those women of Jim Crow Florida wished to honor him for his service to the cause of the Confederacy. A French chapter if the United Daughters of the Confederacy, formed from exiles and their descendants, installed a monument to Benjamin at his Paris grave.
The Memorial’s displays and text omit or elide Benjamin’s enslavement of black people on his Louisiana plantation. They omit mention of Benjamin’s defense of slavery in the United States Senate. They honor him as an important and effective leader in the armed uprising against the United States and its government that we know as the Civil War. This uprising arose because Southern white slave owners rejected the outcome of the presidential election of 1860 and began before that election’s victor, Abraham Lincoln, had assumed office.
The Civil War brought an end to centuries of violent racial slavery of black people by white people in the United States and freedom for the slaves. The choice of Southern white people to reject the outcome of that election brought un-paralleled disaster upon both the United States and the rebellious forces and the people and territory they strove to remove from the United States. More than 700,000 men died in combat, from war injuries, or from disease.
Combat and other military deaths included those of many thousands of black men who fought in United States Colored Regiments for their freedom and that of their brothers and sisters still enslaved. Nearly 200,000 black men served in Union forces during the Civil War. They also included deaths of the many thousands of Southern white men who remained loyal to the government of the United States and enlisted in Union army regiments from nearly every Southern state. The United Daughters of the Confederacy does not honor these Southerners, white and black, of the Civil War era who fought for the Union. Indeed, any Southern white woman of today whose military ancestor took an oath of allegiance to the United States before General Robert E. Lee surrendered the Army of Virginia in on April 9, 1865, does not qualify for membership in the United Daughters.
In Florida, northeastern Florida in the Jacksonville and St. Augustine area was in Union hands through most of the war. Key West remained in Union hands throughout the war. Pensacola was abandoned and burned by Confederate forces at the command of General Braxton Bragg in 1862 and remained in Union control for the rest of the war. Descendants of people from these areas of Florida do not qualify for United Daughters’ membership if their ancestors pledged allegiance to the United States.
The government of Florida provides its parks for all Florida residents and the state’s many visitors. In this beautiful historical house, built by black slaves, and on this former sugar plantation, cleared and operated by slaves under the compulsion of John Gamble and his overseers, the state intends for everyone to feel welcome and honored for their ancestors’ contributions to Florida.