Sunday, January 6, 2019

Benjamin Franklin Davis: The Measure of a Man in the Words of his Peers.

What most historians know about this Alabama born, Louisiana and Mississippi raised orphan, who spent his short adult life as an officer in the United States Army, can be summed up in a couple of paragraphs.  The vast majority of what is known is positive, but not all.  This dearth of information has lead me on an exhaustive search in an attempt to bring to light something more definitive and insightful about this young man.  The following is the result of that ongoing research extracted from the written word of his family, friends, colleagues and peers.

William F. Dowd, a Mississippian, who would serve as a colonel in the Confederate Army during the Civil War, had this to say about his young friend Ben Davis in a letter he wrote January 2, 1850, supporting Davis's application to the United States Military Academy at West Point: "Davis is a young man of about 18 years of age of unblemished reputation of very superior mental endowment - also if educated at West Point I feel soon will prove an ornament to the service and an honor to his country."

Benjamin F. Davis was admitted to West Point July 1, 1850.  Upon graduation, in 1854, the brevet 2nd Lieutenant was assigned to the 5th U. S. Infantry.  In March 1855 he transferred to the 1st U. S. Dragoons.  He would serve with the dragoons in New Mexico Territory and California from 1856 until late 1861.

On page 56 Executive Documents The House of Representatives 1st Session of the Thirty-fifth Congress in documentation referring Captain Bonneville's 1957 Gila River Expedition it is noted: "Great credit (was) given by the commanding officer to the following named officers - Alfred B. Chapman and Benjamin F. Davis.  

In the fall of 1861 orders were issued to transfer almost all the regular army troops from the west coast, east, so they could serve in the rebellion. To do this volunteer regiments had to be raised in California, Washington and Oregon to replace them.  In August 1861 the governor of California was looking for an officer for the 1st California Volunteer Cavalry Battalion.  In recommending Lt. Davis for this position to both California's governor and Lorenzo Thomas, the army's Adjutant General, Brigadier General Edwin V. Sumner, commander of the Department of the Pacific, had this to say: "General in raising the volunteers from this state, I find it indispensably necessary, for economy as well as efficiency to have a cavalry officer of experience and ability to command the five companies of cavalry.  There was no suitable man to be found out of the army, and at my request  the governor of California has given the commission of Lt. Colonel of Cavalry to Lt. B. F. Davis of the 1st Dragoons.  I have known this young officer since he entered the army and I know him to be one of the best officers in it.  He is from the south but a firm loyalist to the government.   Between August and November 1861 Davis reportedly "whipped the raw recruits of the 1st California Cavalry into 1st class horse soldiers."

Captain B. F. Davis came east with his regiment in November 1861.  By early 1862 he would be serving in the defenses of Washington, prior to joining the Army of the Potomac for the 1862 Peninsula Campaign, where he would be commended for his action at the Battle of Williamsburg on May 5, 1862.  While at Camp Sprague, on the outskirts of Washington Captain Davis "trained" George B. Sanford, the 1st Lieutenant of Company K 1st U. S. Cavalry.  Sanford noted in  "Fighting Rebels and Redskins: "To Captain Davis more than any other one officer I am indebted for whatever I afterwards became in the service.  He was a thorough officer ... and never missed an opportunity to impart the instructions that I required...He required me to study and recite to him daily.  On the march he taught me to notice the character of the country, the advantages of positions for attack and defense, sites for camps etc.  At a halt he would practice with me in the saber exercise and give me instructions in posting pickets and sending out scouts.  If I did not appreciate his kindness at the time, I certainly have since."  Sanborn also mentioned "Captain Davis was a handsome man of about twenty-eight years...He had gained some reputation for his gallantry in action with the Apache.  He was as loyal as he was brave, and nothing but his early death prevented him from reaching very high rank in the service."     

 By mid June 1862, Benjamin Davis would be on leave, sick at Willard's Hotel in Washington D.C.  About this time however the 8th New York Volunteer Cavalry was looking for a new commander and George Stoneman recommended Davis.  Davis's commission as Colonel of the 8th New York was backdated to June 25, 1862.   He would not take over command of the regiment in the field in Maryland until mid July 1862.  

At first the 8th New York Volunteers did not think very highly of their West Point educated  regular army colonel but this is what several members of the regiment had to say after they became better acquainted.  

