Tag Archives: Creole culture

The Brains of the Confederacy

Judah_BenjaminIn both of my books, The Last Day of Forever and, especially, An Eternity of Four Years, a gentleman by the name of Judah P. Benjamin plays a part. Judah P. Benjamin remains something of an enigma because he destroyed his private papers at the end of the Civil War, and in spite of leading a very public life as a successful attorney, planter, politician, and statesman, some aspects of his personal history remain cloaked in a mystery and speculation.

He was a most unusual man for his times and by all accounts very intelligent, a skilled debater with a gift for oratory and a ready smile.

It is said the ladies of Richmond adored him, but he had his detractors as well as those who admired him for his considerable intellect and outgoing personality. Jefferson Davis considered him one of his closest confidants with the writings of Davis’s wife, Varina, offering a small peek into his personal life.

Judah Phillip Benjamin was variously know as “the Jew,” “the Hebrew,” or “Davis’ pet Jew,” referring to his small stature (barely over five feet tall). Later historians sometimes refer to him as the “brains of the Confederacy.” During the war, the North derisively called him “the South’s evil genius.”

He was born to a family of Sephardic Jews in St Croix in 1811. When he was still a child, his family eventually settled in Charleston, SC, a southern city known for its religious tolerance. He attended Yale at the tender age of 14 but was expelled because of unspecified “ungentlemanly conduct.”

Benjamin then headed for New Orleans, where according to Bernard W. Korn in his volume on that city’s Jews, he arrived “with no visible assets other than the wit, charm, omnivorous mind and boundless energy with which he would find his place in the sun.” He remained a bachelor for several years, and at least one historian suggests he was a homosexual, but there exists no evidence beyond speculation to support this.

He clerked in a law firm and studied the law. Since fluent French was required to practice law in Louisiana, he needed to learn that language. To earn money, he tutored French Creoles in English and taught Natalie Bauché de St. Martin in exchange for her teaching him French.

In 1832 at the age of 21, he was admitted to the bar, and a year later, he married Natalie with the wedding in St Louis Cathedral. The couple moved into a four-story townhouse on Bourbon Street that is today a strip joint called “Temptations.” It seems the marriage did not work out for reasons unknown. Historians suggest Natalie was such a problem child her family was glad to be shed of her, and later, rumors of infidelity were associated with her. They had one child, a daughter, Ninette.

Benjamin became a successful lawyer in New Orleans and bought a plantation downriver from the city, Belle Chasse*, and built a fine home for his wife and daughter. Natalie, evidently, was unimpressed and decamped with her daughter for Paris where they remained for the rest of her life. Meanwhile, Benjamin experimented with different strains of sugar cane and became something of an expert on that crop.

The Louisiana Legislature elected Benjamin to the U.S. Senate where he became famous for his eloquent and fiery oratory. (Senators were appointed by the Legislature then.) Benjamin was the first Jew to serve as a U. S. Senator. He was twice offered to be nominated to the U.S. Supreme Court and declined both times. He would likely have been approved and would have been the first Jew on the U.S. Supreme Court.

With Louisiana’s secession in 1861, Benjamin became one of Jeff Davis’ closest advisors even though Benjamin had once challenged him to a duel. Davis first appointed him as Attorney General and then Secretary of War, but the Confederate Army existed mainly as untrained volunteers with supplies for waging war very scarce. With the Confederate retreat from Cape Hatteras, Benjamin was accused of failing to reinforce the garrison. He took the blame and resigned, but he did so to hide the fact that the Confederacy simply did not have the forces to send, and that weakness needed to be hidden from the enemy.

Davis then appointed Benjamin to Secretary of State where he was also in charge of the Confederate Secret Service and Confederate spies up north. It was in that capacity that my character, Ethan, has dealings with him in An Eternity of Four Years.

Very early in the war, he was one of the first to argue for recruiting the slaves into the Confederate Army, offering them freedom if they served. Near the end, when the situation was desperate for the South, he brought it up again in a speech and was renounced for it. He also suggested freeing the slaves to get France and/or England to enter the conflict on the side of the South, or at least recognize the South as a sovereign nation, opening the door to much needed war material from Europe. Again his ideas were rejected.

