Incidents at the Christian Benner Farm - Remarkable Recollections of Oliver F. Benner

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Tom Elmore

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In 1914, a man named Clifton Johnson personally interviewed a number of aged Gettysburg residents who had witnessed the battle a half-century earlier. He compiled these accounts in his book, Battleground Adventures. One outstanding account was related by an individual identified only as “The Farmer’s Son.” However, it did not require much detective work to determine his identity – Oliver Franklin Benner. Born on July 14, 1844, he was the son of Christian (Jr.) and Elizabeth Louise Musselman Benner. At the time of the battle, Oliver lived with his parents on the east side of Rock Creek, opposite Culp’s Hill. He expected to celebrate his 19th birthday in less than two weeks.

On the forenoon of July 2, Oliver “could hear a sound of chopping and guessed that the soldiers were building breastworks” on Culp’s Hill. “Some of the farm fencing had been pulled down the day before, and a neighbor’s cows had got into our wheat. Father thought he would drive them out. The wheat was on a hillside [Benner’s Hill], and he walked up the slope to get a good look over the field. On its upper side was a fringe of brush and trees and a stone wall with a couple of rails on top. He was within twenty or thirty feet of this fence when he discovered some men standing behind it. Father would have liked to get away, but he concluded that he would be safer to go forward. One of the men was a Rebel general [possibly John M. Jones? – see map]. He had glasses that he was looking through, and he asked Father about the Federals. Father told him he didn’t know anything about them, and then he started for home, but the general said: ‘Oh, no! You can’t go back. You’ll have to stay inside our lines.’ So they sent him to the nearest house, which happened to belong to Father’s brother, Dan [Daniel Benner]. We didn’t know what had become of him, and we didn’t dare risk going to look for him.”

Oliver continued, “Soon after mid-day I was standing in our lane with Mr. Martin, one of the townsmen who was stopping at our house, when here comes a Union soldier [from the 28th Pennsylvania?]. He held his gun all ready to fire, and he was a savage-lookin’ chap, too. ‘I had a notion to pull on you fellers,’ he said. ‘You wear gray clothes, and I didn’t know but you were Rebels. My colonel [acting colonel, Captain John Flynn?] wants to talk with you.’ We went with him down the lane to where the colonel was sitting on a rock beside the creek. He questioned us as to the location of the Rebels, but we were just as ignorant about that as a newborn babe. … The soldier went back up the lane with us, and we’d gone about halfway when Martin’s little boy came running toward us waving his hands as if he wanted us to stop. He didn’t say anything until he got to where we were. Then he told us some Rebels were at our house. At that our soldier dropped back, but we went on and found two Southern soldiers in our kitchen. They were after food, and we let ‘em have some.”

“The latter part of the afternoon we had just sat down to supper when the battle opened out right close by. We didn’t finish eating. I went upstairs and looked out a gable window. Some of our men were in the orchard [west of the house – see map] deployed behind the trees. They’d take and load their guns and fire and then fall back. They were only a skirmish line and didn’t pretend to fight the Rebels, who had cut loose on them at a terrific rate. Presently … zip went a bullet right past my nose. I thought it was just a chance shot until later I was down in the kitchen, and a big Rebel [from the 23rd Virginia?] came walking in. ‘Who was firin’ out of the gable window at our soldiers when they were passin’ here?’ he asked. Mr. Martin spoke up and said: ‘Nobody thought of such a thing. It’s doubtful if there’s a gun in the house.’ ‘Well, I saw somebody up there,’ the man said, ‘and I took a shot at him.’ I knew then how that bullet happened to come so close to me.”

