For some, the Confederate monument that has been a consistent, if anonymous until recently, fixture in downtown Augusta for 140 years represents the glorification of a racist part of American history.
But the man at the top of that 76-foot memorial to the Confederate dead, Berry Greenwood Benson, has a story some might find doesn’t square with that perception.
Benson, born Feb. 9, 1843, in Hamburg, S.C., which was the general vicinity of North Augusta, is often epitomized as “the man on the monument,” a common soldier. But his service following the Civil War is the opposite of ordinary.
He received national recognition in one of the state’s most notorious instances of anti-Semitism, wrote renowned local historian Ed Cashin, who authored what many consider the definitive book on Augusta’s history, The Story of Augusta. Benson assisted in the defense of Leo Frank, a Jewish factory manager who was convicted in 1913 of murdering 13-year-old factory worker Mary Phagan in Atlanta.
Cashin wrote that Benson publicized his arguments in newspapers across the country and in a self-published pamphlet exonerating Frank. His findings were partially instrumental in persuading Gov. John Slaton to commute Frank’s death sentence to life in prison. Frank was later taken from his cell by a mob and lynched in 1915.
“He actually is the one who was reading the testimony that came up during the trial and noticed the discrepancies in the testimony of the main witness and brought that to the attention of the judicial systems,” said Augusta University journalism professor Debra van Tuyll, who writes about history.
In his private life after returning home, Benson experimented with a variety of mushrooms in an effort to find an inexpensive, and available, way to feed poor black families of the countryside, Cashin noted.
Jean Pittman, a North Augusta native who recently discovered she was a distant relative of Benson, said he seemed to be “quite the character.” She recalled a time she read the soldier’s memoir to her family.
“It was so interesting that I read it to my children,” she said, ” I read and read until I became hoarse, and even then my children and my husband didn’t want me to stop.”
At age 17, Benson, and his younger brother, Blackwood, joined the Hamburg Minutemen – the first militia unit to present itself to Francis Wilkinson Pickens, a political Democrat and governor of South Carolina when it seceded from the United States.
He was assembled into the First South Carolina Volunteer Regiment in Charleston and helped man the Edgefield Battery during the bombardment of Fort Sumter in April 1861. His service during the Civil War include the Sevens Days Battle, Second Manassas, and Fredericksburg, all in Virginia, and Antietam in Maryland. He was shot in the leg during the Battle of Chancellorsville in 1863, forcing him to return to Augusta to recuperate and therefore miss the Battle of Gettysburg.
Benson is often known as a sharpshooter and scout and for his unique escapes from Union prison camps – once by stealing a Union colonel’s horse and leading it back to Confederate lines, according to Cashin, and the other by digging a 65-foot-long tunnel with other Confederate prisoners.
When the war ended, Benson settled in Augusta with his wife, Jeannie Oliver, and six children. He workedfor several years, as a cotton broker and accountant, and he developed a fail-safe method for checking and correcting accounts.
During that time, Benson showed a strong advocacy for the working class. In 1898, he helped end a strike where more than 30,000 textile workers walked off their jobs.
“Although Benson audited books for the local mills, he was sympathetic to the plight of the workers,” Cashin wrote. “During the textile strike of 1898, he was the most prominent private citizen to champion the cause of the workers, and he served as an arbitrator in ending the strike.”
The Augusta Confederate monument has become embroiled in controversy since the state NAACP called for the removal of all Confederate symbols on public spaces two weeks ago. A rally Thursday by the local NAACP branch calling for removing the monument, which has the statues of four Confederate generals and that of Benson, drew about 200 people.
Supporters of removing the monument must petition the Augusta Commission about seeking to change a state law that forbids moving, changing or obscuring any memorial to military veterans from public property, including Confederates.
A Sons of Confederate Veterans group took the soldier’s name.
Sgt. Berry Benson Camp No. 1672, which meets the third Tuesday of each month, established itself in North Augusta.
A member of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, whose organization continues the mission of the Ladies Memorial Association that financed the monument and dedicated it Oct. 31, 1877, said that the statue of Benson bares no resemblance to the soldier. Van Tuyll, however, said that doesn’t diminish Benson’s significance.
“He could have been chosen because he was popular in town,” van Tuyll said. “He was the model but not in that exact likeness, and that is what makes the Confederate monument unique.”