Book Review Berry Benson's Civil War Book: Memoirs of a Confederate Scout and Sharpshooter

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Philip Leigh

formerly Harvey Johnson
Joined
Oct 22, 2014
Edited by Susan W. Benson
Introduction by Edward J. Cashin
Copyright Date: 1991
Published by: Georgia University Press
Pages: 288

Together with his sixteen-year-old brother, Blackford, Berry Benson (1843-1923) enlisted in a South Carolina regiment three months before Fort Sumter when he was one-month shy of his eighteenth birthday. After Sumter the two served in Robert E. Lee’s army until war’s end. Both refused to participate in the Appomattox surrender and returned to their Augusta, Georgia home after learning that General Joseph Johnston had also surrendered in North Carolina. They arrived in Augusta still armed with their rifles. Berry missed Gettysburg because he was badly wounded at Chancellorsville but otherwise participated in all of Lee’s major campaigns. He was twice captured and twice escaped notorious prison camps at Point Lookout, Maryland and Elmira, New York.

Benson and Sam Watkins have comparable memoirs. Watkins’s book is famous for tall tales, humor and vivid battlefield descriptions. Benson’s story also has humor, but he is far less prone to hyperbole, which makes his narrative more believable. Benson, for example, tells of using a captured Spencer repeating carbine late in the war at Petersburg but also admits he had to discard it after he ran out of ammunition. In contrast, Sam refers to his Company H commander, Captain Feild, using a “seven-shooting rifle” during the war’s first winter, which is highly unlikely.

Berry’s experience during the march from Second Manassas to Sharpsburg underscores the straggling that plagued Lee’s army and suggests why Lee wanted to move so quickly. When, on August 31, 1862, defeated Union General John Pope telegraphed General-in-Chief Halleck “I should like to know whether you feel secure about Washington should this army be destroyed” he may have been reflecting what Lee also perceived. Specifically, that if Lee could quickly get the Union army into a second showdown battle North of the Potomac River before the Federals had time to regain morale, the South might end the war.

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75-Year-Old Benson Marching in Front with Rifle at UCV Renunion
Berry reports that on 1 September, “I was too ill to keep up.” When he finally caught up that day he was at Chantilly in the rain. He got weaker as they marched toward Leesburg. By 4 September he was “nearly played out” and his Captain was begging him to stay behind. The next morning, he “fell in with the rest” of the Company but could “only go twenty yards” and had to tell the Captain, “I can’t go any farther.” The Captain was glad he stopped because the officer worried that Berry was pushing himself too hard. It took him all day to walk to a house that he saw one mile in the distance. When he arrived, he lay down in the grass by the front door. Soon he was discovered by the resident family who sent for a doctor. It took him five days to recover, but Berry made it to Sharpsburg on time where he fought in the cornfield.

As the armies of Grant and Lee glared at one-another after Spotsylvania, Berry was sent on a scouting mission. He got caught snooping among the Federal campsites and avoided conviction as a spy by a friendly tongue that appealed to his captors while simultaneously emphasizing that he was dressed head-to-toe in Confederate gray and butternut. As a result, he was sent to the prison camp at Point Lookout, Maryland instead of suffering execution as a spy. When the white prison guards were replaced by inexperienced black soldiers, the latter left gates open to the latrines. Berry sneaked through the gates and waded in Chesapeake Bay until he was well west of the prison camp. As he continued west, he repeatedly begged for food by explaining that he was looking for his horse. Among those who fed him was a black lady. He never explained whether he was slave, or free, but he was too ill to hold the meal down. Eventually, he got to the eastern border of the Columbia District where the Potomac was narrow enough to swim, which he did with the aid of two boards.

Shortly after arriving in Virginia, however, he was captured a second time. He was again suspected of being a spy, or a guerrilla, despite explaining that he had escaped from Point Lookout. This time he feared he would be executed and resolved to escape before he was taken into Washington City. He was fortunately spared the attempt when another prisoner asked if his name was “Benson,” to which he replied affirmatively. The second prisoner told him that he overheard the Federal officers talking and concluding that Benson should be sent to Elmira. It appears that Benson’s friendly nature saved him a second time.

Once in Elmira he fell in with a group that was determined to tunnel out. His descriptions of the tunneling were much like those portrayed on the 1963 motion picture, The Great Escape. They got rid of the tunnel dirt by filling their pockets and spreading it around outside. They had to arrange for ventilation and used a rope and box to pull out the dirt, although they did not have the box-carriage on a track as in the movie. They used string to measure the tunnel distance but discovered that the tunnel curved to the right since most diggers were right-handed. They worked it all out and Berry escaped in mid-October 1864. He eventually got back to Lee’s army. His journey included a stop at the same house where he was helped after Second Manassas.

