Berry Benson was born on February 9th, 1843 in Hamburg, South Carolina, just across the Savannah River from Augusta, Georgia. In 1860 Berry Benson enlisted with his brother in a local militia unit aged 17 and 15 respectively. The next spring they witnessed the bombardment of Fort Sumter in Charleston, South Carolina.
After the surrender of Fort Sumter, the 1st South Carolina Regiment was sent to Virginia where the Benson brothers served under A.P. Hill and Thomas Jackson. The unit fought in battles such as Second Manassas, Fredericksburg, Antietam, and served in Jackson’s valley campaign as Jackson’s foot cavalry. Berry Benson was wounded at Chancellorsville and thus missed the battle of Gettysburg.
But he had recuperated by winter 1863 and returned to his unit where he was appointed as a scout.
The spring of 1864 brought another Union offensive into The Wilderness.
After a confusing, bloody battle in dense woods, the Union commander, General Ulysses S. Grant, attempted to get around the Confederate army and march on Richmond, Virginia but was checked at Spotsylvania, Virginia. There followed one of the most terrible battles of the Civil War, in which the severest action occurred at the “Bloody Angle,” where Benson fought.
By then the young soldier had won a reputation for scouting enemy positions.
At Spotsylvania he reconnoitered the Union camp and on an impulse stole a Yankee colonel’s horse, leading it back to Confederate lines. Sent out a second time on Lee’s orders, he was captured and imprisoned at the military prison in Point Lookout, Maryland.
On the second day of his captivity, Benson slipped unseen into the waters of Chesapeake Bay and swam two miles to escape but unfortunately for him, he was recaptured in Union-occupied Virginia, and then was sent first to the Old Capitol Prison in Washington, D.C., then to the new prison camp at Elmira, New York.
What happened next is the Civil War’s version of “The Great Escape.”
Once there he joined a group attempting to tunnel out but the effort was discovered and broken up.
Soon thereafter on October 7, 1864, at four o’clock in the morning he and nine
companions entered a tunnel sixty-six feet long which they had been digging for about two
The earth extracted had been carried away in their haversacks and disposed of.
On reaching the outside of the stockade the prisoners scattered in parties of two and three, Sergeant Benson going alone, since the companion he had intended to take with him failed to escape.
He headed south and miraculously reached Confederate lines.
Sergeant Benson, half a century later, still preserved the passes given him from Newmarket, Virginia, where he first reached Early’s army, to Richmond.
He wrote in 1911 that the men who made their escape were:
Washington B. Trawiek,
of the Jeff. Davis Artillery, Alabama, then living at Cold Springs, Texas; John Fox Maull, of
the Jeff. Davis Artillery, deceased; J. P. Putegnat, deceased; G. G. Jackson of Wetumpka, Alabama;
William Templin, of Paunsdale, Alabama; J.P.Scruggs, of Limestone Springs, South Carolina;
Cecrops Malone, of Company F. Ninth Alabama Infantry, then living at Waldron, Ark.; Crawford
of the Sixth Virginia Cavalry, and Glenn.
Most of them were present at Appomattox.
Upon learning of the surrender of General Johnson in North Carolina Benson and his brother walked home.
In 1868 Sargent Benson married his wife Jeannie Oliver with whom he had six children with and, while working as an accountant, developed a complex book-keeping method that he called the “Zero System” and sold it to companies all over the country.
He and his wife wrote poetry for publication, and his wife and daughters were all fine pianists.
One of his daughters studied violin in New York and became a concert performer.
Berry Benson became an advocate for striking mill workers and worked on developing high-protein food crops for poor black sharecroppers.
Benson also became a nationally known puzzle solver, breaking a secret French code known as the”Undecipherable Cipher,” in 1896 (On a challenge) and informed the U.S. War Department that he had done so.
During the Spanish-American War Benson offered his services to the United States Government but unfortunately, the war ended before he could be of use.
He was perhaps best known, however, for his private investigation into the case of Leo Frank, an Atlanta factory manager accused of raping and murdering 13-year-old Mary Phagan in 1913. Perceiving discrepancies in prosecution testimony, Benson concluded Frank was innocent. His logical arguments persuaded the Georgia governor that there was enough uncertainty in the case to commute Frank’s sentence from death to life imprisonment, but that did not prevent the accused’s subsequent lynching.
He also headed a campaign to support French war orphans in World War I and convinced his friends and neighbors to adopt some of them.
He later advised the U.S. attorney general of the possibility of fraud involving European and American fiscal exchange rates and, when he became aware of the activities of Carlo Ponzi, specifically warned the Massachusetts attorney general of the original “Ponzi Scheme.”
In the midst of this productive life, Benson became an officer in the Confederate Survivors Association and was chosen to model for the statue of the infantryman atop the Augusta monument, which was dedicated in 1878.
Even in advanced age Berry Benson remained fit and active leading boy scouts on fifteen-mile hikes and attending veteran reunions and parades until his death on January 1st, 1923 he was 79.
“In time, even death itself might be abolished; who knows but it may be given to us after this life to meet again in the old quarters, to play chess and draughts, to get up soon to answer the morning role call, to fall in at the tap of the drum for drill and dress parade, and again to hastily don our war gear while the monotonous patter of the long roll summons to battle.
Who knows but again the old flags, ragged and torn, snapping in the wind, may face each other and flutter, pursuing and pursued, while the cries of victory fill a summer day? And after the battle, then the slain and wounded will arise, and all will meet together under the two flags, all sound and well, and there will be talking and laughter and cheers, and all will say, Did it not seem real? Was it not as in the old days?”
~ 1st Seargent Berry Greenwood Benson 1st South Carolina Infantry Regiment Company H.