The Story of Benjamin A. Roberts, Pvt. Co. K
The following research and photographs were provided to us by Chris Brown of Gettysburg. Chris is member of the Gettysburg Battlefield Preservation Association (GBPA) which preserved the historic Daniel Lady Farm where casualties of the fighting on Culp's Hill were brought. On a door in the Daniel Lady barn, Benjamin A. Roberts of Company K, 23rd Virginia (Keysville, Virginia) carved his initials "B A R 23 VA". Benjamin enlisted in May of 1861 and fought continuously with the 23rd Virginia until his capture at Spotsylvania in May 1864.
An Unconventional Meeting: The Story of a Common Soldier from Virginia
Written By Christopher Brown
July 2nd, 1863. After a twenty-five mile march to reach the field of battle, the 23rd Virginia Infantry arrives at the small town of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. At the farm of Daniel Lady located on the Hanover Road they fall upon their arms from exhaustion. During the short time of rest, a twenty-three year old married Virginian from Company K makes his way to the barn. With a sharp object in hand, possibly a knife or a bayonet, he carves “BAR 23 VA” into the wood of a door.
This is where Benjamin Allen Roberts’ and my paths first collided. Like Ben, I would arrive at the Daniel Lady Farm by following others. Ben would follow the men of his company and regiment while I would follow the well-known historians Ed Bears and James McPherson. During my time at the farm I began to respect the hardworking members of the Gettysburg Battlefield Preservation Association (GBPA), who own and are preserving the property, as well as what they are trying to accomplish; trying to give a look at the ordinary people who were affected by the war. Armed with the inspiration of Barb Mowery and Kathi Shue, two GBPA members, I have taken strides to gain a better understanding of Ben’s life and entwine our paths further.
Ben’s story began on the 29th day of July in the year of our Lord eighteen hundred and forty. Born to Henry Harrison Roberts and Pamela Anne Watson of Keysville, Virginia, he was indoctrinated into the average southern way of life. By 1850 his father had acquired twenty slaves and a real estate value of $1,500 when the average number of slaves owned in Charlotte County at the time was 12.41. Ten years later Ben’s father had thirteen slaves and a personal estate valued at $11,000. This does not account for the Roberts family achieving the status of the richest people in Charlotte County but they were sitting comfortably above the average.
To say the least, Ben took part in the typical southern lifestyle including starting a family of his own. In December of 1860 at the age of twenty he would do just that by marrying Ella A. Roper (or Rosser depending on the source), daughter of Edmund Roper. I have uncovered little to no information dealing with this marriage except for the fact that it took place. Besides the marriage registry, Ella’s name has only been listed as Ben’s wife on a few land transactions. Unfortunately for these newlyweds war would change their lives and the lives of the entire nation forever, not six months into the marriage.
IT HAD COME TO WAR
With the attack on Fort Sumter on April 12th, 1861 and consequently the call to raise troops by President Lincoln, the Commonwealth of Virginia seceded from the Union on April 17th. Ben, like many other men, joined the ranks of fighting men to defend their new found Confederacy. On May 2nd, 1861 he enlisted in Company K (Keysville Guards) of the 23rd Virginia Infantry with others from the county of Charlotte. While in the Confederate Army Ben was a unique character. He enlisted as a private and was promoted to 4th sergeant by October 1861 and to 1st sergeant by April 1862. What made Ben unique was that by the very next muster he had been demoted back down to the rank of private. This intriguing piece of information led to an important question: What event caused such a demotion? I immediately began correspondence with members of the Civil War community, mainly David Speer of the 23rd Virginia Infantry’s reenactment group. He was able to inform me that Ben had to have said the wrong thing to the wrong person to be given such a demotion. This was not the first occasion that I had heard of this personality trait. GBPA member Kathi Shue had also come across the trait of Ben being a bit outspoken during her initial research.
