A Wealthy Southerner Goes Off to War Lithograph of Richmond, 1856, printing by L.A. Ramm. Courtesy Library of Congress. https://www.loc.gov/resource/pga.12291/
Born on January 18th, 1831 in Richmond, Virginia, Benjamin Watkins Leigh grew up in one of Virginia’s most prestigious and politically vocal families. His grandfather had protested British taxes prior to the American Revolution. His father, Benjamin Watkins Leigh Sr., was a prominent lawyer and U.S. Senator, famous for his adamant defense of slavery and his disapproval of extending the vote to white men who didn’t own property. The family, whose wealth and status were derived from the work of enslaved peoples, fully embraced slavery not as a necessary evil but as a positive good. At times, Leigh Sr. went as far as to state “Let them [the slaves] remain here, then. They are happier than they would be in any other situation.”
Following his father’s death in 1849, Leigh Jr. embraced a greater sense of independence and departed from Richmond. On April 18, 1855, he married Hellen Leckie Jones. Their first child, William Leigh, was born in 1856, while the family was in California, likely for some type of business venture. Their second son, Benjamin Leigh, was born in 1859. As a member of the southern aristocracy, Benjamin and his family were intimately familiar with the institution of slavery. According to the 1860 census of Mecklenburg County, Virginia, Leigh lived within the household of Helen Jones, his mother-in-law, who owned 93 human beings. He personally owned an additional 34 human beings at that time. As war loomed, Leigh returned to Virginia from travels in the Carolinas. There, Benjamin followed the examples of his politically active father and grandfather, throwing himself earnestly behind what he saw as the cause of Virginia and the southern states as a whole: The cause of ensuring a future for slavery. In many ways, Leigh is the quintessential image of the Confederate officer. A wealthy slaveowner, using his social connections to receive an officer’s commission, heading off to war to whip the Yankees and defend his way of life. However, his story proves to be significantly more complicated.
Using his myriad connections built upon the social, political, and economic power he held as a major slaveholder, Leigh received a Captain’s commission and helped to raise Company A of the First Virginia Battalion. Starting in December 1862, Leigh commanded the 42nd Virginia Infantry as acting Colonel, though the unit saw little combat at Fredericksburg. Before Leigh’s arrival, Brigadier General John R. Jones was seeking a new commander for the 42nd, judging that it “became almost entirely disorganized for want of a commanding officer competent to discipline it and manage its officers.” Among others, Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson himself had recommended Leigh for command. Though some recommendations doubtless were based upon Leigh’s wealth and political connections, his performance speaks to his above-average management and logistical abilities. Jones recommended Leigh for promotion to Colonel in January 1863, though he never received the rank. Perhaps Leigh’s political maneuvering that had gained him his commission in the first place also had made enemies who could have opposed his promotion. Upon taking command, Leigh immediately began to restore order to the regiment. In order to reshape a unit that had a reputation for being disorderly, Leigh began strictly enforcing regulations. He soon set a regimental record for the number of men he placed on report or under arrest. Although southern society had a strict hierarchy based upon social, political, and economic status which often was mirrored in the composition of regiments and the officer corps, tensions often erupted between officers and enlisted men during particularly trying moments when the shared bonds of white masculinity and independence appeared threatened. As fellow white men, many of whom prided themselves on independent property ownership, enlisted men resented when officers treated them as if they were no better than slaves or servants. Although Leigh possessed unquestioned social status and political authority, reconstructing a chain of command in a regiment of highly individualistic men would have proved difficult. However, his actions soon had the desired effect of restructuring the unit, as Jones stated, “in two month’s[SIC] time he has restored (the 42nd) to a good condition, making it one of the best regiments in the service.”
