Henry L. Benning
|Henry L. Benning|
An 1860s painting of Benning in a Confederate army uniform.
|Birth name||Henry Lewis Benning|
April 2, 1814|
Columbia County, Georgia, U.S.
|Died||July 10, 1875
Columbus, Georgia, U.S.
|Buried at||Linwood Cemetery
Columbus, Georgia, U.S.
|Years of service||1861–1865|
|Commands held||17th Georgia Infantry|
|Spouse(s)||Mary Howard Jones (m. 1839)|
Henry Lewis Benning (April 2, 1814 – July 10, 1875) was an American lawyer, legislator, and judge on the Georgian Supreme Court. A native Georgian, he was a Confederate army officer during the American Civil War, commanding the "Benning's Brigade". Following the Confederacy's defeat at the end of the war, he returned to his native Georgia, where he lived out the rest of his life. The U.S. Army's Fort Benning is named after him.
Early life and education
Benning was born on a plantation in Columbia County, Georgia, the son of Pleasant Moon and Malinda Meriwether White Benning, the third of eleven children. He attended Franklin College (now the University of Georgia), graduating in 1834. While a student, he was a member of the Phi Kappa Literary Society. After college, he moved to Columbus, Georgia, which would be his home for the rest of his life. He was admitted to the bar at the age of 21.
Benning was active in Southern U.S. politics and an ardent secessionist, bitterly opposing abolition, the emancipation of slaves, and equality for African Americans. In a letter to Howell Cobb written in July 1849, he stated that a Southern Confederacy would not be enough—because a Confederacy might itself eventually be become divided into northern and southern regions as slavery waned in some of the states—and called for a Southern "consolidated Republic" that "will put slavery under the control of those most interested in it."
In 1851 he was nominated for the U.S. Congress as a Southern rights Democrat, but was not elected. In 1853 he was elected an associate justice of the Georgia Supreme Court, where he was noted for an opinion that held that a state supreme court is not bound by the decisions of the Supreme Court of the United States on constitutional questions, but that the two courts must be held to be "coordinate and co-equal".
Following the election of Abraham Lincoln to the U.S. presidency in 1860 on a platform opposing the expansion of slavery into U.S. territories, Benning took an active part in the state convention that voted to secede from the Union, representing Muscogee County. In March 1861, the Southern states that had seceded appointed special commissioners to travel to those other slaveholding Southern states that had yet to secede. Benning was the commissioner from Georgia to the Virginian secession convention, where he tried to persuade Virginian politicians to vote to join Georgia in seceding from the Union. In a February 1861 speech to the Virginian secession convention, Benning gave his reasoning for the urging of secession from the Union, appealing to prejudices and pro-slavery sentiments to present his case:
What was the reason that induced Georgia to take the step of secession? This reason may be summed up in one single proposition. It was a conviction, a deep conviction on the part of Georgia, that a separation from the North-was the only thing that could prevent the abolition of her slavery. ... If things are allowed to go on as they are, it is certain that slavery is to be abolished. By the time the north shall have attained the power, the black race will be in a large majority, and then we will have black governors, black legislatures, black juries, black everything. Is it to be supposed that the white race will stand for that? It is not a supposable case. ... war will break out everywhere like hidden fire from the earth, and it is probable that the white race, being superior in every respect, may push the other back. ... we will be overpowered and our men will be compelled to wander like vagabonds all over the earth; and as for our women, the horrors of their state we cannot contemplate in imagination. That is the fate which abolition will bring upon the white race. ... We will be completely exterminated, and the land will be left in the possession of the blacks, and then it will go back to a wilderness and become another Africa... Suppose they elevate Charles Sumner to the presidency? Suppose they elevate Frederick Douglass, your escaped slave, to the presidency? What would be your position in such an event? I say give me pestilence and famine sooner than that.
American Civil War
Although he was considered for a cabinet position in the government of the newly established Confederacy, he chose to join the Confederate army instead and became the colonel of the 17th Georgia Infantry, a regiment he raised himself in Columbus on August 29, 1861. The regiment became part of Toombs's Brigade in the Right Wing of the Army of Northern Virginia, under General Robert E. Lee.
As a newly minted army officer, Benning immediately ran into political difficulty. He questioned the legality of the Confederate government's Conscription Act and spoke against it openly as a violation of states' rights. Refusing to obey certain orders, he came close to being court-martialed, but influence from his friend, Colonel T.R.R. Cobb, defused the situation. The first significant action he saw was at the Second Battle of Bull Run in August 1862. At the Battle of Antietam, Benning's brigade was a crucial part in the defense of the Confederate right flank, guarding "Burnside's Bridge" across Antietam Creek all morning against repeated Union assaults. His courage in battle was no longer questioned by his superiors, and he became known as the "Old Rock" to his men. He was promoted to brigadier general on April 23, 1863, with date of rank of January 17, 1863.