“We saw the Rebels driving our men across the open fields to the woods. Every time they got within a couple of rods [about 30 feet] they’d lie flat on the ground, except a few who would run forward and jerk the fence down. Then the rest would jump up, and on they’d go. The sound of the volleys they fired was just like you’d take a handful of gravel and throw it on a roof. They yelled like the mischief when they charged. I couldn’t distinguish any words, but it was kind of an ugly yell. Soon the wounded began to be brought back. They laid ‘em on the floor of the kitchen, and up in the barn, and out in the yard. Some were groaning and others would swear. The sight of the first wounded man was dreadful, but it is remarkable how quickly one gets hardened to such things. … I talked with a wounded North Carolina man [from the 3rd or 1st North Carolina in Steuart’s brigade]. He spoke sort of regretfully of the war. ‘We got nothing against you people,’ he said, ‘but the war came on and we were forced to go.’ ”

Many decades after the war, bloodstains could still be readily distinguished on the wooden boards of the kitchen floor.

“Beside our kitchen wall was a big half hogshead that water flowed into from a spring, and the Rebels were all the time coming to fill their canteens there. They were seen by the Yankees, who began shelling ‘em. The shells would strike in the meadow and throw up the dirt, and one went through the seat of a horserake in the orchard. Another came into the kitchen … went into the chimney and exploded and scattered some pretty big stones among the wounded men lying on the floor. But that didn’t seem to alarm them. They made no ado whatever. After a while the firing ceased and three ambulances came to get the wounded at our place. … A little major came into the house and asked for some red cloth to make a hospital flag, and Mother got him a piece. He tied the cloth to a stick and had a soldier climb up a ladder and nail it on the roof so our men would stop firing in that direction. … After dark that evening they put blankets up to the windows so the lights wouldn’t be seen … Nine o’clock came, and then, to our surprise, in walked Father escorted by a Rebel soldier. Friday morning [July 3] the wounded were still on the place, and across the lane was a bunch of six or eight Union prisoners lying asleep.”

“By and by a Rebel [quartermaster?] came into the room where our folks were and asked, ‘Who’s the man of the house?’ ‘I am,’ Father says. ‘I’m goin’ to take the first horse inside of your stable,’ the feller said, ‘and here’s one hundred and twenty-five dollars to pay for him.’ … Father took it, and we’ve had it ever since. The bills were new and nice, and they’re nice yet. Later that day the Rebels told us they were goin’ to place a battery on the knoll [Benner’s Hill] back of our buildings, and we had better move out. So we gathered up a few of our things and went to Uncle Dan’s. … Next morning [July 4] we went back home and found two Rebels in our shed eating chicken. They seemed to think it was time for them to get out of there, and they slipped away down the lane. Pretty soon our soldiers began to arrive on the farm, and Mother went to bakin’ pancakes to give ‘em. She made the pancakes out of flour and salt. The Rebels had taken everything else in the food line. … It looked like they’d gone to the bureau drawers and pulled ‘em out and dumped what was in ‘em on the floor. They took only a part of our flour, but they got all our meat and all our chickens, and our five horses. Our field of wheat was trodden down, and so was our grass and oats. … Father was a man who didn’t often say anything, but when we came home after the battle and looked around he said, ‘I feel just like starting off and never looking back.' … ”

“We had found two dead Rebels lying back of our barn, and no one came to bury ‘em till late the next day [July 5]. They’d been left with a blanket spread over ‘em. One had his thumb and every finger on his right hand shot off. … A neighbor of ours – old Mr. [Zephaniah] Tawney – came to get some flour on Tuesday [July 7], and he said, ‘Over here in the woods I found a dead man [possibly Wesley Culp?].’ So Father and I took a mattock and a shovel and went along with Mr. Tawney to the spot where he’d come across the body. There it was, all bloated up, seated leaning against a tree. We had to make the grave a rod or so away on account of the tree roots. It was impossible to handle the man to get him there, he was so decayed like, and we hitched his belt to his legs and dragged him along, and no soon did we start with him than his scalp slipped right off. We just turned him in on his side and covered him with earth.”

Oliver Franklin Benner died on September 29, 1927, and was buried at Evergreen Cemetery on Cemetery Hill.

