Saturday, June 30, 2018

An Officer, a Gentleman and an Ornament to his Country: The Life of Benjamin Franklin Davis

When Brigadier General John Buford wrote his official report on the Battle of Brandy Station near Warrenton Junction, Virginia on June 13, 1863 he noted: "This woods were dearly bought, for among the noble and brave ones who fell was Colonel B. F. Davis, 8th New York Cavalry.  He died in the front giving example of heroism and courage to all who were to follow.  He was a thorough soldier, free from politics and intrigue.  A patriot in the true sense, an ornament to his country and a bright star in his profession."  Who is this man who elicited such glowing comments from the well respected cavalier John Buford who would follow Davis to the cemetery at the U. S. Military Academy at West Point after his own untimely death on December 16, 1863.  Very little is known about him but he deserves to be remembered.  I will try and do that in this short essay.


Benjamin Franklin Davis was born in Perry County, Alabama on or about October 24, 1831.  He was the eldest of six sons born to Benjamin E. Davis and his wife Matilda Holladay Davis between 1831 and 1840.  Little is known about Benjamin E. Davis except for the marriage records showing either his marriage to Matilda E. Holladay or the issuance of a marriage license on January 1, 1831;  his purchase of 79.81 acres of government land in the E2NW4 Section 17 T. 18 N., R. 8 E., in Perry County on November 14, 1833 and a reference in the 1840 Perry County Census showing Benjamin E.,  as being between 30 and 39 with a wife age 20 to 29, 3 sons age 5 to 9 and 3 sons under age 5.  The census also indicated the elder Davis owned 5 slaves.

Matilda E. Holladay Davis was born in Wilkes County, Georgia before 1813.  She was one of 11 children (8 girls and 3 boys) born to Captain Benjamin W. Holladay and his wife Elizabeth Cook Jones Holladay.  Captain Benjamin W. Holladay was born in Spotsylvania County, Virginia in April 1777.  He was the son of John M. Holladay III who served as a private in the 10th Virginia Regiment of Foot in the Continental Army.  John M. Holladay III was the great grandson of Thomas Holladay a native of  Middlesex, England who came to the colonies with some of the early arrivals and settled in Virginia.

Sometime after the completion of the Perry County Census in late 1840 both Matilda and Benjamin E. Davis died of unknown causes.  Five of their six sons, including Benjamin, became wards of husbands of Matilda's sisters. Very little is known about the life of Benjamin F, Davis and his five brothers from 1840 until they reappear in correspondence in 1849 and Monroe County, Mississippi Census records in 1850.  Benjamin Davis did enlist as a private in Company E, Anderson's Mississippi Rifles, commanded by Lt. Colonel James Patton Anderson on December 23, 1847, at Aberdeen, when he was sixteen years old.  The rifles were stationed at Tampico.   He mustered out with the unit on June 28, 1848 at Vicksburg.   In 1850 William O. Davis age 17, Marion Davis age 13 and Augustus R. Davis age 11 reside with William Taylor and his wife Agnes.  Thomas J . Davis age 16 lives with Wiley and Nancy Howell.

 In 1849 Benjamin F. Davis was seeking an appointment to the U. S. Military Academy at West Point.  A number of his friends and relatives wrote letters to the local congressman W. S. Featherston supporting his application. E. Abbott, a friend of Benjamin Davis had this to say in his December 28, 1849 letter to Featherston: "Mr. Davis is 18 years of age, 5' 9 or 10 inches high, and will weigh about 130 pounds, a fine looking fellow.  Mr. Davis served in the battalion from this state at Tampico in the Mexican War and is one of it's best soldiers.  He is the grandson of B. W. Holliday 6 miles from Aberdeen on the Columbia Stage Road.  Mr. Davis has lost both father & mother and has 5 brothers all fine strong well behaved boys."  In another letter  Davis's uncle John Abbott wrote Featherston on December 26, 1849: "Permit me to ask a favor of you, my nephew Benjamin Franklin Davis of Monroe Co., heard that there is a vacancy from your district... if so I wish that Mr. Davis could get the situation.   He is the grandson of Capt. Benj W. Holladay of this county, nephew of W. Taylor and Wiley Howell and all of his relations live in this and the adjoining county.  He is a very promising young man about 18 years of age and has a liberal education for a youth, he has a fine appearance of good size and in every way a gentleman....His means is limited."  Benjamin Davis himself wrote Featherston a letter on December 28, 1849, from Columbus, Mississippi.  Davis noted that he had written Featherston a letter of inquiry three or four weeks ago concerning a commission in the navy but now realized  "that I am to old by one year 17 being the limited age and besides I would rather have this appointment."  The letter writing campaign was successful.  On April 3, 1850 Benjamin F. Davis acknowledged receipt of the communication from the Secretary of War dated March 16, 1850 of his conditional appointment of cadet in the service of the United States and to inform you of my acceptance of the same.

Benjamin Davis was admitted to West Point on July 1, 1850.  His age is listed at 18 years 8 months at date of admission.  Sometime during his tenure at the academy he acquired the nickname "Grimes".  During his 4th year he ranked 43rd of 71 cadets.  His best subject was engineering studies where he ranked 31st.  He accumulated 92 demerits.  In 1852 Davis ranked 53rd of 60 cadets in the third class.  His best subject was French.  He ranked 224 of 224 cadets in conduct with 200 demerits.  During his second year Davis moved up in the class standings ranking 30th of 54 cadets.  He ranked 23rd in philosophy and 26th in chemistry.  His conduct also improved as he ranked 172 of 225 cadets with 186 demerits.

