By Steve Oney
The 250 protesters who gathered around the imposing Confederate memorial in Augusta, Georgia, had come at the request of the local NAACP chapter to demand that it be taken down.
“We stand here in front of a monument that glorifies white supremacy,” said one speaker. The demonstration was of a piece with those across the South following the horrific, fatal clash in Charlottesville, Virginia, over the proposed removal of a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee. Yet for all of the crowd’s sincerity, most were unaware of a significant fact: The soldier who modeled for the figure atop the 76-foot shaft of granite and Carrera marble in the 700 block of Augusta’s Broad Street became in later years one of the more progressive Southerners of his generation, risking his life to defend Jewish industrialist Leo Frank, who was lynched in 1915. Along with several other factors, Frank’s lynching led to the formation of the modern Ku Klux Klan.
The “man on the monument,” as old-time Augustans call the veteran whose bearded likeness has gazed over the city since 1878, was Sgt. Berry Greenwood Benson. At age 17, shortly before the Civil War began, he joined the first regiment of the South Carolina volunteers just across the Savannah River. His artillery company participated in the conflict’s opening act, the attack on Fort Sumter. He was wounded at the battle of Chancellorsville and later captured by the Union Army. He escaped from Elmira Prison in upstate New York and made his way back to Virginia. He was at Appomattox in 1865 when Lee surrendered. Following Benson’s death in 1923, The Augusta Chronicle declared him “the bravest of the brave of the Confederate soldiers.”
The war, however, was only the first part of Berry Benson’s odyssey. While he was proud of his service (he kept his rifle and attended reunions of Southern troops), he largely put the past behind him. He spent nearly all of his remaining years in Augusta facing the future with optimism and kindness. “He did his duty in that war without any hatred of his enemies,” the Chronicle said. “He did not know what hatred means. He had blotted out of his heart all hatred, bitterness, and discontent.”
Benson was a whiz with numbers, and he quickly established a successful career in Augusta’s booming textile business. Not only did he master the complicated craft of grading cotton (good middling, middling, strict low middling), but he developed an accounting system used by most of the city’s mill owners.
Despite Benson’s profitable alliance with the barons of the New South, many of whom cared nothing for the welfare of blacks, he believed in social justice, writing, “I am ashamed of myself when I fare better than they.” He contacted the U.S. Department of Agriculture in hopes of finding ways to turn the mushrooms that grow bountifully in the forests around Augusta into a sustainable crop for poor farmers. During Reconstruction, he attempted to head off an infamous race riot in Hamburg, South Carolina. He entered a building seized by a black militia on a one-man mission to negotiate a truce. He was credited with getting three members of the militia out safely. Five others were executed.
It’s too much to say that Benson was fully enlightened on race. Edward Cashin, the late chairman of the Augusta State University Department of History and author of a fine book, “Old Springfield: Race and Religion in Augusta, Georgia,” about one of Augusta’s (and America’s) most historic black Baptist churches, characterized Benson’s attitude toward blacks as one of “paternalistic racism.” That, nonetheless, was benign compared to the attitude of others. Unlike what Cashin termed the “virulent racists” who emerged in the South in the early 20th century, Benson believed in peaceful coexistence.
More than this, Benson was a father figure to one of the most open-minded Southerners of that era. Through him, he became involved in the Leo Frank case.
William M. Smith, an Augusta native and 1901 graduate of the University of Georgia Law School, was essentially Benson’s ward (Smith’s parents died during his boyhood). Smith devoted much of his Atlanta practice to defending indigent blacks, one of whom, Jim Conley, was the state’s key witness against Frank, who was tried and convicted in 1913 for murdering Mary Phagan, a child laborer. During Frank’s appeals, Benson and Smith studied two strange notes that had been found near the victim’s body and concluded that Conley wrote them – he, and not Leo Frank, killed Mary Phagan.
Berry Benson’s “Five Arguments in the Leo Frank Case” were originally published in The Augusta Chronicle by editor Thomas Loyless. They were later reissued in pamphlet form and were frequently cited in the national press as Frank’s plight became a cause celebre. Frank had a cache of the pamphlets in his possession at the Georgia Prison Farm in Milledgeville the night he was abducted. He was hanged the next morning in Marietta, Georgia, some 100 miles to the north. Because they supported Frank, Benson, Smith, and Loyless were threatened with death. The threats were serious: A few months after the lynching, a revived KKK conducted its first cross burning just outside Atlanta.
By then, Benson was an old man. It is impossible to say what he would have made of the changing nature of race relations in the South. But the two younger men who joined him in championing Frank’s innocence certainly were in step with the idea of racial reconciliation.
In 1931, William Smith rejected an invitation to join the American Bar Association on the grounds that it had no black members.
“As a native-born American,” he wrote, “a white man, a Southerner by birth and rearing, and a member of the Sons of the Confederacy, I believe that the day has passed in this land when so distinguished an association as the National Brotherhood of Lawyers can honorably yield to any discrimination. … While I greatly appreciate your … offer to endorse my application for membership, I must deny myself the privilege.”
Thomas Loyless, the only Georgia editor to launch a sustained campaign calling for an investigation of the Frank lynching, subsequently purchased The Columbus Enquirer, where he editorialized against the Klan. (The Enquirer won the 1926 Pulitzer Prize for its aggressive coverage of the KKK.) In the early 1920s, Loyless left journalism. With the backing of George Foster Peabody, the wealthy banker who endowed the University of Georgia’s Peabody Awards for excellence in broadcasting, he took over a dilapidated spa in Warm Springs, Georgia, and supervised the therapy of one of its earliest patients: Franklin D. Roosevelt, who’d been stricken by polio. The president later thanked Loyless for restoring him to sufficient health to seek nationwide office – and implement the New Deal.
The man on the monument, then, was much more than a veteran. Yes, he fought for the Confederacy. (His memoirs, which are still in print under the title “Berry Benson’s Civil War Book,” offer a superb, first-person account of the war.) But he exemplified the best of the post-war white South. Thus, while it’s possible to regard Augusta’s Civil War memorial as simply an emblem of the old order – especially when one reads the poetry on its base commemorating Dixie as a “nation … white and fair” – the face on the statue also looks forward to a better place.
So, instead of taking Augusta’s Civil War monument down, why not attempt to put it into historical context? The University of Mississippi has pioneered what is known as the “contextualization” movement. A biracial committee in the state studied many of the school’s monuments and came up with wording to engrave on tasteful plaques that are now situated around campus. The result has been a dialogue between past, present, and future at Ole Miss.
Augusta’s man on the monument might also initiate some productive conversation if he could be seen from more than just one point of view. He could even encourage talk that includes the figure whose statue anchors the 800 block of Broad Street, only a few hundred feet away. It recognizes one of the city’s more contemporary favorite sons, the godfather of soul, James Brown.
Steve Oney is the author of "And the Dead Shall Rise: The Murder of Mary Phagan and the Lynching of Leo Frank."