The academy taught many of the Civil War’s most famous figures to be generals, Benny Havens taught them to be comrades and rebels, and to not take life too seriously.
The United States Military Academy, an institution established and long maintained as what historian Thomas Fleming has aptly termed “a military monastery,” owes its gradual liberalization in no small degree to Benny Havens, a genial character who for four decades was the nemesis of superintendents and forbidden friend of their more spirited and adventuresome charges. Conditions at the school were so strict and confining and the mess hall fare so bland that it was inevitable the cloistered cadets would seek an escape. From the mid-1820s to the close of the Civil War, Havens provided just such a refuge, conveniently operated, for a time, right on the academy’s grounds.
The youthful procession that came furtively to his doors (there were actually three different locations over the years) included a Mississippian who showed an early rebellious streak, Jefferson Davis; a strange writer briefly miscast as a soldier, Edgar Allan Poe; and generals-to-be William Tecumseh Sherman, John Bell Hood, George E. Pickett and Benny’s personal favorite, the mischievous and ever-so-likable Ambrose E. Burnside.
Lack of ready cash was no hindrance for those yearning for a taste of the steaming buckwheat cakes, oysters and roast turkey that Havens’ amiable spouse, Letitia, cooked up while Benny poured mugs of flip he concocted of well-beaten eggs, sweetened and spiced, and ale, into which he climactically plunged a red hot poker. As payment for all these delights, the proprietor was all too willing to accept an Army blanket, a box of candles or other objects of value regardless of how or where they had been obtained. There was, of course, no charge for the mathematics tutoring he provided the cadets or the information he conveyed about examination questions he knew they could anticipate.
But most of his patrons were not thinking of academics. They were there to relax, to smoke their pipes and cigars without worry of demerits, and to listen to their witty host’s endless collection of hilarious stories.
The tavern Havens operated, almost exclusively for the cadets willing to risk dismissal by making a run for his establishment after taps, was never his primary source of income. He was really a woodcutter and shipper who specialized in cutting poles to make barrel hoops. He even constructed a dock on the river in front of his place near Buttermilk Falls to load his cut poles aboard the sloops that stopped almost daily at what became known locally as Havens Landing.
Havens was born at nearby New Windsor, N.Y., to seafaring folk in 1787 and could date his first clash with West Point officialdom to when he was just 15 years old. His employment with a sutler barely had begun when he was caught selling a bottle of rum to a cadet. He claimed ignorance of the rules, but it did no good. He was fired.
When the War of 1812 broke out, Havens joined a local militia company and somehow garnered a lieutenant’s commission. During an otherwise uneventful period of service on Long Island with the unit, he met the young woman of sturdy Dutch stock who would become his bride, Letitia Stuyvesant.
Havens returned to the West Point scene in 1824 when he purchased a little cottage on the property of Gridley’s Hotel at the edge of the academy’s grounds. Until Havens’ arrival, the hotel had served as the most popular rendezvous for cadets who wanted to get away from the academic routine. Ostensibly, Havens simply was running a small woodcutting business out of his cottage. It soon became clear, however, that he also was siphoning off an increasing number of Gridley’s clients by providing more congenial surroundings for wayward cadets.
Meanwhile Sylvanus Thayer, the stern superintendent at the time, was seeking to address the annoying problem of his carousing cadets. He thought he had come up with a brilliant yet simple solution: purchase Gridley’s holdings for $10,000 and turn the hotel into a post hospital. But little did Thayer realize that in closing down Gridley’s he was creating a marvelous opportunity for the ambitious Havens.
Until then, the most notable event that had occurred at Havens’ place was a surprise visit by the Marquis de Lafayette himself during a stop at West Point to review the Corps of Cadets on his celebrated national tour. The Revolutionary War hero acknowledged Havens’ hospitality by offering him a gift he would always cherish: two gold gilt buttons embossed with the Marquis’ likeness. But the French nobleman was only the first of a veritable parade of figures destined for lasting fame who would be drawn to Benny’s table.
Superintendent Thayer began to comprehend how much of a problem he had created for himself when he was informed that on July 31, 1825, five of his cadets had been seen with “a certain wildness of countenance” about them at “a public house or place where spirituous liquors are sold kept by one Benjamin Havens.” The group claimed to be only taking shelter after a sudden storm had flooded their encampment tents. At his court-martial, Cadet Jefferson Davis put up a particularly obstinate defense. While admitting to no alcohol consumption personally, Davis argued that he did not understand the wine, cider and porter in evidence “to be spirituous liquors.” Moreover, Davis objected to “calling B. Havens a public house as I believe this cannot be established.” (Indeed, Havens’ enterprise would forever defy accurate categorization.) Davis’ eloquence did him no good, and he was sentenced to dismissal from the academy. But a review of his overall record persuaded the authorities to grant him a pardon.
