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A Union Sympathizer in North Carolina

Updated: Sep 11, 2022

Joseph Benfield (1807-1884)

Joseph Benfield was born on 20 August 1807 in Lincoln County, NC. He was the son of Johannes "John" Benfield, Jr. and Elizabeth (née Hartle) Benfield. He was their second son.

On 16 March 1829, a marriage bond was issued in advance of his marriage to Eleanor "Nelly" Johnson.

Joseph purchased 250 acres for $211 at an auction on 23 April 1839. He increased his property by 50 acres with a land grant in 1843. Of his farm, only 76 acres were cultivated and the remainder consisted of woodland and pasture.

He was a prominent member of community. He served as a leader in the Smyrna Baptist Church. Later he was instrumental in the formation of Zion Baptist and served as one of its trustees. In 1855, Governor Thomas Bragg appointed him as a Justice of the Burke County Court of Common Pleas and Quarter Sessions.

Life was pretty good for Joseph and his family. He worked his farm and fulfilled his social and religious duties. His family grew and he and Eleanor had fourteen known children. Of course, the peace and tranquility would not endure. Events outside of his control were occurring on the national scene. It was only a matter of time before they reached the western part of North Carolina.

That occurred in 1860 with the presidential election. The votes in North Carolina were split almost evenly between John C. Breckenridge and John Bell. Stephen A. Douglas received minimal votes and Abraham Lincoln received none since his name did not even appear on the ballot. When Lincoln won the election, many in the South believed that secession was their only option. North Carolina's Unionists were able to defeat a motion by Governor John W. Ellis when he called for a secession convention. The state adopted a "Watch and Wait" policy, hopeful that a peaceful solution could be found. Even after South Carolina seceded on 20 December 1860, followed by six other states, North Carolina remained reluctant to leave the Union.

On 12 April 1861, South Carolinian troops fired upon Fort Sumter. President Lincoln responded by calling for volunteers from every state still in the Union to "put down the rebellion." Refusing to take up arms against fellow Southerners, Virginia, Arkansas and Tennessee seceded. Governor Ellis replied, "I can be no party to this wicked violation of the laws of the country and to this war upon the liberties of a free people. You can get no troops from North Carolina." On 20 May 1861 North Carolina held their secession convention and the next day they joined the Confederacy. North Carolina had waited longer than any other southern state, but the decision had been made and there was no turning back. Shortly after North Carolina seceded, Governor Ellis died on 7 July 1861.

For staunch Unionists like Joseph, it proved to be a difficult time to live in "enemy" territory. During the next several years, Joseph would have his loyalties tested. Eight of his sons were conscripted to serve in the Confederate army. He had tried to keep them and other men in his community out of the "rebel army."

Both sides would steal from him. He had one mare taken by Confederate troops. During Union Major General George Stoneman's raid beginning in March 1865, the intent was "to destroy and not to fight battles." It was also to cutoff escape routes for Confederate troops under General Robert E. Lee, who were then engaged with Grant's forces near Petersburg and Richmond, Virginia. As a result of the raid, Joseph had another 6 year old sorrel mare stolen by those Union troops under the command of Colonel Brown. Being a farmer, horses were extremely important.

Joseph took the risk of feeding Union men who were avoiding serving in the Confederate army. He also hid, fed and transported Union soldiers who escaped from prison camps near Charlotte. His property was threatened as well. "Colonel (Thomas George) Walton (of the 8th NC Regiment-Home Guard) ordered his militia to begin burning my house on account of my Union sentiments, but it was not done. Some of the militia refused to burn it," Joseph said later.

When the war finally ended, six of his sons safely returned home. Two had died of disease.

Joseph was appointed to serve on the Burke County Republican Committee in 1868. In April 1873 he filed a claim in the amount of $150 for the mare that was stolen by Union soldiers in 1865. His friend and then-Governor Tod Caldwell supported the claim, but it was eventually "disallowed." The decision was made due to the belief that the proof failed to show that the mare was taken for the use of the Union army. It was acknowledged that Joseph's "general and public reputation as to loyalty during the war seems to have been very good." It was further stated that "If this claimant was in sympathy with the Union cause & remained loyal to the Federal government during the war he was certainly an exception to most of his kindred including eight sons who were in the Confederate army."

Joseph and Eleanor "Nelly" Benfield

Joseph, like many other families in the south, tried to pick up the pieces of what was left after the war. He returned to farming until his death on 23 January 1884 at the age of 76. Eleanor died on 15 April 1885.


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