(March 26, 2020) Together with his sixteen-year-old brother, Blackford, Berry Benson (1843-1923) enlisted in a South Carolina regiment three months before Fort Sumter when he was one-month shy of his eighteenth birthday. After Sumter the two served in Robert E. Lee’s army until war’s end. Both refused to participate in the Appomattox surrender and returned to their Augusta, Georgia home after learning that General Joseph Johnston had also surrendered in North Carolina. They were still armed with their rifles when they arrived. Berry missed Gettysburg because he was badly wounded at Chancellorsville but otherwise participated in all of Lee’s major campaigns. He was twice captured and twice escaped notorious prison camps; Point Lookout, Maryland and Elmira, New York.
Today’s academic historians would at least mention his Civil War Book memoir in passing because they could demean it as that of a slaveholder’s son—his dad owned two—and could ridicule it for providing Shelby Foote with one of the Mississippian’s “hackneyed anecdotes” in the 1991 PBS Civil War documentary, except for Berry’s postbellum social progressivism. For example, even though the dominant accountant for Augusta’s textile mills, Berry backed their underpaid workers in an 1899 labor dispute. One local newspaper identified Berry as “perhaps the most ardent sympathizer the strikers have.” He leveraged business connections to get some of the workers hired in Atlanta where the Georgia Railroad agreed to transport them for free. The striking union invited Berry on the arbitration panel that finally ended the strike.
But it is Berry’s role in the 1914 Leo Frank Case that puts modern “progressive” academic historians on the horns of dilemma. If they condemn him, they may be criticized as antisemitic but if they praise him, they risk accusations of racism. Too many academics are accustomed to monopolizing such denunciations, which they dishonestly use to try and shame-into-silence anyone who challenges their interpretations of the Civil War and Reconstruction.
Leo Frank was a Cornell-educated Jewish engineer who moved to Atlanta in 1908 when he was twenty-four years old. Two years later he married a local girl and in 1910 was elected President of Atlanta’s chapter of B’nai B’rith, a Jewish service organization. When managing a local pencil factory in 1913, a thirteen-year-old girl worker was found raped and murdered in the basement. A month later Frank was charged with the murder and convicted after a twenty-five-day trial.
Berry followed the trial from Augusta with interest because one of his adult son Charles’s boyhood friends, William Smith, represented the black janitor who was a key prosecution witness. Notwithstanding that Smith had become an advocate of black rights partly under Berry’s mentorship, Berry doubted the handyman’s testimony. Jim Conley, the janitor, claimed that Frank paid him $200 in cash the very night of the murder as hush money and to assist in the body disposal. The “confession” earned him a light sentence.
As an accountant, Berry felt $200 was too much money for a factory manager to have on hand on a Saturday night. He travelled to Atlanta where he lodged with the Smith family and, together with Smith, questioned Conley the next day. After checking the books, Smith learned that the pencil factory had only $26 in cash on hand the night of the murder. Upon further investigation Berry learned that the murdered girl could not have arrived at the factory as early as Conley testified. He also discovered other exculpatory Frank evidence.
After returning to Augusta he corresponded with Frank. He also published a pamphlet at his own expense detailing “Five Arguments” that questioned the prosecution’s case. This put him in a newspaper duel with Tom Watson, a newspaperman and former congressman who was convinced of Frank’s guilt. Eventually Governor John Slaton commuted Frank’s death sentence to life-imprisonment, expecting that he could pardon Frank when tempers cooled. In order to protect Frank, the governor ordered the prisoner removed to Milledgeville. Watson became enraged and published an article demanding an investigation. Consequently, a vigilante group formed in the girl’s hometown, caravanned to Milledgeville, broke into the jail and lynched Leo Frank on August 17, 1915.
Despite his doubts about Conley, the Berry Benson family lived in a racially integrated neighborhood and he experimented with regional mushrooms in search for a cheap food supply for Southern blacks. The intelligent Benson became a cryptography expert whose assistance with Spanish codes during the Spanish-American War was repeatedly turned down by Federal bureaucrats who repetitively replied to his letters by falsely assuming he was trying to sell them a code. In 1877 he served as the model for the common soldier that stands atop Augusta’s Confederate monument, which some academics target for destruction.
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The Confederacy at Flood Tide by Philip Leigh
Trading With the Enemy by Philip Leigh
Lee’s Lost Dispatch & Other Civil War Controversies by Philip Leigh
Southern Reconstruction by Philip Leigh
U. S. Grant’s Failed Presidency by Philip Leigh
The Devil’s Town: Hot Springs During the Gangster Era by Philip Leigh