Clearly, Leigh’s management abilities continued to impress, as in March 1863 Jones yet again urged General Samuel Cooper, the Inspector General, to promote him. Again, this promotion was denied. Ultimately, however, higher-ups, such as Cooper, believed that Leigh’s impressive education and logistical and managerial skills would be best used on the administrative front, and transferred Leigh to the staff of General A.P. Hill. Leigh would spend the rest of his service as an Adjutant. According to Article 20 of the Army Officer’s Pocket Companion; Principally Designed for Staff Officers in the Field (a U.S. Army publication often copied by the Confederacy), Leigh’s new job would include desk duties such as “publishing orders in writing; making up written instructions and transmitting them; reception of reports and returns…. forming tables, showing state and position of corps; regulating details of service; [and] corresponding with the administrative departments relative to the wants of the troops.” Without a doubt, his administrative skills in reforming the rowdy 42nd Virginia revealed his preparedness for these assignments. His more active duties included tasks such as “establishing camps; visiting guards and outposts; mustering and inspecting troops; inspecting guards and detachments; forming parades and line of battle; the conduct and control of deserters and prisoners; making reconnaissances; and in general, discharging such other active duties as may be assigned them.”
In the capacity of an Adjutant, Leigh was present at the Battle of Chancellorsville’s most defining moment. Assisting General Hill, who accompanied General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson on an evening reconnaissance of the Union lines on May 2nd, Leigh was present when Confederate soldiers, confused in the darkness, fired upon Jackson and his staff. Writing about the event to his wife after the death of Jackson on May 10th, Leigh described the scene: “It seemed as if we were all doomed to speedy destruction… I perceived that my only hope of escape was in getting to the ground, and lying down that I might expose as little of myself as possible to the fire of our men.” Regaining composure as the fire ceased, he found General Hill and learned of Jackson’s wounding. Hastening to the side of the wounded general, Hill commanded him to go immediately for a surgeon and an ambulance. Tossing aside his recently recovered saddle and baggage “as objects utterly insignificant in comparison with a moment’s delay in procuring succor for Gen. Jackson,” he soon found an assistant surgeon and returned with a litter. Leigh then served as Jackson’s personal litter bearer.
Leigh and his comrades soon began receiving fire from Union artillery and were forced to lay down in the road beside the general. Leigh also described how Jackson’s litter was later dropped when another litter bearer tripped on undergrowth after the party was forced off the road by yet additional enemy fire. Leigh wrote of Jackson that, “for the first time he groaned, and groaned piteously. He must have suffered excruciating agonies.” Leigh clearly admired Jackson’s stoicism following his wounding, as he painted the image of a masculine hero bearing his wounds bravely. After finally reaching an ambulance, Leigh returned to other duties and attempted to clear the road so that he might make his way back to Hill. Writing to his wife after that night, he mentioned, “The sleeve of my overcoat – the new one which you had made for me – is stained with Gen. Jackson’s blood which fell upon it as I was assisting him when he first rose and walked a short distance; and also are my gloves. I have a notion of preserving them as relics, and would do so if I had not daily need of them.” His use of the word relic makes clear that he recognized the historic significance of the event and his role in it, but simultaneously believed that the everyday necessity of those items and the difficulty of replacing them were more important. He understood what the loss of Jackson meant, but saw continuing his service more important than preserving relics and memorializing his own role. Despite the stained uniform, loss of a horse appraised at 400$, and the loss of several articles in his saddlebags he esteemed his “losses– although I can ill afford them – as dust in the balance in comparison with my having been enabled to be of service to Gen. Jackson in his utmost need.” He mourned the death of General Jackson, who “had achieved a glorious Fame, and he fell in the arms of Victory.”
Following the Battle of Chancellorsville, Leigh heard of countless friends and relations who had been killed. Mourning their loss, he closed his letter asking his wife to “remember me affectionately” to his friends and “kiss the children for me.” In the aftermath, Leigh had plenty of time to think back on the sights he saw as well as the friends he lost. Witnessing the brutal wounding of one of the most revered generals and hearing of his death must have affected him deeply. It likely cemented Jackson in his mind as an heroic figure while also reminding Leigh of his own mortality. Perhaps he questioned the conduct of the war, frustrated that it had dragged on for so long and taken the lives of so many men he knew, but more likely the battle increased his confidence and hardened his ardor for total victory over the Union. Leigh had performed admirably before the wounding, and his involvement in the famous and romanticized tale of Jackson won him much acclaim in the modern era, though his actions do not appear to be very well known during the war itself. Nevertheless, his behavior impressed Hill, and Leigh’s family and friends were proud to be associated with a man who had so bravely dedicated his life to the protection of the revered Jackson in his hour of need.
