Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Benjamin Franklin "Grimes" Davis: Some Family Secrets Revealed

It has been common knowledge for years that renowned 1st US Cavalry Captain and Colonel of the 8th New York Volunteer Cavalry Regiment, Benjamin Franklin "Grimes" Davis, who lost his life to a rebel bullet on June 9, 1863 at Beverly Ford, Virginia was born in Alabama and appointed to West Point from Mississippi.  Little else was known about his youth or his family until recently.  With  modern technology and internet access to historic records at the click of a mouse long lost secrets about Davis's family have come to light.


                               Benjamin Franklin "Grimes" Davis


A review of papers supporting Davis's application to the military academy note he was the grandson of Captain Benjamin W. Holladay and a nephew of Captain John Abbott and William Taylor.  All three men lived in Monroe County, Mississippi in 1850.  William Taylor and John Abbott both wrote letters supporting young Davis's application to West Point.

Holladay, the son of John M. Holladay who died in 1780 or 1781, in South Carolina, was born in Spottsylvania, Virginia April 11, 1777.  He moved to Georgia, Alabama and later Mississippi where he died on October 15, 1850.

Many of Benjamin Holladay and his wife Elizabeth numerous daughters were born in Wilkes County, Georgia before the family moved to Perry County, Alabama where Holladay purchased Public Lands that were opened to entry after the Treaty of Fort Jackson was signed August 9, 1814.  Three of these daughters, Nancy, Agnes Portatier, and Matilda are important to our story.

Agnes, who is often referred to in the census records as Portatier, was born in Georgia about 1806.  She married William Taylor September 18, 1828 in Perry County, Alabama.  By 1850 the family was living in Monroe County, Mississippi where Taylor was a planter.  According to a descendent, Elaine Coffman, he also operated a Stagecoach Inn in the Southern Crossroads Area south of Aberdeen on the Aberdeen-Columbus stage route.

Nancy M. Holladay was born in Georgia about 1808.  She married Wiley Howell, April 3, 1823 in Perry County, Alabama.  By 1850 the Howell family was also living in Monroe County, Mississippi where Wiley was a planter.

Matilda is the most illusive of the Holladay daughter but also the most important.  According to family trees and census records she was born in Georgia sometime before 1813.  On January 1, 1831 Matilda and Benjamin E. Davis were issued a marriage license in Perry County, Alabama. Benjamin E. and Matilda E. Davis would have 6 sons before their untimely death sometime during or after 1840.  Benjamin would purchased 79.81 acres of Public Land as a cash sale on November 14, 1833 according to Government Land Office records.

Benjamin Franklin Davis was born to this union in October 1831.  Next in line was William O. Davis (born about 1833), followed by Thomas J., (born about 1834) Marion (born about 1837) and finally Augustus R. Davis (born about 1840). Records indicate there should be a 6th brother but I have been unable to ascertain his name or birth date.

The 1840 Perry County, Alabama Census records show Benjamin E. Davis as head of household with 3 free white males under 5, 3 free white males age 5-9, 3 free white males age 30-39, 1 free white female age 20-29 and 5 slaves.

 By 1850, according to census records and the letters mentioned above 5 of the 6 boys recorded in the 1840 Perry County, Alabama census were living in Monroe County, Mississippi.

In December 1849 Benjamin was a ward of William Taylor.   He was described as being "about 18 years of age, 5' 9 or 10" high and will weigh about 130 lbs., a fine looking fellow" "of unblemished reputation" and  "of very superior mental endowment". He had served in the 1st Battalion Mississippi Rifle Volunteers commanded by Lt. Colonel James Patton Anderson, at Tampico in the Mexican War and was "one of its best soldiers".

In 1850 William O., Marion and Augustus  were living with Taylor and his wife Portatier, an older sister of Matilda Holladay Davis.  Thomas J. Davis lived with another sister Nancy Holladay and her husband Wiley Howell.  In a letter written by E. Abbott supporting Benjamin's West Point application Abbott notes:  "Mr Davis has lost both his father and mother and has 5 brothers, all fine, strong, well behaved boys".

We know Benjamin Franklin Davis was admitted to West Point and graduated in 1854 ranking 32nd out of 47 cadets.  Upon graduation he was assigned to the 5th US Infantry. He transferred to the 1st US Dragoons March 3, 1855.  Davis spent time in Texas and New Mexico, where he distinguished himself and was wounded fighting Coyotero and Mogollon Apache on the Gila River, June 27, 1857.  By 1858 he was in California  where he would commissioned a Captain in the 1st US Cavalry and a Lt. Colonel of the 1st California Cavalry Volunteers.  He came east in 1861 to join the Union War  effort.  Davis is best known for advocating and leading a daring escape of Union cavalry from Harpers Ferry on September 14, 1862 in conjunction with  Lt. Colonel Hasbrouck Davis of the 12th Illinois Cavalry.  He would be breveted Major, September 15, 1862 for "Meritorious Service in the Withdrawal of the Cavalry Forces from Harpers Ferry, VA., at the Surrender of the Place", on the recommendation of Major General George B. McClellan.  On November 14, 1862  Brigadier General Alfred Pleasonton recommended John Farnsworth, David Gregg and  Davis for promotion to Brigadier General noting "their judgement, experience and energy fully entitled them to the position of Brigadier General."  This request was not acted upon prior to Davis's untimely death.

As noted in Half Century Record of the Class at West Point 1850-1854, written by Henry L. Abbott, Davis "served in the battles and skirmishes of the Army of the Potomac, after that of South Mountain always with so much credit to himself as to be regarded as having very few equals and no superiors in the cavalry branch of the service".

At least 2 of Benjamin's brothers, Marion and Augustus fought for the Confederacy. Both were with  Company D,  11th Mississippi Infantry Regiment.   Marion would be missing during the Peninsula Campaign and Augustus would be killed  at Weldon Railroad August 18, 1864.



  

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