An edited version of this story ran in the April 2011 issue of Civil War Times. I’m running it here with additional photos with permission of the publisher. It is titled as it appears in the magazine.
Repaying a Debt of Compassion
Today a pile of rubble, hard by the cut of the still unfinished Manassas Gap Railroad and across the road from the impressive bulk of the Sudley Church, is all that marks the site of what tradition holds was the home of Amos Benson and his wife Margaret. Precisely when the Bensons occupied the house is not clear, but by most accounts it was to the modest dwelling known appropriately as “Christian Hill” that John L. Rice, erstwhile private of the 2nd New Hampshire Volunteer Infantry, made his way on horseback from Washington, DC in October, 1886. He had a debt to pay. How he had incurred that debt and how he went about paying it is the stuff of legend, a story of compassion and reconciliation.
The pre-war history of the Bensons is sketchy. Amos was born in September, 1825, in Maryland; Margaret Newman was born in May of 1821 and grew up in the vicinity of Sudley Springs. The two were married sometime prior to 1850. Census records and maps indicate that at the time of the Battle of First Bull Run the Bensons were living east of Bull Run in Fairfax County. In March of 1862, Amos would leave Margaret to go to war with Company A of the 4th Virginia Cavalry, a unit whose roster was thick with names from the area. He eventually rose to the rank of third corporal.
On Sunday morning, July 21, 1861, members of the congregation to which Amos and Margaret belonged made their way along roads and trails to the Sudley Methodist Church along the Sudley Road south of the fords over Bull and Catharpin Runs. They were no doubt startled to encounter columns of soldiers marching down the main road. The worshippers had run headlong into the advance of Union General Irvin McDowell’s army as it moved to turn the forces of Confederate generals P. G. T. Beauregard and Joseph E. Johnston from their positions along Bull Run.
At the head of that column was Colonel Ambrose Burnside’s brigade of Col. David Hunter’s division, which included Rice’s 2nd NH. Despite initial success in the morning, later in the afternoon McDowell’s forces were driven back from the Confederate position near the Henry house. Prior to the retreat Rice was wounded, shot through the lungs by a musket ball. His fellows carried him towards the rear and Sudley Church where Union surgeons had set up shop, but with the enemy closing in and Rice apparently dead, they laid him in under a fence and made good their escape. Two days later, Rice recovered consciousness, still under the fence where his comrades had left him. His wound had putrefied and become infested with maggots.
Later that evening, as they were making their way back to their home from Sudley Church where they had been assisting with the care of wounded Union soldiers, the Benson’s found Rice in his dire state. Amos went back to the church and returned with a Confederate surgeon. The exhausted doctor dismissed Rice as a hopeless case and returned to his duties, but the Bensons were determined. Margaret brought some food from their home and Amos stripped and washed Rice and cleaned out his wound. He was too seriously injured to move, so for ten days the Benson’s clothed, fed, and cared for Rice under the fence, until he was well enough to move to a freight car in Manassas for treatment and eventual imprisonment in Richmond.
Rice was later exchanged and re-enlisted to serve again in the war, becoming an officer. But even twenty-five years later he had not forgotten the Bensons and the debt he felt he owed. In 1886 while on a trip to the nation’s capital he determined to revisit the site of his near-death experience. He made inquiries in the area and found the Bensons. They took him to the place where they had nursed him and visited the battlefield. Rice learned of Amos’s service in the war and was surprised to realize that he had doubtless faced his benefactor on the battlefield.
Rice of course thanked the Bensons for their kindness and attention in his time of need, and they modestly said they were simply “obeying the dictates of humanity”. Rice persisted in his efforts to find some way to repay the Bensons, and Amos hit upon a solution:
“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 determined then to not only contribute, but to return to his home in Massachusetts and raise the entire sum of the debt remaining on the rebuilt Sudley Church, which had been destroyed during the war. On November 24, he told story of his wounding, the kindness of the Bensons, and the plight of the congregation in the pages of Springfield’s “The Republican”:
“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 seventy-nine people, including twenty-seven veterans. The donations ranged from $0.50 to $20.00. In describing the religious and political backgrounds of the contributors to the Bensons, Rice quoted Alfred, Lord Tennyson:
“Saxon and Norman and Dane are we,
But all of us Danes in welcome of thee”
And in a letter of thanks to Rice, Amos said the value of the act was more than financial. In fact, it had “converted” the previously un-reconstructed Margaret. John Rice’s debt to the Bensons was repaid.
A history of the Sudley Church states that once the war ended Amos and Margaret moved to Warrenton, and in the early 1880′s had come back to the area of the Springs and were living in a house located 1/8 mile south of Sudley Church and owned by Reverend Henry Cushing – probably Christian Hill. Margaret died in 1898, and Amos followed her in 1901. They are buried together very near the southern door of the modern Sudley Church. The shared marker says of Amos: “He was a good man and full of faith”; of Margaret: “She was a child of God, lived a happy life and died in peace.”
As is often the case, there are some parts of the story of what happened after Rice’s wounding that are in doubt. See John Hennessy’s post here.