An Adjutant on the Slopes of Culp’s Hill Photo Courtesy Library of Congress. https://www.loc.gov/item/2004661931/
By early June 1863, Benjamin was reassigned as the Army of Northern Virginia reorganized itself in preparation for a new campaign. Although he never climbed the ladder all the way to the rank of Colonel that Jones had recommended him for, his admirable conduct at Chancellorsville may have softened some of his critics, as he received a promotion to Major. Leigh was then reassigned to Edward “Alleghany” Johnson’s Division, the second division in Richard Ewell’s Second Corps, for the march northward. There, he would continue to serve as an Adjutant, though some accounts grant him a more grandiose title of Assistant Adjutant General. Preparing for the campaign, Leigh pondered both his own future and that of the Confederacy. Despite the loss of the beloved Jackson, Leigh was still optimistic for the ultimate success of the Confederate States. On June 4th, he penned a brief letter to his brother, Chapman Leigh, stating, “We seem to be on the eve of a grand expedition. God grant it success. I was in hopes of being able to go to see Hellen so as to be with her during her approaching confinement; but under present circumstances it is, of course, out of the question.” The “confinement” likely refers to the birth of their third child, Robert Leckie Leigh, who was born in June, 1863. Tragically, Leigh not only would miss the birth of his son, but he also would never have the opportunity to meet his new baby.
Despite the recent victory at Chancellorsville, Leigh, like others, certainly struggled with a torn sense of duty as he moved north of the Mason-Dixon line, towards Gettysburg. The war was dragging on longer than most people had expected, and Leigh had responsibilities to his wife and household. Following the passage of the Emancipation Proclamation, fears of slave escapes or even uprisings grew. Hellen sought to maintain the lifestyle to which she was accustomed without the assistance of the head of house, her husband. The continued absence of husbands and fathers on the home front threatened to erode the protections and class privileges accorded to women such as Hellen. The massive social upheavals produced by the breakdown of southern paternalism during the war occurred throughout the South as more and more men were called to fight. Often, soldiers whose homes were threatened by military action or by the prospect of escaping or rebelling slaves deserted the army, hearing the call of duty more strongly at home. Leigh, however, chose military duty over family duty; or, rather, he at least realized that, despite campaigning outside of his home state that he signed up to defend, the successful fulfillment of his military duties elsewhere would ultimately benefit his family at home. Like many of his peers, Leigh hoped that this campaign would bring final victory for the Confederacy.
As the division moved northward, Leigh cut his teeth with Johnson’s Division during the Second Battle of Winchester, where he would learn to convey orders and arrange lines of battle for units and commanders with whom he had only minimal acquaintance. Waged from June 13-15th, the battle ended as a spectacular Confederate victory, opening the Shenandoah Valley by dispersing the main Federal force within it. The division then continued further, passing through Sharpsburg, MD, and later demanding money and goods from Shippensburg, PA with the threat that the Confederates would burn the town if their demands were not met. Receiving orders on June 30th, Ewell’s Corps set off on the road southward towards the small crossroads town of Gettysburg.
Johnson’s division neared Gettysburg on the evening of July 1st, having marched upwards of twenty-five miles in a single day. Exhausted and thirsty, the division moved towards the left of the Confederate line, forded Rock Creek, passed by the George Wolf farm, and continued to their final position. Guided by moonlight, they formed a line parallel with the Hanover Road, which lay about 500 yards away, set out pickets, and went to sleep with their arms ready. All throughout this hectic evening, Leigh followed General Johnson as they maneuvered the division into place. Johnson’s Division had been ordered to take Culp’s Hill if it was found unoccupied, but their moment of opportunity had already passed. Confederate successes on July 1st had pushed the Union army back through the town, but now they were reforming their lines atop the hill, a position that would form a key anchor for the Army of the Potomac for the rest of the battle. The Confederates could literally hear the sound of Union soldiers chopping down trees to prepare a line of formidable entrenchments that would prove a death trap for so many of Johnson’s men on the following two days. All throughout the night, Leigh was likely involved with the planning for July 2nd. The noise of Union pioneers busily at work with hatchets and shovels must have filled him with anxiety as he planned what he feared would be the impending slaughter of so many of his comrades in grey.
