Collections White House

White House Wednesday | Behind the Stanchions | Judah Benjamin’s Cribbage Board


By Bryce VanStavern
White House Specialist

I have no idea how to play Cribbage. I don’t know anyone that knows how to play Cribbage. I have always viewed it as one of those games that has well known paraphernalia, but no one really knows how to play. But I may be wrong.

One of the more interesting individuals in the Confederate government was Judah Benjamin. His Cribbage board sits on a table in the West Parlor of the White House of the Confederacy. Two small sherry glasses sit beside it. It isn’t too difficult to imagine Jefferson Davis and Judah Benjamin sitting there enjoying a game of Cribbage, sipping an after-dinner aperitif and chatting about life, politics and war, chuckling at what I feel must have been many humorous comments from Benjamin.

Born on St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands, Judah Benjamin has a couple of interesting firsts on his resume. He was the first Jewish American person to serve in the U.S. Congress as a Senator from Louisiana. He also was the first Jewish American person to hold a Presidential Cabinet position. In fact, he held three, serving as Jefferson Davis’ Attorney General, Secretary of War, and Secretary of State.

Upon his arrival in Richmond, Benjamin rented rooms at 9 West Main Street, property owned by Mr. Griffin B. Davenport. Benjamin became one of those who might be described as “the life of the party.” Well liked, he seems to have been quite the social butterfly, entertaining many at parties and events he attended while in Richmond.

On April 2, 1865, the time had come for the Confederate government to pack up and evacuate Richmond. Like other members of the Confederate government, Benjamin went to his office and began packing. There must have been a sense of urgency and dread in the atmosphere but it escaped Benjamin, who apparently bounced around his office packing while singing a little tune he had made up.

Even as the government left Richmond, Benjamin seemed to be in good spirits claiming that far more hopeless causes had ultimately been won. By the time the Confederate government reached North Carolina, he seems to have changed his mind.

Separating himself from the group, Benjamin headed south to Florida and eventually made his way to Bimini. From there he went to London, where he would practice law for the first years after the Civil War. It is difficult to say whether the Cribbage board was something special to Judah Benjamin. If it was it is a shame, because he left it behind in his rooms in Richmond.

As its former owner had for four years, the abandoned Cribbage board lived at 9 West Main Street until Mr. Davenport presented it to the museum. Today, the Cribbage board sits on that table in the Parlor, two chairs and drink glasses ready, waiting for Davis and Benjamin to return and finish their match. Davis needs to get back; Benjamin is winning.