Ole Larson's Folks

Stephen Bennett Myers

Stephen Bennett Myers, Civil War Vet, part I

Thursday, July 29th, 2010

1912 Stephen Helen Myers

Here is the obituary of my great-grandfather, as printed in the Onawa Sentinel, Aug. 16, 1917, and brought to light last month by Jody Boyd. Note the more usual, but unlikely, spelling of the first name; it is “Stephen” in every other source we know of.

Steven Bennett Myers was born at Sunbury, OH, July 22, 1848 and died Aug 10 1917 aged 69 years and 18 days.

He came to Iowa with his parents in 1854.

He was permitted when a boy of fifteen to accompany his father, who was a quartermaster in the federal army during the civil war and because the father was an officer, the son was allowed to wear a soldier’s uniform. He was wounded at the battle of Helena, Ark. and was left on the field for dead for a period of twenty-four hours. He belonged to Co. C 33d infantry.

He came to Onawa in August 1874 and was married Sept 15, 1875 to Miss Helen Colby, daughter of Mr. & Mrs. Harry E. Colby, Sr. Her father being a member of the firm of F. E. Colby & Co., Leading lumber and coal dealers and a prominent pioneer citizen.

Mr. Myers held the position of assistant county auditor. The office at that time being filled by what was termed an assistant instead of a deputy as at present. Mr. Myers was an expert accountant and was often called upon to audit books both public and private.

Seven children were born to Mr & Mrs. Myers of whom four sons and one daughter are living.

The third paragraph is the stunner. Wounded and left for dead on a Civil War battlefield at the age of fifteen! As far as we know (“we” being cousin Gail, sister Bonnie, and myself), no one in the family ever heard that story. Further investigation strongly suggests that it may be “apocryphal” (false or spurious).

Cousin Gail points out that Stephen was even less than fifteen, by about two weeks, at the time of the Battle of Helena. Although Gail and Paula’s research do not place him at the battle, there were hints that he did accompany his father at some time during the War. Also, they found that Stephen enrolled in the Naval Academy on August 1, 1864, at the age of “16 years and 0 Months.” He flunked out after one year, fifth from last in his class, with a note in his record specifying “bad conduct, idle habits, and little aptitude for study.”

There is a poignant scenario suggested by this experience. Consider the present generations of combat veterans, from WWII through the Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan conflicts. For every individual who may be eager to tell of his experiences, there are others who are haunted by the traumas, and struggle hard to forget them, in any way they can. “Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder” may be a recent term, even a new concept, but surely the condition itself is as old as the horrors of war. In Stephen’s case, post-traumatic stress, and the accompanying flashbacks, nightmares, anxiety, and alienation may have been a factor in his poor performance.

There are also hints in family lore, and a statement in the 1996 MeMe tapes, that Stephen had a drinking problem, another common result of post-traumatic stress. I am studying the Battle of Helena more closely. Stay tuned.

Stephen Bennett Myers, Part II

Tuesday, August 3rd, 2010

Here, again,  is that paragraph from Great-Grandpa Stephen’s obituary:

He was permitted when a boy of fifteen to accompany his father, who was a quartermaster in the federal army during the civil war and because the father was an officer, the son was allowed to wear a soldier’s uniform. He was wounded at the battle of Helena, Ark. and was left on the field for dead for a period of twenty-four hours. He belonged to Co. C 33d infantry.

The Battle of Helena, on July 4, 1863, was a significant engagement and an important victory for the Union, even though it was confined to relative obscurity by the fall of Vicksburg on the same day, and the battle of Gettysburg the day before. The 33rd Iowa infantry regiment was there, as related in this history. Click on the link to view the entire book at archive.com.