Much of July 2nd was spent coordinating for future action by meeting with subordinate commanders or studying the terrain, and certainly the experienced and talented Leigh assisted Johnson to the best of his ability. It is difficult to know exactly where Leigh was as each phase of the impending battle unfolded; however, he likely remained close to General Johnson, riding back and forth between the front line and Johnson, delivering orders and forming lines of battle to help maintain organization and cohesion in the wooded and rocky terrain of Culp’s Hill.
The division did not advance to meet the foe until after an entire day of preparation. General Ewell had been instructed to wait to issue his order of attack until after General Longstreet assailed the Union left, and Longstreet’s morning attack had been delayed. Staring up the heights with apprehension, Confederate soldiers waited for the deadly orders. However, unbeknownst to the Confederates, although the XII Corps of the Army of the Potomac had dug in, the vast majority of the Union troops atop Culp’s Hill had been ordered away to support the left after Confederate assaults crushed that part of the Federal line. Only a single Union brigade under the command of Brigadier General George Greene stood on the heights awaiting Johnson’s attack as evening arrived on July 2nd. Suddenly, Confederate artillery on Benner’s Hill opened fire on Union positions. Soon after, Johnson’s four brigades set off. Brigadier General John M. Jones’s Brigade led the attack, followed by Nicholls’s Brigade, now commanded by Col. Jesse Williams, and Brigadier General George Steuart’s Brigade. Brigadier General James Walker’s men, the old Stonewall Brigade, would later follow after finishing a skirmish with Union cavalry. Crossing Rock Creek and advancing towards the eastern and southern slopes of Culp’s Hill, the attack fully began around 7:00 that evening.
With thousands of Confederates approaching, the Union brigade sought reinforcements, begging for aid from the battered I and XI Corps as they watched their skirmishers flee from the tide of advancing Confederates. Soon thereafter, the first three Confederate brigades slammed into the overstretched Union line. As night fell, Steuart’s Brigade seized control of lower Culp’s Hill. Shortly thereafter, Generals Johnson and Steuart visited the position, likely accompanied by Leigh. There, Johnson heard the rumble of wagons and calmly remarked that surely these noises “would indicate the enemy was retreating.” Leigh likely felt pride in the role he had played in helping Johnson’s men seize this piece of high ground, though the human carnage littering the ground before him may have tempered that feeling. However, the noises that Johnson heard were, in fact, the rest of the XII Corps returning to their original positions to reinforce Greene’s threatened line. Skirmishes erupted intermittently as returning Union troops were surprised to find Confederates within their original lines. Night fell, and both Union and Confederate troops, exhausted from their struggles through the dark woods, attempted to sleep within close proximity to their foes. Nervousness and anxiety abounded on both sides of the line. Enlisted and officers, Leigh included, lay awake questioning whether the next day would lead to victory or defeat. Johnson’s Division had seized the southern end of Culp’s Hill and lay in wait at the base of the eastern slope. They would try again for the northern slope tomorrow.
By the early morning of July 3rd, the Union XII Corps was eager to retake their lost ground. Their corps commander, Major General Slocum, issued stern orders to the Federals to “drive them out at daylight.” Nearby, Confederate generals planned for a renewed assault. Ewell added reinforcements from other Second Corps brigades to Johnson’s Division. It now fell upon Leigh’s shoulders to coordinate this part of the day’s attack. At daybreak, around 4:30am, Union artillery batteries surprised the Confederates, barraging the Confederate line for fifteen minutes. When the fire stopped, Johnson threw Jones’s, Nicholls’s, and portions of Steuart’s brigades back up the upper portion of Culp’s Hill. Now fully prepared for battle, the Stonewall Brigade moved into a supporting position behind Steuart, who still occupied the lower hill. Encircled by dense foliage and rocky terrain, there was little room for maneuvering. Ensnared in a deadly struggle, men of both armies slugged it out for hours.