Throughout the war Ben took part in numerous major battles of the war and miraculously survived them all. In September of 1862 he partook in the blood bath that the South would remember as Sharpsburg (the Union named the battle Antietam). By December of that year he was once again on the field of a major conflict. Fredericksburg would see the Confederates with the high ground and a stone wall, a feature that Union troops would not forget by the following summer. The next major battle that Ben was a part of meant a lot for several reasons. Ben would go on to describe Chancellorsville as “the greatest of all the battles fought in the Civil War.” The Confederates won a great victory but at a painful price: the beloved General Thomas Jonathan “Stonewall” Jackson was wounded and died of pneumonia days later.
With this comes an interesting aspect of Ben’s military career. From only one article written by him it is clear to see his admiration and respect of General Jackson who he referred to as one of the Confederacy’s “most substantial pillars.” Ben’s description of Stonewall’s remarkable battle plan at Chancellorsville says it all: “Here, Jackson, by one of his rapid, unobserved movements, like the tiger’s springing upon his prey, fell suddenly upon General Howard’s German troops…” It is clear that Ben understood the importance of the moment, yet his respect does not end there. When speaking of the attack on Culp’s Hill at Gettysburg his respect is reinforced by the thought that if Stonewall was alive then the result of the assault may have been different because he would not have attacked such a fortified position. Instead, Stonewall was known for moving the enemy by which way he thought he would sustain the fewest number of casualties. Ben saw and believed that his general valued the lives of his men, which is arguably the best feeling a soldier could have when marching into battle.
As previously mentioned Ben and his regiment were also at the infamous Battle of Gettysburg. Arriving on the field on July 2nd, they would be thrown into the assault in the afternoon. The Union troops on Culp’s Hill were heavily dug in and the Confederate attack was at a loss from the start. Nevertheless, attack after attack was launched upon the defenses but to no avail. Like the Confederates had held the stonewall at Fredericksburg, the Union held onto the defenses on Culp’s Hill. Gettysburg allowed the Union to strike a critical blow to the Army of Northern Virginia but Ben and the Virginia 23rd still fought on.
Not a year after Gettysburg Ben, along with numerous comrades in arms, fought their final battle of the war. On May 12th, 1864 Confederates would be engaged with Union army near the small town of Spotsylvania Courthouse, Virginia. Confederate forces would construct their battle line in the shape of a mule shoe, with the 23rd located on the right of the line. Ben would become one of one hundred forty four men from his regiment captured when Union soldiers broke through the center of the line. Although the Confederates were able to mount a counter attack and retake the ground the movement was not soon enough to stop the Union forces from removing their prisoners from the battlefield.
Ben had survived nearly three years of war without any serious wounds. Now he would be spending the rest of the war on Pea Patch Island within the confines of Fort Delaware. After the battle near Spotsylvania Courthouse, Ben was sent from Belle Plain to Fort Delaware on May 20th, 1864. Fort Delaware or “the devil’s half acre” has been arguably named the “Andersonville of the North,” only contested by the horrors of Camp Douglas in Chicago. Ben was assigned to division seven of the prison where he not only fought hunger and disease but boredom as well. Prisoners at the fort combated boredom by playing a variety of games and even taking part in arts and crafts. One soldier was able to build a violin.
As time wore on the southern cause seemed more and more hopeless for some soldiers, especially the ones in prison. Ben would have seen more and more soldiers signing their oaths of allegiance and consequently released from prison as American citizens, but for some reason he still held on to hope. The events of April 12th, 1865 shattered much of whatever hope the south had left. On Palm Sunday in the parlor of the McLean house at Appomattox Court House, General Robert E. Lee surrendered what was left of the Army of Northern Virginia to General Ulysses S. Grant. With the end of the war within sight Ben signed his oath of allegiance on June 21st, 1865. After four years of bloody conflict that ravaged mainly the south, “peace” had returned to the reunited country.