The war ended with the Confederate government on the run. Davis was captured, but Benjamin was not, only because he separated from the group the day before and made his way to England. There he became a successful barrister and was created a “Palatine silk” as the Queen’s Council.

With his health deteriorating and suffering from diabetes, he was injured in a fall in 1880. Judah P. Benjamin died of a heart attack in Paris in 1882 and was buried there in Père Lachaise Cemetery under the name of “Philippe Benjamin.”

In 1938 the Paris chapter of the Daughters of the Confederacy erected a plaque over his grave.

JUDAH PHILIP BENJAMIN
BORN ST. THOMAS WEST INDIES AUGUST 6,1811
DIED IN PARIS MAY 6,1884
UNITED STATES SENATOR FROM LOUISIANA
ATTORNEY GENERAL, SECRETARY OF WAR AND
SECRETARY OF STATE OF THE CONFEDERATE STATES
OF AMERICA, QUEENS COUNSEL, LONDON

Whatever your opinion of Judah P. Benjamin might be, one must agree he was a most amazing person and largely an unknown but significant figure in American history.

*Note: This link will take you to an image of Belle Chasse Plantation. It has long since been torn down. You can adjust the size of the image with the sliding bar at the top.

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The Paperback Version of An Eternity of Four Years is now available!

Book 2 1Finally! It is done! I have been teasing you long enough.

The exciting conclusion to the two-part epic of the Legend of Rachel and Ethan, An Eternity of Four Years, is finally finished and published. Both the Kindle digital version and the paperback version are available at Amazon.

An Eternity of Four Years picks up the story four days after The Last Day of Forever ends and carries the reader through the turbulent years of the Civil War with Ethan searching for Rachel to mend what was broken between them.

If you haven’t read part 1 yet, The Last Day of Forever, you need to read it first. Either book can stand alone, but reading both in order fills in a lot of back story and detail you will find both interesting and helpful to your reading experience.

Get ’em while they are hot! And don’t forget to go back and post a review. It will help the books get visibility and credibility.

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An Eternity of Four Years – UPDATE

Heads up! Better get with finishing up your read of The Last Day of Forever, because I just uploaded the files to CreateSpace for the exciting conclusion to this epic story.

Here I go making predictions again… I expect to have it published in June.

Meanwhile, here is a teaser for you from An Eternity of Four Years. This scene takes place in the spring of 1862 and the boys from Louisiana are joining Stonewall Jackson in the Shenandoah Valley for the start of Jackson’s famous Valley Campaign.

*****

Book 2 1As the sun rose on the morning of 19 May 1862, we marched out of camp. Ewell went north, and the Louisiana Brigade went west. Taylor had me ride along with him so he could question me about Jackson. Blue rode along with Taylor’s servant.

As we drew near New Market and Jackson’s camp, Taylor had his regimental commanders tighten up the formation. The men of Taylor’s Louisiana Brigade, 3,000 strong, marched down the Valley Turnpike and into Jackson’s camp that evening with regimental bands playing smart martial airs, the drums beating the cadence, and bayonets and polished gun barrels glistening in the warm glow of the setting sun. It was a sight to stir the hearts of even the most hardened.

Taylor and his staff were in the vanguard, followed by Wheat’s band playing The Girl I Left Behind, then the Tiger Rifles in their fancy zouave uniforms following close behind the band. The Virginians and Marylanders of Jackson’s command poured out of camp and lined the road on either side, hooting and cheering us on. That only served to make us prouder. The bands played louder, and we put even more snap into our step. I am here to tell you that there was no grander sight than this magnificent brigade marching proudly up the turnpike under our blue pelican battle flags. My heart fairly wanted to burst from my chest!

Jackson watched from a distance as his fresh new brigade trooped smartly by. He soon sent a member of his staff to greet us and instruct us to march through his whole army to camp on the north side. We didn’t realize it at the time, but the Tigers were being positioned in camp so we would march in the vanguard of Jackson’s army when we broke camp the next day and moved north.