By mid-morning, two organized assaults had failed, and Johnson was now ordering a third. Leigh likely helped bring these orders to the front, helping to place troops in their new lines of battle. This time the assault would be spearheaded by the Stonewall Brigade, the rest of Steuart’s men, and Junius Daniel’s brigade from another division. Steuart’s men attacked the lower end of Culp’s Hill this time, crossing what is now known as Pardee Field. This dramatic charge quickly devolved into chaos and slaughter. All the while, the renewed assault against upper Culp’s Hill was sputtering as well. Around 10:30am, even more Union reinforcements neared the position, and the Stonewall Brigade and Daniel’s Brigade were forced to withdraw. As they pulled away, small bands of Confederates were left between the lines. Unable to withdraw and unable to advance, their only choice was to surrender. Waving handkerchiefs and piecing together makeshift white flags, dozens of Confederates trapped between the lines attempted to give themselves over to the enemy, preferring the uncertainty of prisoner life to near-certain death.
Around 11:00am, one of these groups waving a white banner was comprised of approximately 40 men of the 4th Virginia who found themselves trapped behind a rock ledge in front of the position of the 7th Ohio. The regimental commander of the 7th Ohio ordered his men to cease-fire so that the prisoners could be brought into the lines. Upon observing this act of perceived cowardice, Benjamin Leigh rode forward to rally the surrendering men. Raised in a society that valued bravery and placed death before dishonor, the sight of so many Confederates willingly handing themselves over to the enemy must have shocked Leigh. Reflecting on the stoic death and legacy of Jackson, he had no patience for men from the Stonewall Brigade, of all units, surrendering. Leigh’s impulse to advance into the melee also may have derived from underlying frustrations over his confinement to an administrative role rather than front-line commander. The managerial role of adjutants was vital to the proper and efficient functioning of armies, though it certainly lacked the honor and glory that came with combat commands. Perhaps Leigh’s actions were a passionate attempt to showcase battlefield heroism that might gain him personal renown, or at least stomp out Leigh’s own lingering concerns over his martial reputation. Or perhaps Leigh was simply motivated by frustrations over the fact that a seemingly moral failure on behalf of these men to overcome the fear of death had now doomed his carefully laid plans of assault. Perhaps, too, he envied Jackson’s stoic and heroic actions and death, and sought to emulate him. Whatever his reasons, Leigh rode forward.
A mounted officer makes an obvious target, even in the dense summer foliage of Culp’s Hill. As Leigh approached the Union lines to deter his men from surrendering, a volley ripped forth from the Union lines, instantly felling both horse and rider. Perhaps the Union soldiers heard his cries ordering the Confederates to fight on and slew him to end the fighting, or perhaps he just stood out as someone in command, too conspicuous a target in his fine uniform to miss, and too important an officer to leave in the action. In his report, the Colonel of the 7th Ohio wrote, “At the time the white flag was raised, a mounted rebel officer… was seen to come forward and endeavor to stop the surrender, when he was fired upon by my men and instantly killed.” Some accounts claimed Leigh was pierced by no fewer than seven minie balls. Although Leigh died far from home, the fact that he died performing a heroic act, and mercifully died instantaneously, fit squarely within the notion of the “Good Death.” The exact nature of Leigh’s death thus likely provided some solace to his friends and family. Despite his heroic actions, Leigh ultimately was unable to rally his men, and the final attack on Culp’s Hill failed. Following Leigh’s death, 78 Confederates, many from the 4th Virginia, surrendered to the 7th Ohio. The bloodied remnants of Johnson’s Division wearily withdrew from the field. The next morning, the Ohioans proudly retrieved the damaged battle flag of the 4th Virginia that had been left on the battlefield.