Stephen’s father, and presumably Stephen himself, were indeed part of this regiment (p. 196):


Of the 20,000 Union troops previously stationed at Helena, 16,000 had gone south for the attack at Vicksburg. The Confederates, in their final offensive in Arkansas, sent 12,000 troops north, in an attempt to overwhelm the depleted forces at Helena. Unfortunately for the Rebels, their intelligence and planning were faulty. Despite the Union’s inferior numbers, Helena’s defenses were excellent. After a battle of several hours, the attackers were soundly driven back. Rebel casualties numbered over 1,600, while the Federal army suffered only 200.

Was one of these relatively few casualties the very young Stephen Myers? It remains a possibility, as his company (according to the obituary, “C,”) was caught in an early setback for the Union, at the one post which was briefly captured by the Rebels (p. 29-30).

p 29p 30

This account leaves out a tactical detail I read elsewhere: the guns of battery “C” had been disabled by the defenders before they abandoned them.

Since the battery was quickly retaken, it seems implausible that any Union casualties would be “left on the field for dead” for 24 hours.

There is one well-documented incident in this very battle that bears some resemblance to the anecdote in Stephen’s obituary. Thanks to cousin Gail for finding it. A certain Private Thomas A. Moore is profiled on this free page at Rootsweb. Coincidentally, Moore’s unit was the 33rd Missouri, and Stephen’s, the 33rd Iowa.

The enemy attacked their works on the fourth of July a few minutes before daylight. Thomas was listed as having received a “gun shot wound over right temple” and “pronounced mortal” but a passing soldier found a breath of life in him and he was taken to a Memphis hospital where he remained until he was discharged on permanent disability on 14 Dec 1863.

Viewed in one way, this might be considered evidence that something similar could have happened to Stephen. However, I am leaning toward the alternate interpretation, that it became the basis for an apocryphal version, highly embellished, with the principal character changed to young Grandpa Stephen. Perhaps a tall tale told at the tavern, or even offered as an excuse for a drinking problem.

This in no way shakes my notion that Stephen may have actually been wounded, psychologically if not physically, by his engagement in mortal combat at such a young age. Wounds that, however invisible, may have affected him for life. One of these wounds *may* even have included witnessing  the terrible incident described above, or worse. I will be leaving off this thread for now, pending future developments.

In another war-related irony, it has come out in comments to previous posts, that Stephen B. Myers was second cousin  to Stephen Crane, author of one of the most famous Civil War novels, The Red Badge of Courage. That makes Crane my second cousin, 3x removed. Grandpa Stephen may or may not have been aware of this relationship; either way, perhaps he identified (for good reason) with the book’s young protagonist.


Stephen Crane (1871-1900)

Stephen Bennett Myers, Part III

Thursday, August 12th, 2010

I got a long email from cousin Gail. Turns out that his niece Paula found extensive records on the military service of Stephen and his father, Henry. As I understand it, all the documents are related to military pension applications. Here, in a nutshell, is what she pieced together on Henry B. Myers.

Henry’s widow [Fanny, his second wife] and the children Harry B. (b. February 13, 1858), Sarah E.(b. April 27, 1860), and Susan B. (b. November 20, 1861) all were involved in soldier pension details which Paula found and copied.  With a bit of difficulty Henry established eligibility for pension affirming that he was mustered October 1, 1862 and discharged with chronic dysentery March 16, 1864 after service in Helena, ARK and Yazoo, MISS, and other actions with the Iowa 33rd Volunteers.  His rank was First Lieutenant and assigned as Quartermaster.   The widow and the daughters with reams of paper and legal declarations carried on attempts to get arrears of pensions and other entitlements …

Interesting that his pension was only granted after “some difficulty,” even though it is well-documented that he served in a series of Civil War engagements. Incidentally, Henry died, of the same “chronic dysentery,”  just three months after his discharge. It is said that more men died of disease than in battle during the war as a whole. This was certainly true of the unfortunate soldiers stationed in the overcrowded, unsanitary, and grossly uncomfortable conditions at Helena in the winter of 1862-63. Quoting from from the History of the 33rd Iowa,