On July 29, 1862 a member of the 8th New York wrote a letter to New York's Governor Morgan.  He said "You will not think it amiss if I give you the public judgement already pronounced in the 8th Cavalry Regiment upon the quality of it's head....The bearing of our colonel among us has given us a lofty example of the hard-working soldier and of the man of honor, at home in his work, quiet, thoughtful, cheerful, of few words, and, like the weight of a pendulum of a clock, in ceaseless and noiseless influence on all of the wheels.  His quarters and their furnishings are as plain as those of any other officer, that is, as plain as plain can be, and no one rises in the morning and finds him abed.  That he means to do his duty is evident, and no one is left in doubt that he expects the rest of us to do ours.  He has no favors to ask for himself.  That is both evident and striking.  I dare say your Excellency will recognize that as a peculiarity; but it is also the secret of true dignity and freedom....To the office of the Chaplain he has shown himself respectful and considerate, in making it useful and impressive, and so have all the officers - to his gray hairs courteous and kind.  In reproof to officers I hear no instance of impatience, and none have been administered in the presence of subordinates.  In this record I believe I have the camp's unanimous concurrence."  

Henry Norton noted in Deeds of Daring History of the 8th New York Volunteer Cavalry, that Colonel B. F. Davis “was a military man clear through, the right man in the right place.  He was a strict disciplinarian, and brought the regiment down under the regular army regulations.” 

The 8th New York Volunteer Cavalry, and Colonel Davis were ordered to leave Relay House, Maryland for Harpers Ferry, Virginia on August 28, 1862.  Once at Harpers Ferry they were primarily charged with protecting the Winchester and Potomac Railroad that ran from Harpers Ferry to Winchester, Virginia and breaking up the 12th Virginia Cavalry.  The 8th New York and 5 other regiments of cavalry were trapped in Harpers Ferry when Confederate forces commanded by Stonewall Jackson surrounded the town on September 13, 1862.  Colonel Davis was instrumental in facilitating and helping lead the Union cavalry escape from Harpers Ferry on September 14, 1862.  For this action he was breveted Major in the regular army and given command of a brigade by Major General George B. McClellan.  Davis would lead a brigade as a colonel until his untimely death at Beverly Ford, Virginia during the June 9, 1863 Battle of Brandy Station.

In his official report following the Battle of Brandy Station Major General Alfred Pleasonton, commander of the Cavalry Corps, Army of the Potomac reported: we "would have captured his (Beckham's) guns but for the untimely loss of the brave and accomplished Colonel B. F. Davis of the 8th New York Cavalry, who while commanding a brigade, charged at the head of his column into the midst of the enemy and was shot through the head."

Brigadier General John Buford, who commanded the 1st Division, which Davis's brigade was attached to, wrote: "this success was dearly bought, for among the noble and brave ones who fell was Colonel B. F. Davis.  He died in front, giving examples of heroism and courage to all who were to follow.  He was a thorough soldier, free from politics and intrigue, a patriot in its true sense, an ornament to his country and a bright star in his profession."

In Annals of the 6th Pennsylvania Cavalry, Reverend Samuel Levi Gracey Chaplain of the 6th Pennsylvania Cavalry, and, for a time, the 1st Division of the Cavalry Corps, who saw the insensible Davis being carried from the field (at Beverly Ford) in a litter wrote: “Here comes a rough litter bearing an officer.  Who is that boys?  “Colonel Davis sir!” “Is it possible!” Noble fellow!  “Is he wounded badly”  “A minie ball through the head, sir!”  He is  insensible his hair matted and clotted with blood. God have mercy on this brave, noble, patriotic soldier the hero of Harpers Ferry.”  This is our hastily breathed prayer, as we linger for a moment,  and then hurry on to join our command.” 

In writing his Personal Recollections of the Civil War Brigadier General John Gibbon, who also had ties to the south from growing up in North Carolina, wrote in a June 9 letter: “he (Davis) was killed in the fighting up the river either yesterday or today…I regard his death as the greatest loss this army has met with in a long time.  He ought long ago to have been promoted, but such men, I am sorry to say, seldom get positions to which their merit and service entitle them.”  

In another letter dated June 11 John noted: "Poor Davis was killed while gallantly charging at the head of his brigade….I feel very sad when I think of him, and he is a very, very great loss to this army.”

Brigadier General Marsena Patrick's notation in his diary for June 9, 1863 read:  "Pleasonton has been engaged up the River, in a severe fight, which cost us the life of our best Cavalry Officer - Col. Benjamin F. Davis."

In an article written for Harpers Weekly titled  "The Battle of Brandy Station" General Wesley Merritt noted" “the leading brigade of Buford’s Division was commanded by Col. B. F. Davis, 8th New York Cavalry, a captain in the 1st U S Cavalry…The battle was hotly joined and Davis had fallen mortally wounded.  He was dearly beloved throughout the command, and many a veteran of the old 1st and 2nd Dragoons drew his chin grimly to his breast and with clinched teeth awaited the shock of battle determined to do his share in avenging the death of this hero."

Merritt also noted in Personal Recollections-Beverly Ford to Mitchell's Station,  "He (Davis) was a gallant man, an ambitious soldier, a courtly gentleman.  A southerner, like the idolized chief of the first division (Buford), he stood firm by the flag under which he had received his qualifications and commission as an officer; he died for that flag, under that flag fell to soon, but oh! so bravely."

