The officer was a bit of an anomaly; a Union colonel with a Deep South accent, wearing a Mexican serape against the pre-dawn chill. Shortly after stepping into the saddle he spurred his horse into the Rappahannock River. The placid waters were soon churning, as hundreds of troopers in Union blue followed in his wake. Moments later their horses climbed the far bank toward an unseen enemy, and an uncertain future. Soon, the muffled thud of hooves yielded to cries and shouts as the troopers surprised Confederate pickets along the Beverly’s Ford Road. Then, shortly after the last moments of silence surrendered to the angry crack of pistols and the ring of steel against steel, the officer in the serape toppled from his saddle. Col. Benjamin Franklin ‘Grimes’ Davis died later that morning.
Days later, Brig. Gen. John Buford sat down to write his after-action report. Eulogizing Davis must have been especially difficult for Buford, as he and Davis had shared a special bond. Southerners by birth, they had chosen to honor their oath and stand with their country. But they paid a price for their loyalty, as suspicious men, like Secretary of War Edwin Stanton never truly trusted them, and family members abandoned them. Thus, Buford and Davis may have found solace and understanding in each other.
The initial “success was dearly bought,” Buford wrote of the opening phase of the Battle at Brandy Station, “for among the noble and brave ones who fell was Colonel B. F. Davis, Eighth New York Cavalry. He died in the 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.”
Today, readers of these words focus on “politics and intrigue.” What did Buford mean and who was he referring to when he penned these words? Was he taking a slap at Alfred Pleasonton, commander of the Cavalry Corps or Edwin Stanton? We will never know, and I believe Buford would prefer that we not try, as we have not walked in his boots. It is, however, another phrase that has always caught my eye – “an ornament to his country.” And so I was especially struck when I read through Davis’s West Point application file.
Davis was born in Alabama but raised in Mississippi. He and his five brothers were orphaned when Davis was still a boy, and he went to live with an uncle, William Taylor. Much of Davis’s extended family, including Taylor, lived near Aberdeen, Mississippi, but Davis also spent time in Columbus, possibly attending school.
On December 28, 1849, young Davis, then in Columbus, wrote to Congressman Winfield Scott Featherston, requesting an appointment to West Point. “[I]f you should get it for me, you will lay me under a debt of gratitude to you which I can never repay…I addressed you a letter of inquiry concerning a commission in the Navy. I have since learned that I am too old by one year, 17 being the limited age, and besides I had much rather have this appointment. I have been told this morning that my guardian’s written consent is necessary. I will forward it to you as soon as I go to Aberdeen.”
Supporting his nephew’s decision, Taylor told Featherston, “I send you my full consent to apply and use your influence in behalf of Benjamin F. Davis, my ward… I can with candor say that I know no young man that would fit the situation at West Point with more credit to himself and honor to the State.”
Benjamin’s uncle, John Abbott, explained to Featherston, “my nephew’s … means is limited, and I have no doubt that if he can get the appointment it would be one of the best that could be made from this district.”
Another uncle, described Benjamin as “18 years of age, 5 feet 9 or 10 inches high and will weigh about 130 lbs., a fine looking fellow… served in the Battalion from the State at Tampico in the Mexican War and was one of the best soldiers.” A staunch Southerner, the writer felt compelled to add a rather incendiary post script, “Never vote for a free-soiler or a [Northern] Whig for speaker – let confusion reign.”
“He has not one bad habit & talents of high order,” a family friend said of young Davis. “No young man in North [Mississippi] of my acquaintance has brighter prospects… one thing I do know & guarantee…he will never disgrace the institution, nor cause a blush to the appointing power.”
All of these missives give us a better sense of a man, and an officer, of whom we know little, but two other letters especially caught my eye.
Reuben Davis explained to Congressman Featherston that Benjamin “is now studying medicine and most ambitious for success…he would certainly become an ornament to his country.”
And William Dowd termed the young applicant as being “of very superior mental endowments and if educated at West Point, I feel sure, will prove an ornament to the service & an honor to his country.”
Reuben Davis and William Dowd saw a bright future for young Davis. John Buford saw their expectations realized. The three men knew Davis, as we never will, and each of them saw him as an ornament to his country – an ornament that fell 153 years ago today at Brandy Station.
And, for nearly 153 years, Benjamin Franklin Davis and John Buford have rested side by side in the cemetery at West Point. They do so by design; almost certainly at Buford’s request. On December 19, 1863, three days after Buford succumbed to Typhoid Fever, Maj. Gen. Christopher Auger advised the superintendent of the military academy, “The body of the late Major Gen’l Buford will leave [Washington, D.C.] tomorrow at 2 o’clock p.m. for West Point, where it is to be buried beside that of the late Col. Davis.”
Official Records Supplement
Documents from the National Archives
Thanks also to Bud Hall, the authority on Brandy Station