We marched into the fields designated for us, and our officers shouted commands in French to the amazement of Jackson’s troops gathered around to watch the show. Our bands continued to play, and some of our boys joined in pairs and danced in gay abandon as if their partners were the most beautiful Creole belles of New Orleans. Once more the battle hardened veterans of Jackson’s Valley Army cheered.

Taylor laughed at the amazed Virginians then turned to me. “Where is he, Captain?”

I looked about for Jackson. I had seen him earlier when we marched down the pike but had lost him in the crowd. I soon spotted his lanky figure sitting on a rail fence overlooking the camp and road. “That’s him, sir, there on that fence,” I replied, pointing.

“Come along, Captain. I expect you will want to tell him hello.”

“Yes, sir.” I followed Taylor as he made his way through camp to Jackson.

Stonewall was sitting on the top rail, sucking on a lemon to ease his stomach problem as was his habit. He wore high cavalry boots that seemed oversized even for him, and his uniform was faded and weathered looking. I soon realized it was the same one he had worn back at VMI. He had a dark heavy beard, and brooding eyes peeked out from under the bill of his kepi, which he wore rakishly low over his brows so as to almost hide his eyes. He looked weary and much older than when I had last seen him.

I held back, and Taylor stepped up and introduced himself. Jackson nodded and glanced over at me for a moment. Then turning back to Taylor, he asked in a low even tone, “By what route did you march today and how many miles?”

“Keazletown Road. Six and twenty miles.”

Jackson gestured with his lemon to our brigade. “You seem to have no stragglers.”

“Never allow straggling, sir.”

Jackson nodded knowingly. “Then you must teach my people. They straggle badly.”

One of our bands struck up a tune, and the men began dancing again. Stonewall watched for a few moments then said softly, “Thoughtless fellows for serious work.”

Taylor turned and looked over his shoulder at his brigade then turned back to face Jackson. “I expect the work will not be less well done because of the gayety, sir.”

Stonewall nodded but made no reply. Turning once more to me he said, “I believe I know you?”

“Yes, sir. I was a student at VMI, class of ‘60.”

Jackson smiled. “Of course,” he replied evenly. “You’re Ethan Davis, aren’t you? The moustache deceived me. How are you, Captain Davis?”

*****

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A Short History of the Sazerac Cocktail

Both The Last Day of Forever and An Eternity of Four Years mention a drink called the “Sazerac” but give only minimal information about how it is made. I am going to boast that I make the finest Sazerac in the world, maybe even the Universe.

But first, in the interest of full disclosure: The Sazerac Company of New Orleans is one of my clients at Spar, Inc. In fact, the man who owns the Sazerac Company and the five distilleries that Sazerac owns, starting with the Buffalo Trace Distillery in Frankfort, KY, plus two others in Kentucky, another in Virginia, and one in Canada, also owns SPAR, Inc. I have worked for SPAR since I got out of the Air Force in 1973. Started as a graphic designer, and now I am the general manager and creative director. SPAR designed most of the packages for the Sazerac Company, such as Buffalo Trace Bourbon, Sazerac Rye Whisky, Herbsaint, W.L. Weller, Old Charter, Elmer T. Lee, Nikolai Vodka, and a ton more. You get the picture?

So, I have a financial interest in the Sazerac Company, so to speak. They generate my paycheck. But that isn’t why I mentioned the drink in my story. I mention it because the Sazerac Cocktail is such an integral and beautiful part of New Orleans history. It was created here, and its ancestry goes all the way back to the eighteenth century when Antoine Amedee Peychaud, a refugee from the slave uprising in Haiti, landed in New Orleans in about 1795 with his family recipe for bitters and eventually set up shop as an apothecary.

CoquetierAs the story goes, Peychaud served shots of brandy laced with his bitters in a little double-ended eggcup called in the French a cocquetier. Legend has it the term “cocktail” comes from the Americans arriving in New Orleans after the Louisiana Purchase, tripping over the unfamiliar French word, and anglicizing it. To be fair, that is under dispute. Some claim the term “cocktail,” describing a mixture of whiskey, bitters, and sugar, came into usage around 1800 before Peychaud started serving his coquetiers, but I am sticking to the New Orleans version.