Elias Beck, surgeon of the 3rd Indiana Volunteer Cavalry did not have the same high regard for Colonel B. F. Davis as did many of his fellow officers.  Beck remarked in  June 10, 1863  letter to his wife that we:  "had a fight, our brigade commander Colonel Davis was killed...Davis was a regular, a Mississippian by birth, a proud tyrannical devil and had the ill will of his whole command.  I bet he was killed by our own men.”  He noted in another part of the letter: There was "general rejoicing among our brigade that Davis was killed he was such a tyrant.  A West Point man and a southerner - proud spirited - he led the 8th New York Cavalry in a charge & was 20 feet ahead of his men when his body was pierced by balls."    

In a History of the 3rd Indiana CavalryWilliam N. Pickerill painted a different picture of the regiments opinion of Davis.  Pickerill wrote: “Colonel Davis was an officer of the regular army, a strict disciplinarian…was regarded as one of the best subordinate cavalry commanders of the army.”

George W. Newhall also commented about B. F. Davis in the Battle of Beverly Ford in The Annals of the War Written by Leading Participants North and South.  Newhall recorded: “he  (Davis) fell in a moment mortally wounded on the further bank, and should be remembered with special honor for he was a southern man and a graduate of West Point.  He was called “Grimes” by all his army friends and was the beau ideal of a cavalry officer.  He was borne back in a blanket just as Pleasonton gained the southern bank of the river.”

In the years after the Civil War and Colonel Benjamin F. Davis's untimely death at age 31 encomiums were still being written about the gallant American soldier.  

In Three Years in the Federal Cavalry Willard W. Glazier wrote: “ In the early part of the engagement (Brandy Station) fell Colonel B. F. Davis of the 8th New York Cavalry.  His loss was a subject of great lamentation.  He had distinguished himself for great sagacity, wonderful power of endurance and unsurpassed bravery.”

Jonathan Letterman, Medical Director of the Army of the Potomac  served with Benjamin Davis at Fort Tejon in California before the Civil War.  Lettermen wrote in
 Medical Recollections of the Army of the Potomac,  "This officer, who so successfully extricated his regiment from Harper's Ferry when the post was surrendered by General Miles - who fought so gallantly on our march through Virginia in the autumn of 1862 - had been my companion in more than one campaign among the Indians; my messmate at stations far beyond the haunts of civilized men.  This long, familiar intercourse produced the warmest admiration for his noble character, which made him sacrifice friends and relatives to uphold the flag under which he was born and defend the Constitution of his country."

For many years the survivors of the 8th New York Volunteer Cavalry would hold a reunion in June on or close to the anniversary of the Battle of Brandy Station. George H. Chapman remembered Colonel Davis at the 1881 reunion.  He noted in his address that "Colonel Davis was a competent officer, a stern disciplinarian and a man of strong character.  Had his life been spared I have no doubt he would have gained great distinction.  I always think of him as a man who was entitled to much credit for being faithful to the flag when almost everyone who was surrounded by the same influences proved faithless...It required strong conscientious conviction and moral courage to sustain him, and all in like situation, in remaining faithful to the flag and standing with the north.  Let his memory be revered."

Henry L. Abbott, who graduated 2nd in the same West Point Class as Davis, noted in a book he wrote titled Half Century of a West Point Class 1850 to 1854,  that Davis was a Captain of Cadets.  Abbott also wrote on page 18: “He took part in all 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.  He commanded a brigade of the 1st Division of Pleasonton's Cavalry Corps for many months, and was over and over again recommended for promotion to the grade of Brigadier General...The request that his body might repose at West Point was granted by the Secretary of War.  It is the fitting place.  He was a gallant son of his Alma Mater, and an honor to his class and to the Academy.”

And maybe one of the final and most fitting remarks regarding the life and career of Benjamin Franklin Davis was written by Major General George B. Davis in an article about Harpers Ferry published in the Journal of the U. S. Cavalry Association May 1, 1913.  General Davis noted: "Colonel Davis, affectionately known as "Grimes" by his friends and admirers who were many and enthusiastic - was to valuable a man to permit to be cooped up again (as at Harpers Ferry), or employed in escorting his own forage and rations...and was immediately assigned to the command of a brigade of cavalry by General McClellan.  Here he was at his best, and Grime's Davis's best was something beyond the common...In one of the early combats of cavalry against cavalry of which the year 1863, and those following were to see many, he was killed while leading his brigade - not upon a place - but upon a mounted force of the enemy, of equal if not superior strength; and so the gallant spirit passed, in the tumult of battle, "to where beyond these voices there is peace."  A photograph, dating probably from the late summer of 1861, is - or was, one of the cherished possessions of the Army Mess at the Military Academy, which in life, not less in his untimely death he so much adorned."