The Story of Anthony Benton
Contributed by Doug Thompsen, Durham Center Museum
When the Civil War broke out in the spring of 1861 there were no black men in the fighting ranks. There were 3,953,760 slaves in the South and 488,070 free black people of which 250,787 lived in slave states. Before the end of the first year of the war slavery had been abolished in the District of Columbia and all Federal territories.
In the first few months of the war Blacks pleaded to join the Union Army, but were rejected. From all the large northern cities Blacks tried to join, but Secretary of War Simon Cameron wanted nothing to do with black soldiers. Even when they did enlist as cooks and waiters they were forced to be discharged. When Cameron was replaced by Edwin M. Stanton things started to change. In August of 1862 the first Black Regiment was raised, in South Carolina, made up of ex slaves.
On January 1, 1863, President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, thus stating that "All men were equal" and freeing all slaves. This gave the Blacks the opportunity to enlist in the army. The President wanted to use Blacks for garrison duty but through the efforts of the Secretary of War, many white abolitionists, and black leaders such as Frederick Douglass, black combat regiments were recruited. These regiments were commanded by white officers and fought just as hard and if not better than their white counterparts.
By the beginning of 1864 there were over 50 Black units and one of the first states to recruit a Black Regiment was our neighbor, Massachusetts. Their first Black unit was the 54th Massachusetts Infantry, formed in early 1863 and was a most gallant unit. It spent most of the war in South Carolina.
Greene County had its share of Blacks that fought in the war and one of them was Anthony Benton. Anthony was born in Catskill, March 4, 1846. His parents Winsey Benton and Clara (Amundis) Benton, like their son, were Catskill natives. Anthony was a laborer living in Hudson, New York, when he journeyed to Boston, Massachusetts and enlisted in Co. A 54th Massachusetts Infantry on March 5, 1863.
After their training the 54th went to war in South Carolina (South Carolina, by the way was the first State to secede from the Union). While in the service, Anthony was a Drum Major and a private. He went into battle on July 18, 1864 and was taken prisoner. He was imprisoned in Charleston prison. But our high-spirited and brave Anthony could not be confined. Two days after his capture he escaped, by jumping into the river and swimming to the Union works on Morris Island. In less than three weeks Anthony went into combat again and was wounded, at Morris Island, August 9, 1864.
When the City of Charleston fell Anthony, the 54th were moved in and the Army took over the City. The 54th performed the duty of Provost (Police). They were in charge until September 1865. Anthony was discharged September 7, 1865 at Charleston.
Anthony came back to Hudson. He married Deborah Williams on March 12, 1869, and according to the records of the family bible, they were married by a Rev. Williams. The Bentons lived in Hudson, Brooklyn, and finally settled in Coxsackie.
Deborah and Anthony had five children, Emma, born May 1, 1870; Nelson, born September 29, 1874; Isaac, born December 11, 1885; Richard, born August 15, 1887; and A. Harrison, born March 4, 1889.
In 1898, Anthony could no longer work and applied for a government pension. He suffered from a catarrh rupture, which was an inflammation of the nose and throat. According to government records, dated March 29, 1915, three of their children were dead and only Emma and Richard Alexander survived. Anthony’s pension was originally two dollars a month in 1898 and when he died in 1923 he was receiving fifty dollars per month.
Mr. Benton died April 26, 1923 in Coxsackie. His cause of death was pneumonia and he was laid out at W. C. Brady funeral home. And on April 29, 1923 he was laid to rest in Riverside Cemetery in Coxsackie.
While in the service of his country Anthony deserted and went back; he was captured and escaped; was wounded; and performed police duty in a city where he was probably hated and despised. Anthony did his part in the accomplishment of removing the shackles from his southern brothers and sisters, and laying the foundation that would take the time and much effort of others who followed, that someday everyone would have the opportunity to be free and enjoy happiness.