These were not the most pleasant days in the world, even for soldiers. Though it seemed to rain most of the time, the cold was frequently severe ; and for want of any better accommodation, we had to go go to the woods and gather brickbats, pieces of wood, &c., and make chimneys to our tents. Teams were scarce – for us, at any rate – and we were compelled to go into the cypress swamps, some half-a-mile from camp, and bring up the wet wood on our backs, to burn. The mud was excessive; and as we were not yet provided with rubber blankets, and had not learned, by three years of soldiering, how to do without almost every thing, and “fix up”  in any circumstances, we were of course decidedly uncomfortable.

I can hardly imagine the complexity and stress the job of Quartermaster must have carried under such circumstances. While Henry’s own situation, as an officer, may have been somewhat better, what of the responsibility – and impotence – he must have felt for the conditions of the enlisted men? Perhaps it was bureaucratic hurdles that prevented their better provisioning, as it may have impeded his heirs’ pension application later. On a related note, see the piece on Smith Larson, whose disability was denied, despite his being in and out of hospital (mostly in), both before and after his discharge in WWI, until his death two years later.

Moving on to Great-Grandpa Stephen,  the news is worse. To begin, this quote from Gail’s email.

The packet which Paula assembled on Stephen B. is more voluminous.  He turns out unable to authenticate most his claims for pensions — like his disability for a groin rupture which could not be verified by any medical sources, during any of his enlistments. His applications for pension were refused as late as December 1914 because he “did not serve” during either the Civil War or the War with Mexico which were applicable under the Interior Department’s entitlement act of May 11, 1912.

He floated around a bit, served several times in units of the US Army.  Before eventually settling in Onawa IA , he went from his parents home in Oskaloosa IA back to Sunbury OH (not sure which part of the clan he was staying with) following the Civil War. He then enlisted in the army General Services for three years at Columbus OH (next county to Sunbury’s) on July 6, 1866.  He served his three-year hitch. He re-enlisted in Louisville KY on July 6,1869 in General Service USA and was discharged May 5, 1870 as a sergeant, with clerk speciality.  He re-inlisted May 10, 1870 assigned to Company C 2nd Infantry.  He transferred February 1, 1873 back to General Services and then was honorably discharged August 1, 1873 from the 43rd Division of the South with grade of sergeant.  That itemized record came from the summary refusing his claim for disability and signed November 2, 1914 by Commisioner of Pensions, Adjutant General H. P. McCain (??) Regular Army, War Department.

So, according to the War Department’s denial of his claim, Stephen “did not serve” in the Civil War. Does this mean that in his newly discovered* obituary, not only the detail about being “left for dead,” but the whole story of going to war with his father, was a fabrication? I would say it is evidence of that, but not at all convincing, given the government’s ultra-stingy stance regarding pensions during this period, and Stephen’s purported status at the time, as an underage dependent traveling with his father.  Unfortunately, no other evidence has yet come to light that would tip this question in either direction. Paula is making inquiries at Oskaloosa to search for any indication that Stephen did, or did not, go south with his father and the 33rd Iowa volunteers. Apparently, no letters or other family records from the period survive. A thousand thanks to cousins Paula and Gail for this information.

Another question in my mind involves Stephen’s motivation for enlisting, to spend a total of seven years in the Army, after his disastrous term at the Naval Academy, which in turn came on the heels of his father’s early death, from dysentery contracted during the campaign of the 33rd Iowa.

Here is an interesting piece on underage soldiering, at the Civil War Potpourri site.  It says that about 100,000 soldiers were boys of fifteen or under. Of course, if Stephen went to the war at all, it was as the dependent of an officer. Typically, he duties would have been as a servant to his father, and perhaps the other officers. It is not plausible that he would have been thrust into a combat role.

*”Newly discovered,” as far as I currently know. I have not asked whether Paula had found Stephen’s obituary earlier.