What Will Peace Bring
The years immediately following the Civil War are a bit of a mystery for Ben. After signing his loyalty back to the United States in June of 1865 he made his way back to Mecklenburg County where he was again involved in land transactions in August. The following fourteen years or so appear to go by without any major incident, just land transactions which showed him still in Mecklenburg County. Finally in the deed dated April 30th, 1878 something changed. Up to this point the deeds in question included not only Ben’s name but Ella’s as well yet this deed does not include her name. Although the reason for this marriage ending is still a mystery, I originally had discovered Ben’s second marriage so the disappearance of Ella was not surprising. Over a year after the first deed that did not include Ella’s name Ben married Martha S. Lipscomb on December 31, 1879. A year later Ben and Martha would be blest with their first of four children, Benjamin Rowzie Roberts.
In 1882 many more changes were at hand for the Roberts family. Another baby was on the way soon to be Edgar Thomas Roberts as well as during the same year Ben moved his family to Chase City, Virginia. Unlike many others in the reconstruction south who had trouble always making a living, Ben did well for himself in Chase City. By 1890 Ben had his business running, Roberts Hardware later to be known as B.A. Roberts and Son, and had two daughters, Ann Watson Roberts and Gladys Henri Roberts. Ben’s business ran smoothly and the only known setback was the Chase City fire on October 27, 1903 which destroyed two buildings owned by Ben. Even with the fire damages, B.A. Roberts and Son still flourished and Ben would continue to work alongside his son until his death on April 24, 1915. Benjamin Allen Roberts was finally laid to rest in Woodland Cemetery located near the fairgrounds where he was forever immortalized on his tombstone as “an honest man, the noblest work of God.”
Without specific records such as personal journals or letters it will hard to ever piece together a more detailed look into the everyday life of Ben so one must look at other records and bits of information from a different point of view. From my work with the Daniel Lady Farm in Gettysburg, I also learned that Ben returned numerous times over the years to visit the farm and again carve his initials into the barn. This shows his loyalty to his brothers in arms that were never given the chance to return home. In 1923, eight years after his death, a Sons of Confederate Veterans group was organized and named the “B.A. Roberts” Camp #749. Considering the other Confederate veterans from the area, it was an honor to have this camp named after Ben. This small bit of information lends itself to the idea that Ben was a well respected member of the Chase City community. There is also something to say about Ben for the way his children turned out.
Benjamin Rowzie Roberts continued to run the family business that his father had started. In 1905 he married Lucy C. Mason and had one son by her, Terry Lee Roberts. Among Benjamin Rowzie’s other accomplishments were general manager of the fair association, veteran of the Spanish-American War, Captain of a local National Guard unit, and served as mayor from 1925 to 1933. He ended his life by serving in the House of Delegates from 1938 till his death in 1942. Edgar Thomas Roberts went on to marry Lenora Robertson. He was also an amateur poet of whom his poems were published in the town’s newspaper, The Progress, during the forties and fifties until his death in 1958. Ann Watson Roberts eventually married Richard Cleo Griffeth and together had a son, Edward, and a daughter, Patricia Ann. Gladys Henri Roberts married Charles Robertson and had a son, Charles, by him. All four of Ben’s children went on to live full lives much like their father.
At first glance I pictured Ben as just another typical Confederate, leaving his family to join the defense. As my research has continued I have begun to realize that these so called “country bumpkins” are more complex than some may have thought. Through school we have always been taught about those high and mighty generals but the truth is that its’ soldiers like Ben that made and are continuing to make the ultimate sacrifice and have kept the cause alive even when hope seemed lost.
The house and barn of the Daniel Lady Farm
located in Gettysburg, PA.
The barn of the Daniel Lady Farm.
Ben’s initials on the barn door.
The building in Chase City, VA which housed Ben’s business,
B.A. Roberts and Son .
Closeup of the structure showing the words
“Roberts Hardware” still on the building.
The Confederate Soldier's Monument, Charlotte Court House, VA