The Sazerac name came from the brandy that was originally used to make the drink. That would be Sazerac Cognac Brandy imported from Sazerac des Forges et Fils in France. That Sazerac Company did exist until fairly recently. Evidently, they have folded, because I cannot find them on the internet anymore.

People in New Orleans always seem to do things just a little differently. For example, we had lots of coffee houses back in the nineteenth century, only they weren’t really coffee houses. Oh, they served some coffee, usually laced with brandy or rum and later American bourbon, but they were, in reality, saloons. By 1859 there were 204 saloons coffee houses in New Orleans. In the early nineteenth century, New Orleans entered its coffee house gem period, with owners naming their saloons coffee houses after various precious stones. Each new saloon coffee house tried to top the other by selecting a more valuable gemstone for its name. One named the “Gem” opened in 1851. The Gem featured the Sazerac, as did most other saloons coffee houses in New Orleans, but this one became famous. It was located in the first block of Royal Street with another entrance on Exchange Alley. Its name was eventually changed to the Sazerac Coffee House. This is where Ethan with Morgan and later his friends, when he enlisted in Wheat’s Battalion, shared many Sazeracs. Don’t bother to look for it, because it isn’t there anymore. The Sazerac Bar eventually moved into the Roosevelt Hotel and remains there to this day. The Sazerac Bar is not owned by the Sazerac Company.

Originally, the Sazerac was made with Sazerac brandy and Peychaud’s Bitters, but American rye whiskey began replacing the brandy around 1870 because of the phylloxera epidemic in Europe that devastated the vineyards of France, making brandy scarce (brandy is made from grapes). Kentucky had been settled by many of Scottish origin and they were converting their corn crops into whiskey, because it was easier to move whiskey to market than corn. Packed in barrels, Kentucky whiskey made its long trip in flatboats down the Mississippi to New Orleans. Storing the whiskey in barrels and the long trip actually aided its flavor, and the product that arrived in New Orleans was less like the raw fiery spirit that left Kentucky. About the same time, a bit of absinthe was added to the recipe of the Sazerac, and the recipe was sealed until the 1930s when Herbsaint, a New Orleans product, came into common usage in the Sazerac.

Herbsaint Absinthe was produced using a recipe ­­­­New Orleans native Marion Legendre brought back from his service in France during World War I. Legendre began producing his Herbsaint during the mid-thirties and ran afoul of government regs that had banned absinthe back in 1912. He was forced to change his recipe to suit the government bureaucrats. Only recently has absinthe reappeared in America again, and that is only because it was discovered the law banning absinthe was written in a way that actually allowed its production as long as the amount of wormwood, a botanical, was below a specified amount, and absinthe’s wormwood content is well below that point. With that, the Sazerac Company, owners of the Herbsaint brand, dug into their archives and came up with Legendre’s original formula. The Original Herbsaint is back (and SPAR did the retro package).

The Sazerac Cocktail, now enjoying something of a revival, is served in bars and restaurants all over New Orleans and many other cites, as well. But I must warn you. Not everyone makes a good Sazerac, and a poorly made Sazerac is truly awful, usually because they put in too much absinthe. But I am going to tell you how to make a good one, in fact, a perfect Sazerac Cocktail. You will have to wait for the next post to get my “secret” recipe.

Wikipedia absinthe page.

Absinthe deserves its own post. It is featured in the opening chapter of An Eternity of Four Years, and will get that post eventually.

Coquetier photo credit: Coyau / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA-3.0

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The Last Day of Forever – Excerpt 4

Here is another short excerpt from The Last Day of Forever. Enjoy.

My mother is a woman of quick and decisive action. She inquired at the desk and was told there was a very nice haberdashery just a few blocks away on Royal Street. Upon entering the store, she approached the clerk. “Sir, my son is in need of some suits.”

