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Collateral Damage: Repaying a Debt of Compassion

By Harry Smeltzer
9/22/2017 • Civil War Times Magazine

In October 1886, John L. Rice—formerly a private of the 2nd New Hampshire Volunteer Infantry—made his way on horseback to Amos and Margaret Benson’s home in northern Virginia, intent on repaying an old debt. How Rice incurred that debt, and how he went about repaying it more than 20 years after the war ended, is the stuff of legend—a legend that endures today even though all that remains of the Bensons’ home is a pile of rubble.

It is unclear precisely when Amos and his wife moved into the house they were living in when Rice made his 1886 visit. Amos, born in Maryland in September 1825, and Margaret Newman, who grew up near Sudley Springs, married sometime prior to 1850. At the time of the First Battle of Bull Run in July 1861, they lived just east of Bull Run in Fairfax County and attended Sudley Methodist Church in nearby Prince William County. They would remain loyal parishioners after the war, eventually moving to a modest dwelling fittingly known as “Christian Hill” that sat just across the road from the church.

On July 21, 1861, locals heading to Sunday services encountered columns of soldiers marching toward Manassas Junction—the advance of Union General Irvin McDowell’s army, moving to turn Confederate commander P.G.T. Beauregard’s forces from their positions along Bull Run. At the head of one column was Colonel Ambrose Burnside’s brigade of Colonel David Hunter’s division, which included John Rice’s 2nd New Hampshire. When they crossed Bull Run at Sudley Ford, they could have had no warning that the nearby church would soon be filled with wounded, many from their own ranks.

Later that Sunday, McDowell’s forces were driven back from the Confederate position near the Henry House, forced into a humiliating retreat toward Washington, D.C. Rice had been grievously wounded, shot through the lungs by a musket ball. His comrades started carrying him toward Sudley Church, where surgeons had established a field hospital of sorts. But with the enemy closing in—and Rice seemingly lifeless—they laid him on the ground beneath a fence and made good their escape.

Rice lay untouched for two long days, and his wound became infested with maggots. The Bensons discovered the wounded Yankee on the evening of the 23rd while they were heading home from the church, where they had been helping to nurse other casualties. When Amos brought a Confederate surgeon to examine Rice, the doctor summarily dismissed him as a hopeless case.

But the Bensons refused to give up. Margaret brought the Yankee food from their own home, and Amos stripped and washed him and cleaned his wound. Rice was judged too seriously injured to move, so for 10 days the Bensons clothed, fed and cared for him right there where they had found him: under the fence. They erected a tent of sorts to shelter him, bringing him clean clothes and a blanket.

Rice slowly gained strength. After 10 days the Bensons managed to get him moved into the church. Eventually he was put on a freight car headed to Manassas, for further treatment. Sent from there to Libby Prison in Richmond, he was later exchanged. He reenlisted and went on to become an officer before the end of the war.

Nine months after his encounter with Rice, in March 1862, Amos went to war, serving with Company A of the 4th Virginia Cavalry. Eventually rising to 3rd corporal, he later returned home to Virginia.

Twenty-five years after the Bensons saved his life, Rice was still mindful of his debt. In 1886, during a trip to Washington, he decided to cross into Virginia and visit the place where he had come so near to death. He eventually found the Bensons, who took him to the spot where they had nursed him. Talking with Amos about his wartime service, Rice realized that he had doubtless faced his former benefactor at some point on the battlefield.

The Bensons told Rice that they had simply been “obeying the dictates of humanity” in helping him. But seeing that Rice was serious about repaying them, Amos hit upon a solution. He told Rice: “If you want to do that, you can help us poor people here pay for our little church yonder. We owe $200 on it yet, which in this poor country is a heavy burden.”

Rice went back to Massachusetts determined to raise the entire sum of the debt remaining on Sudley Church, which had been rebuilt after being destroyed during the war. He wrote a moving account of his experiences in Virginia, explaining how the Bensons had saved him and pointing out the congregation’s plight. Printed in the November 24, 1886, issue of Springfield’s The Republican, his account read in part: “I do not know what creed is taught in that church, but it cannot be wrong in any essential of Christian faith when it bears such fruit as I have described….There must be still living many Massachusetts soldiers who can bear testimony with me to the timely aid rendered by those people when so many of our wounded were left uncared for on that disastrous field.”

By November 28, Rice had received $235 from 79 donors, including 27 veterans, with donations ranging from 50 cents to $20. He promptly forwarded the money to the Bensons. In Amos Benson’s letter of thanks, he noted that the Northerners’ generosity had “converted” the previously un-Reconstructed Rebel Margaret.

Margaret, who died in 1898, and Amos, in 1901, are buried beside each other near the church. “He was a good man and full of faith” is the epitaph dedicated to Amos on the gravestone that they share. Margaret’s epitaph reads, “She was a child of God, lived a happy life and died in peace.”

 

Originally published in the April 2011 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.  

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