The Long Road Home Photo Courtesy Library of Congress. https://www.loc.gov/item/99447500/
Leigh’s bravery left a deep impact on soldiers both North and South. Shared American ideals of honor and martial manhood often transcended sectional differences. General Johnson later wrote glowingly of Leigh, “Maj. B.W. Leigh, my chief of staff, whose conscientious discharge of duty, superior attachments, and noble bearing made him invaluable to me, was killed within a short distance of the enemy’s line.” Many Union soldiers commented on the heroic act of the officer who fell so close to their line, snatching up souvenirs from his body such as uniform scraps or his watch to remember this impressive act of daring. Union officers respected his action as well, with even General Greene, who commanded the brigade that had fought off the Confederate assaults both days, noting that he was “struck with admiration at his gallantry,” and ordered a proper burial for Leigh. Curiously, the Federals chose to bring Leigh’s body behind Union lines for burial where he was interred, surrounded by Union soldiers. S.G. Elliot’s map of burials in Gettysburg clearly depicts Leigh’s grave site. He is one of the few named graves on the map, labelled “B. W. Leigh Reb Gen.” A marked, individual grave for a Confederate killed on Culp’s Hill was an oddity, as most Confederates were simply piled into mass graves. It appears that some officers viewed Leigh’s final act as so honorable that he transcended labels of friend and foe and earned a special burial place, more sacred than most. His clearly labelled, individual grave also offered Leigh a burial much more in-line with the “Good Death” of Victorian America.
In the aftermath of the battle, the Leigh family was shaken to its core. Having waited for weeks to learn his fate, they heard news of his death in late July. Hellen was left to raise multiple children without him, and although she had the social network and wealth to support her temporarily, much of that wealth depended on the outcome of the war. She was forced to learn how to lead her own household without the assistance of its chief patriarch, and the future decline of the Confederacy (and thus of slavery) further threatened her entire way of life that had for so long been predicated on the wealth and attending social status accorded to her through her slaveholding husband. Such losses not only threatened her very respectability and cherished notions of “proper” Victorian femininity but the Union’s ultimate victory in 1865 would lead to massive social, political, and economic upheavals as she and her peers struggled against the attempts of her formerly enslaved workforce to assert itself as the social and political equals of whites. Worse yet, southern women feared, this upheaval of southern society would result in heinous crimes and the sexual conquest of white women committed by a vengeful black populace.
Robert Leigh, born mere weeks before the death of his father, died in September, 1864. It is possible that his death could have been influenced by the stresses and economic hardships that years of war and the blockade pressed upon even the wealthiest of southern families. Hellen mostly vanishes from the historical record, but reappears in Campbell County, Virginia in 1870 as Hellen L. Wimbish, having remarried 59-year-old farmer John Wimbish. Postbellum remarriage was extremely common as women attempted to regain the protections, and hopefully the wealth, that they had previously been accustomed to under their former husbands. As made clear in Drew Gilpin Faust’s book, Mothers of Invention, some women embraced their newfound independence gained during their wartime experiences, while others clung to the paternalistic society to which they were accustomed. For these women, the world had been turned upside down, and for Hellen in particular, her remarriage may have been her best hope for some return to normalcy. John Wimbish himself had felt the devastating effects of war, as he had previously owned dozens of slaves in both North Carolina and Mississippi and served as Colonel of the 54th North Carolina. In the postwar years, he returned to a life of farming, without his traditional workforce, on much reduced acreage. Hellen’s children with Leigh do not appear in the household, likely having gone to live with Benjamin’s family, but Wimbish’s other children from a previous marriage are listed. Hellen’s occupation was denoted as “keeping house,” but these duties and her new lifestyle were doubtless a far cry from the wealthy and luxurious lifestyle she enjoyed during Benjamin’s life. Although Wimbish was not impoverished, and his exact household worth is not listed on the census, whatever opulent wealth he may have had before the war doubtless was greatly decreased now that his slaves were free and his acreage in the Deep South of little use to him in the immediate wake of the war.