For a moment the clerk, a well-dressed, smallish man with a thick moustache and pomaded hair, looked at me in a curious manner. I assumed he found my appearance in a poorly fitting and out of style suit distasteful in some way. In heavy, French-accented English, he replied, “Of course, Madame. I am sure we can have him fitted with a custom tailored suit in two or three days. Would you come with me, and I will show you some cloth to choose from. We have the finest selection of French broadcloth in New Orleans.”

“Two or three days? That won’t do. I must have something this very afternoon,” replied Analee assertively.

The tailor looked surprised. “But, Madame…”

She cut him off. “But, Monsieur, I must have at least one suit today.”

The tailor’s nose went up, and he looked down it at my mother. She parried with her left eyebrow. For a long moment they stared at each other in this New Orleans duel of wits. My mother obviously won the fight, as he turned to me and, with a discerning eye, looked me up and down and quickly took my measure.

He turned back to my mother, her eyebrow still raised lest he forget his place. “Madame, may I suggest a solution? I have two suits in the back. They were a special order by a young gentleman here in New Orleans, but before he could take possession he was killed in a duel. The late gentleman was about your son’s size. I am sure I could fit those suits to him this very afternoon.”

I looked at my mother thinking a dead man’s suit?

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The Last Day of Forever – Excerpt 3

Here is another brief excerpt from The Last Day of Forever, where Ethan is describing some of his family history.

My mother was the daughter of a Creole planter from New Orleans. My grandfather was a widower, having lost his two older children and later his wife to yellow fever. He took to strong drink and soon fell upon hard times. As a result of flooding two years in a row, he suffered disastrous crop failures and tried gambling to make up the losses. He proved to be as poor a gambler as he was a planter and quickly got so deep in debt he lost his land.

My mother was well educated, having been left in the care of the Ursuline nuns for her education. Not only was she intelligent, but she was also one of the most beautiful young ladies in New Orleans. She had long black hair and dark eyes to melt the heart of the hardest man. However, beauty and intelligence counted for little among the pseudo-aristocracy of New Orleans if you were without property, deep in debt, and your honor despoiled. In spite of this, she was in love with the son of a wealthy planter. The two young lovers spoke secretly of marriage, though she was barely sixteen, and he was seventeen at the time. The boy’s father would not have entertained for even a moment the suggestion that his son was contemplating marriage to the daughter of a pauper.

When Morgan Davis arrived in New Orleans, my grandfather and his daughter danced one step ahead of his creditors. Within hours of stepping off the boat, Morgan met my grandfather, who in spite of his poverty still dressed as if he were a man of means. The two struck up a casual conversation in one of the local coffee houses, and over brandy laced with bitters served in what the Creoles called a coquetier, Morgan spoke frankly of his plight. In about as much time as it takes to tell it, my mother was quite literally sold to Morgan like one of the Negroes. My grandfather’s debts were settled, and he was left with a small sum of money to start over. In exchange, my sixteen-year-old mother, sight unseen, was to become Morgan’s new bride.

It will surprise the reader to discover that Analee went along with this arrangement with only a brief protest. Now, you might ask yourself why my mother would consent to such if she were in love with another man? The answer is really quite simple: she had no other choice. She loved her father, and she knew the marriage to her young beau was impossible under the circumstances. Morgan offered financial relief for her father and a restoration of his honor only she could deliver by agreeing to the arrangement. Though older, Morgan was a handsome and wealthy gentleman, and could be quite charming when it suited him, and it suited him at this time. Thus, Analee did not find him totally unattractive.

“Honor” is a word you will see used often in this story. It is variously described as an unsullied reputation free from even the suggestion of impropriety, with perseverance in the face of adversity, unbowed by suffering, and a high disdain for those who hold to a lower standard. Honor is not viewed lightly in the Creole culture of Louisiana. It is like a magic badge bestowed by the gods. Its mere possession endows its holder with special powers and prestige, and with this often comes the right connections and at least the appearance of wealth. Personal and business relationships hinge on honor. With it you are someone; without it you are no one. Thus, the possession of honor is valuable currency. However, hypocrisy is often its stable mate, and honor can become the handmaiden of many less than honorable deeds.

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