Sources:
-Battleground Adventures, the stories of dwellers on the scenes of conflict in some of the most notable battles of the civil war, collected in personal interviews by Clifton Johnson, Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, The Riverside Press, Cambridge, 1915, pp. 166-175.
-Gregory A. Coco, A Vast Sea of Misery, Gettysburg: Thomas Publications, 1988, p 115.
-Official Report of Brig. Gen. George H. Steuart.
-https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/19033397/oliver-franklin-benner
 

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JPK Huson 1863

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You know what's so striking about a lot of civilian accounts? Maybe they weren't as calm and frequently pragmatic as so many sound later but it does sound as if they were, mostly. Both Bayles' accounts read similarly and even Elizabeth Thorn comes across as more pragmatic than frightened dealing with two armies.

Thanks for an account from the Benner farm- these accounts make it impossible to view these places the same way when seeing them at Gettysburg. And whoa, he may have buried Wesley Culp? Any idea if he was part of Weaver's efforts in the 1870's? I'd be torn about that. On one hand, it would seem fitting he go with his army's dead back to the home he'd chosen, on the other it seems tragically fitting to spend forever in Gettysburg.
 
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Tom Elmore

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Oliver's mother, Susanna "Susan" Snyder Benner, was born on July 9, 1807 at Mount Pleasant in Adams County. After her death on April 4, 1892, she was also interred in Evergreen Cemetery. Charles A. Rollins, who served with the 27th Virginia in Walker's brigade, wrote of the Benner place in his memoirs:

"When at the reunion last month [July 1888] I had the pleasant experience of sleeping in the old Christian Benner house on the night of the Fourth. It is now owned and occupied by Mr. E. L. Houch, who was a Lieutenant in the Union Army, and bears several ugly scars to attest 'he was there.' I had seen this old stone house during the battle and twenty-five years after felt strong desire to visit it, which I did. I was courteously received and a pressing invitation, warmly rendered by his wife, given me to come out and spend the night. The place had a peculiarly and a pathetic attraction for me, for on the fringe of the woods to the rear I bade my father a last farewell, July 2nd 1863." [His father served in the 4th Virginia. He might be Private William H. Rollins, who was captured on July 3 and died January 1864 at Fort Delaware prison.]

"I went to see the old lady [Susan Benner] who occupied the house during the battle, Mrs. Christian Benner, to make some inquiries. Though 81 years old, I found her to still possess a wonderful memory, though her daughter, who was caring for her, told me she had failed rapidly of late. The old lady in relating her experiences would frequently use the terms, 'our men' and 'the rebels,' and the daughter would [explain], 'That's one of them, mother; you shouldn't talk that way.' 'One of who?' and the old lady would look at me in a dazed manner. After this was repeated several times and the daughter reminding of her of it, I told her to let the old lady tell her story in her own way, as I was used to that. She told me she remained in the house until one shell had exploded and another lodged in the wall, and though at the time quite ill, with her twelve-year [?] old boy she made a break for the woods. She said the rebels hollered at me, ‘the fun’s getting too hot for you, old lady?,’ and I just turned round and tells them ‘fun’s fun, but this ain’t no fun.’ When I bade her goodbye, hoping to see her next year, she shook her head and replied, 'No,' she would not be here next year." [However, she lived nearly six years longer. Christian and Susan had two daughters, Sara A. Benner Biddle (1832-1909) and Juliann Sophia Benner Walter (1837 or '47-1912); it's not stated where they stayed during the battle. Another son, Henry Snyder Benner (born 1830), was serving as a Captain in the 101st Pennsylvania and participated in a battle at Foster's Mill, NC on July 5, 1863. Yet another son, Simon C. Benner (born 1841), joined the 205th Pennsylvania and died on November 6, 1864.]

It's a wonder more civilians were not struck during the battle. These stories record a few close calls for Susan and her son Oliver.
 
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Alex Scotland

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Great story thanks for sharing it. It's really hard to imagine going about your daily life then one day two huge armies start slugging it out in your back yard!. I'll need to see if that book is still available I think it would be a great read.
 
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