Over the past few weeks I have finally begun the arduous job of writing a regimental history of the 21st Mississippi Infantry. I have been putting this book off for many years, as it is a daunting task; the 21st Mississippi fought in about a dozen major battles with the Army of Northern Virginia. For good measure, the regiment went west with General Longstreet’s First Corps in 1863 and fought at Chickamauga and Knoxville as well with the Army of Tennessee. To properly document the regiment’s service in each of these battles is a monumental undertaking.
From 1861 to 1865, over 1,400 men served in the 21st Mississippi Infantry, and of that multitude, one name looms large in the history of the regiment: Benjamin Grubb Humphreys. A native of Claiborne County, Humphreys moved to a plantation in Sunflower County before the war. In 1861 he raised the “Sunflower Guards,” and took them to Virginia as their captain.
Humphreys did not remain a captain for long; shortly after arriving Humphreys was
made colonel of the newly organized 21st Mississippi Infantry. After the death of William Barksdale in the Peach Orchard at Gettysburg, he was promoted to brigadier general and given command of the brigade that would henceforth bear his name: Humphreys Mississippi Brigade, consisting of the 13th, 17th, 18th, and 21st Mississippi Infantry regiments.
Benjamin Grubb Humphreys was only in command of the brigade for about a year; wounded in the battle of Berryville, Virginia, on September 3, 1864. He went home to Mississippi on furlough, and did not recover sufficiently to return to the brigade before the war ended.
In the short time he commanded his brigade, Humphreys formed a bond with the men he led, and those soldiers would remember their old colonel fondly for the rest of their lives. When Benjamin G. Humphreys died on December 22, 1882, the papers were filled with tributes written by the veterans that had served under him in so many hard fought battles. The following letter was published in The Southern Reville, Port Gibson, May 26, 1883:
Letter from Gen. Goggin.
Austin, Texas, May 10, ‘83
Nowell Logan Esq., Port Gibson, Miss.,
My Dear Sir: In the last number of the Historical Society publications for April and May I find a ‘Memorial’ of my old friend Gen’l B.G. Humphreys, signed by yourself and others as a committee of the Claiborne County Branch of the Southern Historical Society. You will say that when a noble citizen dies it becomes the community in which he lived to bear testimony to his virtues.
You will not, I am sure, receive otherwise than with pleasure this sincere endorsement of all that you have said from one who, during the long years of the war, not only knew well the subject of your ‘Memorial’ but honored and loved him.
He was not a man swift to make friends, but, if he once admitted you to his heart, there was no one on God’s green earth to whom the words ‘steadfast and true’ could be more appropriately applied. This was not only characteristic of him as a friend. As a soldier there was no one who fought for the Confederacy of whom it might be more justly said. He was ‘Steadfast and true’ – That he was ‘brave and zealous’ – no one had better opportunities of knowing than I, and I will venture to say there is not a surviving member of the old 21st, no not of the Brigade but will promptly endorse what I say when I declare that there was in the whole Southern Army no braver man and no one more devoted to the cause for which he fought than ‘Ben Humphreys.’
Such a man as I knew him must have been an ‘obedient and affectionate’ son – ‘as a brother social and kind’ and as a husband and father ‘loving and considerate’. How could my dear old friend with all those noble qualities of which I know him possessed be otherwise?
You speak of a cause in which he was engaged as ‘dearer to his loyal soul than life itself.’ I have before me a letter written in ’68, while Governor, in which he alludes to an article of mine published in the New Orleans Crescent on the Battle of the Wilderness (as a proper contribution to the ‘History of a cause that will never die,’ though Pollard may call it ‘Lost Cause,’ and further on says ‘I have been vain enough to write a good deal that I shall not publish, but have put on record for my children and fear not the verdict of posterity. For the present the wrong must prevail, justice may never be done the Southern people, but history we show that they deserved a better fate.
If Gen’l H’s manuscript is still in existence, you, as a member of the S.H. Society, will agree with me that it would be a valuable contribution to our records. I know not what family Gen’l. Humphreys left, but I beg, should the opportunity offer, you will express to them my heartfelt sympathy in their great bereavement. The tears spring to my own eyes when I think of the loss I have sustained in the death of a friend so highly valued.
Jas. M. Goggin
Editor’s Note: James M. Goggin was major and assistant adjutant general of McLaw’s/Kershaw’s Division, and in that capacity he had considerable contact with General Humphreys. (Compiled Service Record of James M. Goggin, General and Staff Officers, Corps, Division and Brigade Staffs, accessed on Fold3.com)
This second letter was published in The Clarion (Jackson, Mississippi,) October 17, 1883:
General B. G. Humphreys – ‘A Greeting from the Grave’
‘My son, whenever you meet any of my brigade, speak to them for me.’ Upon meeting one of the ‘old brigade’ recently, Mr. Barnes Humphreys told him that these were his father’s last words.
How the stored memories quicken and throng in the thoughts of those whom their dying captain held in remembrance as he obeyed marching orders into the dark valley. In the days to come, when the past rises from its grave and possesses the present; this remembrance for those he loved will come as a beckoning from eternity, from the nevermore to the evermore.
‘The Old Brigade!’ The words sound as a bugle, recalling a life as far away, from which the
actors are as remotely removed, as though generations intervened. Its central figure, to the brigade survivors will always be Benjamin G. Humphreys. And as we recall those days and deeds of twenty years ago, Gettysburg, Chickamauga, the Wilderness and Spottsylvania, we have before us a figure that would be unknown to those who had not seen him in the riot of battle.
At all other times his temperament verging upon melancholy and his habits to indolence, gave no impression of his dormant energy. In the clash of arms, the thrill of combat, his form literally dilated, his voice had the trumpet ring and his eyes flashed with a fire that once seen will ever be remembered. But beneath an exterior of extreme modesty, the heart daring, the nerve and temper perfect in emergency, lay unrevealed until summoned forth by the fitting occasion.
Gen. Humphreys was to his brigade what the immortal Lee was to the Army of Northern Virginia. He inspired a blended love and respect, merging into blind confidence, only achieved by the truly noble and excellent, the pure in purpose, the good of heart. No cause can ever be banned, can ever pass into history unhallowed, that enlisted such champions.
We can close this tribute to one we loved with no truer praise than to repeat the language of the true, J. M. Sutton, whom his friends laid to rest yesterday. He said to us a year ago, after a recent visit to Gen. Humphreys, ‘I have known Ben Humphreys for sixty years; and if ever a man’s heart hung straight up and down his does.’ – Greenville Times.
As my work on the regimental history of the 21st Mississippi proceeds, I will be writing more stories about “my” regiment. I call them that because when you take on the task of writing a regimental history, you also take on an obligation to the men who served in that unit to tell as accurate and complete story as possible. To do that properly requires an extreme amount of time and dedication. In the years I have spent researching the 21st Mississippi, I have read the letters and diaries of the soldiers, shared their hopes and dreams, and come to see them almost as friends. In the coming months I look forward to telling you about my friends in the 21st Mississippi Infantry.