For most of the rest of the war, Benning continued as a brigade commander ("Benning's Brigade") in the division of the aggressive John Bell Hood of Texas. He missed the Confederate victory at the Battle of Chancellorsville because his brigade was stationed in southern Virginia along with the rest of Lt. Gen. James Longstreet's First Corps. However, they returned for active combat in the Battle of Gettysburg. There, on July 2, 1863, Benning led his brigade in a furious assault against the Union position in the Devil's Den, driving out the defenders at no small cost to themselves. That September, Longstreet's Corps was sent west to assist General Braxton Bragg's Army of Tennessee. On the second day of the bloody Battle of Chickamauga, Benning participated in Longstreet's massive charge against a gap in the Union line, even as his horse was shot out from under him. He mounted another horse, which was also killed. Finally, he cut loose a horse from a nearby artillery battery and rode into combat bareback. During a surprise Union counterattack against his brigade, many of his men fled and Benning ran off to Longstreet to report the calamity. Riding an old artillery horse and whipping it with a piece of rope, Longstreet wrote after the war that Benning was "Greatly excited and the very picture of despair." Benning said, "General, I am ruined; my brigade was suddenly attacked and every man killed; not one is to be found. Please give me orders where I can do some fighting." Longstreet responded impassively, "Nonsense, General, you are not so badly hurt. Look about you. I know you will find at least one man, and with him on his feet report your brigade to me, and you two shall have a place in the fighting line." Longstreet's reply humiliated Benning, but instilled enough determination in him to return to find his brigade and prevail in the battle.
The Benning's Brigade fought at the Battle of Wauhatchie outside Chattanooga, Tennessee, and joined Longstreet's Corps in its unsuccessful Knoxville Campaign in late 1863. Returning to Virginia, the brigade fought against Union Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant in the 1864 Overland Campaign, where Benning was severely wounded in the left shoulder during the Battle of the Wilderness on May 5. This wound kept him out of the remainder of the campaign and much of the subsequent Siege of Petersburg, but he was able to return in time for the waning days of that lengthy campaign. His brigade withstood strong Union assaults against its entrenchments, but was forced to withdraw along with the rest of Lee's army in the retreat to Appomattox Court House in early April 1865. Benning, heartbroken, was one of the final officers to lead his men to the surrender ceremony.
Later life and death
After the war, Benning returned to Columbus to resume the practice of law. He found that his house had been burned and that all of the savings had disappeared, and that now he had to support the widow and children of his wife's brother, who had been killed in the war, along with his own family.
In 1875, Benning had a stroke, termed apoplexy at the time, on his way to court and died in Columbus. He is buried in Linwood Cemetery near downtown Columbus.
On September 12, 1839, Benning married Mary Howard Jones of Columbus, Georgia. The couple had ten children; five daughters would survive Benning, and one of his sons was mortally wounded during the American Civil War.
- List of signers of the Georgia Ordinance of Secession
- Confederate States of America, causes of secession, "Died of states' rights"
- List of American Civil War generals
- Rhea, Gordon (January 25, 2011). "Why Non-Slaveholding Southerners Fought". Civil War Trust. Civil War Trust. Retrieved March 21, 2011.
- Benning, Henry L. (February 18, 1861). "Speech of Henry Benning to the Virginia Convention". Proceedings of the Virginia State Convention of 1861 1. pp. 62–75. Retrieved March 17, 2015.
- Benning, Henry L. (July 1, 1849). "Letter from Henry Benning to Howell Cobb". Civil War Causes. Retrieved March 17, 2015.
- Hewitt, pp. 100-01.
- Eicher, pp. 128-29.
- Cozzens, pp. 410-11. This interchange is also reported in Freeman, Vol. 2, p. 219, n. 53, but is incorrectly ascribed to Second Manassas. The original source is Sorrel, p. 203.
- Eicher, John H., and David J. Eicher. Civil War High Commands. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2001. ISBN 0-8047-3641-3.
- Freeman, Douglas S. Lee's Lieutenants: A Study in Command. 3 vols. New York: Scribner, 1946. ISBN 0-684-85979-3.
- Hewitt, Lawrence C. "Henry Lewis Benning." In The Confederate General, vol. 1, edited by William C. Davis and Julie Hoffman. Harrisburg, PA: National Historical Society, 1991. ISBN 0-918678-63-3.
- Kane, Sharyn, and Richard Keeton. Fort Benning, the Land and the People. National Park Service.
- Sorrel, G. Moxley. Recollections of a Confederate Staff Officer. Boston: Neale Publishing, 1905.
- Tagg, Larry. The Generals of Gettysburg. Campbell, CA: Savas Publishing, 1998. ISBN 1-882810-30-9.
- Warner, Ezra J. Generals in Gray: Lives of the Confederate Commanders. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1959. ISBN 0-8071-0823-5.
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