However, before Hellen could begin her life anew as Mrs. Wimbish, she faced the grievous task of locating her fallen husband’s lost remains. Hellen doubtless kept herself up-to-date during the multiple attempts to bring Leigh’s body home, as returning Leigh to the family plot in Richmond was essential to providing him with a proper “hero’s burial.” Due to his unusual internment, there has been much confusion about the final resting place of Leigh’s remains. For decades, most scholars believed that he was removed from Culp’s Hill and placed within a section of unknown dead in the Soldiers’ National Cemetery. The administrative and logistical nightmares associated with disinterring and removing a body from the battlefield were so numerous that they confounded scholars for years and created massive difficulties for heartbroken families that wanted their loved ones to return home. However, recent scholarship and newly revealed sources, such as a newspaper clipping reporting on his burial in Richmond, indicate otherwise. Benjamin’s brother, Chapman Leigh, spearheaded the first efforts to ascertain Benjamin’s fate, and family friend, G. H. Byrd of Baltimore became a key correspondent through 1863 and 1864. Byrd wrote that he had learned that Leigh definitely had been killed, and that his body could easily be found and identified. Furthermore, he continued that he was confident that Leigh’s remains could be recovered by friends, even though it would be only a “sad consolation” for all of their grief. Bringing Leigh home to be buried among family in a location that could be visited by loved ones was extremely important to Victorian Americans and was a fate that the horrors of battle often denied soldiers in the Civil War.
Despite his confidence and the relative distinction of Leigh’s grave, it took Byrd some time to properly locate the place of interment. In September, Byrd travelled to Gettysburg to meet with a local who was sure of the location, though he then hit yet another roadblock. Officials had prohibited any disinterment until November due to concerns about public health. The hunt for Benjamin was thus delayed and appears not to have resumed for another year. In August of 1864, Byrd yet again set off, but now with a slightly different goal. He still desired to find Leigh, but now wanted simply “to have the spot securely marked, and let the body remain until after the war, which I trust is now approaching its end,” rather than to have it immediately removed. Corresponding with Dr. J. O’Neill, who would later earn fame for his assistance in reinterring Confederate burials in the 1870s, Byrd learned that Benjamin’s burial had indeed been properly marked. Samuel Weaver, who had supervised reinternments to the National Cemetery, had located it in 1863. In Weaver’s possession was a $10 note recovered from the body, which he had found lying under a tree that had Leigh’s name carved into it. As Leigh was buried in a distinctive officer’s uniform, Byrd concluded, “it seems to me reasonably certain, that the Major’s body has been discovered.”
Byrd then recommitted himself to the removal of Leigh’s remains before the end of the war. In October, 1864, Byrd travelled from Baltimore and finally retrieved Leigh’s body. Rather than going back home to Virginia, however, the body was temporarily placed in Green Mount Cemetery in Baltimore. His letter informing the family stated, “the remains of the gallant Major B.W. Leigh,” were placed in “the vault of Kno. S. Gittings, Esq. at Greenmount, where they can remain till the family desires to move them.” It appears that Byrd had spoken to friends in Baltimore who commiserated with the Leigh family and their loss and had granted him the use of a vault as a temporary resting place until hostilities ceased and travel between Maryland and Virginia was easier. Reflecting on his grisly duty, Byrd concluded, “the discovery of his grave was most fortunate, and the evidence that it was his are ample. I trust that it will be some consolation to the friends of one so gifted and brave.” The vast majority of Confederate soldiers killed at Gettysburg never had such opportunities to be identified or brought home. Most Confederate soldiers would later been reinterred to Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond, where they now rest in relatively unknown graves.
After a two-year repose in this vault near Baltimore, the body of Benjamin Leigh was finally brought home. On April 23, 1866 the Richmond Daily Dispatch records, “The remains of Major Benjamin Watkins Leigh… having been brought to this city for internment, the funeral will take place from St. James Church this evening at 5 o’clock.” After that service, he was laid to rest in the Leigh family plot in Shockoe Hill Cemetery in Richmond, near his famous father.