The book was edited by Berry’s daughter-in-law about the time of the Civil War semicentennial. New York publishers had turned it down in the 1880s for being "too Southern.” Please note that this review applies to the version of his book that includes a forward by Edward J. Cashin, which is important because Cashin provides a summary of Berry’s postbellum life.

Berry’s role in the 1914 Leo Frank Case is particularly significant. Leo was a Cornell-educated Jewish engineer who moved to Atlanta in 1908 when he was twenty-four years old. Two years later he married a local girl and in 1910 he was elected President of Atlanta’s chapter of B'nai B'rith, a Jewish service organization. When he was manager of a local pencil manufacturer in 1913, a thirteen-year-old girl worker was found raped and murdered in the factory basement. A month later Frank was charged with the murder and convicted after a twenty-five-day trial.

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Leo Frank
Berry followed the trial from Augusta with interest because one of his adult son Charles’s boyhood friends, William Smith, represented the black janitor who was a key prosecution witness. Notwithstanding that Smith had become an advocate of black rights partly under Berry’s mentorship, Berry doubted the handyman’s testimony. Jim Conley, the janitor, claimed that Frank paid him $200 in cash the very night of the murder as hush money and to assist in the body disposal, a “confession” that earned him a light sentence. As an accountant, Berry felt $200 was too much money for a factory manager to have on hand on a Saturday night. He travelled to Atlanta where he lodged with the Smith family and, together with Smith, questioned Conley the next day. After checking the books, Smith learned that the pencil factory had only $26 in cash on hand the night of the murder. Upon further investigation he learned that the murdered girl could not have arrived at the factory as early as Conley testified. He also learned of other Frank exculpatory evidence.

After returning to Augusta he corresponded with Frank. He also published a pamphlet at his own expense detailing “Five Arguments” that questioned the prosecution’s case. He became engaged in a newspaper duel with Tom Watson, a newspaperman and former congressman who was convinced of Frank’s guilt. Eventually Governor John Slaton commuted Frank’s death sentence to life-imprisonment, expecting that he could pardon Frank when tempers cooled. In order to protect Frank, the governor ordered the prisoner removed to Milledgeville. Watson became enraged and published an article demanding an investigation. Consequently, a vigilante group formed in the girl’s hometown, caravanned to Milledgeville, broke into the jail, returned to the girl's hometown and lynched Leo Frank on August 17, 1915.

Despite his doubts about Conley, the Berry Benson family lived in a racially integrated neighborhood and he experimented with regional mushrooms in search for a cheap food supply for local blacks. The intelligent Benson became a cryptography expert whose assistance with Spanish codes during the Spanish-American War was repeatedly turned down by Federal bureaucrats who repetitively replied to his letters by falsely assuming he was trying to sell them a code. In 1877 he served as the model for the common soldier that stands atop Augusta’s Confederate monument, which some critics want to destroy.
 
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Philip Leigh

formerly Harvey Johnson
Joined
Oct 22, 2014
If you ever get to Augusta, GA, there stands ole Berry looking down at you from the top of the Confederate Memorial downtown.
I am reluctant to predict what I will do in any situation and later just let the actions I do take speak for themselves. However, I think there's a good chance that I would drive to Augusta to stand in protest should monument critics take down the Confederate statue for which Berry is the model of the common soldier at the top.
 
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Philip Leigh

formerly Harvey Johnson
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Oct 22, 2014
Very good review. Mr. Benson lived a very interesting life.
He was a remarkable guy. All Americans can be proud of him. It would be a shame to tear down the Augusta statue.

His younger brother, Blackwood, also went on to an accomplished life after the war. Blackwood wrote several novels including Who Goes There? which was published in 1900.
 
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Stone in the wall

First Sergeant
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Blue Ridge Mountains, Jefferson County WV
He was a remarkable guy. All Americans can be proud of him. It would be a shame to tear down the Augusta statue.

His younger brother, Blackwood, also went on to an accomplished life after the war. Blackwood wrote several novels including Who Goes There? which was published in 1900.
Been awhile since I read it. When Barry was in the prison in Washington and heard Early's guns. Didn't he say how he wished it was Jackson or Gordon instead of Early?
 

Philip Leigh

formerly Harvey Johnson
Joined
Oct 22, 2014
Been awhile since I read it. When Barry was in the prison in Washington and heard Early's guns. Didn't he say how he wished it was Jackson or Gordon instead of Early?
That happened when Berry was in Washington City's "Old Capital Prison" as he was awaiting transfer to Elmira. Yes, on page 125 he lamented that it was not Jackson or Gordon instead of Early in charge of the Confederate force. From the prison they could hear Early's attack. "How the men cursed when Early withdrew."
 
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