Undeterred by that experience, Davis continued to frequent Havens’ establishment. One visit a year later would have near-fatal consequences. While he was there with another cadet “on a little frolic,” a frantic warning came that an officer was approaching on the road. Havens hustled his patrons out the back door into the dark of night and sent them scampering up the steep embankment that walled his establishment. Running along its edge, Davis lost his footing and went tumbling back down the slope, rolling some 60 feet head over heels before managing to break his fall—at the cost of tearing up both hands and suffering enough internal damage to keep him in the post hospital for weeks. How Davis explained the injuries to authorities is uncertain, but he had escaped what would have been certain dismissal if he had been caught again at the tavern.
Some 30 years later, Davis would pay Havens another pleasant visit. This time wearing a frock coat and high hat, he conducted an official inspection of the military academy in his capacity as, of all things, U.S. Secretary of War. The sight of his once-reckless patron affecting such an august demeanor probably served to prepare the affable tavernkeeper for the news of Davis’ further elevation in civilian life only a few years later, first as a member of the U.S. Senate and then president of the Confederate States of America.
Havens’ readiness to join in whatever mischief his beloved cadets could devise was obvious. The more the scheme defied academy regulations and controls, the more it appealed to him. For example, Cadet John M. Schofield of Illinois, destined to become a highly regarded general in the Civil War, superintendent of the academy and later commanding general of the U.S. Army, once made a sizable wager that he could leave the academy grounds after evening roll call, make the 40-mile trip to New York City, and return before morning roll call without being detected.
For the first leg of his journey, Schofield later wrote, “Old Benny Havens of blessed memory rowed me across the river to Garrison’s,” where he could catch a train to the city. In the morning, after jumping from a still-moving train to complete his whirlwind circuit, Schofield “walked across the plain in full view of the crowd of officers and ladies and appeared in ranks at roll call, as innocent as anybody.” The little acts of resistance to the restrictions the academy imposed, such as Schofield’s harmless gesture, would go on and on, if only for the sheer deviltry of it.
Unable to discourage his charges from frequenting Havens’ establishment, Superintendent Thayer took the drastic step in 1832 of formally expelling Benny from the West Point grounds for conveying liquor to cadets. Not only was their popular establishment padlocked, but both Benny and Letitia also were forbidden to ever set foot on academy property again—making them the only citizens ever to be so ostracized.
In response, Havens simply rented a four-room house in nearby Buttermilk Falls (now Highland Falls), where his operations were promptly resumed. According to a friend, he had to endure “the gossip and contempt of the good people of the village, whom Benny despised even more than they abhorred him.”
Havens had long planned to erect a house and dock on the river to facilitate his wood-shipping operation, as well as receive shipments of whiskey, tobacco and other stock for the tavern. By the mid- 1840s both were completed at a location only about a mile away, which became Havens Landing. It would be his final and longest-lasting address.
In 1839 or 1840 Benny Havens attained legendary status when a former cadet who had just been transferred to the 8th Infantry, Lucius O’Brien, stopped at West Point to visit a friend and decided in an idle moment that Benny’s place really deserved a song. He began to scribble some lines. The first part, sung to the tune of “The Wearing of the Green,” went:
Come, fill your glasses, fellows,
and stand up in a row
To singing sentimentally, we’re
going for to go
In the army there’s sobriety,
promotion’s very slow,
So we’ll sing our reminiscences
of Benny Havens, oh!
Oh! Benny Havens, oh! Oh!
Benny Havens, oh!
So we’ll sing our reminiscences
of Benny Havens, oh!
Lieutenant O’Brien would die in Florida in 1841 of wounds received in an Indian skirmish, never knowing that the rousing song he had lightheartedly composed would become so much a part of academy lore, with every graduating class far into the future dutifully adding a verse.
Ambrose E. Burnside is mainly remembered as that bumbling commander of the Army of the Potomac responsible for the disaster at Fredericksburg and for the style of bushy sideburns that bear his name. Yet one would be hard-pressed to find any officer more popular among his contemporaries in the Army. So amiable and engaging was old “Burn” that no matter what misfortune he encountered in his military, business or political life, some new opportunity always seemed to await him. His recuperative ability was nothing short of amazing. Even Southern officers against whom he fought during the war continued to think fondly of him. After the Federals’ dreadful defeat at Fredericksburg, George E. Pickett wrote to his fiancée: “I can’t help but feel sorry for old Burnside, proud, plucky, hard-headed old dog. I always liked him.”
It is not surprising that of all the cadets who made their way to Havens’ over the years, there was none whose company Benny enjoyed more. The proprietor could count on a visit from the affable Burnside every Saturday night after taps, and “on very convivial occasions he would sing a ballad titled ‘The Little Black Bull’ with great effect,” someone recalled.
