Sunday Favorites: Escape from Ellenton

Merab Favorite
If you live in Ellenton, you probably drive by a grand piece of history every day. The Gamble Mansion has been a site of significance for more than 150 years. Here's the true story of why it's such a big part of history .
In 1865 Robert E. Lee sent a message to the President of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis, announcing his plan to surrender the following morning. He recommended that Davis, his wife, and all the cabinet members get out of dodge immediately.

That night, they boarded a train heading south. Every hour before sunrise, so as to not be discovered, one or two cabinet members departed the train. When they arrived in Southern Georgia. President and Mrs. Davis proceeded to get in a horse and wagon. Judah P. Benjamin was the last cabinet member who left. He felt the ride in the buggy would be too risky. Davis gave him a bag of confederate coins and sent him on his way. 

Benjamin was the first Jew to hold a Cabinet position in North America and the first to be elected to the United States Senate who had not renounced his faith. During his career in the U.S., Benjamin attempted to gain official recognition for the Confederacy by France and the United Kingdom, but his efforts were ultimately unsuccessful. To preserve the Confederacy as military defeats, he made its situation increasingly desperate, he advocated freeing and arming the slaves, but his proposals were only partially accepted in the closing month of the war.

Benjamin left his dress clothes behind and disguised himself as a Creole farmer, a dialect with which he was familiar. He obtained a horse and buggy and traveled mostly at night, ending up at The Gamble Mansion. It is unknown whether he knew the McLean family that resided at the mansion, or if he just ended up there randomly.

Judah was under suspicion for collaborating with John Wilks Booth and aiding and abetting the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln. There was also a heavy ransom on his head.

At the time soldiers from the Union Blockade came looking for him, he narrowly escaped by hiding in a cane field. At that time, Mrs. McLean realized she was putting her family in danger by harboring a fugitive. She sent a note to pioneer Josiah Gates simply saying “I need help.”

Gates came over right away and assessed the situation. At the time, Union troops had destroyed most boats, as locals were aiding Confederate troops by providing them with necessary goods like salt and beef.

By this time, a normally stout Benjamin had become slim. That’s what the Union troops were looking for. The McLeans sewed his coins into his clothes so he would appear fatter than his description, thus throwing them off.

Benjamin was smuggled via meat cart to the coast, then boarded Gates’ dingy. Hugging the shoreline with no lights, they were able to evade search parties and travel to Sarasota where a seafaring sailboat was waiting.

From there, assisted by the blockade runner Captain Frederick Tresca, he reached Bimini in the Bahamas. His escape from Florida to England was not without hardship: at one point he pretended to be a Jewish cook on Tresca's vessel, to deceive American soldiers who inspected it--one of whom stated it was the first time he had seen a Jew do menial labor. The small sponge-carrying vessel on which he left Bimini bound for Nassau exploded on the way, and he and the three black crewmen eventually managed to return to Bimini. Tresca's ship was still there, and he chartered it to take him to Nassau. From there, he took a ship for Havana, and on August 6, 1865, left there for Britain. He was not yet done with disaster; his ship caught fire after departing St. Thomas, and the crew put out the flames only with difficulty

Benjamin sailed to Great Britain, where he settled and became a barrister, again rising to the top of his profession before retiring in 1883. He died in Paris the following year.