Leigh’s sacrifice is an anomaly, as it is both forgotten and remembered simultaneously. Leigh gained fame twice during the war, carrying the iconic “Stonewall” Jackson’s stretcher and dying while attempting to rally men who (coincidentally) once served under Jackson’s command. Leigh’s letter recounting Jackson’s wounding is one of the most reliable accounts of the event, and he gains a mention in most histories of Chancellorsville. His final act earned him a unique burial and his identified grave is clearly labelled on one of the most famous maps of Gettysburg. Furthermore, the complicated story of his final resting place has gained the interest of many scholars. Yet, there is no monument to Leigh, nor a monument to anyone who played the role of Adjutant, unless one includes War Department markers to divisions. Adjutants had a vital job, maintaining order and ensuring that a general’s commands are carried out on the battlefield. That role, however, earns less glory and attention than that of combat commander, general, or even enlisted soldier. Leigh’s famous acts are not specifically that of an adjutant: Almost any Confederate nearby at Chancellorsville could have chosen to carry Jackson’s stretcher, and the task of rallying the wavering soldiers under fire is one suited for an officer of a regiment, namely the 4th Virginia. Leigh is not remembered for his impressive administrative skills which had more concrete effects on the Confederate war effort than his two famous acts. After all, his fame derived from actions that were ultimately fruitless: Jackson died a few days later, and the men of the 4th Virginia were still forced to surrender. Perhaps the fact that his heroic acts were ultimately in vain are part of the appeal of Leigh’s story, which is often associated with the romance of war and southern chivalry. Certainly Leigh was, in many ways, the archetype of the wealthy southern slaveholder and gallant officer. His death and the fate of his family tends to epitomize the inglorious fall of the Confederacy and its tumultuous postbellum years. In reality, however, Leigh’s military career, though often defined by two famous acts, yet beset by administrative bureaucracy that denied him promotion to Colonel and ultimately complicated his reinternment, reveals not only critical details about the enormous complexities behind the Confederate war effort, but also the politics of historical memory that have defined our understanding of the war, both then and now. Leigh’s life thus transcends simple classification and becomes far more complicated, but also somewhat more understandable. Rather than a marble man, these complex aspects of his life trajectory help both to humanize his story and provide insight into a variety of faces and stories within the Confederacy.
1860 United States Federal Census [database on-line]. Provo, UT: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc. 2009.
1870 United States Federal Census [database on-line]. Provo, UT: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc. 2009.
1860 United States Federal Census – Slave Schedules [database on-line]. Provo, UT: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc. 2009.
Atkinson, Matt. The Story of Another Lost Soldier. Gettysburg National Military Park.
Benjamin Watkins Leigh Papers, Virginia Historical Society. Benjamin W. Leigh to Brother Chapman J. Leigh, June 4, 1863. https://civilwartalk.com/threads/maj-benjamin-w-leigh-c-s-a.126294/
Chapla, John D. 42nd Virginia Infantry. Berryville: Virginia Book Company, 1983.
“Charge up Culp’s Hill” Washington Post, July 6, 1899. http://www.gdg.org/research/Other%20Documents/Newspaper%20Clippings/v6pt2e.html
Craighill, William P. Army Officer’s Pocket Companion; Principally Designed for Staff Officers in the Field. New York: D. Van Nostrand, 1862.
Elliott’s map of the battlefield of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. Library of Congress. https://www.loc.gov/item/99447500/
Folder V7-16-B. Major Benjamin W. Leigh, CSA – Burial and Recovery. Gettysburg National Military Park Library.
History of Company G, 147th Regiment Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry. http://www.fruithills.com/civilwardiary.htm
Jedediah Hotchkiss Papers: Subject File, circa 1835-1899; Leigh, Benjamin Watkins, undated. Library of Congress. https://www.loc.gov/resource/mss26526.039_0419_0426/?sp=1&st=gallery
Pfanz, Harry W. Gettysburg: Culp’s Hill and Cemetery Hill. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1993.
Reardon, Carol and Tom Vossler. A Field Guide to Gettysburg: Experiencing the Battlefield Through Its History, Places, and People. Chapel Hill : University of North Carolina Press, 2013.
Narrative and map by Jonathan Tracey, Gettysburg College.