by Grace Noll Crowell
I owe a debt to all the kin of mine
Whose blood flows in my veins, exultant, free,
The things that make a commonplace day shine
Are good and gracious gifts they gave to me.
Mine were a simple folk — they loved the soil,
They loved the land and claimed it as their right.
They knew the blessedness of honest toil,
They loved their roof, their fire, their beds at night.
These, too, I cherish, and I often see
Some dear kinswoman of the long ago
Move out across the years to come to me
To talk of precious things we love and know:
Our households, husbands, children, and the near
Good everydayness of the things we hold dear.
A few years ago, when Mother and I were making our little genealogy treks across the state of Kentucky, I decided my initials, S.W.A., should stand for Strong Women Abide, because of the fascinating stories we were discovering of kinswomen who withstood adversity I could not begin to imagine. The story below was told to us by some Western Kentucky cousins who opened their home to us and generously shared stories and photographs.
Lucy Ann (or Louisiana, in some records) was another of my great-grandmother Josie’s sisters (you remember the story of her sister Rhody and the Argo starch) — in other words, my great grandaunt. Lucy Ann was the oldest child, born in Meade County, Kentucky, in 1832 to John Rush and Lucinda Carpenter. She married William N. Benham at age 25, moved to a farm in Daviess County and had three boys in five and a half years.
By that time, the Civil War had been tearing the country apart for a couple of years. Kentucky was truly a border state — situated between three slave states and three free, connected by railroad with Tennessee to the south and Ohio to the north, and bounded by rivers that accessed both the Deep South and the East Coast. In 1861, Kentucky’s Governor had urged neutrality, but that didn’t last, and most Kentuckians cast their lot on the side of the Union.
William Benham fought in the 26th Regiment of the Kentucky Infantry (Union), mustering in on September 23, 1864, leaving Lucy Ann to take care of the farm and children. The 26th Regiment was engaged in post duty and scouting from Bowling Green to the Ohio River and from the western part of Kentucky to Lexington until December 1864. In the early part of 1865 they moved to Fort Fisher, North Carolina; captured Wilmington on February 22; conducted the campaign of the Carolinas from March 1 to April 26, occupying Goldsboro and Raleigh, achieving the surrender of Johnston and his army.
When Private Benham returned home to Lucy Ann and the boys in the early summer of 1865, he brought something with him . . . yellow fever. During the Civil War, more than three times as many soldiers died of infectious diseases than of battle wounds, scourges such as typhoid, dysentery, smallpox, malaria and yellow fever. A mosquito-borne disease, yellow fever was common in the southern swamps and ports, including the Carolinas where Benham’s regiment fought against more than the Rebs. After he went home, William lived until Christmas Eve, 1865; and his son and namesake, William Benham II, was born two weeks later. One 32-year-old woman and four boys under the age of seven — she had to be strong!
When Mother and I visited them, our cousins shared with us memoirs written by Vera Bell Benham Kerr, this young William’s daughter, telling about the struggles of her grandmother Lucy Ann. She wrote:
[Grandpa William Benham] left my grandmother and her three small boys on a farm in Daviess county where she kept them together. They were small babies. She has told me many times how hard she had worked to care for them. She had her cows, hogs, chickens and horses to run the farm. The soldiers would frequently come into their home and take everything she had to eat as well as her hay and corn and also her best horse. She would hear them at her barn and if it was during the night she would light her lantern and go out to the barn and plead with them not to take her things . . . . Grand-maw [had] four boys to care for and keep together and that is just what she did. By this time the older boys were big enough to help her take care of the smaller boys while she did the housework. She got a job cooking for the men at a brewery in Daviess county, Kentucky. She would go to work in the morning and cook their dinner and return home about 3 O’clock in the afternoon. I have heard my dad say that after he was big enough, he would watch for her as she would bring her apron full of left-overs from the dinner for their supper and they would really enjoy the feast. She kept the boys together and soon the older boys were big enough to get work on the farms. There was not much money in those days so they practically worked solely for their board. My grandmother corded cotton and made their clothes. She also knitted their gloves and socks. I have seen many of the things she corded cotton with. Dad said when he was twelve years old he worked for several different farmers until he was the age of 17. He then rented a farm in Henderson, Kentucky, which was a bigger farm. He and his brothers Jim, John and Benjamin farmed while grandmaw kept house.
Lucy Ann never remarried. She lived with William and his large family until her death at the age of 80, on June 8, 1913.