Friday, August 13, 2010

The Double Life of a Confederate Soldier

Benjamin Martin Braxton,
Confederate or Union 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, a man who appears to have led two lives and gotten away with it.

Years ago I overheard a visitor-possibly a relative- tell my mom and grandmom a story about an ancestor , 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 told him to just let it go because there were children involved. I remember the visitor showing Mom and Grandmom pictures, but I was sort of on the sidelines and didn't get to see them. I do remember them debating with my aunt and grandfather about what the real truth might be. And I remember that somehow this was all related to my great-grandmother, who was deceased by this time.

Fairly recently we all came upon a rpadblock in our ancestral hunts, and it was at this time the three of us found each other. It was all over a man named Benjamin Braxton. Then I remembered the strange visitor with the photos who had come to my grandmother's house. It looked to me like the two stories might represent the same person.
Martha Lambert, Ben's "real" wife
My two cousins Delle and I all confessed confusion over this man because we had so little information on Benjamin. Was the story true, or a family myth? Did he have two wives or one? At the same time? Was there a divorce? Was one of the marriages not legal? Was my great-grandmother really his daughter, since she wasn't listed on any of the census records of his family?

Then we discovered there were stories about Ben being a Union soldier. But there were also stories about him being a  Confederate soldier. Was he both? A deserter? A traitor? And  if he was also a bigamist--what was he thinking?

Della Y came up with some pictures and information that said he was a Confederate private, along with two of his brothers, as well as the 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). But she had also used the last name Lambert at one time.

Then I read something about a Union fort, Fort Barrancas, near 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 Barrancas and 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 Pensacola on the same day, surprisingly late in the war, December 31, 1863.

Margaret Lambert Braxton
Norton,  my g-g-grandmother
Benjamin Braxton, at 5'8", was the middle brother, and also in between in height, between his 5' 10" older brother and 5'4" younger one. 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 around 1851 when they received a land grant, when Ben was around 10-11 years old. On the map, the distance is barely 15-20 miles from Geneva, Alabama, where Mary Crowder lived, so some connection with the area would be within reason. On the Florida census rolls, Ben and his wife Martha Lambert Braxton married in 1866 and didn't have children till 1867.

But supposedly he married, using the name John William Braxton, in 1861 to Mary Crowder, and a son was born within a year, before Ben went off to war. Suspicious, huh? And another question formed. Was my g-grannie, born in 1866, illegitimate, possibly raised by her maternal grandparents, the Lamberts, perhaps? She used that name too, and apparently had come from Florida, but I don't know where. Was she Martha's child, or Mary's? Or maybe some other woman's?

Mary Crowder, Ben's supposed first wife
And the instant I saw his photo, I was confronted with yet another puzzle. My instant thought was, This man is Cherokee. He just plain looked Cherokee to me. I had been looking for a Native American ancestor, but he was my great-great-great grandfather, a Choctaw named Mihatima (real spelling and White Man's Name unknown). Benjamin's parents originated in Cherokee country, not Choctaw country, so it wouldn't be surprising if he were Cherokee, and Della Y says people often comment that she looks Native American. She bears a strong resemblance to Benjamin, and also his wife Martha who has that same high cheekboned flat face. Choctaws tend to have a more rounded face, like my grandmother, who was the last member of my family to be a member of the Mississippi Choctaw Nation. So why, if the family admits to an older Choctaw connection, wouldn't there be any mention of a newer Cherokee connection? Then again, maybe he wasn't Cherokee, or Native American at all.

We will probably never have all the pieces. 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. An entire group of North Florida residents deserted around the same time. Dale Cox,
a very thorough researcher of Florida during the Civil War, presented an enlightening blog on the development of the 1st Cavalry at the Union Fort at Pensacola.

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 newly established Union Fort Barrancas at 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 Pensacola, which officially was in business on the last day of 1863. A fourth brother joined them in 1864.

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 early 1860s and produced a child? We don't know. Perhaps that child was really illegitimate. He isn't on any census records we've found with the supposed first wife, Mary, and child, John William Braxton. We can't find any marriage records. And Mary claimed at one time to be widowed and another to be divorced. But that sort of thing isn't unusual in old census and other records. Further, after Ben died, she tried to claim his Union Army pension. We don't think she succeeded, but can't find that info either. Where was Ben between 1861 and 1863? Did he really use an alias of John William Braxton, as Mary claimed? Was Ben sneaky? Was Mary hornswoggled? Was Ben just a jerk? Or maligned? Or do we simply not know the real story?

But the big question still looms: What was that man thinking? If you've got any ideas, the Della-Della-Delles would sure like to know.


  1. Interesting blog. I love that era in history. Sometimes truth is stranger than fiction, huh?

  2. Right, Mary! Would I dare write this story? Probably not as a romance!

  3. Fascinating stuff! This story, these people and their motivations, would make a great non-fiction book. Thank you for sharing your intriguing family history.

  4. WOW Della (s) what an intriging story. I love geaneology, one series I'm writing is loosely based on my great-grandparents. I've had a blast putting together stories related to me by great-aunts and cousins alike.
    And I love the Civil War era. I've researched it extensively and hope to someday write a romance set in that time period.
    About this man, William Braxton, (I think that was his name) could it be that he was captured by Union Forces in Florida and coerced into signing on with the Union? From what I know of that era, if a divorce took place it was kept hush hush or it became the scandelous talk of the town. I'd say keep researching, I wish I had some leads to give you, but I don't. Will you be writing a book about this? If so, I'd sure love to read it. Best of luck to you and your family in solving this mystery.
    Sincerely, Debby Lee

  5. Thanks for the thought, Debbie. I'd say he wasn't coerced by Union Army folk. The Union Army didn't conscript, but they did send their captured soldiers to prisoner-or-war camps like the infamous Andersonville. Conscription was a practice begun by the CSA in 1862, and was widely hated. It may have done them more harm than good. I did find something about him being conscripted in April 1863. I haven't checked if his brothers joined the confederates at that time, but I might find something clarifying there. The all three left the CSA at the same time, then arrived at Pensacola by December 1863. But I don't know if Isham, the youngest of the three was captured and then arrived later. There was a fourth brother, much younger, who didn't join until 1864, almost by the end of the war.

    I find it so interesting to see threads of truth in family stories- but facts that turn out not to be true, too. The thing is, which ones are which??? Totally fascinating.

    While looking for the Choctaw ancestor in a different family branch, I instead uncovered a link to the Plantagenet kings of England, all the way back to William the Conqueror and further. At first the link seemed utterly and ridiculously impossible. But... it's real... I think...

    1. Hi. I stumbled across this post while I was researching something else and thought I'd add in my two cents. One of my ancestors was a member of the CSA and was also a Missouri guerrilla with Dave Poole (the successor of "Bloody Bill" Anderson) and so I've done quite a bit of Civil War research. Forced enlistments in the Union Army were common, at least here in Missouri. Oftentimes captured prisoners were forced into Union service and were "enlisted" to do physical labor.


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