In 1854 Benjamin Davis was a member of the 1st class at West Point.  Henry L. Abbott who wrote "Half Century of a West Point Class 1850 to 1854"  noted in a table titled "Record at West Point" on page 56 that Davis was Captain of Cadets.  Of the 46 cadets that graduated on July 1, 1854 Davis ranked 26 in cavalry exercises and  32nd over all with 198 demerits.  He was commissioned a brevet 2nd Lieutenant in the 5th U. S. Infantry upon graduation.

Benjamin F. Davis returned to Aberdeen, Mississippi after graduating from West Point.  In a letter dated August 26, 1854 he accepted his commission as a brevet 2nd lieutenant offered him by the president.  The returns from Ringgold Barracks, Texas where Davis was to report to join his unit shows him on leave from July 1, 1854 through the end of October.  The November returns note his passage is delayed through New Orleans to join his regiment until December 1, 1854.    Davis finally joins the 5th Infantry at Ringgold Barracks on December 24 after 5 months leave.

Brevet 2nd Lieutenant Davis will remain at Ringgold Barracks with Company C, 5th Infantry from January to June 1855.  In June he will transfer to the 1st Dragoons, as per a war department letter dated May 23, 1855. The United States Regiment of Dragoons, organized by an Act of Congress on March 2, 1833, was an elite mounted force trained to fight on foot and on horseback with sabres, carbines and pistols.  Four West Point classmates, all from the south, William D. Pender, Alfred B. Chapman, John T. Mercer and Horace Randal will join Davis with the 1st Dragoons.  When the Civil War starts all but Davis will resign their commissions in the U. S. Army.  Pender, Mercer and Randal would fight for the Confederacy.  Chapman would take up the practice of law in California.

Benjamin F. Davis left Ringgold Barracks June 23, 1855 in route to Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.  While in St. Louis on July 1, 1855 he accepts his appointment as 2nd Lieutenant in the 1st Dragoons to date from March 3, 1855.  He arrives at Fort Leavenworth August 3rd.  At this time the post was commanded by Colonel. Edwin V. Sumner, 1st U. S. Cavalry.

On September 23, 1855 2nd Lt. Davis leaves Fort Leavenworth headed to Jefferson Barracks outside St Louis, Missouri.  By early October he is at Fort Jay, New York in route to join his regiment in New Mexico Territory.  On October 25, 1855 Davis, Chapman, and David McMurtrie Gregg (West Point Class of 1855) depart New York Harbor by sea in route to Corpus Christie, Texas in charge of a number of recruits.  Davis is the acting adjutant.

Benjamin Davis would arrive at the remote outpost of Fort Stanton in south central New Mexico on April 24, 1856.   The, fort named after Captain Henry W. Stanton, had been constructed  along the Rio Bonita River by the 1st Dragoons and the 3rd and 8th Infantry in 1855 to protect settlers from the indigenous Mescalero Apache.  The April 1856 post returns show Davis at a grazing camp near Fort Stanton since April 28, 1865.   In late May he is on a scout to the Pecos River.  By June 15 he is back at the fort.  Davis will leave Fort Stanton August 11, 1856 in route to Camp Moore (renamed Fort Buchanan in June 1857) near Calabasa Ranchero 45 miles southeast of Tucson in what is now the state of Arizona.  2nd Lt. Davis will remain at Camp Moore from November 1856 through February 1857 with Company B 1st Dragoons.  He will leave the post March 9th, 1857 on detached service in search of deserters and will not return until April 15.

On May 3, 1857 2nd Lt. Davis will leave Camp Moore.  He will participate with Company B & K, 1st Dragoons, commanded by Captain Richard S. Ewell, et al, as part of Lt. Colonel Dixon S. Miles southern column in Colonel Benjamin Bonneville's Gila River Expedition.  After marching from a depot on the Gila River for 12 days the command made up of about 400 men will encounter a band of Coyotero and Mogollon Apache on June 27, 1857.  In the fighting 24 Apache will be killed and 27 taken prisoners and all their property captured or destroyed.  Several officers under Ewell's command will also be injured including 2nd Lt. Davis who received an arrow wound in the right knee. In General Orders #14, dated November 14, 1857 Irvin McDowell noted "great credit was also given to both 2nd Lieutenants Benjamin F. Davis and Alfred B. Chapman" for their conduct in the June 27 action against the Apache.  2nd Lieutenant Davis would return to Fort Buchanan with the 1st Dragoons in August 1857.  He would remain in and around the fort the remainder of the year.

Fort Buchanan, by all accounts, was a miserable place.  The post historian noted: "It consisted of a series of temporary jackals.  The quarters lacked neatness and comfort and the houses were built of upright posts of decayed timber coated in mud.  The floors and roofs were covered with dirt and grass and the rooms were low, narrow and lacked ventilation."  Marshes surrounded the fort on three sides which exposed the garrison to mosquito borne malaria.

In early 1858 Benjamin Davis would spend considerable time on detached service away from Fort Buchanan.  During one stint in April while at the fort he would be in command of Company B, 1st Dragoons a position he had also temporarily held in the fall of 1857.  On May 11, 1858 2nd Lieutenant Benjamin F. Davis was transferred to the Department of the Pacific.  He left Fort Buchanan for Fort Tejon in southern California where the 1st Dragoons were headquartered.

To be continued.