Very fake news about a very real veteran

After joining the 2nd Maine Infantry in early August 1862, Benjamin N. West probably reached the regiment in time to fight in the late August Battle of Second Manassas. West’s 1924 obituary would include some fake news about the farmer from rural Holden. (Harper’s Weekly)

For Civil War veteran Benjamin E. West, answering the “last call” had nothing to do with bellying up to the bar in a local tavern just before closing time.

He literally “answered the last bugle call” on Tuesday, October 24, 1922 — and the obituary published before his body had barely cooled contained very fake (or at least inaccurate) news about this very real man.

Born in Amherst, West stood 5-10 and had blue eyes, light hair, and a light complexion. He was, according to his Soldier’s File at the Maine State Archives, employed as a “millman” in Holden prior to going to war.

For all intents and purposes, “Benjamin E. West” joined the 2nd Maine Infantry “when the call came from Abraham Lincoln for more Maine men to keep the torn ranks full,” according to the obituary published October 24, 1922 in the Bangor Daily Commercial, an evening newspaper.

And here the fake news begins. First of all, there’s his middle initial.

It was N, not E.

A federal census-taker found the 24-year-old Benjamin N. West working as a “day laborer” and living with his parents (Benjamin and Mercy) and siblings in Brewer on June 15, 1860. The Maine Adjutant General Reports of 1862 and 1863 also identified him as Benjamin N. West. His Soldier’s File indicates his name was B.N. West.

Back to the obituary, which revealed that “Mr. West … served for two years with Co. C, 2d Me. Infantry”: very fake news indeed.

Twenty-six when he enlisted in Co. C, 2nd Maine Infantry on August 4, 1862, West did not serve two years with that company or regiment. In fact, he served only 11 months in the Army, period.

West enlisted for two years. When the 2nd Maine’s original two-year enlistees from 1861 went home in spring 1863, he transferred to Co. D, 20th Maine Infantry Regiment on May 20. Other 2nd Maine lads (including the infamous mutineers) went to the 20th Maine, too.

In the 1863 MAGR, the clerk for the 2nd Maine’s Co. C listed West’s town of residence as Holden: accurate news, because his parents had moved to a farm there sometime between the 1860 census and their son’s 1862 enlistment.

In the same MAGR, the clerk for the 20th Maine’s Co. D wrote that Orrington was where West lived: a bit of fake news, but Holden and Orrington do share a border.

West transferred to the 20th Maine before the Battle of Gettysburg, but he did not fight there. As Co. D tramped north toward Pennsylvania on Wednesday, July 1, 1863, something strange happened. For reasons not cited in the 1863 MAGR or anywhere else, Benjamin West and four other 2nd Maine soldiers “deserted” Co. D that day.

A Soldier’s File at the Maine State Archives in Augusta indicates that B.N. West of Holden enlisted in the 2nd Maine Infantry as a private — and notes that he “deserted in march” on July 1, 1863. (Courtesy of Tom Desjardins)

The other men — James Kelley, Samuel Morrison, Edward Spaulding, and John Wallace — had enlisted at various times in 1861; only Wallace, who mustered in early June, could be considered an original member of the 2nd Maine.

On page 27 of his epic Stand Firm Ye Boys From Maine, 20th Maine historian Thomas Desjardins wrote, “Sometime during the march on the first of July, three of the 2nd Maine men who were marching in Company D decided that they had endured enough, and they fell out from the march never to return.”

The 1863 MAGR identifies only one other 2nd Maine transfer who deserted the 20th Maine that year, plus the few 2nd Maine boys who got themselves killed at Gettysburg.

As to why West ran away, his obituary overlooks both the desertion and the reason for it. We can understand why his wife and children would not want such information revealed in 1922 — and it’s possible that West never told his kids what he had done.

Whatever happened, West was apparently received well after returning home from the army. His obit stressed in lines 3 and 4 that he was truly “a veteran of the Civil War.”

After the war, Benjamin married Hattie E. Kenney (10 years his junior); they had sons Charles E. West (born in 1867) and Chester N. West (born in 1872). According to the 1870 federal census, the family lived on the Holden farm with Benjamin’s aging parents.

Hattie died in 1873, and Benjamin married Annie L. Thompson, at least 14 years younger than him. The 1880 Holden census found his aging parents still on the farm and Benjamin, now 43, listed as a “farm laborer”; 29-year-old Annie worked “on home farm.” She had just delivered a baby daughter, Hattie.

That a second wife would acquiesce to naming her only daughter after Wife No. 1 is interesting.

Also living on the West farm in 1880 were Benjamin N.’s sons Charles and Chester, each described as a “grandson” of the elderly Wests.

In 1889 Benjamin N. and Annie had a son, Harold (misspelled as “Harald” by the census-taker). “One daughter and three sons”: This is one fact that West’s obituary got right.

The obit went on to note West’s long-term “failing health” and that for the past 12 years, Benjamin and Annie had lived “at the home of his daughter on Church street” in Brewer. Hattie had married Charles Colson, a “stock clerk” for an “electric” business, and they had two sons.

An Advent Christian, Benjamin N. West died at his daughter’s home on Tuesday morning, October 24, and his slightly inaccurate obit ran that evening in the Bangor Daily Commercial. He died at the “advanced age of 86,” which agrees with his military records; he was born on July 11, 1836.

After he died at his daughter’s home in Brewer on October 24, 1922, Benjamin N. West was buried in the Clewleyville Cemetery in Holden. His headstone cites his service in the 2nd Maine Infantry. (Courtesy of Tom Desjardins)

In the obituary, his family and character received top billing, in that order, and the obit left the impression that West was a nice guy whose life was cut short by a “last illness … of short duration.”

Of his three sons: C.E. West lived in Bangor, and Chester H. West and Harold E. West lived in Brewer. Benjamin West was “also survived by 10 grandchildren, five nieces and five nephews, all of whom mourn the loss of one who is universally kind and thoughtful for their happiness and well being,” the obituary indicated.

“During the 12 years that he has lived in Brewer he has won the liking and good will of all who knew him and his passing will be sincerely regretted,” the Daily Commercial noted.

After his July 1863 desertion, did Benjamin N. West rejoin the colors? No evidence suggests he did, and few people even cared by 1924.

But the fact that West “answered the last bugle call” suggests he was at least somewhat active in veterans’ affairs, perhaps with the GAR.

We do not know.

Sources: Civil War Veteran Answers Last Call, Bangor Daily Commercial, Tuesday, October 24, 1922; Maine Adjutant General’s Report 1863; Second To None, James H. Mundy, Harp Publications, Scarborough, 1992; Benjamin N. West Soldier’s File, Maine State Archives; Tom Desjardins

Brian Swartz can be reached at visionsofmaine@tds.net. He enjoys hearing from Civil War buffs interested in Maine’s involvement in the war.

Brian Swartz

About Brian Swartz

Welcome to "Maine at War," the blog about the roles played by Maine and her sons and daughters in the Civil War. I am a Civil War buff and a newspaper editor recently retired from the Bangor Daily News. Maine sent hero upon hero — soldiers, nurses, sailors, chaplains, physicians — south to preserve their country in the 1860s. “Maine at War” introduces these heroes and heroines, who, for the most part, upheld the state's honor during that terrible conflict. We tour the battlefields where they fought, and we learn about the Civil War by focusing on Maine’s involvement with it. Be prepared: As I discover to this very day, the facts taught in American classrooms don’t always jibe with Civil War reality. I can be reached at visionsofmaine@tds.net.