Honoring a long-ago local hero

BELLEVILLE

This Friday, Aug. 11, marks the 155th anniversary of the death of Capt. Henry Benson, who was buried two days later in the cemetery of the former Dutch Reformed Church at Main and Rutgers Sts. His was reportedly the first official military funeral in the township, and noted Michael Perrone, president of the Belleville Historical Society, “It was a huge event.”

Three companies of soldiers, including Army units from Nutley and Bloomfield, and an Army band escorted the casket during the procession to the church. The pallbearers were six senior commanding officers four colonels, a major and a major general.

According to a story in the Aug. 13, 1862, Newark Daily Mercury: Following the service, the coffin was carried to the Benson family plot “with measured step, and notes from the fife and drum,” and “with the ceremonies of the Episcopal church, all that remains of the patriot was consigned to the grave, ‘dust to dust, ashes to ashes,’ there to remain until the resurrection.” 

[Apparently, mid-19th century newspapers were able to freely express religious beliefs.]

It continued: “At the close of the services, a volley of three rounds was fired over the grave by a platoon of men [that’s a 21-gun salute], and the vast assemblage retired, showing that the words of the text was verified ‘than thou destroyest the hope of man’.” [We don’t know what that means, either, so if any reader can clarify, please do.]

Sometime afterward, a tombstone was erected over the captain’s grave and it is that stone that has prompted our story. Today, if you stand on Stephens St. at the rear of the graveyard, you can easily see the gleaming white marble headstone (standing near an obelisk marking the family plot).

But, for years  decades, maybe the headstone wasn’t visible at all. 

Back in 2014, our colleague Ron Leir covered Belleville’s July 4 ceremony and learned that the cemetery had been abandoned until Perrone and the Historical Society managed to gain access in 2002.

BHS volunteers undertook a two-year cleanup, removing 20 truckloads of debris and restoring some 40 tombstones that had fallen over and many obelisks that had toppled from pedestals,” Leir wrote.

Perrone told us that the BHS “probed every square foot with metal rods,” looking for buried stones. Benson’s, he said, “had fallen over and was covered with debris.”  

It was reset in 2004, but it wasn’t completely restored until last month.

The BHS volunteers had washed it down, repaired the cracks, replaced missing chunks of marble and cleaned off the moss and fungus.  

“But just recently,” Perrone noted, “we learned about some new products and some new techniques” to get the toughest stains out. They had also learned that as fungus and mold grow, they “eat the minerals in the stone, causing it to collapse.”

Thanks to their new information, two weeks ago, Benson’s headstone was restored “to its near original condition,” Perrone said.

So who was this Capt. Henry Benson and why did he deserve such honors?

The lifelong Belleville resident, born in 1824 in a house near the corner of Mill and Main Sts., joined the Army as a young man and served during the Mexican American War. A career officer, he rose to the rank of captain in May 1861  just a month after the Confederate attack on Fort Sumter formally launched the Civil War. And just a bit more than year before, he would fall in combat.

Benson, Perrone said, commanded a battery in a new type of military unit, the Horse Artillery, which was basically cavalry with cannons.

“They were also called ‘the Flying Artillery’ because they moved so rapidly,” Perrone noted.

Under Benson’s personal command were 140 men, six pieces of artillery and 200 horses. On July 1, 1862, Benson and his troops were among approximately 54,000 Union troops who faced off against 55,000 Rebels at the Battle of Malvern Hill in Virginia. It was a Union victory, but Benson was mortally wounded that day and died Aug. 11 on a hospital ship that had taken him to Philadelphia.

Eventually, two artillery batteries one in Maryland, one in Washington State  were named in his honor. Also named in his honor (as Henry Benson Way) is that section of Main St in front of the Dutch Reformed Church.

And Friday is the 155th anniversary of his death.

If you will, spare a thought for a local hero.

Karen Zautyk | Observer Correspondent