To illustrate Havens’ attachment to Burnside, future Confederate cavalry commander Fitzhugh Lee wrote that Havens “had a special toast which he invariably repeated every time he indulged in a stimulant—and the repetition of the toast was very frequent during the day. He drank to the health of the two greatest men, in his opinion, who had ever lived—St. Paul and Andrew Jackson. But he took such a fancy to Burnside, when he was a cadet, that he added his name to the toast, and ever thereafter, to the day of his death, he drank to St. Paul, Andrew Jackson and A.E. Burnside.”
It took a degree of daring and recklessness for a cadet to risk dismissal by scampering off to Havens’ after taps. If, indeed, a cadet’s attitude about the tavern was to serve as a precursor of future behavior, who might have provided a better example of recklessness than Davis, the man who would in later years brazenly lead his state out of the Union and head the doomed Confederate government.
But there were many other examples of early traits that the more frequent offenders at Havens’ would continue to display throughout their military careers. Pickett, who gained immortal fame at Gettysburg, was “a devoted and constant patron of Benny Havens,” according to a classmate, and was actually found passed out in a snowbank en route to the barracks after one lengthy visit. He would continue to indulge himself as he matured and vowed that “to fight like a gentleman a man had to eat and drink like a gentleman.” This quest for enjoyment would ultimately result in his being absent from his command to attend a shad bake far behind the lines when Phil Sheridan attacked his vital position at Five Forks on Lee’s exposed flank, leading to the collapse of the Petersburg line in April 1865 and, inevitably, the surrender at Appomattox. It wasn’t the first time the Virginian had put pleasure before duty.
The same recklessness that cost John Bell Hood his newly earned lieutenancy in the cadet corps for being absent from quarters while enjoying “the unauthorized festivities of Christmas,” presumably at Havens’, would later cost him the Confederate Army of Tennessee. He paid that price when, as a crippled commanding general, he rashly sent his outnumbered troops crashing against far stronger Union positions during an ill-advised offensive into Tennessee in 1864.
The man who had deprived young Hood of his appointment to lieutenant was the then superintendent of the academy, brevet Colonel Robert E. Lee. Having achieved a flawless record as a cadet at the academy, Lee admittedly had a difficult time dealing with the conduct of cadets whom he felt “can neither be treated as school boys or soldiers.” He admitted that some did “exceedingly worry him” and wondered whether “his sympathy with young people was more an impediment than a qualification for the superintendency.” What was particularly vexing to the man who made his life a shrine to the concept of duty was that his own nephew, Fitzhugh Lee—no stranger to Benny Havens—was twice brought before him on disciplinary matters.
Ulysses S. Grant probably was behaving like most of Havens’ patrons when he let himself be talked into a risky visit by his friend (and future quartermaster general) Rufus Ingalls. Satisfied that he had finally seen the notorious place, he reportedly never felt a need to return. Cadet William T. Sherman was one who did come back repeatedly, but apparently not for the liquor. “Cump” had a weakness for Letitia’s oysters.
How it must have pained old Benny in his waning years to see so many of the cadets for whom he had provided a warming fire, a good meal and hot flip fighting and killing one another in a desperate civil war. Just a year before the conflict began, a golden-haired cadet from Michigan named George Armstrong Custer hosted a farewell dinner at Havens’ for an intense North Carolinian named Stephen Dodson Ramseur and a few other departing graduates. The next time Custer would see Ramseur would be after the Battle of Cedar Creek in 1864, when the flamboyant cavalry leader came upon him mortally wounded in an ambulance and had him moved to Sheridan’s headquarters, where Ramseur died surrounded by former schoolmates who were now his enemies. Custer later wrote to the Confederate’s young widow and sent her a lock of Dodson’s hair.
Though in his late 70s, Benny Havens managed to keep his establishment going until shortly after the war ended. With sight in only one eye by then, he appeared occasionally in the village on some business, always accompanied by his dog Blue Pot and with an unlit cigar jutting defiantly from his mouth. Nearly all his money had gone to a prolonged legal battle with local authorities, stemming from an altercation with a police officer who had long harassed him.
Often he could be seen sitting on his front porch in his familiar red jacket, watching the river traffic. When a sloop would pass by with soldiers aboard who recognized him, they usually would break into a chorus of “Benny Havens, oh!” The old man would feebly doff his hat in acknowledgment.
Havens died in 1877 at the age of 90 and was buried at Highland Union Cemetery, between Highland Falls and Fort Montgomery. His house was dismantled to make way for a railroad construction project and reassembled five miles behind West Point. A fire finally destroyed the familiar structure in 1934.
Although Benny Havens had given West Point officialdom fits—and appeared to delight in doing so—in the end he succeeded in accomplishing something far beyond his intention. By simply maintaining the popularity of his little escape with class after class of cadets, he was able to make the authorities question whether they themselves had not gone too far in disciplining their restless charges. Gradually they began to loosen their hold on the cadets, and for that alone old Benny has earned the eternal salute of the corps.
Originally published in the August 2007 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.