Friday, August 13, 2010

What Was He Thinking?

Benjamin Braxton, Confederate Soldier
I've been dabbling a bit in genealogy lately, trying to solve some of the puzzling stories about my family history, and instead I've come up with even more puzzles. Along the way, I re-connected with my cousin Della, and then discovered another more distant cousin Della. So now the three of us dream of meeting in Southern Mississippi-Alabama to research together, with me introducing us: "Hi, I'm Delle, and this is my cousin Della and this is my other cousin Della."

But that's just an aside. I really want to tell you about our mutual puzzling ancestor, Benjamin Braxton Years ago I overheard a relative tell my mom and grandmom a story about an ancestor who had been a Confederate Army officer with a wife and child, who had disappeared in the war and was presumed dead. Years later his son had found his father living in Florida with a wife and several children, but when confronted, the man denied  having any family in Alabama. After the "son" returned home, his mother said to just let it go because there were children involved. I remember the woman showing them pictures, but I was sort of on the sidelines and didn't get to see them.

The two Dellas and I all confessed confusion over this man because we had so little information on him. Was the story true, or a family myth? Did he have two wives or one? At the same time? Was there a divorce? Was my great grandmother really his daughter, since she wasn't listed on any of the census records of his family? And was he Confederate or Union, because there were stories connecting to both. And most of all, if he was a bigamist, what was he thinking?
Martha Lambert, Ben's "real" wife

Della Y came up with some pictures and information that said he was a Confederate private, along with two of his brothers. And she had a photo of Benjamin in CSA uniform. Della N found our great-grandmother's death certificate that confirmed she had gone by the maiden name Braxton (that, too, had been in question). And then I read something about a Union fort in Pensacola. I hadn't realized that parts of Florida had remained strong in Union sympathies. So I checked Union Army records on the internet. Also looked up Fort Pensacola. There I found Benjamin and his two brothers, complete with a physical description. But they had all joined the 1st Cavalry of Fort Barrancas near Pensacola on the same day, surprisingly late in the war, December 31, 1863.

Benjamin Braxton, at 5'8", was the middle brother, and also in between in height. He was dark skinned, black hair and brown eyes, where the two brothers were fair skinned, one with dark hair and yes and one a blue-eyed blond. Their parents had lived in Alabama but moved to that very wild Florida Peninsula area in the 1850s. On the map, the distance is less than 50 miles, so some connection with people they had known would be within reason. On the Florida census rolls, Ben and his wife Martha Lambert Braxton didn't have children till 1867. My great grandmother was born in 1866, and the son he denied had been born in 1852, when Ben was about 19. Suspicious, huh? Another question formed. Was my g-grannie illegitimate, possibly raised by her maternal grandparents, the Lamberts, perhaps? She used that name too.

Mary Crowder, supposed first wife
We don't have all the answers yet, but we did find a piece of Florida history that is very eye-opening. It seems Ben and his brothers were Confederate deserters. But they weren't the only ones. A very well-respected researcher of Florida history during the Civil War says that Northern Florida had very strong Union sentiments. Settlement was pretty new there, and the people were quite independent, mostly subsistence farmers. In 1863 the Confederate general in charge of supply had over-reached his bounds in Florida and had stripped local farms bare, leaving families to starve. The soldiers from that area had mostly been conscripted, including Ben and his brothers. With the Union Fort Pensacola being so close, a system developed to guide deserting Southern soldiers through the swamps to the fort. Ben and his brothers are known to have escaped, supposedly one captured, but he must have got away again because all three signed on to the fort's rosters together. The Union didn't know quite what to do with all these men, but ended up with the brand new 1st Cavalry of Fort Barrancas, which was officially formed of about 120 soldiers on the last day of 1863.

So Ben really was in two opposing armies. But his reason for deserting now appears much stronger. He didn't have children then, and hadn't married his official wife yet, but he had strong relationships with his family of origin. And he seemed to be in the same situation as a lot of others who lived in his area.

Ben's Pension - which wife got it?
But had he been married to an Alabama woman in the late 1850s and produced a child? We don't know. Perhaps that child was really illegitimate. He isn't on any census records with the supposed first wife, Mary, and child, John William Braxton. We can't find any marriage records. And the woman claimed eventually to be widowed and then divorced. Further, after Ben died, she tried to claim his Union Army pension. We don't think she succeeded, but can't find that either.

But the big question still looms: What was he thinking? If you've got any ideas, we'd sure like to know.

1 comment:

Paty Jager said...

Interesting family history Delle. And great fodder for a book.