Benjamin Franklin Davis grew up in a house that still stands at the corner of Vine and Liberty Streets, the Judge Benjamin Chadbourne House.
Davis was one of seven children, and the oldest son of South Berwick tinware manufacturer Richard Davis. Richard had moved to South Berwick from Wells in the 1820s to start a tinsmithing business with his partner, Abraham Gilpatrick. When Benjamin was a boy, the tin shop was located on Main Street near the bridge. There, tin-plated sheet iron was made into scores of useful housewares, such as plates, trays, pots, cups, scoops, funnels, lanterns, candlesticks, and biscuit cutters. George Washington Frost, who grew up in the Landing neighborhood in the 1830s, recalled the shop this way:
“On the brow of the hill just above Colcord’s store, Gilpatrick and Davis carried on an extensive tinware manufactory; they employed several men as peddlers who penetrated York County far and near, exchanging their wares for either cash, [or] old iron, rags, sheepskins, old pewter, brass, and lead. South Berwick Village Map 1853
South Berwick Village Map 1853
In fact, almost anything was accepted those days in the way of trade.”
As a young man, Benjamin took up his father’s tinsmithing trade, as did his younger brother Joseph. But when he was 31 the Civil War began, and the following year he joined the 27th Maine Volunteer Regiment, almost all of whom were from York County. Many of his neighbors from town joined the same unit, including his captain, Isaac P. Fall, his brother-in-law, Moses Hurd, Al Wiggin, Ed Willey, James Goodwin, Benny Cooper, Billy Thompson, and Lysander Young. Some of these names are still familiar to residents of South Berwick today as place names of streets and houses.
Benjamin became a soldier in the fall of 1862, a year and a half into a bitter conflict that would remake the nation. Early in the campaign to preserve the Union, many Northerners expected a resolution of the conflict within a few months. But after a year of fighting, a battle took place at Shiloh Church, in southwest Tennessee, that crushed Union hopes for a quick end to the ordeal. The battle left 19,000 soldiers dead or wounded in two days. The carnage was shocking to the nation and dispiriting to the Union cause. “We have at last had our wish for a hard battle gratified and never again do I expect to hear the same wish from the lips of our men,” wrote a soldier from Illinois to his father. The motivation for Union soldiers to enlist in the war effort began to shift from principles of nationalism to a grim determination to persevere.
In late August of 1862, just when Benjamin would have been considering enlistment, a battle occurred in the Bull Run Mountains near Manassas, Virginia, only 30 miles from the nation’s capital. Union forces were driven back by a Confederate army that outmaneuvered them, and the result was a humiliating defeat. “For the first time I believe it possible that Washington may be taken,” commented a newspaper reporter from the New York Tribune. Confederate troops pressed north to invade Maryland, and they met Union forces in the woods and corn fields of Sharpsburg, near Antietam Creek.
The Battle of Antietam, waged 80 miles upriver from the capital, was the first battle of the Civil War to take place on Union soil. It was also a deadly harvest, resulting in 23,000 casualties—the greatest loss of life in a single day in all of American history. Though Confederates retreated back across the Potomac River, the Union army had suffered a series of heavy losses that left the public staggered by the peril to their cause and their homeland. Two weeks later, Benjamin and his comrades joined the infantry regiment forming in Portland.
The soldiers of the 27th Maine Regiment never saw battle during their nine-month tour of duty. They left Portland by train on October 20, passing through Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Baltimore, before arriving two days later at a camp on Capitol Hill in Washington, D. C. Across the Potomac River in Arlington, Virginia, on a bluff overlooking the capitol city, Union troops were massed. Within a few days the 27th Maine was posted to picket duty there, helping to guard the capitol from Confederate attack. Benjamin’s letters to his family reflect his indignation toward the rebellious South and his readiness to defend his home state. Benjamin reported that about 75,000 Union soldiers were stationed within 6 miles of his camp, located on the former plantation of the Confederate General, Robert E. Lee. “All we want now is to see the fight on our ground,” he wrote in his first letter home to South Berwick.
The winter they spent on the Potomac River was a severe one, even for Benjamin and his comrades from Maine. He became a wagoner, or teamster, driving army supply wagons and harnessing teams of horses to haul timber for building barracks. His work outdoors in the woods and the dire conditions of the camp, where a cup of pea soup was a welcome meal and men slept on the cold ground for lack of straw, may have contributed to his early demise. “There is more men killed by exposure and by not having any regular meals and not much to eat than is killed in the regular army,” he wrote in a letter from Arlington Heights in early November. Later that month he reported the arrival in camp of a South Berwick native, Jerry Shapleigh, who came with a load of cider and apples for the soldiers. “In 7 months more we shall be free if nothing happens,” he concluded.
In mid-December the Union army attacked the city of Fredericksburg, 50 miles south of Arlington, sustaining heavy losses. The day after this battle, Benjamin’s regiment marched 10 miles south to Hunting Creek, on the Potomac River, to form an 8-mile line of defense between Fredericksburg and Washington, D.C. He developed a severe cough and was hospitalized in the camp at Hunting Creek. A package arrived from his mother, containing a comforter and warm pants to wear in the woods, along with a letter from his 10-year-old sister, Mary. “I hope you will be pleased when you get your things, for we thought a great deal about you, hearing you did not have things very nice,” she wrote. Benjamin did not recover, and he died two weeks later, on Christmas Eve. He never saw his native soil again, though his letters to his family are preserved in the Vine Street house where he grew up.
At the time Benjamin wrote his letters from Virginia, home delivery of mail was not a standard service. Postal delivery started about 1864 and was available only in large cities. In South Berwick, mail was carted by wagon from the train station to Frost’s Store, at the corner of Main and Paul Streets in the center of town. Mail arrived every day, including Sundays. There, the postmaster would sort letters into the slots of a wooden case on the counter, to be collected by recipients when they stopped at the store. A letter cost 3 cents to mail. Stamps were hard to come by in Union camps and sold for the inflated price of 5 cents, so Benjamin requested them from home. He wrote on stationery issued by the military, with images of the capitol building or Lincoln reviewing the troops printed at the top of the page. A letter sent from South Berwick to Alexandria in 1862 would have taken a week to ten days to arrive, traveling by steamboat, rail, and wagon. Benjamin’s letters from his family were returned to South Berwick and remain in the house where they were written a century and a half ago.